Thursday, December 22, 2005

Nelson's Desperation

In this blog entry for the pro-ID blog IDtheFuture, Paul Nelson tries desperately to find anything in Judge Jones' opinion to be not depressed about:

In surveying the ecstatic reactions yesterday around the blogosphere to Jones' opinion, I didn't see any mention of problems with the reasoning. Endorphin rushes do that to one: oh we wow we won won WON.

And then one reads the opinion carefully, the next day, in a more sober frame of mind. Propositions such as the following (p. 66) jump up, looking not so felicitous as the day before:

This rigorous attachment to 'natural' explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention.

By definition and by convention. Let the words settle into your field of conscious attention. Did the convention of naturalism come first, as an historically contingent shift in practice...and then the definition followed? So science wasn't always defined as applied naturalism? If so, could practice shift again, in the light of new evidence, bringing a new convention, and hence a new definition? Then how can science be “rigorously attached” to any definition, given its history? (Emphasis in original).

I can't imagine what point Nelson thinks he's making here. How else could you define science but by examining its practical conventions? People have to be doing science for a while before you can give a definition of what it is, exactly, they are doing.

Of course scientific practice could shift in the light of new evidence. So what? The fact remains that the current conventions of science, in which people try to understand the natural world via experimentation and inductive reasoning (among other methods) have been in place for centuries. Surely that simple fact justifies the Judge's remark quoted above.

It's a bad sign that Nelson chose to quote only a single sentence from the decision. If we scamper back a bit to page 64 we find the Judge explaining some of the points I just made (citations omitted):

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth. In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism&rduqo; and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.

As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter NAS) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data - the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”

In light of this, I'm afraid Nelson will have to explain in more detail precisely what error he thinks the Judge has made. The only way Nelson's point makes any sense is if you think “rigorously attached” means that notions of what is considered scientific are eternal and unchanging. It is clear, however, that that is not what the Judge has in mind.

Of course, in a better world none of this would matter. What really ought to happen is that everyone examines the specific arguments ID folks are making, comes to the obvious conclusion that they are complete worthless nonsense, and then moves on with their lives.

Unfortunatly, in a legal context that is not adequate. The Judge's finding that ID is not science comes in a section of the opinion devoted to assessing whether the Dover ID policy constitutes an endorsement of religion. If ID could plausibly be called science (notwithstanding the religious motivations of the Board members or the theological implications of ID arguments) then it is possible the policy would pass constitutional muster. So one essential plank in the argument that the ID policy is an endorsement of religion is the fact that it is not science, as that term is currently understood.

But determining whether something is science requires an understanding of what science means. The Judge heard expert testimony on that question and came to the only reasonable conclusion.

Nelson will have to better if he wants to discredit the decision in this case.


At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Skeptico said...

And to add to the general lameness, his blog apparently won't accept comments.

At 2:35 AM, Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

Quite a few of the 'prominent' ID blogs do not allow comments or alternatively turn themselves in heavily moderated echo chambers. Those campaigning for the 'debate' or 'controversy' are most frequently the ones that do not like discussing it.

Quite the amusing part of irony that is.

At 6:07 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

I think Paul Nelson has a reasonable point here, though he could have made it more clearly. (I haven't read the rest of his piece.)

Jason wrote:"The only way Nelson's point makes any sense is if you think “rigorously attached” means that notions of what is considered scientific are eternal and unchanging. It is clear, however, that that is not what the Judge has in mind."

Actually, it seems pretty clear to me that this is what the Judge had in mind. He described the attachment to "natural" explanations as "an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention" (my emphasis). This sounds very much to me like an unchangeable attachment. And it is hardly surprising that he should take this position, since it is also the position of many of those who support methodological naturalism, probably including expert witnesses for the plaintiffs at the trial. (I seem to remember seeing such assertions in the transcripts, but I'm not sure.)

It seems that your position is different from the Judge's (and from most supporters of MN). He mentioned definition and convention, suggesting that he saw these as two separate supports for MN. You, on the other hand, wrote:
"How else could you define science but by examining its practical conventions? People have to be doing science for a while before you can give a definition of what it is, exactly, they are doing."

This suggests that you see the definition as following from the convention, in which case they cannot be seen as separate supports.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger gravitybear said...

I've recently sparred with blogger David Price over these very topics. His post:

His thing is harping on this "predisposition to naturalism," as if that's bad.

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Fred said...

