09 October 2005

It really does matter if it's right.

I just read, for the second time, an article by Doug Kern that's available at Tech Central Station. After my blood pressure came back down a bit, the article got me to thinking. The tone of the piece is annoying and condescending, and there is far more in it that is wrong than is right, but it illustrates a number of the political problems that we face all too well.

The title of the article is, "Why Intelligent Design is Going to Win." The thesis statement is short and simple: "Intelligent Design theory is destined to supplant Darwinism as the primary scientific explanation for the origin of human life. ID will be taught in public schools as a matter of course."

The first flaw, of many, in the article is in this thesis statement. One thing which, I think people frequently fail to fully understand is that the current battle over Intelligent Design has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than getting ID taught in public schools. It certainly has nothing to do with the actual validity of the "theory". It has still less to do with what the primary scientific explanation for the origin of human life will be. Intelligent Design could be force fed down the throat of every American schoolchild for the next century, but that will not make it the primary scientific explanation for the origin of human life. Scientists will continue to study evolution, until such time as evolutionary theory is supplanted by another scientific theory. That will happen only if empirical, scientifically testable hypotheses are presented, tested, and if they pass repeated tests.

Allow me to be clear on one point here: I am not arguing that teaching Intelligent Design to every child in every school in America would accomplish nothing. If I believed that, I'd be pretty damn silly to be arguing about it. Actually, I think that teaching Intelligent Design in the public schools would accomplish a large number of things. It would, for starters, prove that if you try hard enough, you really can obfuscate your way around the constitution. It will also serve to put a set of religious beliefs into the public school classroom - beliefs that run counter to my own - and force me to pay to have those beliefs taught to my children. It will further reduce the already pitiful level of scientific literacy in our country. It will accelerate a brain drain that is already taking place, and it will serve to hasten the country's slide from first-world status. That's just some of what teaching Intelligent Design will accomplish.

Kern goes on to present the reasons that he believes that Intelligent Design will one day rule the country:
ID will win because it's a religion-friendly, conservative-friendly, red-state kind of theory
Please note that this may be true, but it says absolutely nothing about the scientific merits of Intelligent Design. I hope it isn't true, but I am afraid that it is.

Kern gives some reasons to justify this statement:
The most vocal non-scientist proponents of ID are those delightfully fertile Catholics, Evangelicals, and similarly right-leaning middle-class college-educated folk -- the kind whose children will inherit the country. Eventually, the social right will have the sheer manpower to teach ID wherever they please.
That was one of the statements that had me almost literally seeing red. The founders of our nation shed blood to establish a society founded, in part, on the principle that the government should not be used as a tool to advance religion. Kern apparently believes that once they have enough people, the religious right can ignore that, and push religious beliefs on the remaining minority - despite the fact that we have a constitution specifically to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. What's worse is that this jackass doesn't seem to find anything wrong with that position.

Kern goes on:
Belief in ID does nothing to make believers less capable in science or engineering. No geek in the world will find his computer mojo diminished because of his opinions on irreducible complexity. To the contrary: ID might make biology and the natural sciences more appealing to believers who might otherwise find science to be too far removed from God's presence.
Actually, belief in ID does make you less capable in biology. That's the result of the whole "evolution is the core concept that unites biology" thing. Another article, this one on Jeb Bush and ID, makes the point quite nicely:
University science professors and a national group that had concerns about how science curriculum was rewritten in Minnesota say it's ironic that Florida would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to woo The Scripps Research Institute to the state, yet hire a top educator who does not accept Darwinian evolution — something Scripps scientists say they prove every day in their experiments.

Not satisfied with the hole he's dug for himself, Kern goes on to provide more of the reasons that he thinks ID will win: "2) ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers." Well, I guess that's as good as any to throw out the cornerstone of biology - the people who support it act like losers. Kerns continues:
Vitriol, condescension, and endless accusations of bad faith all characterize far too much of the standard pro-Darwinian response to criticism.
Vitriol is common, and it is becomming more common. It would be nice if we could all maintain our composure as nicely as Douggie "they're acting like losers" Kerns does, but it can be hard sometimes. This is especially true for scientists in the face of the continuing creationist assault. We spend hours working in the field and lab for every minute that they spend spewing out their nonsense to non-scientific audiences. Keeping cool becomes increasingly difficult under the circumstances. There are also frequent accusations of bad faith. That's because the creationists frequently display bad faith. Don't just take my word for that. Go look at the trial transcripts from this week, where numerous witnesses document the efforts that the Dover school board made to add creationism to the curriculum, before settling on the current ID maneuver. Then look at the way that they keep claiming that their motives were entirely secular. Look at the Meyer affair. Or the Leonard affair. Or at any number of other incidents through the years.

