11 November 2005

The Washington Post misses the point

An editorial in today's Washington Post discusses the school board election in Dover, Pennsylvania. The editorial makes a number of excellent points about the nature of the Intelligent Design controversy. They point out that getting thrown out of office is one of the risks you take when you play politics, and that the Intelligent Design movement relies entirely on politics to get their material into schools. They also point out that while the Discovery Institute claims to lack religious motivation, many of the people pushing Intelligent Design at the local level are clearly religiously motivated.

Those are all very good points, and it is definitely nice to see a newspaper like the Washington Post take an editorial position that favors teaching real science. Unfortunately, this editorial also makes a fundamental mistake when it discusses an issue related to the history of Intelligent Design, and this mistake leads to a conclusion that ends up just a bit wide of the mark.

The Post's mistake in relating the facts of the ID movement comes in the second paragraph of the editorial, when they say:
"Because advocates of intelligent design have never been able to convince scientists that their theory has scientific merit, they've relied on political methods to get it into school curriculums."
Both clauses of this sentence are pretty much accurate. Intelligent Design proponents have not convinced scientists that their theory has any merit (scientific or otherwise), and they have in fact relied entirely on political methods to wedge their "theory" into public school science classrooms. The problem with the statement rests with the choice of conjunction. Had the Post joined the clauses with "and," they would be entirely correct. Unfortunately, they chose "because" instead.

The Intelligent Design proponents were using politics to push their material long before they ever even attempted to convince scientists of anything. In fact, they have put virtually no effort whatsoever into arguing for Intelligent Design within the scientific community. In science, you convince other scientists that your ideas have merit by devising experiments to test them, carrying out those experiments, and publishing the results in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Intelligent Design advocates did not shift to using political methods to advance their agenda because they tried and failed to convince scientists that they were correct. They used political methods to advance their agenda instead of trying to use scientific methods to convince scientists that their ideas have merit. This is still the route that they are taking. There are individual graduate students who have managed to exceed the peer-reviewed journal output of the entire Intelligent Design movement this year.

The editorial concludes:
"[Elections are] a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but once that controversy has been politicized, it's hard to see how it can be resolved any other way."
I absolutely agree that elections are a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but that is not what is happening here. Intelligent Design is not a scientific controversy. For Intelligent Design to be a scientific controversy, they would have had to actually make an effort to do science, and they would have had to actually try to convince scientists that their ideas have some merit. They have done neither.

What they have done is to make a strong effort to use political tactics to push their platform into the schools, and to use public relations tactics to convince people that their ideas represent a scientific controversy. Fortunately, the voters of Dover rejected their political tactics. Unfortunately, their public relations strategy appears to have worked on the editors of the Washington Post.

12 Comments:

Blogger DaveScot said...

"Because advocates of intelligent design have never been able to convince scientists"

That is so misleading it borders on outright fraud.

Advocates of intelligent design have been able to convince *some* scientists. A majority remains either unconvinced, frightened into silence or submission by the threat of career ruination such as what happened to Rick Sternberg, or merely silent due to apathy because mud to man evolution which can never be observed or repeated has absolutely no relevance to their work.

2:08 AM  
Blogger DaveScot said...

"What they [IDists] have done is to make a strong effort to use political tactics to push their platform into the schools"

http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

Perhaps they learned by example...

2:12 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Mr. Scot:

Scientific theories are hypothetico-deductive. That is, in order to qualify within the realm of rational inquiry, a theory must have deductive consequences that must be true in order for the theory to be true.

Naturalistic evolution has many.

I assert ID/Creationism doesn't have even one.

Show me I'm wrong.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

Advocates of intelligent design have been able to convince *some* scientists. A majority remains either unconvinced, frightened into silence or submission by the threat of career ruination such as what happened to Rick Sternberg, or merely silent due to apathy because mud to man evolution which can never be observed or repeated has absolutely no relevance to their work.

Conspiracy theories are the last refuge of kooks.

4:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because a "few" scientists "believe" does not warrant time in the classroom or lecture hall. Scientific theories are not challenged there, but in laboratories, conferences and peer-reviewed journals. Any science professor that doesn't recognize this should not be teaching. When theories become established in the scientific community, then and ONLY then should they be built into the curriculum. Students are ill-equipped to weigh the enormous amount of evidence for any theory, and cherry-picking does not do them any favors.

