Thursday, October 14, 2010

Philosophers, Science, and Creationism

Investigating the boundary between science and religion

Richard Johns is a Sessional Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He came to my attention because he just posted a note on Uncommon Descent where he points us to a paper he recently published. Here's the link to his posting: The Limits of Self Organization.

You know as well as I do that anyone posting on that blog is a creationist, specifically an Intelligent Design Creationist. Thus, it won't surprise you to read that his work supports that version of creationism even if the paper itself doesn't mention Intelligent Design Creationism. (Where have we heard that before?)
I’m writing to tell people about a paper of mine that was published in Synthese last month, titled: "Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result". While the paper doesn’t address intelligent design as such, it indirectly establishes strict limits to what such evolutionary mechanisms as natural selection can accomplish. In particular, it shows that physical laws, operating on an initially random arrangement of matter, cannot produce complex objects with any reasonable chance in any reasonable time.
Synthese is "An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science." It is not a science journal. Please keep that in mind. Here's a link to Richard Johns' article published online last month [Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result]. Most of you won't be able to see that article so he kindly provided a link to Pre-published version.

The abstract makes you sit up and take notice.
Abstract
There is presently considerable interest in the phenomenon of “self-organisation” in dynamical systems. The rough idea of self-organisation is that a structure appears “by itself” in a dynamical system, with reasonably high probability, in a reasonably short time, with no help from a special initial state, or interaction with an external system. What is often missed, however, is that the standard evolutionary account of the origin of multi-cellular life fits this definition, so that higher living organisms are also products of self-organisation. Very few kinds of object can self-organise, and the question of what such objects are like is a suitable mathematical problem. Extending the familiar notion of algorithmic complexity into the context of dynamical systems, we obtain a notion of “dynamical complexity”. A simple theorem then shows that only objects of very low dynamical complexity can self organise, so that living organisms must be of low dynamical complexity. On the other hand, symmetry considerations suggest that living organisms are highly complex, relative to the dynamical laws, due to their large size and high degree of irregularity. In particular, it is shown that since dynamical laws operate locally, and do not vary across space and time, they cannot produce any specific large and irregular structure with high probability in a short time. These arguments suggest that standard evolutionary theories of the origin of higher organisms are incomplete.
All the code words are there. There's no way the editors of Synthese could be unaware of the implications of this work. It purports to be evidence of the existence of God. We can safely conclude that the discipline of philosophy has admitted the possibility that science could prove the existence of God.

(Don't bother reading the paper. It's one of those complicated lines of argument involving lots of mathematical equations. There probably aren't more than a few dozen people in the entire world who can understand the paper and offer objective criticism. I don't know if any of them reviewed the paper—I suspect not, but what do I know?)

Richard Johns concludes that current evolutionary theory is incomplete.
I have argued that there is an important limitation on the kinds of object that can appear spontaneously in a dynamical system. Such systems, with laws that operate locally and invariantly across space and time, are able to control only the local structure of the state. The state as a whole is therefore uncontrolled, except insofar as it is constrained by the local structure. This led us to the Limitative Theorem, which says that an irregular object, i.e. one that is largely undetermined by its local structure, cannot easily be produced in a dynamical system. Indeed, it was shown that its production is no easier than the appearance of an object of very similar size in a purely random system.

This result, while relevant to biology, does not of course contradict the theory of evolution in its most general form, i.e. that life evolved through a process of descent with modification. This is just as well, since the historical process of phylogeny is very well supported by the evidence. Nevertheless, the Limitative Theorem does suggest that the currently recognised processes driving evolutionary change are incomplete.
Doesn't this create some problems concerning the border between science and philosophy? You betcha, and Richard Johns is fully aware of the implications. Here's what he wrote on his blog [Why should self-organisation be limited?].
My theorem is also pure doom and gloom. Let's be honest: It offers no positive suggestion at all.

Can such negative claims be part of science? It is often said that a scientist must propose hypotheses that are empirically testable. That's not really true, however. While that's a big part of science, a lot of good scientific work is indeed negative. Much useful work is done by experimentalists who show that, while hypothesis H might predict empirical result E, E doesn't actually occur. Also, while most theorists are busily showing that H predicts E, other theorists very helpfully point out that H doesn't really predict E at all, even though we thought it did. A really negative scientist might even show that no hypothesis of a certain type will ever predict E.

I'm afraid I'm one of those really negative scientists. I've shown that no hypothesis in a very broad class predicts the existence of complex living organisms. More precisely, life cannot self organise in any dynamical system whose laws are local and invariant under spatial translation.
This is a very important point. Is it scientific to show that something cannot happen? I think it is.

Let's take a simple case like group selection. George Williams made a name for himself back in the 1960s by presumably showing that group selection could not occur by any known mechanism of evolution. Nobody, as far as I know, suggested that he wasn't being scientific. Lamarckian evolution is anther example. Although it's theoretically possible to pass on acquired characteristics, we discount that possibility because we can show that the connection between phenotypic changes and altering the genome rules out Lamarckian inheritance as a general mechanism of evolution.

If showing that something is theoretically impossible is valid science in some cases then why do we declare that attempts to do the same thing by Intelligent Design Creationists are automatically ruled non-scientific?

Richard Johns faces a special problem because he seems to have bought into methodological naturalism as a limitation on science. Again, from his blog ...
At this point a worrying possibility emerges. This no-go theorem is so broad that it rules out just about any naturalistic theory of the origin of life! It certainly seems to rule out all the naturalistic theories presently proposed. Yet, the whole business of science is to provide natural explanations for phenomena, so this result is unscientific after all. (Even if it is technically correct, take note.)

