Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't Call It Science!

I happened upon a discussion precipitated by a blog entry over at Day by Day Discoveries. I found the blog post through this post over at Doc's Sunrise Rants.

The discussion was began due to Dawn's ( of Day by Day Discoveries) reaction to a new homeschooling blog opposing the teaching of the theory of evolution by homeschoolers. The discussion involved proper and improper definitions of a scientific theory and law, and also discussion of the controversy about teaching alternative viewpoints in science class.

I wrote a short comment on this entry at Day by Day on Thursday, just before going to give a presentation on some interesting new results in the neurophysiology of ADHD at the university. In this post I want to expand my comment a bit in order to present my view about this whole issue.

To begin with, my credentials as a scientist, with a background in evolutionary biology, ought to make it clear what I think about this issue. To put it quite plainly, I oppose the presentation of 'alternative viewpoints' in science class. People taking classes in science expect to be taught science, and are paying to be taught science, and deserve to have this expectation met. Neither so-called 'creation science' nor the new take on it--intelligent design--are scientific theories and therefore should not be taught in science classes.

To understand why these ideas do not meet the criteria for science, we must first understand what science is and what it is not. A simple and accurate definition of science is that it is the investigation of the physical world using the scientific method. By 'physical world' we mean the observable world of matter and energy. Observations can be made with the senses or with extensions of the senses, through instruments that allow us to see the very small, the very large, and the very far away; instruments such as microscopes and telescopes. Other extensions of the senses would include the instruments through which we ascertain the properties of the physical world. These would be instruments of measurement.

The scientific method, invented during the enlightenment, is a procedure through which observations can be systematically qualified and/or quantified to make predictions about what we would expect of nature. Not all observations count as scientific observations. Only those gathered for the purpose of hypothesis testing count. For example, Van Gogh made some very detailed observations of nature when he painted his beautiful Sunflowers still-life. But even though his observations were very accurate and beautifully rendered, we would not his work science. He was certainly observing the physical world with his senses, but he was not using the scientific method. He was using the sensitivity and tools of an artist and not those of a scientist. He was doing art, not science. And I think the great Impressionistic artist would be insulted if we called his work 'science.'

Science is, after all, only one way of human knowing. It is limited to making obervations about the physical world through use of the scientific method. Scientists, when they work as scientists must limit themselves to these objectives as well, although as human beings, they can enjoy a range of human endeavors different than science, and see that they all have value. I enjoy and recognize the value of great art and literature, and I appreciate the usefulness of rational human endeavors such as philosophy and ethics. None of these is science, however, and the world would be poorer if we tried to shoehorn them into being what they are not.

Creationism, and the new expression of it called Intelligent Design are not science, either. Creationism posits apriori that species originated by a singular act of a supernatural being. In so doing, Creationism puts itself outside the realm of science by an appeal to the supernatural, which by definition exists outside the physical world. Such an appeal cannot be tested by any means within the scientific method, nor can it be observed by the senses or extensions thereof. It is, in the language of the philosophy of science, unfalsifiable. Therefore, although the concept of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), as is expounded in the first creation story in Genesis chapter 1, is really intriguing as a priestly story to explain the goodness of the physical world, and the goodness of embodied being, it does not meet the criteria for science. It does make a mythic statement and a moral implication. But it does not make a scientific statement.

Religious statements about origins from a supernatural being cannot be tested. They must be taken on faith and so are not falsifiable. This is why one can talk about 'belief' in creationism. Scientific theories must be built from evidence that has been tested by the scientific method. This, by the way, is why it is wrong to say that one 'believes' in evolution. Such a faith statement only confuses the issue. Rather, one should say that the evidence supports the theory of evolution of species by natural selection. (And there is a plethora of such evidence coming from such scientific fields as geology, biochemistry, genetics, and physics, to name but a few).

The statements and implications of Genesis (and that is what we are really talking about as the so-called 'scientific creationists' do not make arguments against evolutionary theory for the sake of the Cosmic Egg story) are all well and good, and quite interesting to discuss, as a religious statement about the world that comes from a particular world view and challenges another ancient world view. I could happily discuss these ideas with other knowledgable people all day, as religion.

Creationism's pedigree comes to us through religion and theology. Advocates of scientific creationism go further by making the false claim of a scientific pedigree for their religious belief. Pseudoscience is the false claim of scientific origins for an idea that has none. So this claim that creationism, which appeals to the supernatural origin of the material universe, is pseudoscience.

