Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Science is Messy

The “polished myths” of the science we learn from books “submerge the false steps and halting uncertainties under a surface of orderly intellectual progress.” (James Gliek, Genius) Science research is not really nice and neat since it is done by human beings relying on human reason and afflicted by human failings. Although most teachers portray science as the most orderly process, it does not actually proceed according to a set of rules dictated by philosophers.

When scientists get to arguing about their favorite theories, the debate frequently devolves to the lowest common denominator. Does one or the other theory pass the test of falsifiability? If it cannot be proven false then it cannot be a scientific theory, so said Karl Popper. Through the ages falsifiability has been the bar: Lamark may have challenged Darwin about the real possibility of falsifying the evolution of species from the evidence of a few crumbly fossils. More recently, the early proponents of the Standard Model of Particle Physics were challenged by the seeming impossibility of isolating its fundamental component, the quark. How ever could such a theory be falsified? -- They were asked.

Today, the common objection to Intelligent Design is that it is not even science.

“There’s a deep flaw in the theory: No part of it has been tested and no one knows how to test it. No experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails.” QED. (I will return to this salient quote.)

Darwin’s theory of evolution claims that all living beings evolved through the process of natural selection upon random mutations. This claim has been applied to the first living cell, to micro-molecular machines, to the simplest animals and to human beings. It’s applied to body form and to mind. Evolution is a neat theory, partially validated, but it is the responsibility of its proponents to prove the validity of its major as well as minor points. Those who examine and criticize the evolution data are doing good service to science. Sadly, in critical areas this duty has been largely ignored by the biology community and left to the Intelligent Design (ID) community.

The converse view is that evolution is generally wrong, but perhaps right in limited cases. In this respect evolution might be compared to Newton’s gravity law which is a good approximation in many cases but not generally true, as Einstein showed. This converse point of view is equally scientific and the burden of proof is on the evolutionary proponents.

The essence of Intelligent Design is that there are elements of nature that exhibit features of design and could not have been created by survival of the fittest random mutations. As a statement of observable fact, design is obvious and unobjectionable. And just because it does not fit into a neat scientific structure does not mean it is untrue.

Furthermore, when applied to organisms such as elementary cells and micro-molecular machines and new species, the predictions of ID can indeed be tested by observation and scientific study. Biochemist Michael Behe is using the probe of irreducible complexity. Mathematician Bill Dembski uses specified complexity (Leslie Orgel) using his explanatory filter decision process. Origin-of-life scientist Steven Meyer studies evolution from the perspective of information theory. There are many other scientists and scientific approaches pursuing the truth about life and speciation.

But what about the falsifiability objection: “No experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails.” So it must be that a theory is wrong by definition if it cannot be falsified. Never mind if it's true.

Well those who are familiar with the theory of strings, the most fundamental theory in physics, might be surprised to know that the statement in quotes above was actually written by physicist Lee Smolin, and that he was criticizing string theory not ID. In The Trouble with Physics, Smolin describes how an orthodox devotion to string theory has hamstrung physics for over 25 years. He points out that string theory makes no new predictions that can be tested by current or reasonably conceivable experiments. What’s more, it comes in a nearly infinite number of versions so that no matter what the experiments show, string theory could never be disproved.

Yet, … popular books are written about string theory (see, eg, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimension by Lisa Randall, Harvard particle physicist), web sites are dedicated to helping schools teach the concepts of String Theory to kids (Superstringtheory
or the teacher’s guide on Elegant Universe) So the same kids who are not told about the problems of evolution and who continue to learn Darwinian myths like Haekel’s embryos, are being taught that space has 9 or 17 or who knows how many dimensions and that our universe is only one of zillions. Like it’s true!

And this theory has such a stranglehold on university physics departments that it is “practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field” (as Lee Smolin did before realizing that the emperor had no clothes).

Anyway, it is not my point to criticize string theory or loop quantum gravity (Smolin’s favorite) or any other scientific theory. Just do the work and let the chips fall where they may, whether it’s physics or evolutionary biology.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that we would inject philosophical rules about how to interpret scientific theories. Karl Popper, who you mention, is also one of the evil George Soro's intellectual mentors. That aside, "falsifiability" is not the rule by which scientific theories are evaluated. If this were true, then Newtons theories would have been rejected at their birth. To conflate the current controversy over string theory with intelligent design stretches the imagination. Ask any of the physicists who are critical of string theory what they think of ID. I think you know your answer. To suggest that since theories in their early development are indeed messy are comparable to evolutionary theory is incorrect. The ideas behind evolutionary theory are no longer debated, only by a very few. They have been tested and verified by multiple disciplines over 100 years. The problems with string theory don't even compare to solidity of evolutionary theory. Sorry, you're comparing apples and oranges.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Sorry to say that you are confused. That aside, Lee Smolin has been vigorously debating Leonard Suskind, the father of string theory, about its "falsifiability." These two famous physicists seem to think that falsifiability" is a rather important defining principle of science. Quoting Suskind: "Science is the horse that pulls the cart of philosophy." Popper might disagree.