Well, this is an awkward business! What are we to do?
Indeed. What is he to do? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Johns has made a reasonable case for his argument. Let's assume that there may be ways of showing that life is impossible under the known laws of chemistry and physics. Is that science? Does it fit into the restriction of methodological naturalism?

I think the answer to the first question is "yes." It may be bad science, it may even be really bad science, but it's still science to investigate whether completely naturalistic explanations can account for life as we know it.

Let's not pretend to be naive. If there's no naturalistic explanation then there has to be some other kind of explanation.
So I think we have to broaden our horizons, and be open to new kinds of explanation. Perhaps it won't be that bad? And we have no other choice, if we want our explanations to be true.
We know what that means. By ruling out naturalistic causes, we are forced to consider supernatural causes. Is that what makes Richard Johns' work unscientific but not that of George Williams and many other theoreticians of biology? 'Cause if that's what methodological naturalism is all about then it's an ass.

I think everything is fair game for science. Our goal is not to develop rigid rules that make us feel good by ruling our opponents out of bounds just because we don't like their conclusions. Our goal should be to show that they are wrong.

I fully expect that people like Wesley Elsbery and Jeffrey Shallit and will show us why Richard Johns is wrong, just as they did for similar arguments by Bill Dembski. As they do that, Elsbery and Shallit will be practicing science as a way of discovering truth. It would make no sense to declare that Richard Johns has stepped outside the realm of science but Elsbery and Shallit remain inside its boundaries.

The Intelligent Design Creationist attacks on evolution are wrong because they are bad science, not because they are not science.


52 comments :

  1. Lamarck's mistaken ideas could be tested empirically, so they were bad science. Johns seems to assert that no relevant empirical test of his idea can ever be devised, which I think places him firmly beyond the scientific pale.

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  2. The paper does not apply to biological evolution at all. It rests on the assumption that the system is uniform and closed, and does not depend on a "fine tuned" initial condition.

    This is *NOT* the case with biological evolution. The system is either not closed to external energy inputs, or, if you include the external energy input (including the sun), very non-uniform and out of thermal equilibrium, with very particular characteristics to its initial conditions.

    This is just version #23,985 of the 100+ year old slander of the 2nd Law by evolution deniers....

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  3. I downloaded that preprint yesterday. I have not yet had time to finish reading it.

    My initial impression is that he is basing his argument on a rather simplistic idea of what self-organization is. But then I never did think that Chaitin's algorithmic information has any applicability to either biology or AI.

    As for Synthese, it is a philosophy journal. I suppose that alleged proofs of the existence of God are still considered part of philosophy, so I would hesitate to criticize the editorial process.

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  4. Yeah FWIW it's not true to say there are only a few people in the world who could understand/review that paper. It's basically just the dumb old creationist probability-of-all-at-once assembly argument, only slightly gussied up.

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  5. Ok, I read the paper. It seems to me to be making rather a lot out of what is a fundamentally rather trivial result.

    The conclusions he draws seem to rest on the assumption that the simplest possible self-replicator would require half a million base pairs. Or did I read that wrong?

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  6. Extending the familiar notion of algorithmic complexity into the context of dynamical systems, we obtain a notion of “dynamical complexity”.

    Ooh, ooh, an exciting new buzz phrase!

    A simple theorem then shows that only objects of very low dynamical complexity can self organise, so that living organisms must be of low dynamical complexity.

    I agree with NickM that this sounds like the old "modern cars are very complex, therefore cavemen couldn't have invented the wheelbarrow" argument.

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  7. NickM says,

    It's basically just the dumb old creationist probability-of-all-at-once assembly argument, only slightly gussied up.

    Is it science?

    Are you being scientific when you make that statement or have you gone over to the dark side of philosophical naturalism?

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  8. Although it's theoretically possible to pass on acquired characteristics, we discount that possibility because we can show that the connection between phenotypic changes and altering the genome rules out Lamarckian inheritance as a general mechanism of evolution.

    ...

    If there's no naturalistic explanation then there has to be some other kind of explanation. ... By ruling out naturalistic causes, we are forced to consider supernatural causes. Is that what makes Richard Johns' work unscientific but not that of George Williams and many other theoreticians of biology? 'Cause if that's what methodological naturalism is all about then it's an ass.

    You analogy fails. In considering Lamarckian inheritance, we have a well tested mechanism where altering the genome results in phenotypic changes and the proposed Lamarckian mechanism has been shown by good testing methods not to result in alterations of the genome. So we can say with high confidence that, if we are right about how phenotypic changes occur, they don't occur in Lamarckian ways. In short, Lamarckianism is ruled out by what we know.

    But in the second case, you're saying that simply not knowing any naturalistic causes is grounds enough to conclude there are none (i.e. pure ignorance is sufficient to make a scientific conclusion).

    In order for the analogies to be remotely the same there would have to be some "evidence" that altering the genome does not result in phenotypic changes and we adopt Lamarkianism because ... well ... we like it better than the genome explanation because it's friendlier to our religion.

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  9. Is that a photo of Richard Johns? It look a lot like John Beatty (also in the UBC philosophy Dept.).

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  10. Is it science?

    Actually, the bulk of the article is not science; it is mathematics. The authors may have tried to apply their findings to a scientific endeavor, but that does not means that the findings are "science".

    Are you being scientific when you make that statement or have you gone over to the dark side of philosophical naturalism?

    Since the argument proceeds mathematical from logic and proof rather than empirical falsification, its acceptance or rejection does not necessarily entail an acceptance of rejection of naturalism (be it philosophical or methodological).

