Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is It Science?

I've been having discussion with several of my friends and colleagues about whether the activities of the Intelligent Design Creationists count as "science." My position is that much of what they do is science, especially when they criticize existing scientific explanations. It may not be very good science but that's not the question. After all, there are atheist scientists who don't do much better.

One argument is that simply criticizing current theories doesn't count as science unless you can also offer a plausible, scientific, competing model. I don't think that's a requirement. Here's an example we can discuss ...

One of the latest posts on Evolution News & Views (sic) is an article by Casey Luskin criticizing the old Urey-Miller experiment by pointing out that their origninal conditions didn't mimic the conditions on the primitive Earth [On the Miller-Urey Experiment, Wikipedia Offers a Citation Bluff]. He goes on to say that scientists still haven't shown convincingly that amino acids (and other molecules) could have formed spontaneously on Earth. Furthermore, the "chirality problem" hasn't been solved.1

Luskin correctly points out that a Wikipedia reference misrepresents the science it reports.

Is this (Luskin's article) scientific? Isn't criticism of current models and hypotheses an example of how science is supposed to work?


1. I agree that the spontaneous formation on Earth of significant amounts of amino acids, carbohydrates, and, especially, nucleotides, is extremely unlikely. That's why I support "Metabolism First." I disagree about the chirality problem—I think we have a good explanation.

27 comments:

  1. Personaly, I'm fine with the criticism. It's the kind of thing I'd expect from any scientist (assuming the criticism is valid, which at first sight does look like it).

    The problem with ID however, is not some of the criticism. It's that MOST of the criticism is false (e.g. "irreducible complecity", which is a strawman) and that ID in itself offers no alternative except fairy tales (if we don't know the details of this or that then Jeovah did it).

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  2. You're committing the fallacy of composition. Assuming for argument's sake that Luskin's article is in some way "scientific" (and ignoring that the Miller-Urey experiment was done SEVENTY YEARS AGO, and is hardly the state of the art today), doing one thing that has the appearance of something that is done in science does not make the endeavor as a whole a science.

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    1. Exactly. I will add that there are two questions to this "are they doing science?" problem. Question one: are any of their activities scientific? Question two: is ID science? If we can distinguish between these two questions, then fine, on occasion, they do some bad/poor/shitty science. That's question number one. But for question number two the answer is definitely no. Criticizing results in experiments on the origin of life, or claiming that no satisfactory results are available yet for whatever, does not make their overall umbrella, namely ID, scientific. That's a very important distinction.

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    2. Moran was asking about this opinion article specifically (can it be considered scientific criticism? Yes), not if ID as a whole was science.

      "(and ignoring that the Miller-Urey experiment was done SEVENTY YEARS AGO, and is hardly the state of the art today)"

      The point of the article was not if it was good research 70 tears ago, but why it continues to be sometimes promoted (just look at many of the high-school books world-wide) as still valid in it's assumptions. It's not.

      None of this invalidates the conclusion that ID is religion, not science, neither did Moran suggest it.

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    3. None of this invalidates the conclusion that ID is religion, not science, neither did Moran suggest it.

      Still I prefer to make this distinction very explicit.

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    4. Negative Entropy says,

      But for question number two the answer is definitely no.

      I don't agree. Let's do a thought experiment. Let's imagine that there really is a God and he/she/it really does guide evolution in some way of another.

      How could we discover this if even asking the question is nonscientific by definition? What other way of knowing might we use to discover the truth?

      I think that you can legitimately use the scientific way of knowing to address any question that might occur to you, including whether or not an intelligent designer exists. The answer turned out to be "no" but some people think the question is still unresolved.

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    5. The problem, Larry, is that so far they have not used the scientific way of knowing to ask their question. For as long as they only attack evolution (and other scientific disciplines) and mischievously devise redefinitions of such things as information, they are not using the scientific way of knowing to answer their question. So there's a new distinction, if you will, is ID science? The answer is still no. Could some form of ID be science? The answer is maybe. I will wait and see, but so far no such thing.

      I agree with you that it is not easy to define science. I do not think though that the lack of precise definitions allows for just any kind of idea to be considered scientific. Could astrology be studied (and rejected/accepted) scientifically? Sure. Does that make astrology scientific? Nope ... hum, now I think I am up to something ... I do not think we will agree, but the discussion seems to be enriching my perspective.

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    6. Larry said:
      Let's imagine that there really is a God and he/she/it really does guide evolution in some way of another. How could we discover this if even asking the question is nonscientific by definition?
      You have been dealing with ID creationists for a long time, so correct me if I am wrong. I get the impression that IDers are NOT asking this question. They do not try to find out who the designer is, how he did his stuff or when. They are not curious, they are confident they are right.
      For this reason, I would say ID is not science.

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    7. Larry said:
      "I think that you can legitimately use the scientific way of knowing to address any question that might occur to you, including whether or not an intelligent designer exists. The answer turned out to be "no" but some people think the question is still unresolved."

