Thursday, February 24, 2005

Responding to Diepenbrock

George Diepenbrock is a writer for the Southwest Daily Times, a newspaper published out of Liberal, Kansas (yes, that is actually the name of the town). He concluded this recent article with the following challenge:


Obviously Kline has indicated he would support a change in school science standards by requiring some other life science theory in addition to evolution be taught. In that case, the attorney general would side with the six conservative board members who are wanting to make the change.

This scares opponents to death because they are more worried about Kansas gaining criticism from national media as it did in 1999.

Instead opponents should come up with a good argument on why teaching only the evolution theory does not violate the state education science mission statement to make all students lifelong learners who can use science to make reasoned decisions.

Presenting only one life science theory in classes without alternatives breeds ignorance and violates the mission statement.


In this entry I propose to answer Diepenbrock's challenge.

Doing so is not so easy, however, because Dipenbrock never gets around to explaining what alternative theory he has in mind. The closest he comes is this paragraph:


But after the August 2004 election, conservatives now have regained a 6-4 edge, and it appears they are pursuing avenues to change state science standards again to teach other theories, mainly intelligent design, in addition to evolution.


It would have been helpful if Diepenbrock had told us what, precisely, teaching Intelligent Design entails.

Let us also consider the last line of the article. How does presenting only one theory breed ignorance? If there is only one theory that is supported by the available evidence, then surely it breeds ignorance to present anything other than that theory. High school physics classes generally only discuss the Copernican model of the Solar System. The alternative, Ptolemaic model is accorded no respect. If it is mentioned at all it is only for its historical significance. Does Diepenbrock believe physics classes are breeding ignorance?

We might say that presenting only one theory would, indeed, breed ignorance if there were other theories of equal merit that were not being presented. I assume that Diepenbrock believes that to be the case. And since the only rival theory Diepenbrock mentions is Intelligent Design, we will consider the merits of presenting it in science classes.

What are the chief claims of Intelligent Design Theory? It can't simply be that there is some higher intelligence responsible for the presence and structure of life on Earth, for that idea is entirely consistent with evolution. If that is all Diepenbrock has in mind then he has not presented an alternative to evolution.

Surely he has in mind the stronger claim that there are certain biological structures that are so complex that it is simply impossible to attribute them to nonintelligent causes. That being the case, there simply must be a higher intelligence that is responsible for them. That claim has been defended by people like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Is that the alternative to evolution Diepnbrock wants presented?

If it is, then the reason for excluding it is very simple: the claim is false. I'm sure Diepenbrock, and all sensible people, agree that we should not be presenting false information in science classes.

For example, Michael Behe claims that if a biomolecular system is made of several well-matched parts such that the removal of any one part results in the non-functionality of the system, then it is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved by gradual accretion. This claim is wrong as a simple matter of logic. The fact that every part is necessary for the system to operate in its present environment does not imply that every part was necessary in every stage of the system's evolution. It is possible that initially a particular part was beneficial, but not necessary, for the system to function. Later changes might then have rendered the new part essential. Another possibility is that irreducible complexity could arise by the elimination of redundancy.

Since Behe is claiming that the complexity of biochemical systems is utterly beyond the capabilities of natural causes, it is for him to explain why the scenarios above are not possible. Since known genetic processes can result in either scenario, it is unsurprising that he has been unable to do so to date.

The situation gets even worse for Behe when you consider that, contrary to his frequent assertions, the biological literature contains plausible evolutionary trajectories for a variety of biochemical systems. Consequently, Behe is simply wrong to claim that these systems are utterly inexplicable by natural causes.

As for Dembski, I will simply point out that when it comes time for him to apply his mathematical arguments to actual biological systems he makes essential use of Behe's claim that irreducibly complex systems can not evolve gradually. Since that claim is false, so are Dembski's arguments based on that claim. It is no exaggeration at all to say that Dembski's work contributes absolutely nothing to the discussion of evolution and intelligent design. Everything is riding on Behe's claim, and that claim is false.

But perhaps Diepenbrock could offer the following reply to my argument: Sure, he could say, I claim that Behe and Dembski are wrong, but other people say they are right. Clearly there is a controversy here, and students should be made aware of that fact.