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  11. Larry, to answer your question to Nick (only on my own behalf, of course), I'm going to go out on a limb and say, no, it's not science. If the paper made a serious attempt to demonstrate that the logic applied to biological systems for real, and considered possible objections, without basically ignoring one of the most common rebuttals of the classic second law objection, it might have a chance. I find it difficult to take this paper seriously in its current state.

    By analogy, there continue to be people objecting to special relativity on various grounds, basically ignoring 100 years of debate, experiment, and evidence. 100 years ago, those people might have had a place at the table. Today, in light of all that history, that place is harder to earn. Likewise with evolution deniers.

    I suppose my opinion in influenced by the fact that I see nothing new here - it really does look to me like the ancient 2nd Law canard we are so familiar with.

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  12. Quoth Larry:

    1. "The Intelligent Design Creationist attacks on evolution are wrong because they are bad science, not because they are not science."


    2. "It's basically just the dumb old creationist probability-of-all-at-once assembly argument, only slightly gussied up.

    Is it science?

    Are you being scientific when you make that statement or have you gone over to the dark side of philosophical naturalism?"

    Some people -- those who dislike demarcation arguments and methodological naturalism, typically (and, often, philosophical naturalists or creationists) -- prefer to say that *everything* is science, just that there is good science and bad science. They tend to think that the good science/bad science way of framing things is obviously good and right and reminds them of cute puppies, and the science/nonscience distinction is obviously false and a horrible intellectual scandal an makes little puppies sad.

    But I just don't see that this is a distinction that makes much difference. We can define science to include bigfoot and astrology and ID if we like, and just say it's bad science, but then all the same things that we mean when we say "that's pseudoscience/religion/quackery" will just be transferred over to what we mean when we say "that's bad science". Science classes will be supposed to teach "good science, not bad science", government policy will be supposed to rely upon "good science, not bad science", etc.

    Big whoop. We could revise everyone's language to work this way, I suppose, but what's the point? All that would happen would be somewhat less clarity about what is meant when scientists talk about "science" -- unless, I suppose, we relabeled Science Magazine "Good Science Magazine" and renamed the National Science Foundation the "National Good Science Foundation".

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  13. And while we're discussing definitions, I see absolutely no barrier to saying that ideas that are dumb/unsupported/wrong (=flagrantly poor approximations outside their domain, let's not have hairsplitting about how e.g. Newton is "wrong" here) are "bad science" when they are first proposed, but they become nonscience or pseudoscience when they are determinedly maintained, e.g. for political or religious reasons, despite clear refutation.

    This captures the idea that an important part of science is about correcting and improving our models of the world, which is surely an important part of what science is, and an important thing that is wrong with both religious and nonreligious pseudoscience.

    (I find it totally bizarre that, somewhere or other, the idea of "falsifiability"/"testability" became so popular as a definition of what ideas count as science, that people often seem to forget that the *whole point* of testing ideas is *rejecting* them when they are wrong/poor approximations/unsupported! How did that happen???

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  14. "=flagrantly poor approximations outside their domain"

    ...I meant, "=flagrantly poor approximations inside their domain"...

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  15. "Let's not pretend to be naive. If there's no naturalistic explanation then there has to be some other kind of explanation."
    But the problem is no matter what you cannot rule out a potential naturalistic explanation.

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  16. NickM says,

    But I just don't see that this is a distinction that makes much difference. We can define science to include bigfoot and astrology and ID if we like, and just say it's bad science, but then all the same things that we mean when we say "that's pseudoscience/religion/quackery" will just be transferred over to what we mean when we say "that's bad science". Science classes will be supposed to teach "good science, not bad science", government policy will be supposed to rely upon "good science, not bad science", etc.

    Big whoop. We could revise everyone's language to work this way, I suppose, but what's the point? All that would happen would be somewhat less clarity about what is meant when scientists talk about "science"


    The "point" might be more clarity not less clarity. It might be truth as opposed to untruth. I think this is important.

    This distinction becomes significant in several contexts. If it's true that most of the intelligent design attacks on evolution are examples of (bad) science then is there still a constitutional argument against keeping them out of American schools? And if you admit that there's "no point" to that kind of nitpicking then would you be prepared to say that in court? I don't think your side was prepared to say that in 2005. In fact, you tried very hard to convince Judge Jones that there was only one way to define science. That's a "big whoop" as far as I'm concerned.

    Have you changed your mind?

    Furthermore, if you're willing to give up the rigid distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism then are you also willing to say that the scientific views touted by Francis Collins are inconsistent with good science?

    Think carefully because that would mean that theistic evolution might be an example of bad science rather than totally outside of science as you would have preferred to say in the past.

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  17. Rosie asks,

    Is that a photo of Richard Johns?

    Thanks Rosie. I wasn't sure because the subject wasn't identified clearly. I've removed it based on your comment.

    Sure was a cute photo though.

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  18. "Anonymous" a.k.a. DM,

    On this blog, you have ID'd yourself as being from Montreal. Now you are walking that fine line of uttering death threats (illegal in Canada).

    Are you sure you want to continue on this course?

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  19. "with no help from an initial state"

    Don't the properties of the various elements/atoms involved in organic compounds constitute help from an initial state?

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  20. Larry writes: If it's true that most of the intelligent design attacks on evolution are examples of (bad) science then is there still a constitutional argument against keeping them out of American schools?

    The philosophical question is one item bearing on the ultimate issue, so plaintiffs in Kitzmiller were right in putting on expert witnesses whose opinions on the question were favorable to their positions on that ultimate issue. Fortunately good law, as with good science, considers all relevant evidence bearing on an issue.

    The motivation behind the "attacks on evolution" was an important part of the evidence in Kitzmiller, and is an explicit part of the test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court for these types of issues.