Your second confusion is thinking that I am "conflating" strings with ID. Noooooo, I am saying that if "falsifiability" is a requirement for one science(ID) then it must be for the other sciences (evolution and strings). The argument against ID is dripping with hypocricy.

My third point that you seem to have missed is that evolution theory has been tested only in the small sense, consisting of minor modifications within species. Some call this micro-evolution. The macro questions, on the other hand, are in serious trouble and new discoveries in genetics only make the problems worse.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, Thank you !


1:56 PM  
Blogger Free Agency Rules said...


I think there are many, many people who share your view that Micro Evolution is full of facts that probably have correct conclusions, while Macro Evolution is full of Conclusions based upon some facts, but that the Conclusions are wrong or could be wrong.

Facts are always true by definition, but Conclusions and opinions may or may not be true.

The missing links in the Macro Evolution *theory* make the conclusions questionable at best.

That the street is wet is a fact. Drawing a conclusion that it therefore must have rained, is not.

Perhaps the street cleaner just sprayed the street.

That there are fossils of different species is factual.

The fact that some or all are similar can only be speculated upon. It may show that Macro Evolution is an opinion/theory or full of conclusions that may or may not be true.

Ever hear the old saying "Why reinvent the wheel?"

Why should God not use similar body parts when making different species? That doesn't mean they came from the same origin, only that they are similar.

Facts are true. Conclusions, opinions/theories may or may not be.


8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, be careful who you quote. Just because there is a debate in the physics community regarding string theory, don't think for a second that any of these scientists are creationists or believe in ID. I quote your favorite, Lee Smolin, who insists on falsifiability "It should not, after all, be surprising if people who believe that all truth comes from an ancient text disagree with Darwin, whose ideas are in no ancient text. Rather than bemoaning the fact that fundamentalists disagree with Darwin, let’s ask a much more interesting and disturbing question: Why do so many non-fundamentalist theologians and religious leaders have no trouble incorporating Darwin into their worldview?" and Leonard Suskind
"I suspect there is more at stake than biology textbooks in Kansas. As a longtime observer of the science-government-politics triangle, it looks to me as if there is another hidden agenda: to discredit the legitimate scientific community. A well-respected scientific community can be a major inconvenience if one is trying to ignore global warming, or build unworkable missile-defense systems, or construct multibillion-dollar lasers in the unlikely hope of initiating practicable nuclear fusion." I think professor Suskind breaks it all down. Those proponents of ID wish nothing other than to discredit our scientists when they tell them things they don't wish to hear, whether it be evolution or global warming.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess if falsifiability is the criterion for assessing the worth of a particular scientific field, we should just go ahead and get rid of astronomy and geology, and substitute astrology and geomancy.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Gayle said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Gayle said...

(The above post removed by me.)

Well, Bill, I can certainly see why you and Mahndisa get along so well! This is a bit over my head, to say the least. I'm better off sticking to politics! LOL!

I do not believe in the theory of evolution. I have to admit that I have no scientific basis for my non-belief in it; it comes from my faith in God, period. I don't feel the need to prove that God exists, either; I believe it is up to those who do not believe in Him to prove he doesn't! I wish them lots of luck with that.

Now to go read your last post, which I have a much better chance of understanding. ;)

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you. At least you admit it. It's fine not to believe in evolution, if you don't want to. Even those of us who have some understanding of the science really aren't the experts. It really comes down to, do you believe the scientific community or do you believe your Bible? The Intelligent Design people want to have it both ways, by fundamentally changing the methodology of science to conform to their religious views. This is intolerable. Thanks for your honesty.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill you amaze me. You are on the money once again!!

The DEVIL made me do it!!! The converse view is that evolution is generally wrong:

Yea, look at the Libs!!!


7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The reason the Jews are so hated, (IMHO), is because they went into towns pointing out sinful and wicked acts and then....and here is the kicker....they said they "knew" what they were saying because they did not say these things because they were belief or opinion, but because they had talked directly with God."
FAR, this is completely absurd and just demonstrates a clear lack of rational thought on your part. Frankly, I find your weird assertion that the Jews are hated for pointing out sinful behavior as almost anti-semitic. The Jews were persecuted not for their moralizing, but because they were a closed community and they were accused of being the ones who killed Christ. Believe me, every religion claims to know the truth, and Christianity is no exception. So what you're saying is that the Jews are somehow unique in this regard. Please. You need to go back and get a real education!

7:37 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

I appreciate your comments, but 63 lines in your first post seems a bit much. I deleted your second and third posts which were simply arguing with an anonymous writer. Please direct your comments at my thesis.

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, my perception is that essentially 100% of NAS biologists would vote a "no-doubt" about evolution.
My perception is that even tho the tyranny of string theory has attracted a very large number of grad students that maybe 50%(?) of NAS physicists/astrophysicists would have big doubts about string theory--the doubters seem to be growing and maybe in a half-dozen years string theory will no longer be the only bet in town for grad students. The pendulum is changeable for string theory but there aint no pendulum for ID.


10:50 AM  

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