4:32 AM  
Blogger RPM said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but even though Sternberg was shown to be a creationist (baraminologist), he did not suffer from "the threat of career ruination." His position as managing editor of PBSW was set to expire, and as a final coup d'etat he published the Meyer paper. Once his editorial duties were complete, he still retained access to the Smithsonian archives. Even though his office did move, this was also part of the scheduled change in duties. He still retains a position at NCBI (see him credited at the bottom of this page: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Taxonomy/taxonomyhome.html/)

All Sternberg lost was whatever respect he had in the community.

4:45 AM  
Blogger josh narins said...

I, for one, am willing to lower the bar for the IDers here.

You say "In science, you convince other scientists that your ideas have merit by devising experiments to test them, carrying out those experiments, and publishing the results in the peer-reviewed literature."

I would be willing to have them devise experiments, carry them out, and publish the results anywhere!

5:58 AM  
Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

As to the WaPo claim that once an issue has been politicized, political means are the only means left to resolve the question, my experience with scientists has been the opposite. That is, once a putatively scientific issue has become political, scientists become much more insistent on seeing hard empirical data to resolve the matter. In a clash of views, scientists try to rely on the world (as accessed through careful observations) to tell what's what.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Russell said...

I see this blog too has been contaminated by davescot. Too bad. Oh, well. Poop happens. I assume no one is fooled by the preposterous assertion that "advocates of ID have never been able to convince scientists" borders on fraud, because "advocates of ID have been able to convince *some* scientists".

But just as an exercise in clear thinking, consider whether "advocates of young earth creationism have never been able to convince scientists" borders on fraud.

What I really meant to comment, though, was that I hope writers of letters to the WaPo editor will make the point that this post does.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm just a fifteen year old high school student, yet your struggle is not lost on me. My peers and I realize it is creeps like davescot who are really screwing with our future. I aplaud you guys for defending our freedoms. I'd like to tell you with sheer honesty that I would give my legs in order to do what you guys do on a daily basis. And that is defend science.

5:47 PM  
Blogger John Hewitt said...

For my part, I am too well qualified as a scientist to be impressed by the theory of intelligent design.
Nonetheless, here on this blog, and in many discussions this sort, I find the general claims made for science to be both disquieting and naive.
The people - be they scientist or lay - who advocate intelligent design are ultimately just people. The scientists who advocate evolution are also people. The two groups share the same basic brain layout and, I suppose, similar ultimate motivations.
In practice, it is extremely rare for scientists to allow their authority to be questioned and their responses to dissent are as intolerant and as political as any member of the intelligent design movement.
A good part of what is today presented as evolutionary theory is as ridiculous and prattling as anything from the ID movement, yet it is treated as if it were holy writ. Scientists could help their own case by putting their own house in order.

John Hewitt

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

John Hewitt wrote

For my part, I am too well qualified as a scientist to be impressed by the theory of intelligent design.


In what field, if I may ask?

Nonetheless, here on this blog, and in many discussions this sort, I find the general claims made for science to be both disquieting and naive.

Could you be more specific?

The people - be they scientist or lay - who advocate intelligent design are ultimately just people.


I can accept that they are honest in their beliefs but there is evidence that they have been disingenuous on occasion, to put it politely.

How many scientists of your acquaintance have attempted to further their pet theories by trying to have them included in high school science curricula before they have been accepted by the appropriate research community?

The scientists who advocate evolution are also people. The two groups share the same basic brain layout and, I suppose, similar ultimate motivations.


It is the question of "ultimate motivations" that seems to be the problem. If Intelligent Design is simply camouflaging ultimately religious objectives then the two groups do not share similar motivations.

In practice, it is extremely rare for scientists to allow their authority to be questioned and their responses to dissent are as intolerant and as political as any member of the intelligent design movement.


Scientists are as human as anyone else, so it would not be surprising if some scientists were sensitive to criticism and resistant to change.

On the other hand, they have a perfectly good defence in the scientific method: any new idea must earn acceptance by proving itself.

A good part of what is today presented as evolutionary theory is as ridiculous and prattling as anything from the ID movement, yet it is treated as if it were holy writ.


What did you have in mind?

Scientists could help their own case by putting their own house in order.


In particular, Intelligent Design could start by presenting a properly formulated hypothesis.

6:43 AM  

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