Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Darwin's Great Conspiracy

The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, decided to provide Michael Behe with some valuable real estate on the op-ed page yesterday. Unfortunately, upon this ground he attempted to construct a temple to Intelligent Design, a false idol if there ever was one. Of course, an editorial as ridiculous as this one screams out for rebuttal. Thankfully, Nick Matzke and PZ Myers are out there doing the heavy lifting for us all.

But beyond the flawed logic and outright deceptions presented in Behe's editorial is an insinuation that deserves to be directly confronted.

The prominent placement of this editorial implies that the debate rages within the biological sciences between evolutionary theory and Intelligent Design. While its proponents frequently parade about lists of scientists who harbor doubts regarding the theory of evolution, the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that it is an extremely well supported explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. This devastating truth is demonstrated in the most amusing fashion by the good people over at Project Steve. In reality, Intelligent Design is not taken seriously by any reputable biological scientist. And that is why this debate takes place at school board meetings and on the New York Times op-ed page rather than within the scientific community.

Now, there can really be only two reasons why Intelligent Design has been unable gain traction within the field of biology. The first is that the theory is wholly without merit. But, understandably, that isn't an explanation that Intelligent Design proponents are comfortable with. The second is that the theory is valid (or at least worthy of full and open debate), but that it is being suppressed by those beholden to the dominant evolutionary establishment. If only those with a vested interest in perpetuating the evolutionary myth would allow the voice of Intelligent Design to be heard, it would find its rightful place in the halls of scientific truth.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where far too many people are willing to accept this second explanation. One of the great triumphs of the conservative movement has been to advance the theory that bias regularly overwhelms scientific objectivity. When uncomfortable and/or inconvenient scientific evidence bubbles to the surface, it is frequently dismissed as being the product of political agendas. Global warming, the effectiveness of safe-sex education in reducing the spread of HIV, and evolutionary theory have all been subjected to this dismissive treatment. And that is just the beginning of the list.

The success of this tactic reveals how little is understood about the process of scientific advancement. A brief explanation exposes the folly of this line of reasoning.

If I, as a scientist, conduct an experiment whose results prove or disprove a scientific hypothesis, the first thing I will do is publish the results in a scientific journal. My article will be consumed by a population of my peers. Those who find my results interesting will either attempt to replicate them or attempt to design an experiment to build upon them. Regardless of which path they choose, the results of my experiment are being independently validated. If my data is cooked, this process will reveal it.

There are, of course, circumstances under which bad science can slip through the cracks. There are thousands of journal articles published every year. Because of this fact, some research will not be exposed to independent validation. This is especially true if the research falls into obscure or otherwise uninteresting venues.

However, research that generates high levels of interest in the scientific community cannot escape widespread scrutiny. False theories can enjoy temporary acceptance, but once they fail to demonstrably explain observed data, they cannot but fall from grace. As one of the core principles of modern biology, it is absurd to suggest that evolution has been excused from rigorous independent analysis.

Thus, Michael Behe is asking us to believe the following: Evolution is a false theory, unsupported by experimental data, that is being intentionally preserved by a widespread conspiracy of biologists that has persisted, unbroken, for 145 years.

Occam's Razor, anyone?

The scientific process is by no means perfect. There are numerous examples where it failed, for a time, to accurately reflect objective reality. But the existence of exception does not disprove the rule. Over time, scientific consensus approaches truth with a precision that dwarfs all other intellectual methodologies. The assertion that science as a whole is subservient to the bias of individuals is absurd and reflects either a gross misunderstanding of the nature of science or a desire to undermine its message. The proponents of Intelligent Design are guilty of both these sins.

No wonder nobody takes them seriously.
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