It's funny that naturalism is OK for everything except evolution. A fundamentalist today wouldn't argue against the natural causes of storms or lightning; he'd maybe say that it was ordered by God but would accept that it was accomplished using methods that can be explained through nature.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Jason said...


In the excerpt from the decision that I quoted, Judge Jones describes how science has been done since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, implying that it was done differently before then. He describes methodological naturalism as a ground rule for science today, as opposed to for all eternity. So it is clear that he believes that the nature of science can change over time.

The Judge was confronted with expert testimony from Pennock and Miller, and with a statement from the National Academy of Sciences, all saying that methodological naturalism was an essential part of modern scientific practice. Meanwhile, Behe and Minnich apparently agreed in their testimony that the definition of science would have to be changed for ID to be included. Given that, I don't see how the Judge could have ruled any differently than he did.

Incidentally, the idea that science is defined by how it's practiced has a long history in American law. The Frye decision in 1923 found that expert scientific testimony was admissable if it was based on principles generally accepted in the scientific community. The Daubert decision in 1973 weakened this standard somewhat, but left intact the idea that scientific testimony was admissable according to whether it was grounded in common scientific methods. And of course, the 1982 McLean decision found that creationism was not science.

So Judge Jones' opinion fits well with past court decisions on this subject. Given the testimony he heard it's hard to see how Jones could have ruled any differently. He makes it perfectly clear that scientific convention can change over time, but that the fact remains that the present conventions have been in place for centuries and show no signs of weakening. In light of this, it was perfectly reaosnable for him to talk about rigorous attachemnts, and Nelson has no good point at all.

In response to your other points, I do see the definition of science as following from the conventions of science. The conventions of science, meanwhile, follow from the goals science is meant to achieve, namely, obtaining an understanding of the natural world sufficient to render natural phenomena predictable and controllable. I believe this view is consistent with what the Judge said, despite his reference to definition and convention.

I find it easy to imagine things, which, were they to occur, would certainly persuade me of the reality of the supernatural. And, who knows, it is possible that when confronted with such an event we might wnat to change our notions of what is considered scientific. But until that time, I'm sticking with the methods that scientists have found effective for the last few centuries.

At 6:10 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...


1. You haven't explained how the sentence I quoted (from the Judge's ruling) can be reconciled with your interpretation.

2. If it is indeed possible in principle for MN to be overturned by new evidence (as you seem to accept) and for "supernatural" explanations then to be acceptable to science, then it is illogical to argue on the basis of MN that ID is unscientific, since ID is itself a claim to have found the evidence that overturns MN.

3. I can find nothing in the Judge's ruling to suggest he thinks that methodological naturalism could in principle be overturned. Nor can I find any such suggestion in the testimony of Pennock or Miller. You are deducing that they should hold this position because it follows from other statements that they have made. Perhaps it does. But it seems to me they have not themselves made that logical deduction. I'm not inclined to accept your logical deduction on their behalf, when the conclusion appears to be contradicted by their own statements. After all, I'm arguing that their position is not a logical one.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Jason said...


You seem fixated on that one sentence about definition and convention. As I showed, however. the surrounding context of that sentence makes it perfectly clear that the Judge believed that scientific practice could change over time.

Even that sentence taken by itself does not have to be interpreted to mean that the definition of science and the conventions of science are logically independent. He might simply have included both terms for emphasis. For example, the poiceman's oath includes the phrase “to serve and protect.” That does not mean that service and protection are two separate things.

Furthermore, as I pointed out, the various legal standards for determining whether something is scientific make it clear that what science is can not be separated form how science is done. Since it was these standards the Judge was applying, I don't think my interpretation of his decision is out of line.

I'm afraid your second point makes little sense. Science as it is currently practiced takes MN as an essential guiding principle. It has been that way for centuries. Every piece of testimony the Court heard confirmed that. ID violates MN. Therefore, ID is unscientific.

It is just barely possible that at some time in the future scientific practice will change to permit a consideration of the supernatural. And if that day ever comes, we might then want to reconsider the question of whether ID passes muster. But as things stand today, ID is unscientific.

That, after all, was the question before the Judge. He was not answering the question, “If at some point in the future the conventions of science change, will ID then be considered scientific?”

Finally, I think you'll be hard-pressed to find anything in the writings of Miller or Pennock that suggests that the methods of science are eternally unchanging. If you pressed them on the subject, I'm sure they would agree that our standards of what is considered scientific have changed in the past and could conceivably change in the future. How could it be otherwise?