    Thus when the term "cdesign proponentsists" and other indications of frankly Biblical-creationist background appeared in the IDiots' proffered textbook, or when witnesses for the defendant school board were caught lying under oath about collecting money in their churches to buy these texts, it was correctly assessed as relevant to the issue of whether defendants were seeking to bring religious instruction into state-mandated, state-funded education.

    Until the day when those who want ID taught in U.S. classrooms lack religious motivation, the philosophical point of whether ID is bad science or not-science won't be determinative.

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  21. I wrote: Until the day when those who want ID taught in U.S. classrooms lack religious motivation, the philosophical point of whether ID is bad science or not-science won't be determinative.

    This engenders some further thoughts about ID and the science vs. not-science issue.

    ID reminds me in a way of Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. No matter how much science-y stuff goes before, at the end there is always the very loud implication, booming away despite all ID attempts to hide or deny it, "Therefore God!"

    ISTM that makes a good dividing line between bad science and not-science. The bowdlerized Second Law or information theory criticisms are bad science (shading in the case of some of the Second Law stuff into crackpottery). The unwarranted, unevidenced leap to the "Therefore God!" conclusion is not-science, analogous to the unwarranted, unevidenced leap to the-universe-as-observed-from-Earth-today-explains-all of astrology.

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  22. Re John, Jud:

    "Therefore god" is of course the problem, no doubt, especially because you can ask "what is a god?", and "how do you know it?"

    However! If we were living in a universe where all evidence pointed to nothing having existed before 4004 BCE, to all life forms apparently having poofed into existence fully formed in that year, there was no starlight visible beyond 6014 light years, etc., etc., what options would you have as a scientist?

    Again, without additional evidence for any specifics, "goddidit" is out, yes. You could argue that very strictly, a scientist would have to hunt for a natural* explanation until the end of days, and say "I don't know" until then, but let us be honest: how could there ever be one? Is it then not possible to accept creation by an unspecified agency from outside our field of vision not as a proven truth, but, as always in science anyway, as a possible tentative explanation until we come up with something better? What is so unscientific about such a carefully phrased theory, in that specific situation?

    In my eyes, the point is really that it is bad science. In all actuality, the evidence points elsewhere, and intelligent design creationism is a failed model that was obsolete in 1859 at the latest. But if I tried to be a scientist in the middle ages, with the data available then? Then, it was an inference to the best explanation that we can come up with for the moment - not more, not less. Another problem is, of course, that actual ID creationists, not actually being scientists, only pretend to leave the creating agency unspecified, presuming it could only have been the Abrahamic god, instead of equally plausible other gods or super-advanced aliens, but that just as an aside.

    *) I am still at a loss to understand what supernatural is supposed to be, by the way. If gods existed, I would simply consider them to be part of nature, and would obviously try to study their motivations and behaviour scientifically. The opposite of nature is not supernature, but culture.

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  23. From the introduction of the paper (or, at least, page 2):

    the easiest way to make the notion of SO [self-organisation] precise is to exclude other possible causes of the
    structure, as follows:
    1. The appearance of the object does not require a special, “fine-tuned” initial state.
    2. There is no need for interaction with an external system.
    3. The object is likely to appear in a reasonably short time.


    I fail to see the relevance to evolution or abiogenesis - which occur under limited conditions (maybe not a "finely tuned state", but earth-like life isn't going to form in the sun), with extensive and continual interactions with the outside world (selection and all that) and which occurs over long time frames (millions-billions of years).

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  24. Jud says,

    The motivation behind the "attacks on evolution" was an important part of the evidence in Kitzmiller, and is an explicit part of the test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court for these types of issues.

    Thus when the term "cdesign proponentsists" and other indications of frankly Biblical-creationist background appeared in the IDiots' proffered textbook, or when witnesses for the defendant school board were caught lying under oath about collecting money in their churches to buy these texts, it was correctly assessed as relevant to the issue of whether defendants were seeking to bring religious instruction into state-mandated, state-funded education.


    I'm not an expert on American constitutional law but from a purely logical perspective that approach seem fraught with danger.

    What you're saying is that motives trump science. Let me give you an example.

    I think students need to learn about punctuated equilibria. Yes, they challenge the traditional gradualism of evolution but I think that's a controversy worth teaching. It's true that a deep appreciation of punctuated equilibria raises doubts about the power of natural selection and whether macroevolution is really nothing more that lots and lots of microevolution, but thems the breaks.

    I'm an atheist. That's means that I probably don't have any motive other than teaching good science. Thus, teaching punctuated equilibria and the "dirty little secret" of paleontology should be allowed in schools.

    The Intelligent Design Creationists also want to teach this stuff in school. Their motives are different than mine. Does that mean that the American Constitution bans the teaching of punctuated equilibrium because some religious people think it lends support to their beliefs?

    You mustn't go down that slippery slope.

    Here's another example. I think that all available scientific evidence indicates that the universe has no purpose and humans are in no way special creatures. All available scientific evidence shows that there's no such thing as a "soul" and no life after death. Should I be allowed to teach that in public schools? I think I should because it's good science.

    Can those conclusions be attributed to an atheist motive and therefore excluded by law?

    Courts have no business deciding which parts of the curriculum are good and which ones are bad examples in a given subject. This applies across the board from music, to history, to physics. And courts should certainly not be basing their decision on guessing ulterior motives.

    This hands-off approach by the judicial system works in all other Western industrialized nations.

    Until the day when those who want ID taught in U.S. classrooms lack religious motivation, the philosophical point of whether ID is bad science or not-science won't be determinative.

    BTW, I want ID to be brought up in American classrooms because it's an excellent way to teach critical thinking and the meaning of science. It's also far better to deal with the controversy in school instead of pretending it doesn't exist and leaving students ill-prepared to deal with the attack on science. I lack religious motivation. The day you fear has arrived.

