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Monday, April 21, 2008

On Making Scientific Decisions

posted by on April 21 at 14:55 PM

Ready? Prepared to have your mind blown?

(cartoon via xkcd)

Ideas are tested by experiment. Thatís all there is to science. This is the only bar an idea must be taller than to take the ride of science as a legitimate hypothesis.

An untestable, unknowable, incomprehensible supernatural force is required for the existence of living things—the central idea behind Intelligent Design, creation science, creationism, or whatever you want to call it—is inherently unscientific. If the idea is untestable, it cannot be scientific and has no place in a science curriculum—save it for the philosophy courses, or evenings after eating too many enhanced baked goods.

This latest assault by the anti-science, pro-creationist crowd—to whine that their ideas arenít given a fair shake in the scientific community due to some overarching conspiracy—is a three year old having a temper-tantrum upon being told he is too short to go on a roller coaster. This idea of a supernatural being, at its very core, refuses to be tested. It might be true, it might be false, but itís certainly never going to be scientific.

Iíve gone down this rabbit hole and attempted even a gentle analysis of Intelligent Designís ideas. “What must this designer be able to do?” “By what mechanisms could the designer do these things?” “Can we disrupt or enhance these mechanisms by any human technique?” “How was the designer designed?”

Good luck trying to get any sort of coherent answer, or even speculation, along these lines in the ID movement. Mostly itís a bunch of whimpering about this or that in evolution theoryóprimarily moldy old discredited critiques from the 19th Century, buffed up for the 21st. The ID crowd wraps a handful of difficult to explain observations in living things in the wrapper of “some magical being, beyond human conception or understanding, must exist because you cannot fully explain this random observation with current technology and theory.” Here’s another shocker for you: such a critique isn’t particularly scientific.

Think of how human scientific knowledge expands: Via new technologies allowing new ways of observing, new observations from existing or new technology or new ways of interpreting existing observations. The observations underlying evolutionary theory are essentially uncontested. Most of the central observations require no technology beyond your eyes, ears and some careful recordkeeping; modern molecular biology yields new observations that are perfectly in sync with those made by Darwin and others nearly two centuries ago or earlier. Darwin’s jump was borne less of new observations, but rather new ways of thinking about the existing available information.

These are the trickiest ideas to test, and thus make scientific. One manner is to say, “if this interpretation is correct, it would predict the following…” For example, if the interpretative theory of evolution is correct, we would predict the rise of drug resistance bacteria, and the spread of drug resistance genes, shortly after the introduction of antibiotics. The predictions one can make, if assuming evolution is true, fit observed reality far better than if one instead assumes that a supernatural being is behind all life—because we can understand more of the steps completely when we aren’t saying “something magic happens.”

Accepting, scientifically, an interpretive hypothesis does not require perfect evidence, for all outstanding questions to be settled. Rather, all that one should require is that the interpretation best fits the observations of reality that we can presently make, that the predictions of the interpretive idea closely what we observe when we look. Science is the art of taking many imperfect observations together to craft a reasonable interpretation—not demanding perfect information without holes. This is testing by experiment, not demanding immaculate evidence but working with the best you can do. Requiring, or claiming, inerrant proof is the realm of religious belief, not scientific.

Who cares, you might be saying at this point. Why not let the ID crowd have their say? Because of how profoundly unscientific it is to demand perfect information before making a decision. Teaching students irrefutable evidence is required before accepting an unpleasant idea, is one of the worst lessons one can teach in a science classroom. The entire idea of what is a good experiment, what are acceptable results from an experiment, is deeply distorted by ID-like thinking.

An example:

Additives used to soften plastics, called pthalates, are currently banned in Europe but still legal in the United States. Both European and American regulators have access to the same scientific observations—that many phthalates disrupt endocrine function, particularly male sex hormones, and can readily enter the body from plastics doped with the chemicials—yet come to very different interpretations. The Europeans considered all the (imperfect and incomplete) evidence and decided the preponderance was in favor of banning the additives. The Americans continue to demand better, more complete (perhaps even impossibly perfect) evidence before acting. The net result: American children and patients (via IV tubes) continue to receive large doses phthalates, despite the majority of evidence pointing to some danger to health.

It’s crummy, unscientific, decision-making—and essentially the same illogic as Intelligent Design’s critique of evolution.

RSS icon Comments



Posted by grammarian | April 21, 2008 3:03 PM

Well said.

Posted by JT | April 21, 2008 3:09 PM

phalluses are banned in Europe now?

Posted by bluh | April 21, 2008 3:10 PM

Is there any evidence that exposure to pthalates causes whiny douchebags to transfer the blame for their own manifold shortcomings onto conspiracy theories? Might explain how these "Expelled" liars got that way.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 3:13 PM

Ha ha! Damn right! Darwin Award for those American kids who get sick from the plastic!