But MN has been such a crucial part of science for so long that I think it's reasonable to talk about it as a bedrock principle, or perhaps something science is rigorously attached to.

At 6:41 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

The supernatural remains logically possible, and thus an option for belief, only because it is not susceptible to confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of evidence. But this status is permanent--the metaphysical status of supernaturalism as at most a logical possibility will never change. To become more than a logical possibility, supernaturalism must be confirmed with unequivocal empirical evidence, and such confirmation would only demonstrate that this newly verified aspect of reality had all along never been supernatural at all, but rather a natural phenomenon which just awaited an appropriate scientific test. – Barbara Forrest

At 7:20 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...


I accept that the Judge could have meant what you say. However, given the ambiguity, it was reasonable for Nelson to raise the point he did.

Moreover, given your interpretation, it is irrational to give MN as a reason for considering ID to be unscientific. This was my point 2 above. Since you appear not to have appreciated it, let me make the point again more clearly.

According to your interpretation (as I understand it), compelling empirical evidence of a supernatural phenomenon could (in principle) be found and that would lead to the overturning of MN as a requirement of science. Imagine (for the sake of argument) that ID advocates actually have found such evidence. Then MN has been overturned (whether the majority of scientists yet recognise it or not) and ID is now a scientific inference.

If you disagree on the grounds that (in this hypothetical situation) the majority of scientists have not yet recognised the compelling evidence, then MN is not an additional reason for rejecting ID over and above the argument that there is no compelling evidence for ID. It is the same reason. And it would be a lot clearer to simply say "we reject ID because there is no compelling evidence for it".

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...


Thank you for that quotation from Barbara Forrest, which shows that not all supporters of MN interpret it the same way as Jason.

If you define "supernatural" the way that Barbara Forrest does (as that which cannot be confirmed by science), then MN is not a convention following from scientific experience. Indeed, MN is then not a principle at all. It is a tautology: science cannot confirm that which cannot be confirmed by science.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Jason said...


MN is a convention among scientists, it is not a conclusion drawn from evidence. Consequently, it makes no sense, in your hypothetical situation, to say that on the one hand MN has been overturned, but on the other hand most scientists have not realized that yet.

Furthermore, the question of whether ID arguments have merit is separate from the question of whether ID proponents act within the confines of normal scientific practice. So the finding that ID violates MN does, indeed, provide a reason over and above the emptiness of their arguments for finding that ID is unscientific.

We could also ask whether MN is a sensible convention for scientists to adhere to. I believe that it is. I note that in several centuries of scientific investigation it has never once happened that invoking a supernatural entity has furthered our understanding of the natural world. Nonetheless, I accept, as a logical possibiliy, that something could happen in the future that may incline me towards rejecting MN as a sensible basis for scientific research.

Based on the quote liberpaul provided, I don't agree with Barbra Forrest. I think we could have an example of a phenomenon that would so defy natural explanations that we would have to conclude the supernatural is real. I'm sure Dr. Forrest would agree with that.

Let us suppose that someday we have strong evidence that God exists. Then we would have to amend every finidng of science to say, “Law X always holds, unless God, by an act of his will, chooses to violate it.” But God has not become part of the natural world as a result of this finding, however.

Even then there could be a question as to whether the inference to the supernatural, while perfectly reasonable given the right circumstances, would nonetheless be unscientific. That's a difficult question.

But this is all academic. As I said in my opening post, I think everyone should reject ID because its arguments are not correct. In a legal context, however, that is not sufficient. There is nothing unconstitutional about teaching bad science. It is teachng religion that is unconstitutional, and part of showing that ID is really just religion is showing that it is not science. And, according to the relevant legal precedents, making that determination requires the Judge to consider the conventions of current scientific practice. One of those conventions is MN. Like it or not.

I think your (and Nelson's) argument is not really with the Judge, who found in the only way he could given the evidence he saw, but rather with the idea of whether MN is a sensible convention or not.

This will be my last comment in this thread. That should not be interpreted as lack of interest; I will be happy to read any reply you care to write to this comment. But there are only so many hours in a day, and my pile of bloggable items is growing at an alarming rate.


I finally got around to following the link you provided. Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be to argue with people like Mr. Price. He doesn't have the faintest idea what he is talking about, and he tries to obscure that fact behind a cloud of ill-reasoned invective towards scientists. Very typical.

At 3:21 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

Jason, I too will stop here, simply adding that I feel you still haven't addressed my argument.

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