Now my view is this: this is a free country. If people want to take the Genesis Creation stories (there are two such stories in Genesis) literally, that is their right. And if they want to believe that the world was created as the result of a cosmic battle of gods and goddesses, in which the body of Tiamat the Dragon Goddess was split in half to make the heavens and the earth, that is also their right. And I have no argument with it, so long as I am not asked to believe in Tiamat. And I also respect a person's right to teach his/her children those beliefs. Again, as long as I may teach my own children my take on B'reshit (which is what Jews call the book of Genesis), and as long as I am free to teach my children science, I have no problem with such people. Mind you, I think they are wrong about it, but it's a free country. I have no argument with them.

But I do have a problem and an argument with those who go beyond an honest belief in a religious idea, to a claim that creationism has a scientific pedigree when it does not. This kind of claim is false, and it also dishonest. Such a person is going beyond his/her own freedom to believe as they think is right to an attempt to foist unscientific ideas upon others who are paying for and expecting to learn what science teaches.

Everyone in the United States, even the Evangelical Christians, have a right to adhere to and teach their children their own religious world view. Just be honest about it. Call it what it is: religion. Don't call it science.

PS: The Cartoons were forwarded to me from a Biochemistry Discussion List with a great but suggestive title along the lines of: If Helicase Can Part DNA, Can I Unzip Your Genes? The other pictures are from Wiki Commons.


Susan said...

Thanks, Elisheva. I always enjoy your science posts, as I enjoyed science enough to get an animal science degree.

More importantly, I appreciated your nod to 'live and let live', even while disagreeing with some world views.

This is about as close as I care to go with the debate as the Intelligent Design/Evolved discussion seems to get so very hostile in the homeschool community. ie..the right way

Outside the homeschool community, there are people like Rob Reich or Kim Yuracko or...who want to control how, what and where our homeschooled children learn. Then there's hslda wanting "established curriculum" while lauding testing accomplishments of homeschoolers.

Any which way, it's about control. Makes me nervous.

Thanks for the thoroughness of your post.

Penny said...

Goodness gracious, my breath is taken away (by Mr. Parsons, I mean)! I didn't know Darwin had even heard of the electron structure of the atom. I just mention that, because I hardly knew where else to start.

Thanks Elisheva, for your article. I agree that religion and science are completely different methodologies and approaches to the world. The problem is they both have (in some circles),a claim on the Truth, and a concrete, materialistic truth at that.

momof3feistykids said...

An excellent, thoughtful post, Elisheva. I liked your analogy of the difference between art and science. Different ways of looking at reality (religion, art, science) are not "right" or "wrong" but they need to be distinguished from one another.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Note to readers: I have removed a comment by C. David Parsons because it is Spam. I am happy to hear all views of interested readers but I do not allow Spam.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks for the very interesting comments everyone.

Susan--Thanks. As you can see, I enjoy science also. Someday I am going to elaborate more on the "live and let live" part of all of this, because it deserves more than a nod. I really believe that as Americans we ought to recognize that freedom means the willingness to do exactly that, and to "mind thy business" as Benjamin Franklin would have put on the penny.
I don't believe that there is one right way to teach different individuals, or one right thing that they ought to be taught. Much depends on their own individual needs and the needs of their families.
The huge need to make other agree with our own way indicates a fundamental insecurity in the person who has the need.

Penny, welcome and I hope you return. Actually I removed Mr. Parson's post because it was not a comment at all, but a thinly disguised sales pitch. And Darwinian Quantum Mechanics pitch was unintelligible at that.
About your comment: I honestly think that when people, whether in science or religion are unable to admit that the Truth with a capital 'T' might be just a bit beyond the finite confines of the human mind, they are playing god--which is dangerous and idolatrous. The truth may be out there, but it is likely that each of us can only digest a small bit of it.

Momofthree: Thank you, so much for the compliment. I am rather fond of my art illustration myself. I used to bring a print of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" into class for my "what is science" lesson with High School Freshman. I had noticed that people have begun to put science on a very unrealistic pedestal, and that they would tend to think that other human ways of knowing had no value unless they could somehow be tied to science. I tend to be opposed to any kind of idolatry--science idolatry, Bible idolatry, Talmud idolatry and so forth. We humans are very good at finding idols to worship everywhere. Going back to Susan's comment, I think it has something to do with the need for power over others, and control. It scares me, too!

Josh Caleb said...

A few honest questions:
What predictions does Darwinism make that ID can't make? If we start with the real observations of: 1) Descent with modification, 2) Random Mutation, 3) Natural Selection, 4) Homology of Morphological Features and Genetic material (DNA) between species... What does "common descent" (i.e. Darwinism) predict that ID does not?

If ID is not falsifiable, why did Ken Miller spend all that time attempting to show how the flagellum is not irreducibly complex? Doesn't Miller's attempt at falsification prove that it IS falsifiable (even if Miller didn't quite get it right and failed in the attempt as Behe has gone on to demonstrate...) ?