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 3:18 PM

Also, can someone make the point please that science doesn't deal with certainties and never has? It's all about probabilities; when the probability of something becomes high enough, it's useful to behave as though there's certainty. Dipshit ID advocates insist that scientists think they know things absolutely. kthxbye.

Posted by Superfurry Animal | April 21, 2008 3:19 PM

Well, it's just that it's repeatable observations and tests from which conclusions are drawn.

Mind you, since Invisible Friends don't count, this is also proof that the Invisible Spaghetti Monster is the One True God and all other gods are pale imitations.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 3:22 PM

we are all future fertilizer, the rest is conversation.

Posted by SeMe | April 21, 2008 3:24 PM

Ach! Science. Is. Not. Public. Policy. Either.

Posted by umvue | April 21, 2008 3:24 PM

Ughh... I read the footnotes to the Times editorial what a waste of time.

To reiterate your second point, the entire point of science is to replace "god did it" as a theory. Why does it rain? Why do volcanoes happen? Why does the sun rise and set? Go back far enough and the answer was always "some great power made it so". If that satisfies you then great call it a day.

I wonder how these ID folks feel about astronomy? The idea of a naturalistic explanation for the creation of the Earth doesn't seem like something they'd be too happy with either.

But obviously the subject of our existence is the hottest of all subjects. If you don't want to subject that to scientific scrutiny, then fine, it's a free country, but we still have science classes in the schools. Don't worry soon enough our schools won't be teaching anything much less evolution.

Posted by daniel | April 21, 2008 3:26 PM

Marry me! ;)

Posted by Original Monique | April 21, 2008 3:29 PM

So then the question becomes can they use "mathematics" to PROVE that there is no naturalistic explanation for the human form. This is basically what Dembski et all want to do. The answer is "no". This would (if possible) be a feat worthy of one of the greatest minds of history. Descartes worked on it but his proof of the existence of god lacked mathematical rigor.

These ID guys are shallow thinkers at best. Casey Luskin's "The Positive Case for Design,Ē at is juvenile.

"Natural structures have been found that contain many parts arranged in
intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and
specified information), such as irreducibly complex machines in the cell.
The bacterial flagellum is a prime example. The specified complexity of
protein bonds, or the simplest self-reproducing cell are other examples."

Thanks, boy, that's what Dembski said. I thought you guys were going to PROVE that evolution COULD NOT explain the human form. I want to see some fucking lemmas not hand waving.

Posted by daniel | April 21, 2008 3:32 PM

If we do ever get rid of this creationist hogwash lets hope it takes down another bastion of untestable rubbish:

String Theory

Posted by karst | April 21, 2008 3:36 PM

Obama-lama-ding-dong. And stone crabs. Yum.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 3:46 PM

Zombie Feynman!

Posted by gfish | April 21, 2008 3:50 PM

It's phthalates. Yes, there are a lot of extra consonants in there. But it looks silly to misspell it when you're writing a screed against ignorant IDers and it looks sillier to correct the spelling to something incorrect. It also doesn't do much for your argument that you know best for how to deal with them.

Posted by F | April 21, 2008 3:58 PM

do sloggers really have to bold every other sentence?

Posted by mnm | April 21, 2008 4:01 PM

I may be an aetheist, but I still like South Parks reasoning behind god and evolution, evolution isn't so much of a why, but a how.

ID people, if they truely wanted to appreciate gods works, would spend less time trash talking theories they don't like, and more time appreciating the world that god gave them! I mean, isn't that supposed to be the beauty of it? Be grateful and thankful that we have cool animals, that we have technology, that we have medicine. Be the products of man, or god's hands working through man, the net result is the same. They are here, and you can be grateful just the same.

But what the fuck do I know, I'm just an aetheist

Posted by OR Matt | April 21, 2008 4:02 PM


That's part of the irony of the ID debate, IMO; the side that is ABSOLUTELY 100% POSITIVE THAT GOD EXISTS (but, which of course can't PROVE it by any known method of empirical analysis) DEMANDS that "science" must be 100% positive in its own assertions, or else the other side MUST THEREFORE BE CORRECT.

It's the old, "if you have the least bit of doubt about the validity of your own argument, regardless of how infintessimally small it may be, then you must automatically agree completely to the validity of the opposing argument, regardless of how infinetessimally small the odds of it actually being correct" point-of-view.

It's wrong, it's stupid, and these people need to be duct-taped to a chair with some of those horror-show "Clockwork Orange" eyeball openers, and forced to watch old videos of Carl Sagan until they scream for mercy.

