March 07, 2005
Science Fiction, Science Fact

This Rednova article on the latest attempt by unimaginative Christians to shield themselves from reality tells me there's still a basic problem out there. To wit: many of you just don't seem to know what science is. So, being the resourceful folks we are, AMCGLTD is, as always, here to help:

How to Spot Science in 3 Easy Steps:

  1. Can the proposition be proven wrong? This is critical, and never emphasised enough. The theory that "the switch on the wall turns on the light over our heads" is science, since if throwing the switch opens the garage door, it has been proven wrong. The theory that "the switch on the wall sends a message to God" is not science, because it cannot be proven wrong*.
  2. Does the proposition make predictions about something you don't already know? This builds on statement 1, and is also critical and under-emphasised. The theory "Ellen is stronger than Superman" is science, because it predicts she can bend steel. The theory "Olivia is throwing a tantrum because she is spoiled rotten" is not science, because it doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know.
  3. Does the proposition suggest tests? This builds on step 2, because now we're trying to test the prediction made there. The theory "my bathtub drain has clogged up because an alien from the planet Zorg-9 crawled in and got stuck" is actually science, since a plumber can be summoned to test the prediction of a Zorgian stuck in the drain. The theory "water flows down the drain because God wills it" is not science, because it provides no way to test God's will.

It really is that simple. To be considered science a proposition must pass all three of these criteria. They are not optional. If it cannot be proven wrong, if it cannot make predictions, if does not suggest tests, then It. Is. Not. Science. It therefore cannot be taught in a science class. As far as I can tell, intelligent design cannot be proven wrong, makes no predictions to which we don't already know the answer, and provides no ability to test anything about it. Therefore, intelligent design is not science and has no business even being mentioned in a science class.

This is not to say faith is wrong, far from it. Just that faith is not science.

* By people grounded in reality at any rate. There are some folks, I have corresponded with them so I know they exist, who will say "I know the message was sent because I have faith." When confronted with such a person, resist the urge to call the men with butterfly nets and instead snap back professinally "but that, my friend, is not science."

Posted by scott at March 07, 2005 03:15 PM

eMail this entry!

I understand what you're getting at, but that's not really a good description of "science", as concerns a study of the history of science. Paul Feyerabend [Against Method,1975] pointed out that this falsification method (Popperian, isn't) is not how science really proceeds. From a Wikipedia entry:

"Feyerabend was also critical of falsificationism. He argued that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. This would rule out using a na´ve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Feyerabend uses several examples, but 'renormalization' in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style: "This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered" (AM p. 61). Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that scientists not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods. Instead, he is arguing that such methods are essential to the progress of science for several reasons. One of these reasons is that progress in science is uneven. For instance, in the time of Galileo, optical theory could not account for phenomena that were observed by means of telescopes. So, astronomers who used telescopic observation had to use 'ad hoc' rules until they could justify their assumptions by means of optical theory."

scott wrote:
"...intelligent design is not science and has no business even being mentioned in a science class."
jamesf writes:
P. Feyerabend would say something like, "If you want progress in science, anything goes." So, I say, go ahead and stick Intelligent Design in there. It will sharpen the debate, and cause pompous "scientific" communities to earn their keep.

It seems to me that science is just what people listening to Scientists say it is. And Scientists are just people. And people are no damn good.

Thomas Edison was no scientist. Look at what scientists are dependent on him for. Should the electrical grid, "the modern research lab", audio/visual stuff, etc, be kept out of the classroom? Those items don't lend themselves to being proven _wrong_. Well, I guess science finds it useful to keep them in. I guess proponents of Intelligent Design find it useful to keep it "in" the classroom, too.

You should read Against Method. This "testableness" is cute, but blind to history of science. Comes off sounding like the MSM trying to brush off bloggers, really.

respectfully yours,

Posted by: jamesf on March 7, 2005 09:27 PM

I think I may not have stated my point clearly (big surprise). To be considered science, it must be able to be proven wrong. Simply because a theory is inconsistent might mean it is wrong (then again it might not.) Regardless, as long as it can be proven wrong it is still in fact science.

