Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

Happy Darwin Day, everybody!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, and I realize I’m very late to the party. But Darwin Day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

I want to talk about the PBS program “Nova”  and their episode about the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in the public schools, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial.” (They have an entire web page about the episode, and the program is available to watch online (as are the transcripts.)

I could easily blog about this program for pages. It was one of the best summaries I’ve seen or read of both the science and the controversy surrounding the Dover trial, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. But in the interest of brevity, I want to focus on what jumped out at me most dramatically from the program.

It’s this: Intelligent design is not science.

I don’t even mean that it’s bad science. I mean that it’s not science at all. The theory is not a scientific theory, and its proponents do not engage in the activities of science. It is, purely and entirely, an attempt to provide a scientific cover story for getting religion taught in public schools. And when its proponents testified under oath that ID is not based on religious beliefs or convictions, they — how exactly shall I put this? — lied.

The theory isn’t a scientific theory for some fairly obvious reasons, reasons which I already knew about going into “Judgment Day.” It’s not testable; it’s not falsifiable; it doesn’t make predictions; any possible outcome can be explained by the theory. All of that, just by itself, makes it not a science.

And it’s also not science in the sense that its practitioners either are not familiar with, or spectacularly ignore, the current scientific information, even in the areas they’re most focused on. (They are, for instance, obsessed with the bacterial flagellum and its supposed irreducible complexity, how it could not possibly have evolved from previous forms… without, apparently, being familiar with the current scientific thinking on how, precisely, the flagellum probably evolved.)

But what really struck me was how dramatically intelligent design is not science… not just in theory, but in a practical, physical, day-to-day sense. Its proponents do not engage in science. They do not engage in experiments to test their theories.

And as a prime example of this, I’m going to quote a section from the trial transcript (as taken from the PBS Website): an interchange between ID proponent Scott A. Minnich and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Robert Muise.

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Now, Dr. Minnich, a complaint that’s often brought up — and plaintiffs’ experts have brought it up in this case — is that intelligent design is not testable. It’s not falsifiable. Would you agree with that claim?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): No, I don’t. I have a quote from Mike Behe: “In fact, intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure, for motility, say, grow it for 10,000 generations and see if a flagellum or any equally complex system was produced. If that happened my claims would be neatly disproven.”

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Is that an experiment that you would do?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): You know, I think about it. I’d be intrigued to do it. I wouldn’t expect it to work. But that’s my bias.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Now you claim that intelligent design can be tested, correct?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Correct.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Intelligent design, according to you, is not tested at all, because neither you nor Dr. Behe have run the test that you, yourself, advocate for testing intelligent design, right?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Well, turn it around in terms of these major attributes of evolution. Have they been tested? You see what I’m saying, Steve? It’s a problem for both sides.

I’m not just going to point out that Minnich is flatly mistaken here, that the theory of evolution can be tested, and has been tested extensively. And I’m not going to go into detail about why I think he’s mistaken about ID, why ID isn’t actually testable or falsifiable. (Very short answer: If the flagellum developed in the experimental example he gave, they could always say, “Well, okay, the flagellum didn’t need an intelligent designer — but what about this other thing over here?”)

What I want to point out is this:

Minnich believes himself that ID is a testable theory. He’s even thought of an experiment he could do that might falsify the theory.

But has he done that experiment?

He has not.

This is what I mean by ID not being science. That’s not what scientists do. When scientists have a theory, and an idea for an experiment that could show that theory to be false, they run the experiment. The fact that the ID proponents have not done this makes it clear as day: Whatever they’re doing, it’s not science. It’s not a scientific theory, and it’s not a scientific practice.

It is, instead, a religious belief: a belief in a supernatural power that interferes with natural processes. And one of the most dramatic parts of “Judgment Day” was the way it showed the ID proponents being caught red-handed at it.

The program reveals smoking gun after smoking gun after smoking gun. Statements by ID proponents slipping and using the word “creationism.” Drafts of an ID book that originally read “creationist” having the word replaced with “design proponent” (including places with the transitional fossil, “Cdesign proponentsists”). The publisher’s catalog of said book listing it under “Creation Science.” Documents showing that ID books had been sent to the Dover public schools by a fundraising drive in the local church. Internal documents from the ID organization The Discovery Institute stating that they want to change American culture back to a religious foundation and plan to use ID as a wedge to accomplish this goal.

