Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?

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.

Scientific method

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).

Related Articles:
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

Useful Web Sites
Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design
Evolution, Education and the Law
National Center for Science education
Pandas Thumb
Talk reason
The Talk Origins Archive

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8 responses to “Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?

  1. Hey Ken,

    Well done post. I’ve got to be quick (I’m cooking tonight!), but a few questions/comments…

    “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.”

    A lot of word-defining could ensue from this list of requirements for entry into the pearly gates of ‘scientific knowledge’. It seems that if reality (in theory) includes (for want of a better word) ‘things’ that are non-material, then they wouldn’t make it very far down this list. So, is this presentation of the scientific method exclusive to material ‘things’? Should we seek a way to ‘open’ (a cheeky reference to this blog’s title!) the method to the non-material? Surely the principles of the scientific method would allow this suggestion to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’? :)


  2. Dale – you always seem to be in a rush!
    The word “material” is loaded for many people. To me it just means objective reality and I understand it to be, in principle, understandable because it is capable of interaction and has an internal order (“natural” is another word). So I don’t think there is anything supernatural, but if there is (outside reality, no internal order, not capable of interaction and therefore not able to be understood, ever)I don’t see how we can ever investigate it. It could never be part of scientific knowledge – the scientific method couldn’t be applied.
    That’s why (I think) proponents of intelligent design have never been able to present a scientific hypothesis – any suggestion they propose has been only a test of evolutionary theory (which evolutionary scientists are also proposing anyway).
    The only way people have been able to propose a “science” including the supernatural is to use authority (eg. religious scriptures and their interpretation) because there is no objective evidence. (If there was it would be normal naturalist science). That’s the way things were before the Enlightenment – we don’t want to go back there.
    Science does have to be open but accepting supernatural concepts on the basis of authority is a straight jacket.

  3. Ken,

    You’re right, I am always in a hurry – full time job, theological paper with lots of reading, part time rock-star [:)], husband, etc. I squeeze in what I can when I get time! :)

    Re: Enlightenment – indeed, we don’t want to go back to pre-’it’, but I suggest we (I for one) don’t want to be hand-cuffed by its terms: i.e. the sharp divide between ‘nature’ and ‘super-nature’. As if we could lump all the things we ‘understand’ into the ‘nature’ category, and all things we don’t ‘understand’ into the ‘super-nature’ category.

    You should know me well enough from my previous comments on other blogs [:)], to anticipate my reaction(s) to not only the word ‘supernatural’, but also the word ‘objective’ (both of which you used at least twice), as if anyone’s perspective of ‘reality’ is ‘objective’. (There is no view from nowhere…) You should also know how much I totally agree with the principles of the scientific method (and it’s philosophical side-kick ‘critical realism’).

    But the scientific method should be un-biased. It should not discard some theories because they use certain words. It should not have any way to discern between what you call ‘normal naturalist science’ and any other kind of science.

    Perhaps these thoughts will help…

    ‘Critical realism’ and the ‘scientific method’ share the same principles – they operate on the same assumptions. One is a philosophical method, the other is (aptly named!) a ‘scientific’ one. Who says that the ‘scientific’ one can only operate with material things? What if there is more to reality than ‘material’? (I am aware how frustrating ‘what-if’ questions can be, but I only use that form because I am under the impression that you deny the ‘non-material’)

    Can you see how it could appear that you are drawing your own boundaries for what will ‘fit’ (only ‘normal’, ‘natural’, ‘objective’)?

    I say again; If reality includes the ‘non-material’, then we may need to employ other ‘sciences’ in our use of the principles of the scientific method…

    (I sincerely hope your use of ‘supernatural’/’objective’/’normal’/etc. will be more careful…)

    Always enjoy the dialogue, and thank you again for the on-going sharpening!


  4. “Objective” here is used as a technical term (not applying to my or anyone’s views) – reality as existing independently of my (or anyone else’s) consciousness.

