Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why Intelligent Design Isn't Science

First, if you haven't my last post, please do so.

Second, let me state, in case it matters to you, that I am a religious person. I'm active in a mainstream Christian church, and have been my entire life. But I am not here to proselytize, nor am I here to knock anyone's religion (or lack thereof); I consider religion an intensely personal matter. I write this blog to share my knowledge and excitement about science, particularly astronomy. My comments in this post are not a discussion of religion, but a discussion of science. (And I contend that the two are different, but not mutually exclusive. But that is a discussion for a different forum).

And last, let me remind everyone that this is just a blog post, so I can't cover every single detail of every single argument that's ever been made. If you want more detailed information, or if you want links to articles espousing the other side, go ahead and use Google or your favorite search engine. I guarantee you'll get a surplus of reading material.

As I mentioned in my last post, Texas is revising its state science standards this year. And this should interest all Americans, because Texas state education standards influence text books across the nation.

I think it is for this latter reason, combined with the fact that Texas is a socially conservative state, that proponents of an idea called "Intelligent Design" are making a big push to get that idea into the Texas state science standards. Further, they are on the verge of succeeding. Nearly half of the state school board, and fully half of the special commission set up to review science standards, publicly support Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design is an idea that evolved from Creationism, the idea the Earth was created exactly as described in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. Creationism (or "creation science") was effectively barred from public school science classrooms in a series of court rulings (most in the 1980s). Shortly thereafter, the term "Intelligent Design" appeared to describe a less overt version of Creationism.

Intelligent Design has many forms (and adherents to some versions are vehemently opposed to other versions), ranging from the fairly weak (that the Universe is so complex, there must be a "designer" behind it all, but otherwise modern science explains the natural world properly), to moderate (the Universe is old, modern science is mostly right, except for evolution, because every form of life, or maybe just humankind, was created in its current form by a "designer"), to strong flavors that are equivalent to Creationism (the Earth is 6000 years old, and any science that doesn't espouse this view is just wrong). And Intelligent Design backers have written scientific-sounding books (like Of Pandas and People), have a scientific-sounding institute (the Discovery Institute), and even have a few PhD scientists behind the idea. But none of this makes Intelligent Design scientific, let alone a true scientific theory.

Intelligent Design, regardless of whether or not it is true, is not science. Recall, scientific hypotheses and theories make specific predictions that, if they don't come true, invalidate the theory. For example, let's look at some real astronomy-related theories:

  • Einstein's Theory of General Relativity -- Einstein proposed this theory in a series of talks and papers around 1915. The theory was proposed, among other reasons, to make gravity consistent with Einstein's earlier Special Relativity. Einstein noticed that this idea could also explain why the planet Mercury didn't exactly orbit the sun like Newton's Laws said it should. Quickly, it was realized that General Relativity made some testable predictions. It said gravity should bend light, so stars very close to the sun's position in the sky should appear in slightly different locations than when the sun is in another part of the sky. This prediction was quickly proven correct. Many other tests have also since been proposed, and all are consistent with General Relativity. If relativity had failed any of these tests, the theory would have been discredited. Instead, Einstein remains an icon of scientific genius.
  • The Big Bang Theory -- The Big Bang theory was first proposed in 1931 by a Belgian physicist (and Catholic priest!), Georges LemaĆ®tre. The idea naturally comes out of Einstein's General Relativity (though Einstein himself hated it at first), and it explained why most galaxies in the Universe appear to be moving away from us. The Big Bang implied that, at some point billions of years ago, the entire Universe was compressed into a tiny point in space and time, and something like an explosion propelled it outward. Many astronomers thought that this idea was quite silly (the name "Big Bang" was given to it by a famous, intelligent, and ultimately wrong astronomer named Fred Hoyle). But the theory made two very specific predictions. It predicted that the Universe should be bathed in microwave light, an "echo" of the Big Bang. It also predicted that roughly 75% of the atoms in the Universe should be hydrogen, and most of the rest helium (at the time, these numbers were unknown, and no other theory predicted this composition). When the Cosmic Microwave Background was discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1964, and again when it was found that the Universe is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium in the predicted ratios, the theory passed its first two big tests.

When both of these now iconic theories were proposed, they were not instantly accepted by the scientific community. They were not taught in elementary or high schools. They were considered kinda wacky. But because they made specific predictions, and because those predictions held up to scrutiny, these two ideas were accepted as viable scientific theories. Many people received Nobel Prizes. High-school text books were re-written to discuss this. Disproven theories fell by the wayside. That's the way science is supposed to work.

Intelligent Design does not make specific predictions. There is no test I can run where the results would prove that there is no need for an intelligent designer. If a hypothesis cannot be falsified, it is not a scientific hypothesis. Until Intelligent Design makes a testable prediction, it cannot be considered scientific.

There is one other important point about the non-scientific nature of Intelligent Design. Many of the arguments voiced as supporting Intelligent Design are really just pointing out supposed problems in the primary competing theories. For example, the idea of "irreducible complexity" claims that there are complicated parts of living things (like the eyeballs or blood clotting) that serve no purpose if they are not found in their current, complete form. Let's ignore the fact that most biologists can prove this is not valid, and let's even assume for the moment that irreducible complexity exists in the world. This does not prove that there must be a creator. Perhaps there is some other means of "irreducibly complex" features appearing that hasn't been proposed. It's sort of like coming home from vacation, finding your house is gone and saying, "Well, it didn't rain, so there wasn't a flood. The IRS must have repossessed it and taken it," when in reality a tornado had carried your house away. In science, ruling out one idea doesn't prove any alternatives. So, just because existing theories may not be able to explain every aspect of the world around us does not mean that there must be a creator behind it all.

In short, Intelligent Design should not be taught in science classes because it is not science. And until Intelligent Design can make specific, testable predictions (where a failure of the prediction would mean that Intelligent Design is wrong), it is not science.

Lastly, it is important to know that science is not anti-religious. Science is a well-defined process for exploring the natural world. It is a very good tool, too. But science is not the only tool in the box. Science cannot tell us whether Charles Dickens wrote better stories than Victor Hugo. Science cannot tell us whether we should buy the black shoes or the brown shoes. Science cannot tell us whether or not Henry the Eighth was a good husband. Science cannot tell us whether or not there is a deity. Anyone who claims otherwise is mixing science with other subjects.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that Intelligent Design is not science, but rather theology. There are appropriate places for theological discussions, but the science classroom is not an appropriate place. In fact, if Texas were to adopt any portion of Intelligent Design into the classroom, the state should expect strong opposition, including lawsuits on constitutional grounds. And those lawsuits would succeed, but not until costing the state millions of dollars and throwing science education in the state into tremendous disarray.


  1. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Actually, I have no problems with "Intelligent Design" being taught in the school, if the course material teaches the students how it actually operates.

    What are the physical and biological changes, demonstrated in a classroom setting, which can teach students how organism can be altered?

    The primary question has always been:


    Simply demand that "how it works" be taugh in the classroom, and I see absolutly no problems with this subject.

  2. I have no problem with "Intelligent Design" being taught in school, perhaps in a comparative religion class. Course materials would be the Bible of course. I.D., for the reasons mentioned in the post, does not belong in a Science classroom.

  3. Evolution is also a non-falsifiable theory. What discovery could be made that would make you abandon it? We have found supposedly 50 million year old animals alive today. Evolutionists did not bat an eye. No one stopped to question why such a thing occurred.

    1. Anonymous12:36 PM

      Rabbit bones in the pre-cambrian layer