      I'm not so sure about that. Lets assume that we can't explain molecular evolution. If we have to invoke a god that works through "supernatural means" to create the right mutations at the right time, how can we show that it is so? Making predictions based on a supernatural being assumption will be untestable since that god can make whatever he/she/it wants. If we have a hole in our knowledge that we can't explain by our current knowledge, invoking a god doesn't actually explain anything and is untestable. How do we differentiate between 1) we don't understand the process yet and 2) a god necessarily did it and so it exists? This is a bit like how Newton gave up on celestial mechanics because his solutions produced unstable planetary orbits, so he decided that god stabilized the orbits. The end result was for science to stop the search for an answer. Later we discovered the solution. How can we diferentiate?

      Science therefore has to be completely naturalistic by nature. It can never stop at "god does it". Its about mechanisms, processes, etc that can be studied, tested, etc. If not, then it's outside of scientific scope. In fact, it's outside of any way of study that can lead to firm answers. Its a brute assumption based solely on faith. I'm fine with that as long as no one calls it science.

      I also don't agree that the answer regarding god's existence turned out to be "no". What science thought us is that we don't *need* to invoke supernatural designers, leaving the existence of god/gods outside of science and purely a matter of faith. We can, however, take this a step further and ask why should we invoke god in that case. As far as specific religions like christianism, islamism, etc, goes, we can pretty much invalidate the whole thing. Christian apologetics amounts to little more than more and more convuluted excuses to keep things barely compatible with our current knowledge, to the point that I don't see it as a sustainable belief at all. BUT, a deistic god, a god of Spinoza, a god that is unknowable, unpersonal, totally alien, that is more sustainable. However, I still don't see a point in invoking one.

      Huh, not a very well structured post, I'm afraid. I have a big migraine at the moment and had to stay at home, but I hope you can read between the lines what I'm trying to say.

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  3. Darwin spilled a fair amount of ink answering just this kind of objection.

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  4. Honest criticism of existing ideas is perfectly valid.
    Another question might be: is there a point at which science becomes so bad that it ceases to be science for all intent and purposes. Over at Pharyngula is post about something called Baraminology.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/11/18/the-science-of-antediluvian-plushies/

    Is this still science?

    Also, seems to me underlying motive might have some bearing on question whether science-like activities qualify as science in any significant sense.

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    1. oops link incorrectly formatted but you can find it i guess

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  5. Is this still science?

    No. It's a branch of biblical exegesis. It's no more scientific than explaining what the author of Genesis meant by "days" of creation or why it's justifiable to claim that locusts and grasshoppers have four legs.

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    1. Eisegesis is a poor man's exegesis. The line between them is hard to draw, and religious scholars of rival denominations like to accuse each other of doing eise rather than exe.

      Baraminology is so funny. Its proponents evidently envy evolutionary taxonomists their polysyllabic technical terminology, so we get this cargo-cult imitation: holobaramins, apobaramins, neobaramins, etc. (they should have plesiobaramins and symbaramins too, but I'm sure they are already working on that).

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  6. Luskin's criticism arguably serves a useful scientific purpose by highlighting errors which need to be corrected. If, however, his intention in publishing this article is not to advance scientific knowledge but to undermine public confidence in science then what he is doing, as he has almost always done, is propaganda not science.

    Science is a human enterprise which investigates the universe in which we find ourselves with the purpose of trying to understand how it works and how it came about. It relies on data gathered from observation and tries to generate explanations that best account for that data as measured against observations. It follows, as far as possible, wherever the evidence leads.

    Intelligent Design Creationists also vow earnestly to follow wherever the evidence leads. Yet, they can't. Their religious beliefs have unconditional priority over any scientific findings. There is no reason why they cannot do good science in those areas that do not come into conflict with their faith but, if there are paths they cannot follow because they would lead to conclusions that are unacceptable on doctrinal grounds, then their scientific integrity is compromised to that extent.

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    1. Luskin's criticism arguably serves a useful scientific purpose by highlighting errors which need to be corrected. If, however, his intention in publishing this article is not to advance scientific knowledge but to undermine public confidence in science then what he is doing, as he has almost always done, is propaganda not science.

      Interesting. Do you feel the same way about genuine scientists who "undermine public confidence in science"? Many of us have criticized science journalists and fellow scientists for misrepresenting scientific results to the general public. Are we being unscientific when we do this?

      I don't think so. I think you (and others) are confused about the difference between "bad science" and "illegitimate science."

      Luskin's argument should be evaluated on it's merits and not on his perceived motives.

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    2. Which part of "intention" did you fail to understand?

      I don't think your examples have the intention .. to undermine public confidence in science.

      Now it is of course legitimate to ask if we should look at intention for this difference, especially as it can be a rather slippery subject.

      But as far as I can see, you haven't proposed an alternate dividing line.

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    3. I don't think so. I think you (and others) are confused about the difference between "bad science" and "illegitimate science."

      Possibly. Can you give a real-world example of illegitimate science? One is tempted to point to those who look at data and come up with interpretations that no other experts on the planet agree with, yet surely this could not be the definition. Perhaps this is, in part, the point you (LM) are trying to make.

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    4. Laurence A. Moran Sunday, November 18, 2012 4:50:00 PM

      [...]

      Interesting. Do you feel the same way about genuine scientists who "undermine public confidence in science"?


