Wednesday, December 27, 2006

incompetent design

For my first official post I have decided to address an issue I feel to critical to the future of not only earth science, but science in general, that is, the seemingly never-ending attacks on the theory of evolution, or the so-called “intelligent design” movement. For those who don’t know, the idea is that life is so complex, so improbable, so intricate, that it could not be random, and that instead there must be an intelligent guiding force guiding it all.

There are many ways to think about this argument, some of which I’ll explore in this posting. First, theories…. The word theory is used often in science, and its meaning is typically different than in non-science life. For example, I have a theory about how the NBA could be exciting again if they shortened the season to 40 games. It is something backed up by years of observation, but nevertheless far from proven, and definitely arguable. In science, though, theories have much higher standards. As a matter of fact, almost every important idea or sets of ideas are still theories: gravity, relativity, plate tectonics, calculus… Really, every idea or “natural law” is a theory. There is not a scientist in the history of the world who could prove, for example, that if I threw my keys out of he window that they would fall towards the ground. No way, there are all kinds of theories one would have to assume are correct; gravity, principles involving wind resistance, the list is really endless. The fact that I could run and repeat the experiment hundreds of times with the same result means nothing. Proofs are not arrived at through experiment; proofs instead are relegated exclusively to the field of mathematics. Any scientist, who says they have “proved” something, really means they have significant experimental evidence that does not disprove their idea. After hundreds and hundreds of experiments, an idea is refined and eventually that idea is elevated to the status of theory. Most of the big theories in science, evolution included, have withstood the scrutiny of thousands and thousands of experiments.

So, the fact that evolution is a theory, and that it has not been “proven”, is not a surprise. Nor is it a reason to think less of the idea, unless of course you are also willing to cast an equal amount of suspicion to gravity, electromagnetism, the theory that viruses cause disease, etc. Anyone who says their position is about evolution being a theory is a complete hypocrite unless they refute other well-studied theories with equal energy.

The second argument I’d like to discuss is the idea that since science can’t explain something, then it is unexplainable. Anyone who works on natural systems is not surprised at all that there are unexplainable phenomena is any discipline. Actually, most of us are grateful for this! After all, that is why there are jobs in science! That is why we could find funded PhD projects. That is why there are hundreds, probably thousands of highly trained scientists still studying evolutionary biology. If all of the questions were answered we would all have to find new jobs! Unexplainable phenomena are one of the most exciting catalysts in science, all you need to do is look at the history of any major idea in science to see how the desire to explain led to discovery.

Another arguments the “intelligent design” community uses is that there are, in fact, scientists who do not believe in evolution. But, because of some vast conspiracy among “mainstream” science, those ideas are never allowed to be presented. Anyone who understands science will realize that this is absurd. Of course, there are plenty of historical examples where ideas were at first rejected, and later became well accepted. The key, though, is that those ideas were eventually proved through experiment. “Intelligent design” is, by definition, untestable. If there are supernatural forces, then of course they cannot be tested for using natural laws, that’s just logic. Also, every scientist knows that the path to professional fame and glory is not the same beaten path everyone before them has walked. To become truly famous as a scientist, you must either devise a radically new theory that no one else has thought of, or disprove a widely accepted theory. If there was solid experimental evidence disproving evolution, then whomever published it would be the most famous biologist of the 21st century, hands down. Incidentally, the same can be said for cries of conspiracy coming from those who don’t believe in global warming.

Aside from all of these things though, in my opinion the biggest reason to speak out against the “intelligent design” crowd, is what their position requires of the meaning of science. The scientific method involves formulating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test that hypothesis, and then using the results of the experiment to reject or refine the hypothesis. Rinse and repeat. Of course the implicit assumption is that there are natural laws. By experiment, we can come closer to understanding them. What intelligent design states is that there aren’t natural laws, well, there doesn’t have to be laws, basically anything can happen at anytime, and if you don’t understand something, then there is no reason to try to explain it, it must be supernatural. One can only wonder what the course of science would have been if this mentality would have been adopted generations ago. Radioactivity is the classic example. When the first observations were made of radioactive material, there were no existing theories that could properly explain the observations. This led to an amazing period for science where our understanding of the atom expanded incredibly (to horrendous consequences, I’ll add). If the intelligent design crown was around with Henri Becquerel, they would have probably said, “we don’t understand, must be supernatural, lets go home and forget about it.” Same with relativity, microbial theory…. the list is really endless.

The truth is that for most of the country, whether or not they believe in evolution makes little difference in their daily life. But for everyone in the world, this change in our definition of the scientific method has dramatic consequences. If we are to ascribe everything we don’t understand to supernatural forces, this changes everything. The real test as to whether or not people truly accept “intelligent design” is not about evolution, but instead if people are really willing to accept the change in the definition of the scientific method throughout their life. If they are willing to accept intelligent design, then they must also accept the following:

1. You are sick. You are feverish, vomiting, and nauseous. You feel like you are getting worse, so you go to the doctor. The doctor runs every test they can think of, every one inconclusive. Your doctor returns and says, “Well, this doesn’t look like anything I have ever seen, must be supernatural. You might as well go home.” Would you accept that? Of course not, you would want the doctor to continue to apply the real scientific method to determine the cause of your illness. If this doctor gave up, you would want a second opinion. This is of course what happens with most new illnesses, AIDS, ebola, whatever, at first, the doctors have no idea, but after diligent application of the scientific method they can start to understand the causes of illness, and hopefully work their way towards a cure.

2. Your car doesn’t work, so you take it to the mechanic. He looks around under the hood, everything looks OK, so, it must be supernatural. Yeah right, you assume that everything in your car works according to mechanical laws, analogous to natural laws. If your car isn’t working, then there is a logical explanation for it. Just because you don’t know that explanation yet is no reason to think there isn’t one.

3. After a major earthquake you find cracks in the foundation of your house. You bring in an engineer to determine the extent of the damage, and tell you if it is safe for you and your family to move back in. The engineer looks at the cracks, thinks for a minute, and says, “well, if gravity had been proven, then perhaps I could make sense of this, but since it hasn’t, I can only say that it must be supernatural forces that determine if this house will stand or fall.” Would you accept that? Of course not, that’s absurd.

OK, I can of course go on forever with these types of examples, but you get my point.. The truth is that this is how we need to explain and argue against the “intelligent design” movement. People have been trying to disprove evolution for more than 100 years now, but experiment after experiment reaffirms and refines the theory. But, for more of the world, this means little. The direct implications for most people are really with how the scientific method will change. If they are not willing to accept this new definition when it comes to their health or livelihood, then they cannot consistently accept it in any branch of science.

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