I could go on an on. The evidence is overwhelming: Intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design is a way of getting around the Supreme Court decisions banning creationism from being taught in public schools. Intelligent design is a religious belief, and it differs from science in all the ways that religion differs from science. The evidence is overwhelming… just like the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

6 thoughts on “Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

  1. 3

    Oh, good, my favorite rant!
    To many people, science looks a lot like a religion. It has a lot of folks in special clothes who work in fancy buildings and speak incomprehensible gobbledygook that they claim explains the universe.
    The difference, and even many scientists aren’t good at making this clear, is that science _works_.
    Given a pile of observations, you can try to shuffle them into some sort of pattern that you can call a _theory_. To be legitimate science, a theory has to not only explain the previous observations, but also, and this is the essential part, _predict future observations_.
    For a theory to be useful, the conditions under which predicted future observations can be made must be _accessible_. That is, the predictions must actually matter in a way that we can possibly encounter.
    And the predictions must be specific enough to be _falsifiable_. That is, there are conceivable observations which would demonstrate that the theory is wrong.
    Then, when considering two rival theories, you look for a situation where they make different predictions. (If there are no such situations, then they are both actually the same theory, just with the serial numbers filed off.)
    And finally, observe that situation and see which theory is wrong. Or maybe both of them are.
    All this stuff about scientific method and peer review and whatnot is part of a system that has been very effective at developing theories that work in this sense, but it’s not central. You can go about it a totally different way and still get good science. Experience has shown that you’re not very likely to, but it’s not essential.
    But if you have an explanation for how something works that doesn’t make accessible predictions, You Are Not Tall Enough For This Ride. Your explanation doesn’t even qualify.
    Below good theories and bad theories is a third category, which holds such non-theories and ranting gibberish from the street person who needs his medications adjusted: “not even wrong.” It didn’t fail the test; it never showed up for the test.
    The word “fact” is not formally a part of science, but is generally used to refer to a phenomenon so widely and frequently observed that it isn’t doubted by anyone with enough brains to breathe without the Polish sex manual. (“1. In. 2. Out. 3. Repeat as necessary.”)
    Just like gravity was a well accepted fact long before Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation, evolution (the change n species over time) was a well accepted fact for over 100 years (a good priority date would be Linnaeus’ 1734 publication of Systema Naturae) before Darwin published his theory of evolution that explained it.
    It’s amusing to contemplate the fact that even if these yahoos managed to completely discredit the current theory of evolution (which is mostly Darwin’s, but flatly contradicts him in a few points), they’d still need to come up with something better to explain the observed fact of evolution.
    Of course, that’s a private amusement; it does no good to explain it to abrahamic nutjobs who don’t seem to get the difference between Darwin and Moses.

  2. 5

    I trust PBS as far as I can throw a Steinway grand piano. Case in point; PBS’s imaginary scene of microbiologist Scott Minnich saying that he had not performed the experiment. The fact is that Minnich did testify about his own genetic knockout experiments, but you didn’t know that, did you?
    I guess in instances where PBS doesn’t have any real evidence to back up certain propoganda objectives they can always resort to using imaginary, made-up evidence confident that people like you will call it “overwhelming”.

  3. 6

    “Case in point; PBS’s imaginary scene of microbiologist Scott Minnich saying that he had not performed the experiment.”
    blilley, that is not an “imaginary scene”. That exact exchange happened in the courtroom. PBS reenacted it with actors, but the lines were taken directly from the trial transcripts. Here are the URLs of those transcripts; the exchange in question happened during the cross-examination, the second one listed below.
    Clearly, based on your response, you didn’t like the answer Minnich gave to that question. I venture to suggest that in the future, when ID advocates are examined in court and come away looking foolish, you should consider why that is, rather than leaping to accuse scientists of inventing arguments to attribute to them that make them look bad.
    “The fact is that Minnich did testify about his own genetic knockout experiments, but you didn’t know that, did you?”
    Minnich testified that he had tried experiments in which he knocked out various genes from the bacterial flagellum to see what happened. Nevertheless, by his own admission, he never tried any experiment that would test the central claim at issue: whether evolution can produce a flagellum or other complex motile structure de novo. Greta’s point is correct exactly as she phrased it: advocates of ID aren’t interested in running the tests needed to see whether their own ideas are correct.

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