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  25. Larry writes: What you're saying is that motives trump science.

    My explanation was likely bad enough to make you think so, but no, that's not what I was trying to say.

    I'm not saying there's some sort of dichotomy between motives and science. I'm saying the motives of those who wish a certain science topic to be taught in a certain way are relevant to assessing whether what they're promoting is teaching of science or advocacy of a particular religious position.

    Let's look at your last example: "I want ID to be brought up in American classrooms because it's an excellent way to teach critical thinking and the meaning of science." I agree, just as I'd agree state-funded schools could well have as part of the mandated curriculum courses on, e.g., the historicity of various sacred texts.

    Contrast this to the actual proposed instructional material in Kitzmiller, the execrable Of Pandas and People. Where you (and I) would be quite happy using the text in class as a subject for critical thinking, the school board in Kitzmiller proposed to teach that the text was simply correct. This seems to me as different as teaching Galileo's conflict with the Church as an example of actual evidence trumping arguments from authority on one hand, vs. as an example of heresy from the Bible-revealed "truth" of geocentrism on the other.

    If you could find me a group of ID supporters who have strong religious motivations for wanting to see it taught, but would be quite happy to see its sloppy reasoning torn apart in the classroom as bad science, then I might grant your argument that motives should be irrelevant. In the real world, though, motives have a great deal to do both with what winds up being taught (and not taught - Of Pandas and People of course leaves out good scientific evidence in favor of evolution), and critically, how it is taught.

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  26. "If it's true that most of the intelligent design attacks on evolution are examples of (bad) science then is there still a constitutional argument against keeping them out of American schools?"

    Yes. The argument is basically the same. Our argument: "ID is religious for positive reasons XYZ (history deriving from creationism, IDer=God, etc. The Constitution bans government establishment of religion. The Defense's counterargument that ID has a secular purpose/effect, because ID is science and teaching science in science class is a legitimate overriding secular purpose/effect, fails, because ID is not science: its positive assertions are wildly untestable, and its negative assertions about how evolution is wrong are testable but have been proven false (because evolution is testable and has passed those tests (fossil record, etc.). Thus ID is wrong/untestable (depending on which part you are talking about) and thus not science, but pseudoscience, i.e. pretending at science."

    Our revised argument, if we took up your way of framing the definition of "science":

    "ID is religious for positive reasons XYZ (history deriving from creationism, IDer=God, etc. The Constitution bans government favoring of religion. The Defense's counterargument that ID has a secular purpose/effect, because ID is good science and teaching good science in science class is a legitimate overriding secular purpose/effect, fails, because ID is not good science: its positive assertions are wildly untestable, and its negative assertions about how evolution is wrong are testable but have been proven false (because evolution is testable and has passed those tests (fossil record, etc.). Thus ID is wrong/untestable (depending on which part you are talking about) and thus not good science, but bad science, i.e. pretending at good science."

    Same difference. Evolution wins in court again. Yay.

    (Like many commentators on Kitzmiller, Larry I think has missed that the heart of the constitutional issue was whether or not ID was religion; the assertion that ID is science was raised as secondary issue, as part of the Defense's response.)
    What is really going on here is that Larry wants to drag theistic evolution into science-land and bash it on that basis. That's fine, but is it really worth basically making the word "science" meaningless, and transferring everything we typically mean by "science" over to the words "good science"? I don't see the point.

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  27. On a completely different matter, your statement that "George Williams made a name for himself back in the 1960s by presumably showing that group selection could not occur by any known mechanism of evolution" is rather dubious.

    In Williams' own words:

    "The basis of Wynne-Edwards' [1962] work on group selection was that you can't have things that work for the good of the group unless you have selection at the level of groups...

    To most people's satisfaction, Wynne-Edwards has been proved wrong. Not that there's no selection at levels higher than the individual or the family, but simply that his particular formulation isn't likely to be a very strong force in evolution. It's now generally conceded that the phenomena he was explaining by this mode of thought are much better explained by other processes: by selection at lower levels, selection among individuals."

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  28. Regarding what should and shouldn't get into the schools: I used to be a teaching assistant in biology at a state university. Creationists would occasionally drop off their anti-evolution papers by the biology labs, hoping my students would pick up a copy and see that evolution was a fraud. My response was to copy the article in its entirety and hand it out to my students as an essay assignment: critique this; you already know enough to demolish it in maybe half a dozen different ways.

    I don't have any worries about running afoul of the Establishment Clause, because my motive for introducing the material (which clearly was designed for sectarian religious indoctrination) was to hone my students' critical thinking skills. (Also, spite.)

    It would be different to bring the exact same materials into a public curriculum, treating it as serious science. All the people who want to do that are motivated by the desire to establish a religion, and their motives are completely relevant.

    There's no equivalence between the atheist and religious positions here, because atheism isn't a religion. Saying "there is no empirical evidence for God" is a scientific assertion, not a religious one. (One might want to follow up with, "Religions don't need evidence," but the science teacher wouldn't necessarily be the expert on that topic.)

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  29. "There's no equivalence between the atheist and religious positions here, because atheism isn't a religion. Saying "there is no empirical evidence for God" is a scientific assertion, not a religious one."

    This is a side issue, but atheists try to pull this "we're not a religion" schtick all the time. It has a certain narrow validity, but culturally and, crucially, legally, it just doesn't wash. It's certainly a position *on* religion. It's certainly exactly the kind of thing that freedom of religion means is left to the individual, and which the government should keep out of.

