The arrogance of science bashers
1: There is a certain amount of arrogance in ideologically motivated outsiders telling scientists how science should be done. Or misrepresenting and slandering the way science does happen.
I have images of theologians, intelligent design (ID) proponents and post-modernist philosophers of science (e.g. Steve Fuller) telling their motor mechanics, plumbers or dentists that they are doing their job wrong. That they are just going along with the ‘dogma’, ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ of their profession. Even that the professionalism of these people somehow makes them evil and leads to Hitler and Nazism.
But, at the same time, these critics regularly do rely on their mechanics to repair their cars, their plumbers to clear their drains and their dentists to fill their teeth. Similarly they also make regular use, in their day-to-day lives, of the technology and knowledge that the scientific endeavour has provided, and continues to provide, humanity. (I doubt they would be foolish enough to board a plane which had been designed and built using ideas or inferences derived using the “scientific” methodology they are advocating).
There is an abrupt discontinuity between their ideological science-bashing and the practical and unquestioning acceptance of scientific knowledge when it really does matter.
Playing with words
2: Attempts to give ID scientific credibility often amounts to playing with words in a way that just doesn’t happen (and is certainly not required) in the honest scientific process. One can go on about ‘induction’, ‘abduction’, ‘deduction’, ‘inference’, ‘a postiori’, ‘a priori’ and ‘philosophical process’ but this doesn’t change the facts about ID – although it may cloud or confuse those facts.
The idea “that the universe, or some part thereof, was designed” by some sort of intelligent being is only an idea, only a belief. Calling it an ‘inference’ is just a ploy to give it a higher status than it deserves. And the real status is the same as the idea (belief) that the moon is made of cheese, thunder, lightning, earthquakes and disease are caused by the anger of gods, the seas on the moon are made from asphalt, etc. etc.
We can deduce or infer these sorts of ideas (OK the lunar cheese is facetious) but, by themselves, they are only ideas. They may “start from empirical data” (the facts of thunder, lightning, earthquakes, disease and the dark appearance of lunar seas) but without further work they remain only ideas, or maybe only beliefs.
After all, don’t superstitions “start from empirical data” (usually anecdotal, subjectively interpreted and not critically analysed). Even pigeons have been shown to make such ‘inferences’, exhibiting superstitious responses based on their experiences (empirical data).
And we might call these ideas, inferences, suspicions, speculations “scientific”. But, it seems to me, such a description can be warranted only if there is a genuine desire and effort to then do some science. To test these ideas (inferences), develop hypotheses and theories, and validate these by mapping against reality.
Making “inference” respectable
So what do we do if we don’t want to, or can’t, test an idea (inference) but want to claim that it is respectable? Why, we call it “scientific”. But to do that we have to change the meaning of that word – we have to remove the requirement for proper evidence and experiential validation. So we call our idea (really just only a belief or even a superstition) an “inference”!
And them we try to give the concept of “inference” the same respectability, the same status, as “scientific theory.” We need to work on this because a simple Google trends search for “scientific theory” and “scientific inference” does indicate the later term has no real provenance. But we can use a lot of fine sounding words and philosophical concepts to blur the difference between “inference” and “theory”.
So now we can claim that ID is “scientific” and demand that it is treated with the same respect as evolutionary science. After all we have empirical data – the obvious patterns (design – noun) in nature, life and the universe. We can make an inference from those patterns. We can treat them as “empirical data.”
Poverty of “inference”
But, of course, that’s where things start to break down. We don’t really want that inference to be tested by the normal scientific process of formulating hypotheses, collecting data, developing theories and further testing and validation against reality. After all, this might destroy our dearly held beliefs (an occurrence commonly experienced by those involved in real science).
So we resort to all sorts of tactics to cloud the issue and divert attention (a bit like magicians and illusionists). We attack the “scientific establishment” and academia. We label science and scientists as atheistic (which does scare some of our constituency). We raise all sorts of moral fears about “materialism”, “naturalism”, racism, Nazism and Hitler.
We attempt to cloud the public and political understanding of science with tacky videos (e.g. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed ). We even go so far as to campaign for the definition of science to be rewritten in Education Board standards to remove the requirement for experiential validation (as in Kansas, USA). And we try to divert discussion of evolutionary science by using terms like “inference”. Attempting to create a new scientific concept with the same authority as theory.
We attempt to discredit the findings and theories of evolutionary science. We use “reinterpretation research” to desperately search for alternative explanations for the huge amount of factual evidence in evolutionary science.
But one thing we never do is advance an ID hypothesis or theory capable of testing, of mapping against reality. We never allow the “ID inference” to be exposed to the normal critical scepticism of the scientific process.
My use of ‘we’ in the later part of this post is, of course, satirical. I certainly don’t think this process, commonly used by ID proponents, is at all scientific.