A good day for science

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2005 12:22 pm

The verdict in the Dover intelligent-design trial is in! To nobody’s surprise, it’s a rout.

HARRISBURG, Pa. – “Intelligent design” is “a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory” and cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said Tuesday, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial.

Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he wrote in his 139-page opinion. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy,” Jones wrote, adding that several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs.

Judge Jones’s opinion is online (pdf); commentary from PZ and Ed Brayton. Overall, a huge, unambiguous win: not only were the creationists shot down, but their religious and anti-science agenda was made perfectly clear.

Not that the battles are over just yet. DarkSyde has an interview with Chris Mooney about his book The Republican War on Science. We have a long way to go, but it’s nice to win one decisively once in a while.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Politics
  • http://tingilinde.typepad.com steve
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  • http://feynman137.tripod.com/ Science

    Will this have drastic repercussions for the teaching of advanced physics?

    For example, will all mention of ‘string theory’ and other belief-based speculations masquerading as science be banned? (Or will they escape censure yet again because they have ‘authority figures’ supporting them?) ;-)

  • Richard E.

    Not only that, the judge ripped them a second one. I scanned the decision over lunch, and the decision effectively argues that the proponents of ID perjured themselves when they gave evidence as to their motives for pushing the curriculum change.

    Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

    To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

    The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

    With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID
    have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom. Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court.
    Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

  • http://feynman137.tripod.com/ Science

    ‘… the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis…’

    Gosh, this is better than expected. Sounds just like Peter Woit’s verdict on ‘string theory’! :-)

  • Rien

    Science, could you just please stop comparing string theory to ID. This is just such an irrelevant comparison. ID wants to replace science with religion. String theory wants to improve scientific understanding. It would be much more interesting to discuss the demise of ID here.

    For example, how will they brand their new strand of creationism this time? We’re bound to see some new concept popping up soon. And will Judge Jones be swiftboated, or do they realize it is a lost cause?

  • Doug K

    oh, I like “breathtaking inanity”..

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Too bad that ID has been hijacked by fundamentalists. Essentially, though it hasn’t been proven valid science, it’s not an unintelligent inference. We can’t know at this time that ID as a simple (not polemic) concept is either wrong or will be always unfalsifiable.

    Pseudo-science has no place in publicly funded classrooms, but surely any science that purports to disallow any possibility of Creation (in some manner or other) would be equally arbitrary – right?

  • Dissident

    Sisyphus, how would you propose do falsify ID? Or creationism in general?

    Ultimately, it can always be claimed that the world as we observe it was created and set in motion just a second ago, complete with fossils in the ground, CMB in the sky and personal memories in our heads. There is no way to either prove or disprove it. For all we know, it could be objectively true (whatever that means) but if so, it’s a truth beyond the reach of the scientific method. Science doesn’t “disallow” it; rather, science has nothing to say about it. It’s not a scientific theory and doesn’t belong in a science class, but that’s not synonymous with “wrong”.

  • Chris W.

    From Salon, more on that “national public interest law firm” and the way it represented the school board’s case.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Dissident: Certainly, at this time we can’t conceive of any way to falsify ID or creationism, but as these ideas evolve they may come to depend on necessary supporting theories that are falsifiable. Even if they, per se, are not ultimately destined to be good science by today’s standards of science, their credibility may be enhanced/reduced by good science.

    The argument that the world was created a moment ago and that we are deluded in believing otherwise is a variation on the old (and tough to crack) solipsistic idealism. The trouble with this approach is that it makes all assertions/beliefs equally suspect, including the assertion/belief that it’s all in our minds. (I know, I know – it’s much bigger than that)

    You’re right, of course, to be dubious about objectivity, but that’t a very big discussion.

    Science, as we hope it’s taught in the lower levels of the academic pyramid, should be neutral on ultimate cause – as you indicate.

    Incidentally, for all we know, string theory may succeed and bring us closer to some form of creationism.. but you’ve probably already considered that possibility.

    And, for sure, ‘unscientific’ isn’t synonymous with ‘wrong’.

    I don’t think we’re in disagreement here.. yet. I agree that some things are probably beyond the reach of the scientific method in its present state, but science’s methodology itself may evolve into something very different from what it is today and then – who knows?

    Apologies for the delays in responding, but I can only afford sporadic visits.

