Thursday, May 12, 2005

Religious Zealotry vs. Science

I've been out of things for a little bit because of schoolwork so i missed the beginnings of the debate in Kansas. Thankfully Mushtaq has been talking about it and so between him and this blog by a grad student at the University of Kansas, I have bees speedily brought up to date. For those of you who are similarly clueless, I'll summarize. Basically, the state Board of Education in Kansas is holding hearings about whether or not to teach Intelligent Design "theory" (and I use that word extremely loosely) beside evolution in classrooms. Not being satisfied with that, they are also trying to get the school board's definition of science changed. They want to omit the part about science looking for natural explanations to phenomena so they can tie religion in to every aspect of science education. Their reasons for doing so are spelled out here.

For now, I'll ignore the larger implications of what they are doing and focus on why Intelligent Design is not a valid scientific theory and evolution is. There seems to be some confusion over the use of the word 'theory' so I'll start there. In regular english use, a theory is merely a reasonable idea. In order for an idea to qualify as a scientific theory, it must endure rigorous and ongoing challenges to its validity and must be capable of explaining all the available data as well as predicting any new data that appears on the same topic. In other words evolution is a widely accepted theory because it provides a coherent and testable explanation for everything we currently know about the history of life on earth. Certain parts of the theory are still being refined but those are the specifics. The general framework is accepted by the majority of scientists as being valid. If tomorrow we find evidence that plainly contradicts evolution, that will be the end of it and they'll start looking for a new theory that incorporates everything we now know.
Intelligent Design doesn't really explain anything. Ignoring the fact that its just a way to backdoor creationism into schools, the basic idea behind it is that nature is too complex to have come into being on its own so it must have been created. No real mention is made of the creator(s), their origin and the means by which creation took place. This 'theory' can never be tested because all contradicting data can also be ascribed to the same intelligent designer, automatically rendering it useless as a scientific theory. If there is no possible way to prove it false it can't be a scientific theory. Its defenders ignore the mountains of evidence supporting evolution and instead nitpick at areas that are still being investigated as proof that the entire theory is flawed. When they're not doing that, they make ridiculously incoherent and obviously uninformed arguments that seriously call into question their ability to think rationally about anything.

Now, lets return to the larger issue behind this, the attack on naturalism. One of the core beliefs of the scientific method is that nature follows specific rules and that we can deduce these rules by observing nature without invoking any other outside powers. The Universe, whether it was created by god or randomly came into being, follows these rules. The fact that you are sitting at a computer reading this and didn't need to utter a prayer or make a sacrifice in order to get it to work is a fairly convincing argument for this point of view. Its not that we don't believe in god, most scientists I've met have some kind of spiritual faith. Its just that we don't consider ourselves in the business of proving or disproving god's existence. Nothing about the rules of nature confirms or denies the existence of god(s). You can believe or not, just don't expect help from us either way. It wouldn't be a belief if you could prove it.
Anyway, religious zealots hate naturalism because it provides an explanation for the world that doesn't necessarily require a holy man or holy book, thus threatening their power. They want to be the ones with all the answers and if that means dismantling centuries of human scientific progress, so be it.

Personally, the people I really feel sorry for are the kids who are going to have their heads filled with all this nonsense. Someday they'll have to deal with the real world. By choosing religious dogma over reality, their parents will be doing them a disservice too great for me to properly describe. Plus, if this spreads you might as well move all science related institutions overseas because your kids will be too stupid and uninformed to man them. So either bring us here or move them to our homes and cut down on airfare. Might I suggest putting a nanotechnology R&D lab in Ghana, my parents will be glad to see me move home and I will no longer have to deal with the winter.

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