Is Intelligent Design scientific?

Intelligent Design
Intelligent Design is the idea that life as we know it was designed and that evolution is a myth. It is essentially creationism dressed up to sound sciency and so the claim is presented without all the religious terminology.

This topic has popped up because the Discovery Institute, the primary promoters of the idea, have announced that Wikipedia has won their censorship award because Wikipedia supposedly misrepresent intelligent design as pseudoscientific and not scientific.

Let’s take a look.

The Award

David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, writes about them bestowing the Award upon Wikipedia. As you read the following you can still feel the original spittle drooling from his fingers as he typed it …

Wikipedia Earns Censor of the Year Tag for Botching Evolution, Intelligent Design

For 2018, we’ve chosen what is I think our best, or rather worst, COTY yet: the omnipresent online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Let’s review the facts briefly.

Intelligent design poses an ultimate question: Does nature offer evidence of purpose and design, or not? All thoughtful people must ask themselves that. Today, the natural first recourse for the questioning individual is to turn to Google. Looking up ID online will bring you immediately, the first entry, to the Wikipedia article. It commences with a lie:

“Intelligent design (ID) is a religious argument for the existence of God, presented by its proponents as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins”, [sic] though it has been discredited as pseudoscience.”

Actually, there are three lies. Here’s the truth: ID is a scientific, not a religious argument. It is a theory of evolution, of why the forms of life originated and changed over the past 3.9 billion years. An alternative to the increasingly shaky neo-Darwinian theory of blind churning, it argues exclusively in scientific terms, never from religious authority. It’s an argument for design in biology and cosmology, not for the “existence of God.”

OK, so let’s step back and ask a rather key question.

What does the word Scientific actually mean?

When we use the term “Scientific” what we are doing is describing a process that involves formulating a testable hypothesis to explain something that has been observed and then testing it to verify that the hypothesis is not wrong.

The hypothesis needs to be a testable and falsifiable if it is to be of any use – if you can’t verify it then it is of no value.

“Scientific” does not accurately describe “Intelligent Design”.

What you will often commonly find is an attack upon some specific aspect of evolutionary biology and so we are supposed to follow a line of reasoning that rolls like this – Here is a criticism of one very specific bit of evidence for evolutionary biology (that might or might not be correct, usually it is not), hence all of evolutionary biology is wrong and design is the right answer.

What is perhaps a far better way of thinking about all of this is to step right back and approach it like this.

  • As a thought experiment, let’s make an assumption that nobody knows anything about evolutionary biology or any of the associated evidence for it. The entire topic is a complete mystery, an unknown, and nobody has any explanation.
  • Into the arena comes the idea of Intelligent Design – the idea that life as we know it was designed and this is why things are the way they are?

Now ask yourself this – How exactly do we test this idea, what possible means do we have for verifying it and working out if life was or was not designed, how can we possibly falsify it?

That’s generally the cue for a stunned silence.

There are of course attempts to answer that question, but so far nothing credible has been presented.

Think of it this way – can you actually dream up anything at all that could not be labelled to have been “designed” that way?

The point is this – if you can’t actually formulate a testable falsifiable hypothesis then its not science.

This is not an opinion, it’s a legal fact – The Dover Trial

Back in 2005 there was a rather famous trial. In October 2004, the Dover Area School District of York County, Pennsylvania changed its biology teaching curriculum to require that intelligent design be presented as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Eleven parents objected and sued the school district, hence it all went to trial.

This became the opportunity for the leading lights within the intelligent design community to present an evidence-based argument that it was a credible scientific idea, and so the Discovery Institute stepped into the arena with all their subject matter experts. The trial itself went on for 40 days and in the end ID failed.

At the time the ID proponents were confident that they would win because the Judge was a Republican appointed religious conservative. Unfortunately for them he was not an activist who permitted personal beliefs to trump facts.

Judge Jones issued a 139 page findings of fact in Nov 2005. Below are a few extracts  …

  • For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the religious nature of ID [intelligent design] would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child. (page 24)
  • A significant aspect of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is that despite Defendants’ protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious argument. In that vein, the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity. (page 26)
  • The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism. (page 31)
  • The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory. (page 43)
  • Throughout the trial and in various submissions to the Court, Defendants vigorously argue that the reading of the statement is not ‘teaching’ ID but instead is merely ‘making students aware of it.’ In fact, one consistency among the Dover School Board members’ testimony, which was marked by selective memories and outright lies under oath, as will be discussed in more detail below, is that they did not think they needed to be knowledgeable about ID because it was not being taught to the students. We disagree. … an educator reading the disclaimer is engaged in teaching, even if it is colossally bad teaching. … Defendants’ argument is a red herring because the Establishment Clause forbids not just ‘teaching’ religion, but any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing religion. (footnote 7 on page 46)
  • After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. … It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (page 64) [for “contrived dualism”, see false dilemma.]
  • [T]he one textbook [Pandas] to which the Dover ID Policy directs students contains outdated concepts and flawed science, as recognized by even the defense experts in this case. (pages 86–87)
  • ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID. (page 89)
  • Accordingly, 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, in violation of the Establishment Clause. (page 132)

You can read a great deal more about it all here.

The key point is this – the idea that Intelligent Design is scientific has been very robustly tested. The Intelligent Design community had a golden opportunity for their very best subject matter experts to make a solid evidence-based case but were unable to do so. The legal evidence-based conclusion is that …

“ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory”

One last Observation

Within the context of his award Mr Klinghoffer goes on to claim that Intelligent Design … hasn’t been “discredited”.

Given what happened at the Dover trial, that’s not exactly an honest statement of fact, but I suspect he hopes you don’t get to find out about it all.

What became apparent to everybody during the trial is that honesty was a rather elusive concept for many within the Intelligent Design community. That’s not an option, the judge specifically used the term “selective memories and outright lies under oath” to describe the behaviour of the defendants within his findings of fact.

A decade later that has apparently not changed, and that alone tells you a great deal about the reliability of anything that Mr Klinghoffer might claim.

Further Reading

  • The Wikipedia Page on Intelligent Design quite correctly labels it as a pseudoscientific claim that is basically religious. The folks over at the Discovery Institute bestow the title of “censor” upon Wikipedia for that – If what they claim is correct then it should be easy to refute with evidence, but so far they have been unable to do so.
  • RationalWiki takes the same stance.

Incidentally, if you still wonder if the Discovery Institute is really a scientific endeavour and not religious, then you should perhaps check out the details on their Wedge document where they plainly state that their agenda is overtly religious and not scientific.

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