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Why “Intelligent Design” (ID) is not science

Penny Higgins

March 1, 2006

Science is a tool used to describe our world, to understand why the world is the way it is, and to predict what the outcome of a mixture of characteristics may be. Science attempts to do this by studying only phenomena that are “material,” meaning countable, measurable, visible, tangible things, and by making the fewest assumptions possible. By being this way, scientists hope to eliminate faulty thinking and conclusions due to matters of opinion, professional conflict, personal experience, or biased knowledge (among other things).

Scientists approach their work by asking testable questions (hypotheses), running the tests (experiments), and by always providing within the hypothesis some means by which the hypothesis can be unequivocally disproved. Most experiments test the predictive power of the hypothesis: “If I mix chemical A and chemical B, I should get chemical C and a flash of light”, or “People who hate tomatoes also hate ketchup.”

In their experiments, scientists seek to validate their hypotheses — that is, to make observations that support their hypothesis and never once observe the evidence that disproves their hypothesis. If ever, even for a microsecond, that one thing that disproves the hypothesis is observed, then the whole hypothesis has been shown to be false. At this point, the scientist starts over with a new or revised hypothesis.

The most important point is that only one tiny little event can falsify a hypothesis: “I got chemical D” or “This person who hates tomatoes absolutely loves ketchup.” However, absolute proof can never be achieved, since there is always the chance that the single falsifying observation may have been missed.

If a hypothesis is subjected to test after test over many years and by many different people and does not fail, it will most likely be elevated to the level of “Theory.” The term “Theory” is science-ese for “we are pretty darn sure this is absolutely true, but since absolute proof is impossible by the nature of science, we’ll just call it something besides ‘absolute truth.’” This is basic scientific honesty; you can’t run every experiment or make every observation.

One of the most harassed theories today is the Theory of Evolution, which posits that all organisms on this planet are related through a common ancestor, and that it is gradual change over extreme spans of time that accounts for the diversity of species today. With this theory, we can predict and understand how and why organisms behave the way they do. If a person wants to understand why dogs, wolves, and coyotes are capable of interbreeding, but they generally don’t, one only has to look to evolution. To understand why birds’ “knees” bend backward — look to evolution. Why do we sometimes, when we’re particularly upset, find ourselves behaving like apes, and what can we do about it — turn to evolution. How can DNA from a virus infect a human cell — we’re talking evolution.

As noted earlier, science restricts itself to material knowledge. And it seeks to develop hypotheses that will assist us in understanding and predicting the nature of our world. Recently, the concept of “Intelligent Design” (ID) as been brought forward as an alternative “theory” explaining the origin of the diversity of life on Earth. The key to ID is the notion that many of the basic parts that all organisms share are too complex to have arisen from gradual change. ID proposes that some external agent or intelligence is responsible for making these critical bits.

But is ID Science? Should it be taught in a science classroom alongside the Theory of Evolution?

Well, can it be tested? Are there falsifying observations? ID could potentially be disproved by observing a more primitive intermediate form of some part that has been touted as ‘too complex’ to be natural. But then, the individual running the ID experiment can alter his hypothesis to say that this new structure is that which was installed by the Intelligent Designer. Because of this, there is no part of ID that can be unequivocally falsified by material science.

The second part of ID calls for an external Designer. This idea is neither fully supported nor fully falsified by material observation. There is no scientific way to test for the presence or absence of the Designer, as the Designer is defined as unobservable, or at least, only observable by a chosen few.

One of the most important characteristics of scientific hypotheses and theories is the predictive power they provide. ID does not offer any new explanation or observation about these complex structures that the Theory of Evolution does not already provide. The observation that some structures in organisms are too complex to have originated from gradual change will not help scientists to develop a better antibiotic, for example. In fact, the idea that “some things are too complex” is anti-scientific, since it seems to suggest that we shouldn’t try to understand the origins of the complex structures. ID discourages us from looking and asking questions. True science, however, moves on. If it is later found to be the case that some structures in organisms do not have more primitive counterparts, science will observe and recognize this fact, and the new knowledge will be incorporated into evolutionary theory.

ID is not a scientific theory and should not be taught alongside the Theory of Evolution. It offers nothing to help students understand how science works. It is merely a statement of how complex life seems to be — not even worth an hour of classroom time.

Penny Higgins

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Dr. Pennilyn (Penny) Higgins is a Research Associate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester. Most of her research revolves around studying the chemistry of fossil mammal teeth to learn about the environments in which the animals lived and what they might have been eating while living there. She is particularly interested in episodes of rapid climate change in the geologic record. In addition to doing research and managing a geochemistry laboratory, Penny also teaches courses in introductory geology and paleontology at the University of Rochester. When she's not in the office or laboratory, Penny can be spotted writing fiction, practicing the western martial arts, or just screwing around on Twitter.