Here, though, we again find one of the more frustrating realities that we are faced with. We are dealing with opponents who will make inaccurate, misleading, and dishonest claims, and then claim that we are whiners when we point that out. It must be nice to argue without having to worry about your scruples acting up. I really should try it someday.

Kerns continues:
A reasonable observer might note that many ID advocates appear exceptionally well-educated, reasonable, and articulate; they might also note that ID advocates have pointed out many problems with the Darwinist catechism that even pro-Darwin scientists have been known to concede, when they think the Jesus-kissing crowd isn't listening.
Back in the good old days of usenet, this sort of thing used to be called the "lurkers support me in email" argument. Making a blanket statement about things that go on behind the scenes, without providing evidence to support any of it, is a common strategy. It's not a particularly honest strategy, but it is common. To the best of my own knowledge, as someone who has put a hell of a lot of time into both dealing with creationist lunacy and into studying evolution, the Intelligent Design folks have not made a single contribution to the field in any way - and that includes pointing out substantive problems with evolution.

The next reason that he gives is my favorite: "ID will win because it can be reconciled with any advance that takes place in biology, whereas Darwinism cannot yield even an inch of ground to ID."

Isn't it a wonderful argument? What he's saying boils down to this: ID will win because it can't possibly be refuted. To a lawyer like Kerns, that's a fantastic strength in an argument. To a scientist, that's proof that an argument is completely non-scientific in nature. Lest you think that I am somehow misrepresenting Kerns, here's the rest of this argument:
So you've discovered the missing link? Proven that viruses distribute super-complex DNA proteins? Shown that fractals can produce evolution-friendly three-dimensional shapes? It doesn't matter. To the ID mind, you're just pushing the question further down the road. How was the missing link designed? What is the origin of the viruses? Who designed the fractals? ID has already made its peace with natural selection and the irrefutable aspects of Darwinism. By contrast, Darwinism cannot accept even the slightest possibility that it has failed to explain any significant dimension of evolution. It must dogmatically insist that it will resolve all of its ambiguities and shortcomings -- even the ones that have lingered since the beginning of Darwinism. The entire edifice of Darwinian theory comes crashing down with even a single credible demonstration of design in any living thing. Can science really plug a finger into every hole in the Darwinian dyke for the next fifty years?
I really wish I could give this to the judge in the Dover case. This sums up, better than anything else that I have seen, the scientific principles involved. Evolution is a scientific theory. It has been subjected to tests, it is being subjected to tests, and it will continue to be subjected to tests. It stands a very real chance of failing some of these. It might, conceivably, be shown to be wrong. If it is, we will have to replace it with a better explanation, and that new explanation will have to be tested, retested, and tested again. If it fails, it will have to be replaced with a better explanation, and the process will continue. That is how knowledge advances. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, cannot be subjected to tests. It cannot be proven wrong ever, under any circumstances. It will be an explanation that cannot be replaced. That is how knowledge stands still.

Kerns has a couple of more reasons for his belief, relating to a perceived need to change the way science works in order to accommodate information theory (he seems to be blissfully unaware that information theory is doing just fine as things are) and the ability of humans to perceive design. (He argues that just because we are hardwired to detect design doesn't mean that design isn't there.) In the interests of getting a decent night's sleep, I'm going to slide past those and move on to his conclusion:
The only remaining question is whether Darwinism will exit gracefully, or whether it will go down biting, screaming, censoring, and denouncing to the bitter end.

It's tempting to let the nation go to hell in its own, uniquely American way, but I can't. For some strange reason, I think that it is important for us to give our children the best education that we can. In my mind, a twisted, unrecognizably distorted view of science doesn't begin to enter that picture. Mr. Kern might hope that we will go gently, but that will not happen. Intelligent Design is bad science, it is worse theology, and it is built on a foundation of dishonesty. The entire world could embrace it, but that wouldn't change those basic facts.

Not one of the reasons that Kerns gave to support his belief in the inevitable success of Intelligent Design has anything to do with the question of whether or not Intelligent Design is correct, or even whether it is scientific. To a certain degree, this makes sense. The battle over ID is not a scientific one, but a political struggle. Sadly, whether or not a position is right or wrong has become totally irrelevant to modern politics. Perception, spin, and how to manipulate popular opinion matter. Truth is meaningless.

I am not a politician. I am a scientist. Like most scientists, I believe that reality matters. Truth matters. Science matters. This may place me at odds with politicians. It may not endear me to Kerns and his ilk. It may not make me popular. None of that matters. I will not "go gracefully." I will stand up for what I know is right. To teach Intelligent Design is to lie to our children. That is wrong, and it does matter.
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