    Regards,
    S

  • AnonymousCliffordFan

    OT: Wheres Clifford? I hope he is OK!

  • http://feynman137.tripod.com/ Science

    Rien, you say ‘String theory wants to improve scientific understanding.’ There is no scientific string theory, saying there are unobservable strings and refusing to face the facts (see my page, it isn’t ‘my’ theory but a compilation of many people’s work). The abuse that SCIENCE gets from string theory shows how far it has gone into a hardened orthodoxy that is even more malicious than ID. Thanks for your abuse, its good to document bigotry.

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  • Dissident

    No sisyphus, the scientific method can not “evolve” into “something very different from what it is today”. It certainly can be (and constantly is) misrepresented as something very different, for obvious propagandistic reasons, but that doesn’t and will never make creationism science.

    As for string “theory”, belief in it is just that: belief. If no way is found out of the landscape picture, that’s a terminal condition. In that sense, strings could indeed be said to have moved their supporters closer to creationism – and in equal measure, further away from science.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I dissent – it is a good day for the Republic and its separation of religion and state, and it is a good day for the citizens in Dover. However, science does not advance by the rulings of a court. I doubt anyone has acquired a more scientific temper by virtue of the court verdict.

  • Not a String Theorist

    sisyphus,
    creationism and ID (and much of modern religion) are *constructed* to be non-testable. Perhaps their proponents fear what the results of such testing would be?

    Things would be a lot different if there were some, you know, actual evidence of supernatural intervention; and I’m sure that many scientists would rise to the occasion to study, hypothesize, and test those interventions. But unfortunately, what claims there are turn out to be 99.9% bullshit; it’s not much of a leap to conclude that the other
    0.1% is bullshit as well.

    Perhaps we’re all just blindly overlooking the obvious evidence that the planets are guided in their orbits by multitudes of angels. Amazingly enough, those angels seem to be just incredibly apt at simulating newtonian gravity.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Intervention doesn’t need to be supernatural. So even if evidence for ID were found it wouldn’t have much relevance to question of the possible existence of a God. We humans can create things, yet we are not supernatural.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Dissident: The “thought experiment”, always a mainstay in philosophy, is more and more necessary to the development of scientific hypotheses (Relativity, QM); in this sense alone, scientific methodology is evolving.

    Any hypothesis that turns out to be good was good before its predictions were tested in the “material” world; it simply wasn’t validated. As physics delves deeper and deeper into the quiddity of the world, it may have to rely more and more on “unproven” bridge hypotheses and theories whose predictions can’t be tested for practical reasons (including the limits to our abilities to make observations).

    In any case, I still maintain that the scientific method can evolve; if it can evolve, it can evolve into something very different from what it is today.

  • http://www.math.washington.edu/~doherty Davis

    Too bad that ID has been hijacked by fundamentalists.

    Not so much “hijacked by,” as “originated by in order to evade the Supreme Court decision on teaching creationism.”

    Essentially, though it hasn’t been proven valid science, it’s not an unintelligent inference.

    Uninformative, though. If you allow an intelligent designer, it then becomes necessary to ask “who designed the designer?” And then, “who designed the designer’s designer?” Ad infinitum. Pushing the difficulties and complexities off somewhere else, rather than explaining them, is not much of a scientific theory.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Davis says : Uninformative, though. If you allow an intelligent designer, it then becomes necessary to ask “who designed the designer?” And then, “who designed the designer’s designer?” Ad infinitum. Pushing the difficulties and complexities off somewhere else, rather than explaining them, is not much of a scientific theory.

    Can’t we just regulate it away?

    (Ok ok I keed!)

  • http://www.math.washington.edu/~doherty Davis

    The “thought experiment”, always a mainstay in philosophy, is more and more necessary to the development of scientific hypotheses (Relativity, QM); in this sense alone, scientific methodology is evolving.

    I would argue the opposite — thought experiments are becoming less and less useful in the development of scientific hypotheses, both because they can lead to wrong conclusions in counterintuitive fields like quantum physics (cf. Einstein and QM), and because modern physics is moving even more toward non-intuitive (not even counterintuitive) theories because of its heavily mathematical nature.

    On the other hand, classical physicists like Newton could easily employ thought experiments to help develop theories, and likely did.

  • http://www.math.washington.edu/~doherty Davis

    Eugene:
    Can’t we just regulate it away?