But is there a controversy? Suppose I decide that I believe the Ptolemaic system is more plausible than the Copernican system. Does that mean there is now a controversy among scientists about the proper theory to teach in physics classes? Suppose I get a handful of my PhD holding friends to go along with me. Maybe we even write a book presenting our ideas. Is that enough to have the Ptolemaic system taught with respect in science classes?

Surely not. Surely the fact that the enormous majority of scientists is on one side of the issue, while it is only I and a handful of friends on the other, counts for something. Surely an idea has to gain some currency within the scientific community before it is presented respectfully in science classes.

The fact is that every scientific theory presented as orthodoxy in science classes began in exactly the place ID finds itself now: A heresy believed by a handul of people dissatisfied with the orthodox view. In no case, however, did the adherents of the heresy earn their place in the curriculum by appealing directly to schools boards and state legislatures. In every case the heresy won out by producing evidence adequate to convince a large majority of scientists.

And that is exactly what ID proponents refuse to do. The arguments they are making now are identical to the ones they were making a decade ago. As a scientific enterprise they have made no progress at all. At no point have they shown how their theory accounts for the data of the fossil record, or the findings of genetics, or the evidence from embryology, or the data from any other branch of science. Evolution accounts for all of that data. Nor have they described, let alone carried out, any innovative research program based on their ideas.

If we present ID respectfully in science classes we are saying that the mere existence of a handful of dissenters from the orthodox view is enough to have the dissent presented in science classes.

It is a standard that would be laughed at in any context other than evolution. There are millions of people in this country, some of them with PhD's, who believe astrology is legitimate. No one seriously argues that is sufficient reason to present astrology respectfully in science classes. Why not? Surely the reason is that very few scientists believe astrology has merit, coupled with the fact that astrologers have not been able to produce any useful insights based on their theories.

So that is why ID should not be taught: The overwhelming majority of the scientific community believes its claims to be false, its defenders have not shown that their theory can account for any of the data evolution accounts for, and they have not provided any reason for believing that their theory even has the potential to produce anything useful to science.

If Diepenbrock believes that I should be employing different standards in deciding what should get presented in science classes, I invite him to tell me what those standards are.

14 Comments:

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

quote:
"The fact is that every scientific theory presented as orthodoxy in science classes began in exactly the place ID finds itself now: A heresy believed by a handul of people dissatisfied with the orthodox view. In no case, however, did the adherents of the heresy earn their place in the curriculum by appealing directly to schools boards and state legislatures. In every case the heresy won out by producing evidence adequate to convince a large majority of scientists."

This quote is the best summing up of the argument I've heard, and should be the only concern any school board should have. Here we have a dubious majority (in some cases) who have deemed themselves privileged to contravene a process (scientific method) that has historically acted as the ruling principle for the procedure by which theories are accepted. The selection process is ingrained in the nature of scientific method itself. If we do away with that procedure, we do away with scientific method. The ID propenents invite a "scientific acceptance by majority" proposition that is truly dangerous.

~ scott pilutik

 
At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Diepenbrock is a reporter. He should be able to help us put together a curriculum for intelligent design.

I would counter challenge Mr. Diepenbrock: Tell us where we can find a set of science documents that lay out a theory of intelligent design which meet the standards of textbook publishers and authors, being a significant body of material in peer review journals clearly indicating where research in the area is leading.Then, name for us the ten or twenty top biologists practicing research in the area, so we can use their research results as examples in the book and to provide experimental supplements for the labs required by most state standards. It will be necessary that students hypothetically be able to replicate some of the experiments in a well-equipped lab.

So, third, Mr. Diepenbrock needs to show us the laboratories in which intelligent design has been refined.

And finally, Mr. Diepenbrock needs to point us to several graduate level biology classes in intelligent design, and at least a half-dozen undergraduate level intelligent design classes in biology in order that we can see what an intelligent design curriculum looks like that has a coherent theory, verifiable and replicated experimental results, and lab exercises that high school kids can duplicate.

I'm a former reporter. I know that Mr. Diepenbrock doesn't want to show bias toward intelligent design, so certainly he will get right to work making sure that he's not blowing smoke when he says ID is ready for first period biology.

Ed Darrell
Dallas

 
At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you sent this reply directly to Mr. Diepenebrock or his newspaper? If so, has there been any response?

