Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What kind of BS is ID?

There's an interesting exchange between Steven Novella and Jason Rosenhouse over the grounds for the conclusion that intelligent design (ID) is nonsense. Novella claims that the fundamental flaw of ID is its unfalsifiability -- that its proponents refuse to offer (let alone validate) a body of specific, testable predictions, but slip from one claim to another as the evidence fails them:

The challenge that remains open for the ID community is to state a specific prediction about what positive evidence should be present if life were top-down intelligently designed. They cannot do this. Their predictions are all negative - what evolutionary theory won’t be able to do. And worse their negative predictions are all constantly changing in order to keep one step ahead of the advance of evolutionary science (making ID functionally a god-of-the-gaps argument).
Rosenhouse sees an even more fundamental rot at the foundation of ID, that it is simply wrong:
The reality is much simpler and so much more powerful. ID's scientific claims are rejected because they are wrong, in precisely the same sense that it is wrong to say that 1+1=3. ID claims are wrong independent of whether evolution in its modern form is substantially correct. If tomorrow a stunning discovery is made that shows common descent to be a lot of nonsense, it will still be true that William Dembski's probability calculations are meaningless. It will still be true that his use of the No Free Lunch theorems is not legitimate. It will still be true that “irreducibly complex” biological systems can evolve via a variety of well-understood mechanisms.
I think they're both right, and I think both would agree with the others' specific points, differing mostly in where to place the emphasis. In part I think it reflects a difference of perspective between doing science (Rosenhouse) and doing philosophy of science (Novella), although given the fact that evolutionary science is under constant attack, this distinction is frequently collapsed: people doing heads-down research in biology will, sooner or later, be forced into 'meta' discussions of science and its impact on wider questions of society, religion, and epistemology, whether they're drawn to such discussions or not.

In a comment on Rosenhouse's post, Novella says:
Keep in mind that ID was created for the very purpose of expanding the definition of science - this is actually THE fight. Everything else - while legitimate and important - is actually a distraction. [emphasis mine]
He correctly identifies the fight. Getting the facts right can only take the fight so far before the matter spills into how we arrive at facts and how we distinguish facts from non-facts. No amount of framing can banish or forestall engagement with these larger questions.

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