Posted by COMTE | April 21, 2008 4:06 PM

You're right, but let's also keep the hubris in check: science is (by definition) not conclusive on the supernatural, and -- this fact is lost on many in the scientific community -- MOST world religion is not concerned with literalist explanations for natural phenomena, but rather with the maturation of the individual and his/her role within society/ecology.

Excepting American religion. And please, let's not lump all world religions in with those douchebags.

Posted by David | April 21, 2008 4:11 PM

String theory is as much a dead end as ID is.

And both continue to waste so many beautiful minds ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 4:27 PM

As a scientist, let me thank you for this. With all the press Expelled has been getting, the absolutely ridiculous demand of the ID crowd that their theological postulates be trotted out as science has been bugging the crap out of me.

@12: I was thinking about just that issue as I was driving home from work today. I've worked out an algorithm by which a complex structure - say, an image of the Mona Lisa - could be produced out of a blank canvas over several iterations using viability matrices. If I had 40 or so spare hours for programming I'd get right on it. But, alas, I'm coming up for tenure and won't be able to whine about a thought-stifling conspiracy if it's denied. So instead I spend my time doing ACTUAL SCIENCE.

What makes ID so insidious is that it strategically preys upon misconceptions about science held by many (most?) Americans, making them more susceptible to its arguments. And by couching the idea in terms of freedom of speech rather than religious doctrine, it's disguising its true form. How's that for a serpent in the garden, bitches?

Posted by Helena | April 21, 2008 4:27 PM

@21 I would like String Theory more if it wasn't sold as a universal truth and more as an intelectual exercise.

The fact that they are "strings" seems completely arbitrary, but the math they use ... although hand wavey has at least SOME merit

Posted by OR Matt | April 21, 2008 4:29 PM

Hand wavey? Ah, well, the Atlantic Ocean is doing its hand-wavey thing at me right now. Maybe a swim will be in order in the near future.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 4:49 PM

@24 What's wrong with swimming in the Atlantic? I grew up spending summer vacations at Cape Cod.

Posted by OR Matt | April 21, 2008 4:52 PM

phallates - n. - The act or practice of applying the principles of pilates to one's sex life.

Etymology: Blend of phallus and pilates

Posted by lostboy | April 21, 2008 4:54 PM

Absolutely nothing wrong with it. Especially when it's in Miami. Which is where I am right now. Grew up swimming in those same waters myself, was in Beantown yesterday, but you don't go swimming there at this time of year.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 5:00 PM

Fifty-Two-Eighty, if you created your own blog, both of your fans could keep tabs on your trip without all these embarrassing cries for attention.

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 5:00 PM

Actually ... you make sure you are a good hike away from Beantown bay before you go swimming,

Posted by OR Matt | April 21, 2008 5:04 PM

Oh noes! I've been elenchosed! Excuse me while I commit ritual suicide.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 5:07 PM

Just kidding. I know you have four fans.

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 5:09 PM

pthalates, phallates. heh, this is what happens when I'm spell checked, but not copy edited. Thank you.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | April 21, 2008 5:12 PM

Yeah, Matt, the last time I was on a boat in the harbor (pronounced haa-bah for you non-yankees) I kept thinking "Geez, what am I gonna do if the boat sinks." Wouldn't want to swim in that stuff.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 5:13 PM

And for the Seattlites who complain about their duck boats ... the boston duck boat tourists are SO much more obnoxious

Posted by OR Matt | April 21, 2008 5:18 PM

I have to admit that I did get a chuckle out of it when the duck-boaters stopped the victory parade for the Bosox last year. Fucking numb-nuts.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 5:28 PM

I know from personal experience that Boston Harbor is a thick, nourishing stew of plastic tampon applicators. Seriously: go to any beach, even as far away as Marblehead, and look closely at the strand. Millions of the things. Mmm.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 5:52 PM

Yep, Marblehead, Rockport, even Plymouth and Gloucester. And you've gotta really wonder about people who spell "Gloster" Gloucester. Dipping into the good drugs maybe?

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 21, 2008 6:06 PM

Nice post. xkcd rocks.

The sloggers must-see one:

The really scary thing about the public viability of the ID silliness is what it says about the lame nature (or is it nurture :-) of science ed in the states. Like Jonathon says, ID is by definition not science. That there's even a conversation going on about this issue bodes ill for all the difficult scientific controversies that are at the core of so many pub policy issues.

@9 Science may not be public policy, but it sure comes in handy when you're trying to figure out the price of carbon, etc. etc.

Posted by bakfiets | April 21, 2008 6:19 PM

Really, @36? I spent a couple of weeks this past summer at a number of beaches in the Rockies, and I didn't find a single tampon applicator ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 21, 2008 9:48 PM

I'm sure you all know by now that you can swim in the Charles, you just can't touch the ground.

Posted by el | April 22, 2008 12:32 PM

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