 
At 2:59 PM, Anonymous JRB said...

"The selection process is ingrained in the nature of scientific method itself. If we do away with that procedure, we do away with scientific method." - scott pilutik

When I read the Missouri House Bill 911 (to introduce ID into the schools) for the first time last year, the one thing that leapt out at me was the broad brush that they were using as illustrated in the following excerpt"

"3. All science taught in Missouri public elementary and secondary schools, including material concerning physics, chemistry, biology, health, physiology, genetics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, ecology, climatology, or other science topics shall be standard science. All standard science course materials and instruction shall meet the following criteria:..."


It is apparent that THE intent IS to do away with the scientific method.

 
At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Jonathan Abbey said...

Brilliantly done, thank you.

 
At 12:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Jason. ID thoroughly debunked, and it didn't need a single mention of naturalism! ;-)
--Richard Wein

 
At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would argue that bringing forth opposing theories in a public education system would be acceptable, if they were plausible scientific theories accepted by a significant percentage of the scientific community. Intelligent design (ID) does not meet those criteria. ID is not a scientific theory; in fact, it's not science at all. IDs advocates propose that the diversity of life we see today and in the fossil record is the result of an uncharacterized, never-observed force: spontaneous supernatural creation of a species. Since no supernatural event has ever been documented and characterized by science, any use of a supernatural force as an explanation for observed facts is not accepted. ID advocates must first demonstrate to scientists through repeatable, independently verified experiments that the "designer force" exists—and then characterize it—before they can plausibly propose it as an explanation for species origination. Conversely, evolution uses observed forces of nature, specifically natural selection, to explain the diversity of life observed now and in the fossil record. No speculative supernatural forces are needed.

As if it mattered at this point, ID makes no better headway with the second criterion: an overwhelming majority of scientists do not accept it as a credible or valid proposal. The scientists that do ID work cannot get published, and they and their work are not taken seriosly. There is no debate in the scientific commmunity as to whether or not evolution is valid. The agreement is overwhelmingly yes. There is also no debate in the scientific community concerning whether the ideas of ID advocates are valid. The agreement is overwhelmingly no. Since the public has decided to teach science, we must only teach evolution to students, since it alone is accepted by science as an eplanation of the origen of species. To do otherwise would give students an unfair impression of the way science works (eg, what reasoning science does and does not accept) and and unfair impression that scientists are debating and researching two separate but equally valid theories about the origen of species on the planet.

To summarize, does ID pass the two criteria set up at the beginning of this post? No: it is clearly not a scientific theory accepted by a significant percentage of scientists as a plausible alternative to evulutionary theory.

Carey Snowden
Carrboro, NC

 
At 11:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that ID is utter nonsense! The problem is that ID proponents have and are gaining an increasing amount of power through a well organized publicity machine. They are gaining excess to high-powered people and these high-powered people are listening!!! This is purely dangerous!!!

 
At 3:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intelligent Design should not be presented as an alternate scientific theory simply because ID is not a scientific theory. It is a bit of an insult to compare ID with the Ptolemaic Geocentric System because the latter could explain some things, while ID explains nothing.

In fact, not only ID is not a scientific theory, there's no theory at all, period. What's the ID theory? Neither Behe nor Dembski has proposed something that's remotely coherent and has explanatory power. All they did were random attacks on evolution, nothing more.

"Irreducible Complexity" is just repackaged "God in the gaps."

 
At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Don T. Know said...

"Irreducible Complexity" is just repackaged "God in the gaps."When push comes to shove, that's exactly what it is. It's also the reason why discussions of ID almost always descend into theological discussions.

I don't think Behe and co. fully appreciate the scientific method; and why methodological naturalism is an essential part of that methodology.

Were non-verifiable, non-falsifiable "explanations" be allowed to fit the definition of serious scientific inquiry, the discipline would break down completely.

For those who base their beliefs on ancient holy books, I'm sure they would be happy with such an outcome (although, you can bet your @ss they would still partake of the fruits of science). However, I don't think people like Behe would be all that happy with such an outcome.

 
At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Don T. Know said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Don T. Know said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 5:12 PM, Anonymous DaveScot said...

Darwinian theory isn't actually a theory. It's a narrative.

The bottom line remains that there is no documented observation of any living thing reproducing other than its own kind.

 
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