Intelligent design/creationism and the attack on teaching of evolution is a big issue in the USA. It doesn’t have the same threat to education here in New Zealand. Nevertheless, there are Christian groups (e.g. Christian News) promoting these ideas and one could imagine that many of those supporting Bishop Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church campaign to officially declare New Zealand a Christian nation could also wish to prevent the teaching of evolution here. So perhaps we should pay some attention to this (essentially political) movement.
To me the central issue is the attempt to use science in this campaign. Intelligent design and creationism are presented as a scientific theory, a rival theory to evolution. Proponents claim scientific support and attempt to undermine evolution with their assertion that it is “just a theory.” So what is the nature of that “scientific support” and what is a scientific theory anyway?
(If you would prefer a bit of light relief go to the Ricky Gervais video at the bottom of the post).
Science is not personal belief
Scientists are human. They have the same range of beliefs and vices as any other group of humans. Their personal religious beliefs cover the whole spectrum from born-again fundamentalist Christian to hard-core atheist. We can find scientists who believe in astrology, UFOs, fairies, spirits, miracles and a whole range of supernatural objects. And we can find scientists who don’t have any of those beliefs. Support for any of the whole range of political parties and ideologies can be found among scientists. And, yes we can find individual scientists who believe in intelligent design, creationism and so on. We can find individual scientists who in their own personal beliefs reject different aspects of accepted scientific knowledge (evolution and quantum mechanics for example). Clearly we would be in a very bad way if we defined scientific knowledge as the beliefs held by scientists.
So why do we treat scientists as authorities on whole range of issues (consider advertisements for cosmetics and healthcare products, for example) when their beliefs are obviously just as unreliable as our own? The authority arises from respect for scientific knowledge – that body of knowledge we usually just call science. We equate scientific knowledge with truth. And our experience of modern society where so much is based on this knowledge, and we can see it working in practice, suggests the respect is warranted.
What is scientific knowledge? And why is it so reliable despite the obvious unreliability of the beliefs held by those producing the knowledge? After all, being human many scientists may be selective about their presentation of evidence supporting their beliefs . Commercial funding is a big problem for science as it invites bias. And even the honest scientist can be so passionate about her pet theory that she refuses to consider evidence which doesn’t support it. Science would get nowhere if there weren’t a process to weed out bias and the promotion of unsubstantiated beliefs. This process, the scientific method, is part of the reason why the scientific method is such a powerful way of understanding reality.
The word theory is often used in a very loose way. Anyone can have a theory – it can be just their belief with no supporting evidence. People may accept a theory for the emotional satisfaction it gives them. Everybody’s theory is interesting and valid in its own way. But, as E. O. Wilson says in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:
“Scientific theories are …. fundamentally different. They are constructed specifically to be blown apart if proved wrong, and if so destined, the sooner the better. “Make your mistakes quickly” is a rule in the practice of science.”
Scientific theories are derived from empirical evidence, formulation of hypotheses, testing in practice and experiment, objective assessment of results involving statistical analyses and critique by colleagues and publication by a peer-reviewed process. We just don’t deem knowledge scientific until it has undergone this process. As E. O. Wilson puts it:
“One of the strictures of the scientific ethos is that a discovery does not exist until it is safely reviewed and in print.”
This process weeds out most theories based only on personal conviction, personal religious belief or crackpot obsessions. We can’t accept a theory or belief as scientific unless it has undergone this process.
This gives us a way of judging “theories” such as intelligent design and creationism. Have they evolved from the scientific method? Have the ideas been test in practice or experimentally? Have they undergone the normal scientific review process? And have they been published in credible peer-reviewed scientific journals?
Is it scientific?
A lot of “evidence” used to give scientific justification in public debate does not pass this test. In a controversial situation we should always go back to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. And if there is none? Be very suspicious.
The second post in this series (Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific) will assess the scientific credibility of intelligent design/creationism using the above criteria.
Creationism with Ricky Gervais
And some light relief from Ricky Gervais in defense of creationism (1o min).
Should we teach creationism?
Science, art & pumpkins
Can science enrich faith?
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Putting Dawkins in his place
Solution to climate change?
Debating science and religion