Nullis in Verba

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A week-long Festival of Science begins in Dublin today, launched by Micheál Martin – it’s a British Association for the Advancement of Science annual event. Unfortunately the Irish Times chose today to publish an opinion piece by Breda O’Brien, in support of scientific tolerance for the advocates of the new creationism, Intelligent Design[subs req.], which, arguably, displays a distinct lack of understanding of science.Although the majority of the article is centred on a dispute around an editor of a scientific journal in the US, and the criticism of him for publishing an article by an advocate of intelligent design, that only obscures the real discussion taking place.. as the title of the piece suggests, the real allegation being made in the article is that science, and scientists, are unfairly biased against the advocates of intelligent design.

Let’s begin with the description of those advocates of intelligent design in the article – Scientific intolerance on full display in US

Intelligent design advocates hold that Darwinian evolutionary theory cannot adequately explain the sheer complexity of living things. They believe that nature shows tangible signs of having been designed by a pre-existing intelligence. They are not anti-evolution, but merely sceptical that Darwin or his followers have adequately proven the case that evolution occurs in a completely random fashion.

That believe is much more important than might first appear, because it goes right to the heart of the argument as to why Intelligent Design[ID] should not be taught as science.

Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, and Jerry Coyne, professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago put forward their arguments against the teaching of Intelligent Design as science in the Guardian on Thursday.

If ID really were a scientific theory, positive evidence for it, gathered through research, would fill peer-reviewed scientific journals. This doesn’t happen. It isn’t that editors refuse to publish ID research. There simply isn’t any ID research to publish. Its advocates bypass normal scientific due process by appealing directly to the non-scientific public and – with great shrewdness – to the government officials they elect.

The argument the ID advocates put, such as it is, is always of the same character. Never do they offer positive evidence in favour of intelligent design. All we ever get is a list of alleged deficiencies in evolution. We are told of “gaps” in the fossil record. Or organs are stated, by fiat and without supporting evidence, to be “irreducibly complex”: too complex to have evolved by natural selection.

It’s important to note the positive evidence point – not merely criticism of another theory.

As Dawkins and Coyne go on to say -

In all cases there is a hidden (actually they scarcely even bother to hide it) “default” assumption that if Theory A has some difficulty in explaining Phenomenon X, we must automatically prefer Theory B without even asking whether Theory B (creationism in this case) is any better at explaining it. One side is required to produce evidence, every step of the way. The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty – the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.

To fully appreciate this argument a little history may be required.

Although the usual reference to the scientific revolution is to the Principia of Isaac Newton, published in 1687, in reality the roots of that revolution go back to the writing of Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626] and those who challenged the received wisdom of the Aristotlean tradition – like Nicolaus Copernicus and Tycho Brahe – as well as Galileo – and the work of William Gilbert, on magnetism, De Magnete published in 1600, and William Harvey, who first described the circulation of blood in the human body, De Motu published in 1628.

That revolution overturned centuries of learning by rote, rather than by investigation. The received wisdom of Greek natural philosphers, mostly Aristotle but also the anatomist Galen, were passed on as fact without any questioning of whether that wisdom matched the experience of those being taught.

This quote from a letter by Isaac Newton, to a French Jesuit Gaston Pardies, sets out the new approach that science would follow -

The best and safest way of philosophizing seems to be, first enquire diligently into the properties of things, and to establish those properties by experiences [experiments] and then to proceed slowly to hypotheses for the explanation of them. For hypotheses should be employed only in explaining the properties of things, but not assumed in determining them; unless so far as they may furnish experiments

The scientific revolution of the 17th Century brought to fruition a Foundation – as Bacon had described it – known as the Royal Society of London for Promoting Natural Knowledge with their motto – Nullis in Verba – literally, ‘nothing in words’, or rather, ‘take no man’s word for it’ – founded at a meeting in 1660 and Royal Charter presented in 1663.

And so, back to the article by Dawkins and Coyle -

Why, finally, does it matter whether these issues [ID] are discussed in science classes? There is a case for saying that it doesn’t – that biologists shouldn’t get so hot under the collar. Perhaps we should just accept the popular demand that we teach ID as well as evolution in science classes. It would, after all, take only about 10 minutes to exhaust the case for ID, then we could get back to teaching real science and genuine controversy.

Tempting as this is, a serious worry remains. The seductive “let’s teach the controversy” language still conveys the false, and highly pernicious, idea that there really are two sides. This would distract students from the genuinely important and interesting controversies that enliven evolutionary discourse. Worse, it would hand creationism the only victory it realistically aspires to. Without needing to make a single good point in any argument, it would have won the right for a form of supernaturalism to be recognised as an authentic part of science. And that would be the end of science education in America.

And, if it followed here, an end to science education in Ireland too.. because, put simply, a belief in intelligent design, and by implication a Designer, is not science.. it’s theology.