Friday, October 21, 2005

ID yourself

Last night Catalyst, the ABC science program, ran a piece on Intelligent Design. Presented by a palaeontologist who noted from the outset that if evolution is wrong, his life's work is also wrong, it seemed to be a fairly balanced report. I thought it gave way too much time to Michael Behe, one of ID's main apologists, without actually challenging him or his presumptions directly. This may have been because they were using footage from another provider (I doubt the ABC budget would stretch to sending a reporter to Lehigh University for a 15 minute program segment). He trotted out the "irreducible complexity" argument using the example of a bacterial flagellum. An Aussie academic was happy to point out the flaws in this argument, although the point was rather glossed over, probably due to lack of time.
Today, scientists in Australia have released an open letter entitled "It's Not Science" (see this report in today's SMH). A friend copied me in on a letter he sent to his local newspaper after watching the Catalyst report last night. In a nutshell, his argument is that scientists do science under the auspices of their internal moral compass, and without an Intelligent Designer or God -- whatever you like to call it -- where do you find the lodestone for your moral compass?
My response is that science is empirical. Whether the morality that guides your inner compass is Christian, Hindu, atheist or even Pastafarian, when you put together two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom you get water. The question of whether the joining of the atoms is random chance, or because someone glued them together with cosmic glue, is not science -- it's philosophy. It may even be called the philosophy of science. But in most universities, that's a separate course, in the philosophy department, in the Arts faculty.
The other day I had the misfortune to watch part of a TV show called "Australia's Brainiest Kid" or something like that. In one part of the show, six children had to choose a subject in turn and answer questions on that subject. As a subject was chosen, it was deleted from the board. Guess which subject was left until last (12th pick)? Science. This shows that we have enough trouble teaching science to children, even to these "brainy" kids, without introducing elements of philosophy into the science curriculum.
Teaching ID in science classes is like teaching history in maths classes, because you believe that Pythagoras' theorem can't be properly proven without an understanding of Pythagoras' stint as a priest in Egypt and the formation of his school of the mathematikoi in Croton. And any maths teacher (especially mine, poor souls) will tell you it's hard enough getting calculus through to a class full of teenagers without having to put it into a historical and philosophical context. (I'm really sorry, Mr Verhoeven.)
So I agree with 70,000 Australian scientists: it's NOT science. Teach it at home, teach it at church, teach it in philosophy or religion classes, but keep it out of the science labs.


kay susan said...

Yeah! Absolutely! - But when I read Stephen Hawking, brief whatsits in time, some years ago, I couldn't decide whether I was reading science or philosophy - so I guess this is conundrum that's been around for a while.

And if we don't start to pay our engineers and scientists a better fraction of what we pay footballers, tv presenters and city whizz kids - Oh! and maybe a little adulation wouldn't come amiss - why should we be surprised when that's where the kids want to go when they grow up?

OK, I'm a little biased. I'm married to a low status, impoverished, chartered engineer!

Kevin Rosero said...

I'm in full agreement, too, that creationism and Intelligent Design should not be taught in science classes, at least not as scientific theories. Building on the above comment, though, some mixing of disciplines often makes learning more enjoyable for students. Psychology and anthropology stimulate Religion courses in obvious ways, just as philosophy and history can stimulate a Science course and make it seem more relevant and exciting to students.

Works of popular science, like Hawking's or Carl Sagan's, do that. Such books discuss science in the historical context, for example by mentioning non-scientific ideas that scientists were fighting or that were influencing their work. I would think that a school course in science could mention creationism and ID in that way, as historical context, and that students could be turned on in that way (among others) to get their science down correctly. But bringing ID into a science class in ANY way, I have to admit, is playing with fire.

beche-la-mer said...

I agree with both Kay and Kevin. Engineers should get paid more. Oh wait, I mean the other bit: there is an element of philosophy in science, and elements of science in philosophy. But what Stephen Hawking wrote was science, because it is ultimately testable and falsifiable, though it seems esoteric and arcane to those of us without Hawking's background in theoretical physics.
One thing about ID that is highlighted by the Flying Spaghetti Monster campaign is that ID is not THE philosophical alternative to evolutionary theory, it's only AN alternative, and if you admit ID into the science classroom you have to admit all sorts of other things, such as astrology.
The Bad Astronomer has a good blog entry on this today.
Meanwhile, the reaction to the Catalyst program I was talking about has brought the predictable flood of letters to our local newspaper, trotting out the same arguments about how evolution is just a theory, and so is ID. One of the writers even questions the "theory" of the origins of the universe -- I didn't think there were any steady staters still out there!