Also, would you admit that science is dependent upon philosophy like this sentence is dependent upon English grammar? Therefore if we begin applying the philosophy espoused by Neo-Darwinists (metaphysical naturalism) and find some contradictions or problems that then we have legitimate claim to question the scientific theory in scientific terms even if (and especially if, in this case) its philosophical implications undermine metaphysical naturalism?

Dawn said...

Josh - You missed the part about science only addressing the observable world. Once you posit a supernatural force, it's not science.

ID relies on a supernatural creator. It's not science. End of discussion.

Josh Caleb said...

ID doesn't posit a supernatural force, although that would be a reasonable explanation, intergalactic aliens could have introduced the specified complexity, the source of the design is not so much in question at this time as the fact that we can detect intelligent causation. Wouldn't you agree?

Besides, thats what they said about Big Bang Cosmology, but we still hold it as plausible and scientific because the evidence and logic is sound, likewise, ID.

Anonymous said...

"Malevolent Design" would be more near the mark, if Josh's aliens are responsible for scourges like rabies, anthrax, elephantiasis, cholera, malaria, hookworm, etc: diseases which target the poorest and least educated. And those aliens must have themselves come from somewhere, so evidently the universe has a dark heart indeed.


Amie said...

What gentle way to approach this...I didn't even feel my hackles rise ;)

Anonymous said...

Gentleness is a human trait, or possibly Divine, but science is based on facts and logic. If we play by the rules of science, we cannot select just the outcomes that please us or reinforce our preconceptions.


Josh Caleb said...

Whether the design is "good" or "malevolent" is really peripheral to ID's current hypothesis that intelligent causation is detectable and a better explanation for design in biology.
Lots of people like to say "what kind of designer would design it like X" well thats really not the point, the point is, design is detectable and antithetical to Neo-Darwinian mechanisms which posit blind and unguided forces. This seems to be a sticking point for many.

Anonymous said...

Neo-Darwinism is a synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics which describes evolutionary processes in terms of mutation and natural selection, not human attributes like "blind" and "unguided". ID is not an application of scientific method, but thinly disguised creationism, and as such, the "goodness" or "badness" of the "design" is not peripheral to the discussion at all.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Wow. Lots of comments.

Josh, my post explains my stand. I currently do not have the time or desire to have a point by point debate. That said, you are most welcome to comment here as much as you want.

Dawn, thanks. You got it! I am certain first that if there were evidence that intergalactic aliens had designed life on earth, we would have found it. Secondly, I doubt such results would please the creationists. As I said in my post, they are not doing this for the sake of the Crack in the Cosmic Egg story! As far as Behe's conjecture of irreducible complexity is concerned, he really has not been able to come up with an example that cannot be explained much more simply by "the climbing of Mount Improbable" so to speak.

Amie, I glad I did not raise your hackles. Although we clearly disagree about this issue, you and me, I suspect that since I have no desire to force you to accept my point of view, we can agree to disagree on this without anger or hurt. I think this is one of the great values we get from homeschooling. We choose how to teach our kids, and we are not forced to fight this out on some political level. I hope that all of us, wherever we stand on issues of methods and curriculum, can work to keep the state out of our choices!

Deborah: Thanks for stopping by and signing your name so that I can use it. It feels so much more pleasant to use someone's name, somehow. I agree with you that gentleness, as well as a whole host of other human (and possibly Divine) traits are not part of science. But since science is a human endeavor, I also think we, as scientists, must use those human traits when dealing with others. We are humans doing science, after all, and not science doing human. :)
On another level, I do agree with you that nature certainly does not bow to human sensibilities and concerns. Earthquakes and tsunamis, for example, are not evil, they simply are the result of natural forces, but we are genuinely repulsed by the results when a human settlement happens to be destroyed by one.

That's all for now. I will be reading your comments but I have a talk to put together! It is on that very interesting PNAS paper on ADHD that I reviewed in December, and I enjoy giving talks for Journal Club, but there is a certain amount of scut work involved!

~L~ said...




Pseudoscience drives me [i]insane[/i]. It is insulting to me both as a thinking, educated person and as a Christian. "Making it up" to try to justify our religious texts is not a good expression of faith or reason.

Josh Caleb said...

I'm afraid your missinformed on three counts.
1) "Blind or unguided processes" is precisely the language that most Neo-Darwinians use with reference to evolution, especially in contrast to ID theory. You might check out a famous book by Richard Dawkins entitled "The Blind Watchmaker".
2) ID is not "thinly disguised creationism" as much as you'd like it to be because it makes an easier straw man to push over. ID is based upon molecular evidence not religious books.
3) "Good" or optimal design is not necessary for the design inference to be true. My neighbor's Toyota rusted out in 2 years. The "poor" design or craftmanship of the car does not negate the fact that it was designed in the first place.

