A setback for science

On Tuesday Judge John Jones III released a landmark 139-page decision, which finds that the Dover school board violated the Establishment Clause by endorsing intelligent design. Why is that a setback for science? Because I spent hours reading the decision instead of doing actual work, and so should everyone else.

In a case like this, of course, it’s not science that’s on trial but the legal system itself. Can it distinguish a real idea from a sham, in the same way that a FOCS program committee would reject a paper claiming Grover search in O(log N) queries, no matter how well-written it was? This time, the system came through. Judge Jones — despite being a Republican appointed by Bush — proved himself capable of the following insight:

Because we are able to recognize design of artifacts and objects, according to Professor Behe, that same reasoning can be employed to determine biological design. Professor Behe testified that the strength of the analogy depends upon the degree of similarity entailed in the two propositions; however, if this is the test, ID completely fails.

Unlike biological systems, human artifacts do not live and reproduce over time. They are non-replicable, they do not undergo genetic recombination, and they are not driven by natural selection. For human artifacts, we know the designer’s identity, human, and the mechanism of design, as we have experience based upon empirical evidence that humans can make such things, as well as many other attributes including the designer’s abilities, needs, and desires… (p. 80-81)

(Is one allowed to make that sort of argument in an official capacity? Strange thing, the Establishment Clause.)

But the section where Judge Jones rises from cogency to furious eloquence is the “Purpose Inquiry” (p. 90-132), where he shows that the Dover school board members were even bigger jokers than is directly inferrable from their decision. Here’s William Buckingham, Chair of the Curriculum Committee, at a June 14, 2004 school board meeting:

“Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state … I challenge you [the audience] to trace your roots to the monkey you came from … 2,000 years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” (p. 105)

(For readers who don’t “grok” this allusion: while many people were crucified by the Romans around that time, Buckingham is most likely referring to Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean Jewish preacher postulated by many ID proponents to be related to, or even identical with, the intelligent designer of their theory.)

Here’s another gem:

At the June 2004 meeting, Spahr asked Buckingham where he had received a picture of the evolution mural that had been torn down and incinerated. Jen Miller testified that Buckingham responded: “I gleefully watched it burn.” … Burning the evolutionary mural was apparently insufficient for Buckingham, however. Instead, he demanded that the teachers agree that there would never again be a mural depicting evolution in any of the classrooms and in exchange, Buckingham would agree to support the purchase of the biology textbook in need by the students. (Judge Jones’s emphasis; p. 108)

The school board members took up a collection at a church to pay for the creationist book Of Pandas and People, then lied about it under oath (p. 114-115). They also testified at the trial that they didn’t understand the substance of the curriculum change that, over the science teachers’ objections, they voted for (p. 121). In short, the plaintiffs couldn’t have asked for better allies.

Admittedly, to anyone who’s ever attended an American school board meeting, the Dover shenanigans won’t come as much surprise. Mark Twain, as often, said it best:

“First God created idiots, this was for practice. Then He made School Boards.”

Part II of this post will appear after I’ve returned to Pennsylvania (“The Genius School Board State”) later “today,” having completed my trip around the globe and gained a 2πi phase in the process. Hey — judging from the number of comments on my previous evolution post, you people seem to like this issue. In a blogosphere with finitely many readers, only the fittest topics will survive.

22 Responses to “A setback for science”

  1. Cheshire Cat Says:

    The legal system is not there to “distingush a real idea from a sham” but rather, to enforce the law.

    As a sidenote, it is amusing that this brouhaha arose from an action of the Dover school board (cf. “Dover Beach”).

  2. Eldar Says:

    As for “despite being a Republican nominated by Bush”: I’ve noticed that in the US somehow the checks and balances ensure that the “political” nominations that matter are still mostly of capable people (so actually you should not be surprised that the judge did the right thing). I envy that.

  3. scott Says:

    Eldar: I wish! Bush appointed Jones, but he also appointed Mike Brown (the horse-judging FEMA director).