      No, because I'm not aware of any scientists who have deliberately. tried to undermine public confidence in science, although there have been a few who have done so unintentionally. In fact, I find it hard to imagine any scientist seeking to undermine the very profession he or she has spent so many years learning and practicing.

      Many of us have criticized science journalists and fellow scientists for misrepresenting scientific results to the general public. Are we being unscientific when we do this?

      I don't think so.


      I don't think so, either. I think scientists have an obligation to ensure that science is reported as accurately as possible to the public. That obviously entails calling attention to instances of misrepresentation by scientists and science journalists.

      I think you (and others) are confused about the difference between "bad science" and "illegitimate science."

      That's quite possible. How do you distinguish between them?

      Luskin's argument should be evaluated on it's merits and not on his perceived motives.

      Yes - and no.

      Yes, from a scientific perspective it should be evaluated solely on its merits as a scientific case, something that professional scientists are better equipped to do than a lay audience.

      However, if, as I suspect, Luskin's pitch is really being made to that same lay audience as part of a campaign to undermine public confidence in science then the scientific response, while necessary, might be neither sufficient nor effective as a counter to his propaganda.

      That's why it sounds like it was a shame that you didn't challenge Behe more forcefully after his talk. As I think you realize, it wasn't just that his scientific case needed to be questioned, but it was also important that the lay audience understood that neither Behe nor his arguments commanded the respect or support of his peers.

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  7. "Isn't criticism of current models and hypotheses an example of how science is supposed to work?"

    Isn't discovering facts and confirming them a goodly portion of scientific work? I rather doubt that Luskin and company are engaged in that. They are engaged in science in the broad sense of the term that can apply to any layman critically studying scientific reports. They are doing science in roughly the same way a pickup game of hoops does basketball. You can't in principle distinguish it from the NBA but it is really pretty impractical not to do so in practice. Observation, generalization, analysis are scientific skills and practices that are also exercised in ordinary life, as in a believer attempting to refute scientific evidence.

    Luskin et al. don't have to have to devise any hypotheses, but they do have to do scientific research to be scientists, I should think. The question seems to come more from a philosophy of science perspective, from people like Popper, from an armchair attempt to demarcate science rather than looking at what it actually does. Or so it seems to me.

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  8. This question seems to start from the assumption that Wikipedia does science: it doesn't (by design) do research, it reports what reliable sources have said about science.

    In this case Luskin has merely pointed out a typographical error in an unnecessary citation which has now been corrected. An improvement to scholarship, but hardly the stuff of science. That takes place in peer reviewed studies, the real interest is in Cleaves et al. doi: 10.1007/s11084-007-9120-3 which the Wikipedia article duly reports. If further studies have investigated this issue, then science has progressed and eventually Wikipedia can report the published conclusions. That's reporting about science, not doing science.

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  9. Seems to me what ID lacks is rational, evidence-based evaluation of its arguments. The same arguments are repeated again and again, though they've been thoroughly debunked. Yes, posing the question is scientific. Doing the intellectual equivalent of sticking one's fingers in one's ears and yelling "Neener, neener, neener" when the answers are presented is not.

    How many times has Michael Behe, for example, had various of his "examples" of irreducible complexity debunked, and how many times has he fairly and rationally evaluated the evidence presented in response and abandoned said examples - or even questioned the basic notion of irreducible complexity after so much evidence has been adduced for the contra position?

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  10. LOne argument is that simply criticizing current theories doesn't count as science unless you can also offer a plausible, scientific, competing model.

    That depends on whether the current theory is widely accepted and has tons of evidence supporting it.

    For instance, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize string theory without offering a competing model because it is not widely accepted in the physics community and, as we sit here today, has no evidence supporting it.

    On the other hand, it would not be acceptable to criticize quantum mechanics or relativity without offering a competing explanation as both theories are widely accepted and have tons of evidence supporting them.

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  11. Talking about science, criticizing science, and explaining science are not doing science. Doesn't matter who's doing these things or why.
    If you're not collecting data, or at the very least empirical observations, you're not doing science and you're not a scientist.
    That goes for textbook authors as well.

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    1. There are many competing definitions of science and of the scientific way of knowing. My definition of science is that it's a way of o=knowing that relies on evidence, healthy skepticism, and rationality.

      Your definition means that theoretical physicists are not scientists. Neither am I and neither is Richard Dawkins. Does one stop being a scientist the minute one stops collecting data (i.e. retires) of is there a one year grace period when you can still call yourself a scientist?

      I'm not sure how your definition applies to the activities of economists, historians, and English professors. Are they using some other way of knowing?

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    2. My definition of science is ecologist Robert MacArthur's:
      "The only rules of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic." It takes both, imo, to be 'doing science'.

      English professors are pretty much never doing science; nor do they generate much in the way of "knowledge". Economics and history can, arguably, be approached scientifically but the majority of economists and historians do not do so.

      (Purely) theoretical physicists? Afaict they're closer to mathematicians than scientists. Experimental physicists, sure.

      Who is a scientist? is a different question from what is science? If you and Dawkins want to call yourselves scientists because you used to do science, I won't call you on it.

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