    There is even explicit court precedent endorsing the idea that atheism is equivalent to a religion. You are free to disagree with the courts, of course, that's your right. But if you told some school board somewhere that atheism isn't a religion, so it's legal to teach it in public school science classes, it would basically be legal malpractice.

    Government religious neutrality protects all of us, it is dangerous to try to sneak one's favored position on religion past that barrier -- once the barrier is undermined, everyone is subject to the tyranny of the local majority. In what percentage of places do you think your favored position on religion would have the majority votes and dictate policy?

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  30. NickM says,

    I don't see the point.

    You do so.

    The reason you're resisting my definition of science is not because you don't see the point, it's because it creates problems for you on two fronts: (1) some ID arguments will become science, and (2) some arguments of theistic evolutionists become examples of bad science.

    I don't have a problem with you disagreeing about the definition as long as you don't continue to pretend that your definition (and that of Judge Jones) is the only possible definition of science.

    Agreed?

    Do you think the fine tuning argument advanced by Francis Collins is science or not?

    Do you think pointing out problems with the Cambrian explosion is science or not?

    Do you think teaching that Piltdown man was a fraud is science or not?

    Do you think teaching that Haeckel's diagrams were misleading is science or not?

    When Francis Collins says that God interrupted naturalistic evolution in order to give humans a soul, is that science?

    When Ken Miller suggests that God could guide evolution by tinkering at the quantum level so we can't detect it, is that science?

    Do you think refuting the concept of junk DNA is science or not?

    Do you think saying that life appears to have no purpose is science or not?

    Do you think the concept of irreducible complexity is science or not?

    If I teach students that the probability of multiple simultaneous mutations is so low that it can never happen, is that science?

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  31. Larry-

    Are you proposing that the US Constitution be amended?

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  32. Larry, you know my answers to all those questions.

    More important is just one question:

    Do you think if it's "science", on your very broad definition of science, which sweeps in astrology and bigfoot and all kinds of other junk, that automatically means it's totally OK and legit for the government to teach as good science in public schools? (Leave aside constitutional issues, I am just asking about whether or not this is good science education/good education policy?)

    Also, let's say there is a legitimate "problem" with some reigning scientific theory. Does this automatically mean it is OK, as a matter of good education and education policy, to give such a problem whatever degree of emphasis some school board/politican requires?

    (Whether or not the separation of church & state can be employed to block certain poor educational policies is a different question I am not discussing here.)

    I think only creationists and other loons endorse the above positions -- and you seem to, since you like being contrarian, but I don't think you really believe this. I'm pretty sure you don't give equal weight to every dissident view in biochemistry when you write your textbooks.

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  33. Nick: Fair enough, I made my point sloppily. Better me: there's no equivalence between the scientific position and the religious one.

    Teaching atheism in school would indeed be wrong. And it wouldn't be science instruction, either. Note I hypothetically told the students, "there is no empirical evidence for God" (a flat statement of scientific fact), not "there is no God." The former is permissible, I would think, the latter is not.

    Larry: I return to my original comment about Johns' ideas being untestable. When Ken Miller suggests that God could guide evolution by tinkering at the quantum level so we can't detect it, it's not science because Miller deliberately insists there's no possible empirical test that could falsify his assertion.

    Teaching that Piltdown man was a fraud IS science, because we discovered a naturalistic explanation (fraud) by empirical means. I.e., the assertion that Piltdown was a human fossil, was itself testable, and was falsified.

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  34. Larry, Anonymous and John Pieret

    Why do you rule out Lamarckian inheritance so fast?
    There are several examples of genome modification following Lamarck's model of evolution. Most of them are in bacteria and the most striking one is the CRISPR mechanism of bacteria defense against bacteriophages.
    In this model, bacteria specifically acquire pieces of invading phage DNA with the sole purpose of getting resistance against the invader.
    The CRISPR system is present in almost 50% of Bacteria and 90% of Archae genomes!
    There are other examples of Lamarckian or semi-Lamarckian inheritance, such as adaptive mutations and epigenetics.
    Science is indeed stranger than we think it is.

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  35. anonymous says,

    When Ken Miller suggests that God could guide evolution by tinkering at the quantum level so we can't detect it, it's not science because Miller deliberately insists there's no possible empirical test that could falsify his assertion.

    It's an example of bad science. He doesn't get a free pass to say things that sound like science by just stating that they are untestable.

    Imagine that an atheist Nobel Laureate in physics said something similar; namely that he believes in some subtle quantum mechanical effects that make it extremely likely that sapient creatures would evolve. Unfortunately, these subtle effects will be completely undetectable.

    What do we do in that case? Do we just shrug our shoulders and say it's okay to make statements like that because they are outside of science? Or do we say that's bad science?

    And how in the world do you know that we could never, ever devise a test of Ken Miller's hypothesis?

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  36. NickM says,

    Larry, you know my answers to all those questions.

    No, I don't. That's why I asked for clarification.

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  37. NickM says,

    More important is just one question:

    Do you think if it's "science", on your very broad definition of science, which sweeps in astrology and bigfoot and all kinds of other junk, that automatically means it's totally OK and legit for the government to teach as good science in public schools? (Leave aside constitutional issues, I am just asking about whether or not this is good science education/good education policy?)


    I think we can distinguish between good science and bad science. We should only teach good science. For example, we should stop teaching that natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution and start teaching that evolution is a lot more complicated than that. That's good science. It's a no-brainer.

    On the other hand, if our goal is to teach children how to think then we should probably bring up examples of bad science in order to show them how science works. Astrology is a good example. I strongly support curricula where students do some simple tests to see if astrology works.

    When there are major debates raging in society about scientific issues I think they should be brought into the science classroom. Examples in today's world might be whether vaccinations are effective and whether CO2 causes global warming. These are wonderful ways to teach critical thinking using current events.