    If there is more to reality than “material” (as most people understand it – as having “substance”) then of course we study it in the scientific manner (What has happened is that the meaning of “matter” and “material” has changed over the years as we have become aware (by scientific investigation) of the deeper complexity of reality – that is why I say the word is loaded).

    I don’t think science “discards” theories because of words (these sort of words don’t usually get used in day-to-day science). But theories do get tested and consequently rejected, modified, developed. It’s happening all the time – show me a theory which doesn’t develop in this way and I say it will be a dogma, not a scientific theory. Evolution itself is a great example of a changing, live, theory because it is being tested in practice. If the proponents of ID would only genuinely develop their ideas in this scientific manner there would be some chance of any valid parts of their ideas being confirmed and adopted. (No other scientific group has produced textbooks for children before doing the science – that surely tells us something!)

    Yes, I do not believe in the non-material (used in the general way – non-natural or supernatural). That is my personal belief. (It has to be personal as there is no way of testing one way or the other.) But, over the years, I have worked with many people who do profess a belief in the supernatural – that is there personal belief. It’s never been a problem and the scientific method has always been the same – building theories based on testable evidence. (I think this sort of experience of cooperation and common values leads to people respecting the beliefs of others).

    “I say again; If reality includes the ‘non-material’, then we may need to employ other ’sciences’ in our use of the principles of the scientific method…” What other science? I am at a loss to understand how we study something in a testable, verifiable way if we assume that it is not ordered, not capable of interaction and hence not capable of being (potentially) known and understood. I think when we are confronted with something like this we just have to see it as a matter of personal belief rather than scientific theory. And aren’t most Christians happy to accept evolution that way – to believe their God had some sort of hand in it without feeling the need to distort the science – in fact accepting and using the science.

  5. :)

    I actually worded that a bit sloppy… I suggest we need to employ other disciplines, other fields of enquiry, other areas of thought – other than physics, for example – in order to really get anywhere in the ‘god discussion’.

    To restate (some of) my view again:
    -God is the ‘Creator’, meaning that all things (reality) exist because of God’s nature/intent/purpose/action.
    -Genesis 1-2 is a Theological text, not a scientific one, so arguements about 7-days, etc. are burdening the text with a burden never intended for it to bear.
    -Micro-evolution (change within species) is observable and certainly believed by me… :)
    -Macro-evolution (common descent of all life to one species) is not only theoretical still, but must be challenged/sharpened/etc. like any other theory (I suspect you agree?)

    enough for now… :)


  6. The micro-evolution acceptable, macro-evolution unacceptable or unproven is so commonly used by creationists it seems to me that it has become an identifying mantra. It represents what some want to be the case (because of their beliefs), rather than reality.

    Evolutionary theory is far more complex (and exciting) than that. My impression is that research is progressing in all areas (“macro” and “micro”) to solve problems, fill gaps, and to take advantage of new methodology. Disciplines from palaeontology to biochemistry and molecular biology are involved. The theory is dynamic, constantly being enriched and developed.

    I think, in this situation if people find new knowledge conflicts with their beliefs they should at least entertain the idea (as the Dalai Lama suggests) of changing their beliefs rather than trying to change reality. And, I agree that does eventually happen – religious beliefs have radically changed over the last few centuries (although some still cling to old versions).

    The “god question” (is there or isn’t there one) doesn’t particularly interest me because there is no clear hypothesis (everyone’s god is different, personal to them), it seems to have more to do with personal emotional satisfaction. it is a problem only when it becomes more than a personal belief, a reason for telling other people how to live their lives or instruct them on the nature of reality.

    Anyway, I agree it shouldn’t be left to the physicists. I suspect though, the really interesting aspect of this area is not “does a god exist or not” but how the concept has evolved in humanity’s minds, its historical role (for bad as well as good), and the role it plays today (together with other similar beliefs). I think we (humanity) is only starting to investigate these areas and I also think the role of areas like evolutionary psychology and neuroscience will be more important than physics.

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