The Christian worldview happens to account for all these observations and I echo ~I~ 's frustration at "made up" stories to legitimize ungrounded ideology rather than the evidence and sound logic. To compromise on science or theology is just not an option.

Anonymous said...

Elisheva, thanks for your patience with this unseemly brawling on your blog! Best wishes for your talk.

Amie, my comment about "gentleness" was actually in defense of my "malevolent design" statement. I've seen your website, and didn't want my comment to be interpreted as a judgement of your faith, because it isn't.

1) I don't have to check out "The Blind Watchmaker", because I have it in my hand. This book was written is written in language that non-scientists can understand. The image of "the blind watchmaker" (natural selection) is used as part of an argument that evolutionary processes present the illusion of design. Mr. Dawkins explains why the results of such processes are nonetheless not "random". I stand by my original statement.
2) ID is "thinly disguised creationism" because it was developed to introduce creationism in public schools in a way that would sidestep separation of church and state requirements. It doesn't matter how much "molecular evidence" is presented in ID books. The point is that ID uses a supernatural explanation for its "mechanism", which is beyond the scope of science. As Elisheva explained so eloquently in her post.
3) I wasn't talking about rusty cars. A car is not a biological system. Moreover, "malevolent" doesn't mean "low quality". It means "evil". I am astonished that ID, with its implied malevolent "designer" (see above comment), could possibly be reconciled with a Christian worldview. Fortunately it doesn't have to be, because it isn't science.


Josh Caleb said...

1) So Darwinists can use the language of "blind" and "unguided" to describe the causality but you still say it can't... gotcha.
2) You're conveniently changing the definition or scope of science. Any a priori limitation of causation is a metaphysical position, not a scientific one (ala "metaphysical or methodological naturalism"). Science is interested in finding the best explanation for natural phenomena, not merely naturalistic explanations.
3) You forget that the Christian worldview recognizes the destructive effects of sin during the Fall, not just in a moral sense in effecting the heart, but the disfiguring effects upon biology in the curse. Both man's moral nature and nature's initial perfection were corrupted by sin in the Fall. Better bone up on your Christianity. An appropriately formed Biblical worldview helps interpret the data as it presents itself to us both in the physical and spiritual realms.

Anonymous said...

Josh, I think we're not going to be able to have any meaningful discussion on this topic for the usual reason that scientists don't accept ID as an application of scientific method (and don't want it taught in schools as science): that you and I cannot agree on a definition of what constitutes scientific method. Science admits ONLY naturalistic explanations, and to say otherwise is re-defining science as metaphysics. And science doesn't require "an appropriately formed" worldview to allow us to interpret the data . There are questions, such as the existence of a Creator (or if you prefer, designer) which cannot be answered by science. Science is, after all, a human construction and endeavor, constrained by the limitations of our intelligence. To expect it to provide answers to metaphysical questions is putting it to a use for which it was never, er, designed. It's been interesting to try to understand your viewpoint.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, again, Deborah: I have no problem with the discussion on my blog, though I do not have a lot of time to join in.

Josh: The word metaphysics in the field of philosophy means a "theory of reality." Such an idea does not require a supernatural bent, as it it does in common parlance. Most well developed philosophies have such. Science not only insists that reality is real, it also has a epistemology (theory of knowledge) that says that we can know reality through observation.
Science stands on empiricism, a system that acknowledges the reality of the physical world and that requires natural (physical) evidence to determine how the physical world operates.
Science does not have a complete philosophy that has been agreed upon in all fields, but most scientists use a rational basis for certain kinds of problem solving. However, the empirical evidence trumps any reasoning from first premises.

Aristotle was a philosopher--and a very good one--but even though he made some naturalistic observations, his physics was often wrong, because he argued rationally from a premise, but did not test his observations. Science defined by the use of the scientific method was not around until much later, and was put together around the time of Galileo. Galileo's genius did not lie in his rational arguments but in that he tested his ideas and used observations of what actually happened to construct his theories.
You can argue convincingly from first premises and be scientifically wrong, as Aristotle was with his explanation of motion.

What you did in your last comment, point number two, is conveniently move the discussion from science to philosophy. When you did that, you did not honor the agreed-upon definition of metaphysics, either. Although there are philosophers of science, scientists are generally not philosophers, and within science we use empirical methods to do our work.

Your movement of the argument only strenthens Deborah's contention that ID is NOT science, and cannot be demonstrated using the scientific method grounded in empirical thought.