May 31, 2002
More on Intelligent Design vs. science

I seem to be referring to Max Power quite a bit recently, but that's because he's been doing such a bang-up job of dissecting Prof. Volohk's defenses of Intelligent Design. I think I can give him an assist with this latest entry:

It's a language issue: when I say "intelligent design", I'm discussing the intelligent design movement, which makes actual contentions that are demonstrably false, including the contention that ID is scientific. With that definition, there's nothing incorrect with saying that "intelligent design proponents are wrong." Eugene would surely agree with that (he states his agreement with the premises in his posts, and the conclusion naturally follows), just as I would agree with Eugene's narrower (but ultimately trivial) point that the hypothesis "An omniscient being created both humanity and all of the evidence pointing towards evolution and away from intelligent design" cannot ultimately be said to be "wrong" or anything worse than "not helpful."

The word you're looking for, Max, is falsifiable, as in Prof. Volohk's contention about an omniscient being is not falsifiable.

Falsificationism was the great contribution to the philosophy of science by Karl Popper. It clearly lays out what makes a theory scientific and what does not. The crucial aspect is falsifiability, which is to say that a truly scientific theory must be refutable by some means. If there is no way to prove that a hypothesis is false, it cannot be scientific.

This page is full of good introductory information. Here are some conclusions Popper drew about scientific theories:

1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory - if we look for confirmations.

2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory - an event which would have refuted the theory.

3. Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of "corroborating evidence.")

7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers - for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a "conventionalist twist" or a "conventionalist stratagem.")

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.

It's clear that by these criteria, Intelligent Design utterly fails to be a scientific theory because there is no test which can be devised that would refute the hypothesis that an omniscient being is responsible for the creation of the universe and all the evidence that points towards evolution. It's no more falsifiable than the statement that invisible winged squirrels are what alter the path of curveballs, and as such it's no more scientific.

Please note that I am not claiming that there's anything wrong with believing that an all-powerful God created the heavens and the earth. The ironic thing is that evolution has nothing to say about how life was created, nor does it contradict a belief in God having a hand in evolution. All I'm saying is that religion and science are different things that use different methods to answer questions. Intelligent Design is religion masquerading as science. It is not science, and it has no place being taught as science.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 31, 2002 to Skepticism

Dear Sir

I find it interesting that at the very foundation of evolution a statement of faith is needed just as with ID. The methods of scientific discovery will in fact lead to certain conclusions for either theory. The real issue is what does one want ot be held accountable to, a infinite personal God or a scientific theory that can be changed, adhered to at the liking or disliking of the individual considering it, which has led to whole cultures being left with any moral anchor. Please consider the consquences of these theories on various culutues historically.

Posted by: Adrian Sinke on December 12, 2003 8:01 AM

Per Adrian Sinke above:
"The real issue is what does one want ot be held accountable to, a infinite personal God or a scientific theory that can be changed, adhered to at the liking or disliking of the individual considering it, which has led to whole cultures being left with any moral anchor."

No! That is precisely NOT the question. The moral outcome of scientific positions CANNOT be weighed in evidence for its truth or falsity. That is the whole self-serving error of the ID posse. They are trying to find room for a human narrative in a question which touches on the extra-human in both purposive and temporal terms. Its difficult stuff, not at all helped by the 'but it makes us feel all small and pointless' brigade who seem to have their claws on the US education system

Posted by: alex on May 6, 2005 11:03 AM