Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Falsehoods About Science

The often ridiculous David Klinghoffer is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation peddling ... well ... misinformation. That, of course is nothing new and what he's peddling is nothing new either. It is the old "scientists say ID is unscientific because it is unfalsifiable but then say ID has been falsified, therefore it must be scientific" bafflegab. Klinghoffer is committing the Fallacy of Composition and the Fallacy of Division (since he argues the claim both ways).

First of all, Sir Karl Popper's "falsifiability demarcation criterion" for distinguishing science from pseudo-science has generally been deemed a failure as a reliable way to tell science from non-science. However, that does not mean it is useless. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says (citations omitted):

Popper's demarcation criterion has been criticized both for excluding legitimate science and for giving some pseudosciences the status of being scientific. Strictly speaking, his criterion excludes the possibility that there can be a pseudoscientific claim that is refutable. According to Larry Laudan, it "has the untoward consequence of countenancing as 'scientific' every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions". Astrology, rightly taken by Popper as an unusually clear example of a pseudoscience, has in fact been tested and thoroughly refuted. Similarly, the major threats to the scientific status of psychoanalysis, another of his major targets, do not come from claims that it is untestable but from claims that it has been tested and failed the tests.

Defenders of Popper have claimed that this criticism relies on an uncharitable interpretation of his ideas. They claim that he should not be interpreted as meaning that falsifiability is a sufficient condition for demarcating science. Some passages seem to suggest that he takes it as only a necessary condition. Other passages suggest that for a theory to be scientific, Popper requires (in addition to falsifiability) that energetic attempts are made to put the theory to test and that negative outcomes of the tests are accepted. A falsification-based demarcation criterion that includes these elements will avoid the most obvious counter-arguments to a criterion based on falsifiability alone.
First of all, a claim that, by its own terms, is unfalsifiable is clearly not science. The classic example is Philip Gosse's "Omphalos hypothesis." Since Gosse (and many young-Earth creationists today) proposed that God made the world with the "appearance of age," the claim cannot be scientific. No amount of empiric evidence can refute the claim that an omnipotent God just chose to make the world look as if it was old. If Klinghoffer is right, then young-Earth creationism is scientific because science has produced reams of evidence that the Earth is old. I'm willing to grant that ID is "scientific" in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent that young-Earth creationism is.

On the further understanding that falsifiability is a necessary criteria for something to be science but not, in and of itself, sufficient to make a proposition scientific, falsifiability (or as it is generally called today to avoid confusion, "testability") is, at the least, a good first approximation of whether something is scientific or not.

Thus, the fact that certain claims made by ID apologists are falsifiable does not mean that it is scientific, any more than the fact that politicians make falsifiable claims turns our political system into a natural science. As I previously noted, Jerry Coyne has made a nice distinction between the testable and non-testable claims of ID. When IDers claim such things as the "abrupt appearance" of organisms in the Cambrian "explosion," those claims can be tested and falsified. When they claim that an unknown agent, with unknown powers and unknown motives did something, sometime by some unknown means, there is no more way to test it than there is to test whether an omnipotent God decided to miraculously make the world look old. In a spasm of unintentional honesty on this point, Casey Luskin has even called the issue of who the "Designer" might be (and, therefore, what abilities and motives he/she/it might have) a "strictly theological question." Therefore, the central claim of ID -- the existence of a "Designer" -- is, by the very nature of the ID apologists claim, unfalsifiable. It hardly needs to be mentioned that that this attitude guarantees that there will be no energetic attempts to test the existence of the "Designer," even if we didn't already know that they mean "God."

As I said before:

To paraphrase a well-known critical bon mot: "what is scientific about ID has been falsified; what hasn't been falsified is not scientific."

I think that this confusion arises because critics of intelligent design mistake intelligent design and creationism. This mistake is easy to make because intelligent design was crafted as a 'big tent' to include all creationists of various stripes. But notwithstanding the political motivations of the primary architects, intelligent design and creationism are different sets of claims.

The Achilles heel of intelligent design is that the price of inclusiveness is vacuity. So intelligent design is unfalsifiable because it is vacuous, and creationism is indeed not only falsifiable but quite thoroughly falsified.

Though Popper's criteria are less than clear, that doesn't mean that the very concept of a pseudoscience must be rejected. I prefer Paul Thagard's approach:

"A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if:

(1) It has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved mysteries; but

(2) the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations (p. 70-71)."

["Why Astrology Is a Pseudoscience"
Paul R. Thagard
from Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science, editors: E.D. Klemke, Robert Hollinger, and David Wyss Rudge
Prometheus Books, 1998, pp. 66-75. Also available here.]
It's also important to add that the falsifiable claims of ID are for the most part negative arguments against evolution. As Bob Pennock argued, that only shows that evolution is falsifiable.
While I agree that Thagard's focus on defining pseudoscience made more sense than Popper's attempt to define science (I've recommended Thargard's piece before), I don't think there's a significant difference between ID and more traditional creationism. ID still depends, as does creationism, on the false dichotomy that any disproof of current evolutionay theory is evidence for design/creation. Few, if any, arguments made by ID against evolution are not taken directly from creationism, as was shown by the "cdesign proponentsists". The theological vacuity of ID comes from the stripping out explicit biblical references, as much to allow different sectarian groups to pour their own interpretations of revelation into it, as to avoid constitutional bans on teaching creationism in public schools. The scientific vacuity of ID is the same as creationism because it does not attempt to solve the "mystery" of how the world came to be as it is -- it already has the only answer it needs. IDers make no effort to develop the theory towards solutions of the problem of how "design" occurs, show no concern for attempts to evaluate the "theory" in relation to others, and are selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations.

One thing I did not mention in the original post is that critics like Laudan erred, I think, in that they assumed that falsification by the scientific community was sufficient to meet Popper's criteria. But one mark of Popper's demarcation was that the proponents refuse to accept falsification. ID advocates, like traditional creationists, refuse to accept that their arguments have been falsified and keep repeating them no matter what. In that regard, IDers are just like creationists.

All in all, ID is truly creationism in a cheap tuxedo.
As Bob Pennock argued, that only shows that evolution is falsifiable.

A very nice point.
These poor doofuses need to find new straws to clutch at. They're just looking ridiculously desperate at this point.
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