This year is the tenth anniversary of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. At that trial, the plaintiffs successfully convinced Judge Jones that intelligent design isn't a science because it invokes supernatural causes. The expert witnesses testified that, by definition, science is limited by methodological naturalism. I disagree with the expert witnesses at the trial and I agree with many leading philosophers that science is not restricted to methodological naturalism [Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? ].
I've always wondered why the plaintiff team was so convinced they were right when they must have been aware of conflicting opinions. Genie Scott has supplied the answer in a commentary published in the latest issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education (Scott, 2015).
Here's what she says,
We chose the philosopher Robert T Pennock, who had already written a book-length critique of “intelligent design” and edited a volume of readings on the topic, as our main philosophy of science spokesperson. But in truth, every single one of our expert witnesses addressed the definition of science, stressing the same bottom line: that because scientific explanations must be testable, they are restricted to natural causes. Falsifiability, peer review, and tentativeness of scientific conclusions were also discussed, but what we hammered on above all else was the practice of restricting scientific explanations to natural causes, or methodological naturalism. Even our theological, historical, and educational experts addressed this issue. We stressed that methodological naturalism was mainstream science and well-accepted by the vast majority of scientists, as well as promoted by authoritative science institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.That's very interesting and it explains a lot. So there were expert witnesses—presumably experts in the philosophy of science—who didn't agree with the definition used in the trial. They recognized that ID might qualify as science by their preferred definition.
And over and over, in depositions and in cross examination, the expert witnesses for the defense agreed with us. They didn’t agree that methodological naturalism was the way science should operate, and in fact, they encouraged expanding the definition of science to include non-natural (in other words, supernatural—though they seemed allergic to pronouncing the word) causes so that ID could better be characterized as science, but they agreed that most scientists were in our camp, not theirs. Their admissions underscored the at best peripheral position of ID in the scientific community.
However, they were persuaded to stick to the restriction of methodological naturalism during the trial because they believed that most scientists (i.e. non-experts in the philosophy of science) think that science is restricted to methodological naturalism. Many of those scientists are religious so they have a stake in that definition.
It seems kind of strange to me to use a popularity contest to determine whether a definition is correct or not. I'd hate to use that criterion to arrive at a definition of "evolution," for example. I'd certainly be unhappy if we asked the average biologist what Francis Crick meant by the "Central Dogma." It would be silly to argue that most of our genome is functional just because a majority of biologists might believe the hype of the ENCODE Consortium.
In any case, I wonder what's going to happen at the next trial? Will it still be possible to claim that knowledgeable scientists (in the USA?) restrict science to methodological naturalism? If we took a poll, would 51% be sufficient to declare that ID has to be excluded because it deals with a supernatural cause?
UPDATE: I just realized that by publishing this article Genie must realize that NCSE can never use the methodological naturalism restriction at the next trial. She must realize that the tide has turned among philosophers of science.
Scott, E.C. (2015) A Tale of Two Trials. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 36(6) [PDF]