Intelligent Design and the Sociology of Science

30 June 2006 at 11:53 am 6 comments

| Peter Klein |

Don’t worry, we’re not getting all weird on you and entering the fray on creationism and evolution. Today’s topic is the theory and practice of science. Specifically, consider the controversy over intelligent design (ID), the idea that purely natural forces — i.e., random mutation and natural selection — cannot explain the origin and diversity of life. What are the most common arguments against including ID in the science curriculum?

1. ID is wrong because it contradicts the scientific evidence.

2. ID is wrong because it isn’t science (e.g., it does not offer testable predictions). Leave it in the philosophy or theology classrooms.

3. ID is wrong because “serious scientists” all think it’s nonsense.

The second and third arguments seem to pop up the most in conversations I’ve seen and heard. They are taken by their proponents as self-evident. But #2 obviously presupposes a particular philosophy of science, and #3 a particular sociology of science. One rarely sees these philosophies articulated and defended. Is prediction the hallmark of science? Does neo-Darwinian theory make falsifiable predictions? How does scientific consensus emerge? On what grounds to scientists accept or reject theories? (Argument #3, in particular, seems to presuppose a charmingly pre-Kuhnian worldview.)

As an aside, I know several “heterodox” economists who reject ID primarily on ground #3, which I find highly ironic. They see themselves as (unjustifabily) outside the mainstream of their own discipline, but assume that in natural science the consensus is always right.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. simon  |  30 June 2006 at 8:34 pm

    Peter nice point … I think that ID should and is being challenged by point 1. ID theorists raise some relevant points but it not clear that they offer a meaningful answer. For example, the notion of irreducible complexity is in my opinion a great question. If a biological structure can be demonstrated to be irreducibly complex we have a phenomena that is not explainable by Darwinian theory.

    The first problem that ID theorists face is how can irreducible complexity be defined or demonstrated. Second, one must the offer a testable alternative. One the first problem I think that one previously believed to be “irreducible” complex structure has been found not to be “irreducibly complex. I suspect that no proof can be offered for irreducible complexity since it is very difficult to specify all potential operators that existed at some time in the past. This means that the movement in the state space is not knowable. Second it does not offer a materially testable alternative.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  30 June 2006 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks Simon. I’m also intrigued by how these issues might relate to evolutionary theories in economics and sociology. For example, irreducible complexity — whether or not it applies to biological systems — doesn’t seem to apply to social systems. Can it be the case that N individuals possess some collective capability (referring to one of Nicolai’s earlier posts), but N-1 of these same individuals lack the capability altogether? Or do capabilities increase proportionately with the number of individuals in the group?

    Similarly, organizations are the products of both deliberate design and unplanned, incremental change (spontaneous order, to use Hayek’s phrase). Is it possible to detect which elements or characteristics are designed, and which “evolved,” using the techniques ID proponents claim can detect design in nature? Are there some firm capabilities that could not have plausibly emerged in an unguided, step-by-step fashion?

  • 3. brayden  |  1 July 2006 at 8:28 pm

    I find points #1 and #2 to be the strongest. Actually I would put them in the reverse order. ID isn’t science because you cannot derive hypotheses that would allow you to verify or prove false its claims.

    In fact, as a religious person, I find it absurd that ID people claim that you can. Religion is primarily based on faith without seeing evidence. If you really needed externally-reviewed evidence to verify the claims of the Bible or any other religious tome, religion would have died long ago. But we don’t require that because it is a question of faith. Why would we want to bring scientific rigor to questions of faith? I certainly don’t.

  • 4. Bo Nielsen  |  3 July 2006 at 4:23 am

    Indeed an interesting discussion. ID has received much attention due to its religious content, however, much of the discussion has been clouded by these same religious tensions. I agree that bringing scientific rigor to the question of faith may not be relevant, however, at the same time it must be relevant if the question is about explaining life itself on earth. Indeed, much of the controversy arises precisely because ID attempts to bring together faith and science where it is not warrented. The Bible cannot (and should not) be taken literally and tested accordingly like a theory. Perhaps some of what we in the social sciences consider theory and science suffer from similar shortcomings?

  • 5. Tina  |  3 July 2006 at 5:50 pm

    Maybe we should remember the social meaning or function that religion can have in society – 1. as a cultural background representing what is believed to be meaningful and important and what action is legitimate considering commonly shared values or not (this comes close to Weber) or 2. as a system of symbols representing commonly shared believes – no matter if they are true in a scientific sense or not – that tell each individual what is his or her place in society and what are the bonds between the individual and society (that he or she is not even able to express in words) – this comes pretty close to Durkheim. It should not be difficult to interpret the bible in a more abstract way having in mind what Weber and Durkheim said concerning the relationship between society and religion. To Europeans, it seems a bit strange that a modern society and last remaining superpower like the United states has a controversy over intelligent design.

  • 6. Peter Klein  |  3 July 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Great comments everyone. Let’s return, though, to the original topic, which pertains to the role of teleology in science. The question of whether ID is or isn’t science is ultimately a teleological one — is it legitimate to invoke concepts such as “purpose” and “design” in scientific explanation? Or is biology, as Richard Dawkins defines it, the study of things that appear to be designed but aren’t?

    The same questions apply to social science. If economics is modeled after physics, then its primary analytical tool should be simultaneous determination (as in a Walrasian general equilibrium model). Not much role for teleology there. If organizations are understood as organisms that evolve through time, based on the information embedded in their routines/genes, does it make sense to talk about the “purpose” of an organization?

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