Thursday, May 3, 2007

The intelligent design debate

It is apparent to any news-savvy biologist that the intelligent design debate has an interesting hold on the American public consciousness and a consequent impact on both the perceived character of the American scientific establishment and the interface between scientific research and society. The character of the debate is, interestingly, capable of shedding light on the prejudices of both groups (the scientific establishment and the public) and is informative and important as a result of this capability.
Depending on who is debating and why, the debate seems to take two forms. There is substantial tendency for the scientific perspective to take up the gauntlet of defending a secular perspective (agnostic or atheist no matter) and then face the retort that intelligent design "theory" does not stem from a theology but rather a branch of scientific inquiry. There are two problems with this and the first is simply that science is a methodology and not a metaphysics. Science and religion are both ways of rendering out of experience an epistemology but they differ radically in almost every other respect. Accused of Materialism many scientists would, quite rightly, feel maligned. For many scientists a religious world view need not contradict or impede acceptance of any scientific theory suitably postulated and tested. Those who use the debate about intelligent design to further the agenda of secularism seem to be saying religious people are so stupid they perpetually come up with hair-brained bogus notions just to spite us. This is reprehensible to say the least, but no more than the alternative. When Creationists attempt to foist onto the public a religious doctrine utilizing the argument that it is scientifically based inquiry or theory they are guilty of the sin of duplicity and also of a misunderstanding of the way hypothesis testing works.
If the debate is not railroaded into a theological or semantic direction though, the second form it seems to take is about whether or not the "theory" of intelligent design is testable scientifically. They usually then go on to cite supporting evidence that is based on irreducible complexity in biological and astronomical systems. The horrible flaw here is that we as scientists do not set out to support our hypotheses but instead to attempt to disprove them. This keeps us from the temptation of "Cherry-picking" data. It makes bias unlikely, or at least much less likely. Intelligent design theorists do not postulate hypotheses and set about gathering evidence to disprove them. They do just the opposite. If they looked for disproof they would find it in such great abundance that they wouldn't have time to teach Sunday school or run school boards in Kansas.