    Ah, the Unified Theory of Bureaucracy!

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Davis: The idea that the extent of order we find in the world suggests a grand intent is quite ancient, although Heraclitus et al didn’t label it specifically ID (or the Greek equivalent).

    The “who designed the designer?” argument is dispensed with by the creationists’ transcendent God that exists “out of time” – in eternity – and therefore requires no explanation in terms of origin. It’s only recently that mainstream creationists have felt it necessary to go scientific, perhaps that’s because, as you say, they feel it’s a way around legal barriers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Thought experiments are great fun, and sometimes useful in developing hypotheses. They are also sometimes useful ways to probe the consistency of a theory. However, their use in no way represents the evolution of the scientific method. At the end of the day you have to explain all the data so far, and make predictions that can be tested and potentially used to falsify the idea. How one came up with the hypothesis is entirely irrelevant to the scientific method.

    I don’t wish to suggest that anyone in this thread is doing this, but there has been a fairly continuous stream of suggestions coming out of the Discovery Institute and some of its associates along the lines of the evolution of the scientific method. Behe even mentioned it in his Dover testimony, after which he was forced to agree that, under his evolved definition of the method, astrology would qualify as a science.

    We have lots of other things that will immediately qualify as science once one changes the definition of science: religion; superstitions; belief in the paranormal; and even the wishful thinking of well-intentioned scientists. The scientific method is what distinguishes science from such ideas.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Mark: I have no agenda here, nor any knowledge of the Discovery Institute, but I have a problem with accepting the notion that anything in this world, including scientific method, is so monolithically integrated and independent of its environment that it’s incapable of adaptation.

    The strength of the hypothesis-prediction-testing-observation chain is questionable (IMO). How do we protect observation from paradigm-contamination? How do we deal with predictions that can’t be meaningfully tested because observation alters results? And what do we do with hypotheses (dealing with unavoidable subjects) that are mathematically sound but are incapable of making testable predictions?

  • zilch

    The “who designed the designer?” argument is dispensed with by the creationists’ transcendent God that exists “out of time” – in eternity – and therefore requires no explanation in terms of origin.

    The problem with this explanation is that it leaves us with a “transcendent God that exists out of time”- in other words, it is no explanation at all, but simply the positing of a rug we may not look under.
    For a solution that doesn’t involve eternal Gods, or an infinite stack of turtles, check out my exclusive interview with the Designer of God, Mrs. Tibbit.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Zilch: Good interview. Strange situation, though – both believers and non-believers in God and Tibbit are still awaiting the advent of reason.

    Meanwhile, if, however unlikely it may seem, ID should eventually pass the science criteria, which would take precedence – upholding a law based on good political reasoning or upholding the truth? (assuming bona fide science is truth)

  • A student

    I still don’t get why there is anything wrong with a theory that has a great body of circumstantial evidence behind it, and absolutely no conclusive proof against it. I don’t understand why we as scientists pan the idea of intelligent design. The fact is, we really have no idea what’s out there.
    In my opinion, it is impossible to completely discard the idea of intelligent design. Though I’m not a creation activist, I am forced to admit that:

    a)There is no scientific reason to reject the possibility of the existence of a higher power. No, we cannot conclusively measure it or quantify its existence. But quantum mechanics arrived a long time ago, and hardly anyone believes in limitless powers of observation anymore. In other words, the fact that we can’t measure it does not mean it doesn’t exist. There are a lot of things we can’t measure that are certainly real enough… the other side of the event horizon comes to mind. (And according to many physicists, reality includes such mysteries as M-theory, the Higgs boson, et cetera.)

    b) The theory makes sense. Having a higher power create the universe certainly solves a lot of problems; it makes the entire question of origin a great deal simpler. How did penguins survive more than one generation in Antarctica before they evolved the group dynamics to form a working relationship between the mother and father for the survival of the chick? If we accept the possibility of intelligent design, it is obvious that the birds were created for life in Antarctica. There is no mental gymnastics, trying to fit the observed world with a certain theory.

    I am not a religious fanatic, and I try to be scientific. But the face of science is changing, and what was once considered the hobby of dreamers is now accepted fact. What would Galileo, with his rigid adherance to the experimental method, think of what is now modern science? Newton might or might not be ready for relativity. And we might or might not be ready for what very well may be out there.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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