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Unintelligent Designs

Posted on 2005.09.28 at 16:27
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Uncertainty is simply a part of life, hence it is a part of evolution and, at present, the theory of evolution. However, uncertainty is not something that should be overcome by whatever "sounds good" to one's ears or conceits, and scientists -- as a whole representative of the tenets of scientific study -- abhor the demonstrably unscientific plugging of apparent holes via untestable means. So-called "Intelligent Design" is untestable. Just short of finding serial numbers etched on genes or cosmic designer comments written in the stars, there is no way to prove or disprove the claims of ID advocates. This makes ID unscientific (at best).

That so many Americans want ID taught to kids in school right along with the theory of evolution is neither here nor there, so far as I'm concerned. Americans are poorly educated in the sciences. As noted in the article linked to, "One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century". Americans, like people all over the world, believe in a lot of things that aren't necessarily so. Heck, I've a relatively well-educated friend who believes that people have never been to the moon. One must never underestimate human stupidity or forget the laws that govern it.

Thing is, science classes cannot, and ought not be made to, abide accommodating that which is unscientific. The occasional attempts to force them to is indicative of a certain long-standing tendency in America -- perhaps in humanity itself -- to reject what it doesn't understand in favor of what comforts it. But we nonetheless owe it to ourselves and our children to do better than muddle the issues. If it belongs anywhere, ID belongs in philosophy classes. Better, it belongs in comparative religion classes.

But that is affording ID a stature it does not really deserve, at least at present, because ID is a politico-religious tool dreamed up as a palatable, seemingly plausible alternative to creationism; it is still creationism. ID sounds reasonable on the surface and, it's proponents say that, after all, they are merely asking that science classes "teach both sides" or "teach the controversy". But IDers are motivated by goals that are not innocent and not innocuous.

For a timely example, note the recent lawsuit brought against the school board of Dover, PA, who are attempting to put ID in the school curriculum. Despite board members' claims that they are not motivated by any religious concern, they are in fact being "represented by nonprofit Christian law firm". Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the board's own documents show that its members "had initially discussed teaching 'creationism'".

Fortunately, scientific study yields real results, and the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, which is already strong, has recently gotten even stronger:
Using a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory, [scientists] should be able to predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species' DNA and the two animals' population sizes.

"That's a very specific prediction," said Eric Lander, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader in the chimp project.

Sure enough, when Lander and his colleagues tallied the harmful mutations in the chimp genome, the number fit perfectly into the range that evolutionary theory had predicted.

Their analysis was just the latest of many in such disparate fields as genetics, biochemistry, geology and paleontology that in recent years have added new credence to the central tenet of evolutionary theory: That a smidgeon of cells 3.5 billion years ago could -- through mechanisms no more extraordinary than random mutation and natural selection -- give rise to the astonishing tapestry of biological diversity that today thrives on Earth.

But all of the above is to some extent academic and is not germane to the quintessence of the issue. At its heart, the IDers'/creationists' motivation is their fear that the theory of evolution somehow would refute or disprove the existence of "God", which is patently ridiculous. I believe I've said this before, but it bears saying again: Science proves or disproves the statements of (scientific) theories, no more and no less; science does not attempt to prove or disprove that which is unfalsifiable (untestable), because such things are not in its purview, not part of its domain. You cannot prove or disprove the color blue using math. You cannot prove or disprove the meaning of a poem with statistics. Furthermore, IDers'/creationists' efforts back an amazingly simplistic picture -- I would go so far as to call it a childish picture -- of the universe, of the world, of life.

Religious beliefs can and do motivate scientists, as such beliefs motivate politicians. There is not necessarily a problem with that. The problem necessarily arises when religion is mixed with the practice of science and/or politics in a limiting and restrictive manner designed to quash dissent or uncomfortable questions.

Thanks to Leiter Reports.

More here, courtesy of Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau.

And even more here, courtey of The Revealer.

Death Cab For Cutie, "Different Names for the Same Thing"


Brian Martinez
cluebyfour at 2005-09-29 05:11 (UTC) (Permalink)
Excellent piece, mind if I link it?

I'm still trying to grasp the idea that fully one-fifth of adult Americans still think Ptolemy was right. I just don't see how it's possible that anyone born in the last century could think that way--it's like not knowing how to use a telephone.

As for your friend and the moon landings, I know several otherwise sane and intelligent folks who nonetheless dabble in conspiracies, of which "the government faked the moon landings" is but one of them. That to me, at least, doesn't indicate profound ignorance--just a bit of paranoia. ;-)
my_moleskine at 2005-09-29 05:26 (UTC) (Permalink)
"Excellent piece, mind if I link it?"

Thank you much, and be my guest. :-)

I am constantly stunned by the things my co-workers believe or think they know or admit to having no idea about. What the hell do they teach people in school nowadays -- anything... anything at all?

Btw, it's not so much that said friend thinks the moon landing was faked, it's the fact that this assertion is based on "the flag waving on the moon" -- an observation so easily dealt with by even a cursory look at the facts that one wonders if it is just easier to believe the conspiracy for some folks.
(Deleted comment)
my_moleskine at 2005-09-29 13:58 (UTC) (Permalink)
Yes... What bothers me, though, is in my experience -- they'd eat the sandwich with a frightful, grim determination, say it was ham, and possibly then attempt to make you eat it, too. In the end, no-one can change the minds of those possessed by conviction.

I tthink that all we can hope is to convince those in authority (if it's not us) to protect science (and general education) from the nutty fundies and their ill-bred ilk... and from the ignorance of the general public, exacerbated by the aforementioned whack jobs.
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