    I’m at an Internet kiosk at Brisbane airport, and I’ve gotta go board my flight now…

  4. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Eldar: I wish I could agree with your stance that Bush-appointed persons “are still mostly capable people.” Bush’s cronies have been doing their darndest to wreck havoc in the United States, particularily on women’s rights. Issues such as rape, abortion, contraception, “female viagra”, etc, have been big issues (Bush’s most recent appointment to the FDA has, in particular, been disasterous… can’t think of the guy’s name though). Then consider the setbacks in education: the terrible state of sex education (rather, lack thereof), and the continued support of ID in many states. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the damage Bush’s cronies have done…

  5. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Found it… his name is Dr. W. David Hager.


    Lester Crawford (also Bush-appointed FDA) was no peach either…

  6. Dave Bacon Says:

    “human artifacts do not live and reproduce over time. They are non-replicable, they do not undergo genetic recombination, and they are not driven by natural selection.”

    But this isn’t right, is it? Certainly as a kid I wrote computer code which reproduced over time, underwent genetic recombinatoin, and was driven by natural selection. OK, so the “live” part is more difficult, but certainly within reach (call me crazy.)

    “For human artifacts, we know the designer’s identity, human, and the mechanism of design, as we have experience based upon empirical evidence that humans can make such things, as well as many other attributes including the designer’s abilities, needs, and desires…”

    Yes, WE know, but do those who are designed by us know?

    The argument against Behe’s stance, that we are good at infering design and thus when we look at biological systems and we feel that they are designed, is NOT that what humans can (and will) design are not biological. I will leave it to your esteemed readers to sort out what exactly the correct argument is.

  7. Scott Says:

    Dave: I don’t think it follows from Jones’s argument that humans can’t design self-reproducing machines. He was just pointing out why the “design=>designer” inference isn’t valid in general (e.g. because of the existence of reproduction).

    (I’m in LAX right now for a layover. For some reason the “Presidents’ Club” doesn’t secure their WiFi, so the unwashed plebians like me can get on it too. 🙂 )

  8. Scott Says:

    Cheshire Cat: I agree, but I took it as obvious that you can’t enforce the law, and you certainly can’t enforce justice, without the ability to distinguish a real idea from a sham. Or are we fine with jurors who can’t distinguish between a DNA lab and a psychic?

  9. Wolfgang Says:

    “Why is that a setback for science? Because I spent hours reading the decision instead of doing actual work”

    I hope science will recover from this setback …

  10. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Jones comes pretty close to a valid point about the intentions of the intelligent design movement above and beyond the bare proposition of intelligent design.

    I assume that what Dave has in mind as the “correct” objection is that intelligent design isn’t testable. However, theories of intelligent design can be proposed in a testable form in specific areas of archeology and other fields. In fact, it’s an important element of scientific reasoning in these areas. A rock or a bone from an archelogical dig may have features, like flute holes or chiseling that may or may not indicate intelligent intervention. Of course the usual hypothesis is that hominids did it.

    However, the political intelligent design movement in the United States strikingly resists the avenue of testability for their own proposal. It’s not that testability is prima facie impossible, it’s that they don’t even want it. Lately they even claim testability, but when the time comes to actually test anything, they’re absent.

    I think that this is an important point about science in general. In any unfinished topic in science (which is to say, all current research), the intention of testability is at least as important as the fact of testability. In fact, this is the difference between theory and experiment in science. If the means of testability sit in front of you, then why write yet another theory paper? On the other hand, many important theories long incubate without the means of testability, but with crucial intent. Cosmological inflation is one example: some of its predictions were finally testable after 20 years. General relativity is another classic example. String theory and quantum computation are in a similar situation today.

  11. Warren Says:

    One thing I wish scientists would do more is be aware of how hostile the American public is as a whole to scientific inquiry. Ours is a country where at least 1/3 thinks astrology is reasonable or even scientific.

    Scientists need to be more aggressive in keeping down the fundies, in other words.

  12. scott Says:

    Warren: You know that your Blogger profile lists your sign as Aries? 😉 (As I recall, I had delete my birthdate to get it to stop listing my sign.)

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Speaking of hostility to scientific inquiry and the law, the criminal justice has some pretty significant problems, over and above the attitudes of the general public. Atul Gawande wrote a very interesting piece on this subject a few years ago (“Under Suspicion: The Fugitive Science of Criminal Justice”, The New Yorker, 1/8/2001, mentioned here).