Intelligent design, as far as I have seen, cannot be proven wrong. It accounts for existing evidence, but makes no predictions about potential discoveries. It suggests no tests to prove things either way. Therefore, it is not science, and has no business in a science class. This is not to say intelligent design is wrong (I think it is, but that's actually not relevant to this discussion), just that it is not science.

Edison was absolutely a scientist, probably one of the best. He observed things, theorized how they worked, then created tests that would prove him right or wrong. One need only look at the amazing number of light bulb prototypes to see this falsification and experimentation at work.

"Testableness" is far from cute, it's one of the bedrock foundations that separates science from philosophy. Without it, we are taken back to the time of Zeno and Aristotle, where rational arguments are made and accepted for things like men having more teeth than women.

"Against Method", from the reviews on Amazon, seems to be more about how scientists work, rather than how science itself works. This is again beyond the scope of my argument. It really matters little how Einstein came up with special relativity, for example. What is far more important is that special relativity was (is!) something that can be proven wrong, made many predictions about things we didn't already know, and suggested experiments to test those predictions. Whether it was correct is immaterial to this discussion. Simply because it meets these criteria, it (and any other conjecture that does so, no matter how absurd) is science.

Because intelligent design meets none of the criteria, it simply is not science.

Posted by: scott on March 8, 2005 08:39 AM

Hmm. Let's have fun. =snarky trolling on

The Proposition, "Al Gore will be our next elected president in 2008", now is it science?

Spot_Science_in_3_easy_steps Step 1: Can the proposition be proven wrong?

Uh, yup.

Spot_Science_in_3_easy_steps Step 2: Does the proposition make predictions about something you don't already know?

As of today, he's eligible, but it's not possible to know if he'll win yet. And the proposition even has an inconsistency! Al Gore said today or yesterday that he won't run! W00t! Inconsistency, yay!

So, again. Yup.

Aaaand finally, Spot_Science_in_3_easy_steps Step 3: Does the proposition suggest tests? Gee, I wonder if we could build a device that would observe the election and test this theory by getting results in the early morning on the first Weds in November 2008? Gee, ya think?

So, Yup again.

Count 'em up. One yup, two yup, three. Yuppee!

It's science! W00t! Thank god, democrat party politics now has a place in science class.

Wait minute. I'm getting another proposition from planet Zorg-9. "Intelligent Design will be proven true in the Year 2010."

Uh-oh. That would be "One yup, two yup, three. Yuppee!", too. Oh well, back into the classroom ya go! It's Science!

/end snarky troll]

Perhaps we should move this to email, and not chew up the space in your comments section.
Respectfully, and a little mischieviously, yours,

Posted by: jamesf on March 8, 2005 09:46 PM

Actually, what you seem to be reaching toward is a more general statement, "I have the power to predict future events." And this is, in fact, a scientific proposition, since it easily meets the base three criteria.

General relativity provides a mechanism that would allow someone to find out, today actually, who wins the 2008 presidential election. Unfortunately our observer would have to reside several thousand light years away, have a telescope powerful enough to read a newspaper from that distance, and be moving exactly towards us at a specific (at that distance, relatively low) speed. Oh, and of course (unless string theory provides an end-around, which currently seems unlikely) the message our observer sends ("Condi in 2008!") would take several thousand years to reach us, by which time we will have found out the answer ourselves in a much less expensive way.

The prediction "Intelligent Design will be proven correct in 2010" does not make intelligent design itself science. ID must meet the criteria on its own, and since it can't (at least from everything I've read), it's still not science.

Do a search on our site for "david farrant"... that's chewing up the comments. This is just goofing off.

Posted by: scott on March 9, 2005 03:07 AM
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