No scientific theory with intelligent design

Friday, May 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:00 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

There continues to be debate about whether both evolution theory and intelligent design theory are science. More discussion about the scientific method might be helpful to your readers.

The foundation of science, the scientific method, starts with a statement that predicts an outcome called a hypothesis. For example, evolutionary theory might posit: “Changes in organisms result from an evolutionary process.” Intelligent design theory might posit: “Differences among organisms result from intelligent design.”

These hypotheses are tested using data that can be measured and obtained by one of the following methods: 1) conducting an experiment, or 2) observing new, naturally occurring data. This second method is often ignored in statistics textbooks, but we could not address theories about the galaxies, geological formations, ancient civilizations and evolutionary or creationist events without this part of the scientific method. Each method requires the collection of data with clear descriptions of the methodology, so that others can duplicate the research.

If the data support the hypothesis, then the research is accepted as supporting the underlying theory. If not, doubt is cast on the theory. A key point is that the data must have the potential for either being consistent or inconsistent with the scientific hypothesis.

We know many discoveries have been made that are consistent with the theory of evolution. It is possible that data could be found that would be inconsistent with the theory of evolution, and doubt would be cast on that theory. Although theory of intelligent design researchers have presented data they believe is consistent with their theory, they have not described what discoveries or data might cast doubt on their theory.

Thus, evolutionary theory is a matter of science. But until intelligent design theory uses the scientific method instead of simply attacking evolutionary theory, it is not a matter of science.

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Jeanne Sebaugh May 11, 2007 | 4:13 p.m.

A more accurate headline would have been "No scientific method with intelligent design." Intelligent design proponents do have a theory and a hypothesis. They just do not provide evidence for the theory using the scientific method.

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Bjorn Ostman May 12, 2007 | 1:20 a.m.

Thanks for a splendid, concise article. I completely agree. However, as we all know, ID'ers really are creationists, and believe in the creation myth and other fun stories from the Bible. They cannot afford to be wrong, because it will conflict with their faith, so expecting them to present falsifiable hypotheses is somewhat naive. I suggest instead of merely defending evolutionary theory, we move the debate to argue that any literal interpretation of biblical accounts conflicting with science must be wrong. As Dawkins says, there should be no particular reason why religious dogma cannot be confronted.

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Paul Burnett May 13, 2007 | 9:24 a.m.

Ms Sebaugh comments "There continues to be debate about whether both evolution theory and intelligent design theory are science." She's right, but unfortunately that "debate" isn't primarily in the scientific community - it's in the religious community. (The debate in the scientific community is more along the lines of "What? Again? How much longer do we have to put up with this idiocy?")

Following the Dover debacle, where "Intelligent Design" was found to be creationism all over again, the narrow slice of the religious community that wants to destroy (or dumb down - take your pick) science is debating how to try next time, by claiming discrimination against creationism, or invoking fair play - as if the two "theories" are equals.

Responsible people who don't want to see science "expanded" to include supernatural causation must become more involved and engaged to speak out against the new creationists, as Ms Sebaugh has done. Thanks, Jeanne.

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Joseph Fischer May 14, 2007 | 11:16 a.m.

Perhaps Bjorn Ostman doesn't realize that atheists also cannot afford to be wrong about evolution. There are many believers who are fine with the theory of evolution, since God could have created by using evolutionary processes. But atheists face big problems if it turns out evolution is false.

Jeanne Sebaugh's article is well written and concise. Some definitions of scientific method are not as complete as hers and neglect to mention that some fields of science, such as cosmology and archeology, cannot be subjected to experiments.

Her example of an evolutionary hypothesis is "Changes in organisms result from an evolutionary process." However, the scientific evidence from the fossil record overwhelmingly shows that organisms suddenly appear fully formed, exist for millions of years virtually identical to their ancestors and then go extinct.

Much of current evolutionary writing seems to be concerned with coming up with explanations for facts that are hard to fit into an evolutionary model. (To pick just one hot topic, why didn't homosexuality die out millions of years ago?)

Intelligent Design could be falsified if a complete list of each step by step DNA mutation could be made to show how a complex biological structure arose. Each change would need to be favored by Natural Selection, or at least not be so much of a liability that it would inhibit reproduction. Current evolutionary explanations leave out these details.

DNA research is transforming biology. So in the next decade the Evolution versus Intelligent Design question may be settled by facts, rather than by name calling.

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Bjorn Ostman May 15, 2007 | 10:41 a.m.

Joseph, atheism does not need evolution. As you imply yourself, evolution is not an atheistic theory, which is why religious people can believe in it too. If we find vertebrate fossils in the Cambrian, I will still not believe in any supernatural being, and I will not cease to trust in the scientific method.

Cosmology, archeology, and other historical sciences can be subjected to natural experiments. As when general relativity predicted that black holes would exist, or when the cosmic microwave background radiation was predicted, just prior to being discovered by Penzias and Wilson.

As for the appearance of stasis in the fossil record, this fits very well with evolutionary theory. Taking Darwin’s gradualism at face value, it indeed was a good question why stasis in the fossil record was observed, and evolutionary theory today is so much more because of it. And it is still changing (just as physics is, for instance, but that apparently does not prompt Creationists to claim classical mechanics falsified), and we are about to see new advances, which will remove it even further from what is was when Darwin thought of natural selection, or when the synthesis was formed in the 1930’s.

Evolutionary theory faces challenges, as it should, or it would not be science. Intelligent Design does not, and is not a scientific theory. As for homosexuality, there could be a few good explanations (e.g. not heritable, not detrimental since homosexuals still can have children), but while we may not presently have a firm explanation, it certainly is a bad example of a ‘hot topic’ in evolutionary theory.

One of Behe’s famous examples of an irreducibly complex structure is blood clotting. This is been shown to have homologous structures elsewhere (and is thus not irreducibly complex), but that of course does not falsify the theory of Intelligent Design, because it does there may still be other such irreducibly complex structures. Intelligent Design cannot be falsified, when this is the only hypothesis the theory generates so far, and I would encourage its proponents to come up with some workable hypotheses.

Jeanne’s point can be rephrased to say that there is no “evolution vs. Intelligent Design”, because ID, while a theory of sorts, is not a scientific theory. If evolution were to be falsified, we will just be left with nothing, until someone comes up with a new scientific theory to explain the incongruence. Intelligent Design may indeed be forgotten within the next decade or so, as you say, but certainly not because more facts will support the theory of evolution. No amount of facts will change the minds of the proponents of Intelligent Design, because it is not a scientific theory, but a theory that Creationists believe in just because it fits well with the Bible.

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