Biology Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking

Intellectual curiosity at its finest

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgVacation time! While Orac is off in London recharging his circuits and contemplating the linguistic tricks of limericks and jokes or the glory of black holes, he’s rerunning some old stuff from his original Blogspot blog. This particular post first appeared on June 15, 2005. Enjoy!

One of the criticisms of “intelligent design” (ID) creationism is that it doesn’t really offer any new theory or even hypothesis to replace the theory of evolution, which it seeks to supplant (at least in the public schools). It merely exaggerates perceived weaknesses in evolutionary theory and misrepresents disagreements between scientists on the mechanisms by which evolution occurs as “proof” that the theory of evolution is “hopelessly flawed.” So, how does one ID advocate answer the question of what she would replace the theory of evolution with? With intellectual curiosity at its finest, of course!

Take a look at Denyse O’Leary’s response to a reader e-mail/comment asking “what she would replace Darwinism with”:

I don’t have to replace Darwinism with anything. Just as there is no good theory of the origin of life, it may be that there is no good theory of the development of life. That’s not my fault and, much as I might like to fix it, I can’t.

Ooh, boy.

Fortunately for all of us, science doesn’t work that way. If it did, we might all still be living in huts in small hunting and gathering societies and making tools of stone. Her statement is also more than a little disingenuous because, although she routinely touts ID and slams the theory of evolution on her blog, when asked what new theory in her opinion should replace “Darwinism,” she passes on the opportunity to voice her opinion. She punts. Instead of saying “intelligent design, of course” (which, given all that she’s written before and her labeling of herself as a “post-Darwinist,” is what she clearly seems to believe) she demurs, saying in effect “nothing.” Could it be that she is subconsciously conceding that ID is not a scientific theory in any real sense?

Later, she continues:

Even if I knew how to replace the Darwinbots’ superstition with a different one, why would I?

I’ll forgive Denyse (sort of), as a journalist, for thinking that such an attitude might be acceptable. (Maybe I shouldn’t forgive her, though. Can you imagine Woodward and Bernstein with such an attitude towards finding out about Watergate?) It’s a good thing Denyse isn’t a scientist, though. She wouldn’t last very long in the field at all. Scientists reject such a defeatist and dogmatic attitude because the very purpose of science is to work towards a better understanding of how nature works, of what the laws of nature are. By labeling a well-supported theory as a “superstition” that can be (or not be) replaced with a “different” superstition, she displays a profound ignorance of what a scientific theory is and what level of evidence is needed for a set of suppositions to rise to the level of a scientific theory. (She’s also profoundly annoying in the way that she so shamelessly hawks her book at the end of almost every post, leading to her nickname Denyse “Buy My Book” O’Leary.)

Let’s look at some real scientists, shall we, and imagine them if they had Denyse’s attitude towards the flaws in the accepted science of their days? What if Albert Einstein had looked at Newton’s Laws of Motion and, seeing the flaws in them that become apparent as objects reach velocities that are significant fractions of the speed of light, and had, as Denyse has done, thrown up his hands and said, “I don’t have to replace Newton’s Laws with anything; there just isn’t a good theory of motion”? What if Copernicus or Galileo, seeing the flaws in the geocentric concept of the universe, had thrown up their hands and said, “I don’t have to replace geocentrism with anything; there just isn’t a good theory of planetary motion”? What if Louis Pasteur, knowing the flaws in the understanding of how people got sick in his day (thought to be due to evil “humors” or “imbalances in bile,” concepts that, oddly enough, still persist in many altie circles), had simply thrown up his hands and said, “I don’t have to replace current theory of disease with anything; there just isn’t a good theory”? Fortunately, they were scientists. They looked at the data. They developed models, equations (when appropriate), and coherent sets of postulates to describe the phenomeon they were looking at and predict natural behavior. Then they finally came up with coherent theories that described the phenomenon in question. That’s what real scientists do when they encounter what they consider to be an incorrect or seriously flawed theory. They look for the evidence and models to come up with a better one! They certainly don’t just shrug and say, “there is no good theory” or “God did it” as ID advocates do. God may indeed have “done it,” but whether or not He did is not something that science can determine.

If you think I’m just picking on Denyse, I’m not. Unfortunately, this attitude runs rampant through the ID community. Some of the best examples came recently from the Kansas hearings on whether ID concepts should be taught in science classes. Red State Rabble, Panda’s Thumb, and Pharyngula have all been posting excerpts from the transcripts (excerpt 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) that make it abundantly clear the utter intellectual and scientific vacuity and disingenuousness of ID advocates. If, after reading these excerpts, you still have a strong enough stomach, the complete transcripts are here. It’s truly depressing reading.

In science, anyone who would tear down currently reigning theory is expected to propose something to replace it with and then defend that new theory or hypothesis. If they cannot, then there is no practical or intellectual reason to abandon current theory. Why? Even when it is flawed, a set of postulates only manages to rise to the level of being called a “theory” because scientists come to a consensus that that set of postulates represents the best understanding we currently have and thus has some utility to predict natural phenomenon and direct further research. And some utility is better than no utility, which is what tearing down current theory without proposing a competing theory to replace it is. That’s why simply tearing down evolution and saying that there is “no good theory” is not good enough. It is anti-science and anti-intellectualism. (No wonder ID is not taken seriously by serious biologists.) No, the flaws and weaknesses in present day theories are exactly what drive scientists to fill in the gaps to fine-tune accepted theories or even to come up with new theories that better describe and explain nature. In order to become accepted, any new theory seeking to supplant the old has to explain natural phenomenon better, account for the known data more completely, and predict the behavior of natural phenomena more accurately than current theory. It is possible, even likely, that someday another theory will supplant evolution. It will be a theory that takes into account any flaws in existing evolutionary theory in the light of new data, encompasses the new data, and explains both existing and new data and experimentation better than current theory. Given those requirements, that theory will almost certainly not be ID.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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