Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Not even wrong

In the debate over Intelligent Design, the ultimate put-down of the theory has been that it is not "science." Scientists are rigorously empirical and go only where the evidence will take them. This would be a good statement of the argument, taken from the review of a recently published and well received book by a mathematician named Peter Woit.

He grants that an explanation for [the origins of life]is usefully embedded in [intelligent design], but he challenges its authenticity as proper science. In his view, [intelligent design] offers no foreseeable prospect of making predictions, a crucial criterion for any theory worthy of the name. Matching the theory with the way we see the world, he argues, depends on believing in [something we can't see. Hence there is an infinite number of possible choices as to how one would make predictions, and nobody knows how to determine which choice is correct. The objection invokes the late Karl Popper’s widely accepted definition of science. An explanation is scientific, according to Popper, only if it can be used to make predictions of a kind that can be falsified: in other words, can be checked to be right or wrong.

It would be except Woit is not talking about intelligent design, but about the latest rage in theoretical physics, string theory. Here's what the review really says:

He grants that an explanation for gravity is usefully embedded in string theory, but he challenges its authenticity as proper science. In his view, string theory offers no foreseeable prospect of making predictions, a crucial criterion for any theory worthy of the name. Matching the theory with the way we see the world, he argues, depends on believing in sixseveral tiny unobserved spatial dimensions wrapped around each other. Hence there is an infinite number of possible choices as to how one would make predictions, and nobody knows how to determine which choice is correct. The objection invokes the late Karl Popper’s widely accepted definition of science. An explanation is scientific, according to Popper, only if it can be used to make predictions of a kind that can be falsified: in other words, can be checked to be right or wrong.

The point is that science often doesn't respect the boundaries it wishes to erect against the challenges to its presuppositions. If only the material can be true and the material explanations don't jibe, then the "God of the gaps" must become some unproven material explanation.

6 comments:

elliot said...

No offense, Rick, but you're not very clear here.

It sounds like you're accusing science of being hypocritical, but I'm not even sure about that.

John McAdams said...

Not only do scientists believe empirical theories that don't meet Popper's standards, they believe a bunch of normative propositions that can't possibly be proven scientifically.

How can they reject the Nazi experiments on human subjects, for example? Only be invoking some notion of "human dignity" that's not empirically provable.

Basically, in spite of all their blather about the pristine nature of the logic of science, "science" is a cultural phenomenon, chock-full of cultural biases.

No matter how useful scientists are, a lot of them are philosophically naive.

Rick Esenberg said...

Ellott

The point is this: ID is criticized as unscientific because it proposes what is said to be an unverifiable answer to unexplained phenomena, i.e., the development of life. (This is assuming you accept ID's scientific criticism of neo-Darwinism.)


Here, scientists have proposed an equally unverifiable - but this time materialist - answer to unexplained phenomena and most of the scientific community embraces it as the lastest thing.

elliot said...

OK. Gotcha.

Then I can say that I don't pretend to comprehend string theorem, but my understanding is that arises from observations that are experimentally verifiable.

In other words, it's a theory proposed to explain observable/verifiable phenomena.

And if an experimental result arises that proves the theory is wrong or unworkable it will be modified or abandoned.

Also, practical physicists will continue to try to find a way to directly prove or disprove string theory through experimentation.

Can you say that any of that is true with Intelligent Design?

ID is NOT a science.

You might have an interesting point that theoretical physics is not a true science either (and I might agree with you there, just like I would I argue that pyschology isn't really a science either), but that still doesn't make ID a scientific explanation and thus it should not be presented as one in a science class.

I have to admit, I don't get the point of this argument. Science is not religion and religion is not science. Where we get into trouble is when religious people insist on posturing their beliefs as science (IA) or when scientests insist on using their tools to try to displace religion.

Rick Esenberg said...

Ah, but the point of the book is that string theory is not verifiable because it relies on positing unobservable things about which no definitive set of predictions can be made.

I can't say whether that is so although some rather heavy duty scientists believe that it is so.

The proposition that life evolved in an entirely random and undirected process strikes me the same way. How would you falsify that? How would you verify it? Observing change over time just doesn't get you there.

Dean said...

I left my opinion at elliot's place, but I pretty much agree with Rick.

One observable phenomenon can lead to two different conclusions; happens all the time.