    Same for the creation/evolution debate. For example, we should be teaching students that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old in spite of what some holy books might say. We should also point out the flaws in Intelligent Design Creationism because students need to be educated in ways of dealing with such issues.

    We don't do our students any favors by keeping these important societal debates out of the classroom.

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  38. NickM says,

    Also, let's say there is a legitimate "problem" with some reigning scientific theory. Does this automatically mean it is OK, as a matter of good education and education policy, to give such a problem whatever degree of emphasis some school board/politican requires?

    If there's a legitimate problem with some reigning scientific theory then we should stop teaching it as an example of good science. That decision should be up to teachers and scientists. That's the way it is in most countries.

    Civilized countries don't let politicians make such decisions and they don't promote the idea that such things can be decided at the "local" level.

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  39. NickM says,

    I think only creationists and other loons endorse the above positions -- and you seem to, since you like being contrarian, but I don't think you really believe this. I'm pretty sure you don't give equal weight to every dissident view in biochemistry when you write your textbooks.

    I don't see anything wrong with my position and I don't think "creationists and other loons" would endorse it.

    Nick, I am trying to make four points.

    1. Just because a view is "dissident" doesn't mean it's not scientific.

    2. Your definition of science is incorrect.

    3. Many people besides creationists are abusing science. Some of them are theistic evolutionists.

    4. We should be teaching critical thinking and this means bringing controversies involving science into the science classroom.

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  40. Michael M asks,

    Are you proposing that the US Constitution be amended?

    That's a problem for Americans. If they think it's an almost perfect document for the 21st century then they are welcome to keep it as the basis of their society and government.

    Americans frequently tell me that they have the best form of government in the world and the best society so I assume they are quite happy with the constitution and the status quo.

    It's my impression that the constitution isn't very clear so you always need to have judges and lawyers who interpret it for you. Those interpretations change from time to time. I'm told that changing a few members of the Supreme Court might make it legal to teach religion in schools. That would be a real bummer as far as NCSE is concerned.

    Sounds like a pretty flexible constitution to me.

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  41. Larry: We can't devise a test of Ken Miller's hypothesis because Ken Miller's hypothesis IS that we can't test it. (I haven't read Miller; I'm relying on your characterization of him here.) He says there could be undetectable divine intervention, I say empirical testing cannot detect the undetectable. It's clearly on the other side of the bright line between science and non-science.

    The same applies to your other examples of untestable, unfalsifiable claims. If they're untestable and unfalsifiable, they're not bad science, they're nonscience.

    Incidentally, as an American, let me apologize for all the American exceptionalist yahoos.

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  42. Judd:
    "Until the day when those who want ID taught in U.S. classrooms lack religious motivation, the philosophical point of whether ID is bad science or not-science won't be determinative. "

    Waitaminute, so if the religious were to decide that Evolution via Natural Selection somehow proves that God exists, and insist that it be taught in schools because of that, then it shouldn't be taught in schools? I mean, yes, it seems like a nonesense statement to say Darwinism proves god exists, but so what, you are saying that if the Motivation is Religious, then the information is incompatible with public schools, regardless of the information itself.
    Or perhaps more realistically, if the religious felt that the Founders were paragons of religious virtue, in their private and public lives, and they advocated for a big increase in studies on the Founders and their times, does that mean that we can't let students read the Federalist Papers in school?

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  43. The same applies to your other examples of untestable, unfalsifiable claims. If they're untestable and unfalsifiable, they're not bad science, they're nonscience.

    So all speculations about the origin of life are nonscience?

    What about the multiverse? Is that also nonscience?

    When I say that the Cambrian explosion almost certainly has a naturalistic explanation is that an example of an untestable and unfalsifiable statement?

    Your restrictions on science are far too rigid.

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  44. We can't devise a test of Ken Miller's hypothesis because Ken Miller's hypothesis IS that we can't test it.

    I'm not obliged to believe him, am I? What if I think his idea CAN be tested and is open to investigation?

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  45. So all speculations about the origin of life are nonscience?

    Of course not, just the ones that can't stand up to empirical testing. Speculation about chemical reactions that might have occurred in the "primordial soup" can be tested in the lab. Divine fiddling can't.

    What about the multiverse? Is that also nonscience?

    I'm no student of advance physics, but if the multiverse (unseen, unseeable) is predicted by physical laws that can be tested and verified in THIS universe, then it's science.

    When I say that the Cambrian explosion almost certainly has a naturalistic explanation is that an example of an untestable and unfalsifiable statement?

    Well, it could only be falsified if the correct explanation turned out to be supernatural, so yes. But then all science is based on the belief that naturalistic explanations exist, a belief that can never be proven as long as there's another question. Our prejudice toward naturalistic explanations doesn't bother me.

    I'm not obliged to believe [Ken Miller], am I? What if I think his idea CAN be tested and is open to investigation?

    Miller's hypothesis is that God's intervention is undetectable. Yours is that the quantum dice-loading IS detectable, which is a different idea. Once you've devised a test (under conditions that I could replicate), you've pulled Miller's idea back within the bounds of science.

    The line between science and not-science is bright. All the creationists I've seen or heard of, are on the other side of the line; creationism is pseudo-science. When the a creationist with a testable hypothesis comes along---I'm not holding my breath---we can craft a more nuanced position.

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  46. I think we can distinguish between good science and bad science. We should only teach good science. For example, we should stop teaching that natural selection is the only mechanism of evolution and start teaching that evolution is a lot more complicated than that. That's good science. It's a no-brainer.