  14. Anonymous Says:

    (That was supposed to be “criminal justice system“.)

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Christian de Duve

    (from CUP; see this)

  16. Anonymous Says:

    There is one point in which I can understand the frustration of the ID/religious people, although this is a point that is not unique to evolution but holds for every scientific theory including gravity and quantum mechanics.

    The point is that science is a “religion” in the sense that it does has a central belief that is unquestioned and that is Occam’s razor. That is, that the simplest and most beautiful theory that explains experiments must be true (strictly speaking what scientists seem to need to believe is that the simplest theory that explains current experiments must also predict future ones, regardless of whether or not it’s “true”).

    For one thing, since this is an unquestioned assumption, they may be annoyed why is this assumption OK and existence of God not. In defence of this assumption, I’d say that it seems that every sane person or animal believes it to some extent (I’m placing my digital camera on the table and not in thin air, even though I never actually tried the other option, since I don’t believe that nature will work in a way that all objects I’ve seen except for my camera fall down). So far, this assumption had also fantastic success (but to rely on this success to predict further success is circular reasoning).

    Another point is that beauty and simplicity are in some sense in the eye of the beholder (indeed, there seem to be several different interpretations for quantum mechanics, and their relative beauty/simplicity is arguable). So, one may say that perhaps the chosen theory is a function of the cultural upbringing of the scientists. However, in the case of ID the challenger is such an incredibly ugly (and as Scott said, boring) theory that you’ll have to use a very crooked razor not to shave it..


  17. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Very enlightening and unbiased comments Boaz.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    I think Boaz’s thoughtful post is missing the point somewhat. The question under consideration is whether ID has a place in the science curriculum or, more generally, whether it constitutes a science. It is not about the nature of “truth.”

    A more valid argument from the ID side (in line with Boaz’s comments) would be “The distinction between science and religion is unclear, or perhaps there is no such distinction. Since the scientists are violating the separation of church and state, we should be allowed to as well.” But I suspect this would not fly, mainly because science is essentially defined by scientists, and most of those are against ID.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Under very limiting assumptions, Occam’s razor has mathematically provable use (for PAC learning, and such). Of course, we can question matgh and logic, too, but this certainly leaves little room for objective discourse.

  20. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Anonymous: I would disagree. I think that the nature of “truth” weighs very heavily in this discussion. So does Occam’s Razor. Evolution allows for a SLIGHTLY less complicated, more testable solution than ID. However, don’t confuse science with reality. Science can test human observation of the world, no more. Science can never remove the observer from the result. Even something as basic as noting colour, texture, smell, etc. That’s why, as Kant would argue, natural sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and physiology can never produce as true a result as mathematics. Every scientific result is tainted by the human senses, which can never produce an OBJECTIVE truth. So, in my opinion, ID has no place in a science classroom ONLY because it cannot be tested through scientific method. This does not mean that it cannot be more or less TRUE than Darwinian Evolution. It just means that ID does not ascribe to the religion of the natural sciences… the scientific method.

  21. Niel Says:

    I must strenuously disagree with Boaz.

    Ockham’s Razor, originally, says only that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”. This does not necessairly claim that the theories with the fewest unneccessary elements is *correct*: only that it is *preferable*.

    Myself, I claim that the reason why it is preferable is not necessarily that it is correct, but simply that it is easier to use. It is obvious to me that amoung theories which are equivalent in terms of predictions, the one which is easier to use is the preferable one. Anyone who does not agree with me is more than welcome to waste hours of their days with unweildly theories while I save energy and brain cells using a simpler one.

    As a practical application, to see how evolution is a superior theory of evolution to intelligent design w.r.t. Ockham’s razor, let me pose a question: how can Intelligent Design explain the emergence of new diseases which can afflict humans? And how does this explanation compare to ones consistent with natural selection?

  22. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » But what if? Says:

    […] I still owe you Part II of my Darwinism post. But in the meantime, I’d like to pontificate about a fallacy that I’ve seen so often it deserves a name. I’ll call it the But-What-If? Fallacy, after the following joke: “Let n be an integer…” “But what if n isn’t an integer?” […]