The Sciences

Astrology and ID sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitOct 24, 2005 2:07 AM


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Note (added Oct. 30, 2005): this entry was featured in the Carnival of the Godless #26.

] Reader Ray Wagner was the first to bring this to my attention, though it soon got a bunch of time on different blogs... Michael Behe, perhaps the key proponent of Intelligent Design (woe be unto them), was grilled last week about ID at the Kitzmiller vs. DASD case in Dover Pennsylvania, what some wags have dubbed "Scopes II". Basically, at one point, the issue came up about what defines a scientific theory. This is, in my opinion, a huge tactical diversion: scientists use the word "theory" differently than non-scientists do. To a scientist, "theory" is pretty much synonymous with "fact". Not precisely, and I am oversimplifying, but close enough. What a non-scientist calls "theory" is what a scientist calls a "hypothesis" or even a "conjecture". I say this is a diversion because the people who tend to twist the truth (what a non-scientist might refer to as "lie") about ID love to say evolution is "just a theory", which is what scientists call evolution. But of course, to a scientist that means a lot. Gravity is a theory too, as is General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and a lot of other things on which we base all of modern science (and don't kid yourself, the technology you use every day is based on these "theories" as well). So this whole "definition of science" nonsense is just that: nonsense. Of course, if ID proponents can give their nonsense the imprimatur of science, they can get it taught in the classroom. So it's not surprising that Behe would go through some verbal calisthenics to get ID labeled as science. When asked about what science is, he redefined it right there in Dover, making it broader so ID falls under the umbrella of scientific theory. As an aside, I think it's funny how many fundamentalists have never heard of the word "hubris" (after all, why be satisfied with a definition dreamed up by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier organization of scientists on the planet?). The meek shall inherit something, but evidently it ain't the Earth. Well, maybe only the last 6000 years of its history. Anyway, he came up with a pretty funny definition. Here is the transcript of Behe's testimony ("Q" is the lawyer, "A" is Behe):

Q But the way you define scientific theory, you said it's just based on your own experience; it's not a dictionary definition, it's not one issued by a scientific organization. A It is based on my experience of how the word is used in the scientific community. Q And as you said, your definition is a lot broader than the NAS definition? A That's right, intentionally broader to encompass the way that the word is used in the scientific community. Q Sweeps in a lot more propositions. A It recognizes that the word is used a lot more broadly than the National Academy of Sciences defined it. Q In fact, your definition of scientific theory is synonymous with hypothesis, correct? A Partly -- it can be synonymous with hypothesis, it can also include the National Academy's definition. But in fact, the scientific community uses the word "theory" in many times as synonymous with the word "hypothesis," other times it uses the word as a synonym for the definition reached by the National Academy, and at other times it uses it in other ways. Q But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis? A No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term. Q And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct? A Yes. Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct? A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well. Q The ether theory of light has been discarded, correct? A That is correct. Q But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct? A Yes, that's correct. And let me explain under my definition of the word "theory," it is -- a sense of the word "theory" does not include the theory being true, it means a proposition based on physical evidence to explain some facts by logical inferences. There have been many theories throughout the history of science which looked good at the time which further progress has shown to be incorrect. Nonetheless, we can't go back and say that because they were incorrect they were not theories. So many many things that we now realized to be incorrect, incorrect theories, are nonetheless theories.

That last paragraph is funny-- he's so desperate to get ID called "science" that he admits that things can be scientific and not be correct. This is of course correct, but it sounds to me like a typical ID bait-and-switch: he can say "you don't have to agree with me that ID is right, but it is science" knowing full well that if any real scientists comes out and agrees that ID is science-- wrong, but still science-- they'll somehow conveniently forget that last part. The ultimate irony is the bit about astrology. Astrology is far more of a science than ID is! Astrology makes predictions, and can be falsified. In fact, astrology's predictions always fail, and it has been falsified repeatedly. I'm not saying astrology is science (and I am saying it's wrong), just that astrology has some characteristics of science. That's why people call it a pseudoscience. ID is not science at all. It is argument from incredulity and argument from ignorance, pure and simple; trying to find things that are not yet explained by evolution and saying "a designer must have done it". That's foolish; science tends to fill such gaps. Eventually they narrow down to nothing. ID's toehold over such a gap is tenuous indeed. Much like Behe's toehold on what's science and what ain't. And ID ain't.

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