    Maybe its a no brainer for you but, in a democracy, who gets to decide? In a country, like ours, where people who believe in god are in the vast majority, how do we deny the majority the right to decide to teach bad science? In the US, we have a complex (to you) method to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Having Larry Moran as the sole arbiter of good vs. bad science is no more appealing to me than having the Discovery Institute doing it. Give me a method to decide good from bad science, so that the one is taught at public expense and the other isn't. Chances are, it winds up looking pretty much like ours ... in that some government official, who is not likely to be a real expert, gets to decide.

    It's an example of bad science. He doesn't get a free pass to say things that sound like science by just stating that they are untestable. ...

    So all speculations about the origin of life are nonscience?


    So, all speculations about anything, as long as they "sound like science" to Larry Moran, are science? You draw no line whatsoever that anyone (other than Larry Moran) can discern? If not, what the heck is it?

    Nick, I am trying to make four points.

    1. Just because a view is "dissident" doesn't mean it's not scientific.


    Who, exactly, is saying that?

    2. Your definition of science is incorrect.

    Wait a minute! I thought before you said that there was doubt that NM was correct. Now you have proven it's false? Larry, you haven't demonstrated the ability to do so before ... where have you gained the philosophical wherewithal to do now do it all of a sudden?

    3. Many people besides creationists are abusing science. Some of them are theistic evolutionists.

    Not to mention atheists who claim that science has proven their metaphysics.

    4. We should be teaching critical thinking and this means bringing controversies involving science into the science classroom.

    Well, I don't know about Canadian public schools (including the Catholic ones you pay taxes to support) but by the time we get done teaching vaccination denialism, climate change denialism, evolution denialism, homeopathy, reiki, naturopathy, etc, et al. and so forth, just to show how bad they are, how many hours will be left to teach ... you know ... science? Are we having an ivory tower moment, Larry?

    We can't devise a test of Ken Miller's hypothesis because Ken Miller's hypothesis IS that we can't test it.

    I'm not obliged to believe him, am I? What if I think his idea CAN be tested and is open to investigation?


    How about you get back to us when you can do something scientific ... you know, like publish a peer-reviewed paper on it?

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  47. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  48. "There probably aren't more than a few dozen people in the entire world who can understand the paper and offer objective criticism."

    Hardly. As a master's student in physics I took a couple of hours to read the start of a Dembski paper that was much more formidable. Once I got past the unfamiliar notation, I was able to identify a half dozen flaws within the first couple of pages. In fact, I was able to identify problems with some conclusions almost immediately because I could instantly think of counter-examples. Admittedly I had experience in a distantly related field (quantum correlation a.k.a. entanglement) that uses some related math, but I find it implausible that any less than several thousand people are capable of critiquing papers written at this level. I was frankly embarrassed for the journal that accepted the paper; someone should easily have caught the fractal wrongness of Dembski's claims.

    And compared with that paper, this one is a lightweight. It only really applies to producing specific strings, and it, uh, actually says nothing about "self-organization" at all. It really only says "if there were only one possible cell, you can't set up initial conditions that are more likely to produce it by accident". Which is true enough. If there was only one possible cell in the universe that could ever exist, and I had no idea what it was like whatsoever, I probably couldn't make it without a long process of trial and error (plausibly quite shortened by careful thought). Totally irrelevant of course; life adapts to its environment, not the reverse, and life on earth clearly can exist in a huge array of forms. Plus there are a fantastic number of possible environments in the universe; it's not so surprising that a few of them can accommodate one particular type of life or another.

    Not that your average philosopher is equipped to slog through this reasoning though. But as you pointed out, why, then, did they accept the paper at all?

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  49. Actually, I ended up writing a letter to Synthese editors complaining about this paper (I kept finding just bizarre statements in it). Probably nothing will come from it, but who knows?

    Although I didn't bring it up in that letter, Johns also apparently flirts with trutherism. If he's serious about that, he's quite the crank magnet.

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  50. while i agree with larry that ID is bad science it raises the important issue of what distinguishes good science from bad science? it is not a very clear cut one even though it is easy in practice to spot the pseudo science of a homeopathy, say , it is considered a very difficult problem in the philosophy of science to formally specify what are the properties of good science. that is science has its own metaphysical assumptions that are not very ameniable to emprical testing either such as particles, time, space, force and fields etc that assessed on theoritical grounds such as occams razor, coherence with other well establish results, explanatory power, explanatory scope,etc which are combined with it empirical parts such as predictions displacements, angles, intensity of light waves, etc. successful scientific theories throughout their history are all over the map in terms of theoritical or empirical properties such as Quantum mechanics with strong empirical results but no outsanding theoritical interpretation or string theory with no empirical results to speak of but nice theory in postdicting the graviton, etc such that it becomes a value judment as to what is good science. see a nice discussion of this by philosopher craig callender @ http://aardvark.ucsd.edu/science/continuum.pdf
    so if you call ID a science it is not entirely clear that one can demarcate it bad science especially if they want to pursue a anthropic approach such as currently being debtaed in cosmology.

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  51. O'Neil says,

    so if you call ID a science it is not entirely clear that one can demarcate it bad science especially if they want to pursue a anthropic approach such as currently being debated in cosmology

    We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. We can't say that IDC is non-science because it's very difficult to distinguish between what's science and what isn't.

    On the other hand, if we admit that much of what the IDiots do is science (e.g. criticizing evolution) then it's very difficult to say whether it's good science or bad science.

    Welcome to the real world. Let's hope that lawyers and judges don't find out about this dirty little secret. They can't handle the truth. :-)

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  52. Wow.. Now I see where you get confused- Laurence's definition of science is a result of his atheist stance. Atheism and Science have somehow merged themselves in your mind.

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