As everyone knows by now, the Dover ID case has been decided. I think the court was right on the establishment clause issues, partly becasue the existing Supreme Court establishment clause jurisprudence is such a mess. Hopefully I’ll blog about that another time. For now I want to focus on the court’s unecessary, and wrong-headed, discussion of whether ID is “science.”
I should note that I have to go back and read the decision more carefully. On my first quick read, here’s what, from my perspective, is objectionable about the court’s discussion of “science”:
1. The judge went far beyond the case / controversy at hand by giving his primer on whether ID is “science.” There was enough in the record to establish the religious motives and effect of the particular Dover school board policy at issue that the establishment clause decision could easily have been decided without the long explication of ID as “science.” It strikes me that the court in that respect was acting more like a soldier in the culture war than as a neutral arbiter of facts and law.
2. The judge’s criteria for determining what constitutes “science” seem muddled and dangerous to me, for several reasons.
a. He distorts the history of science by stating that science since the Enlightenment has always proceeded under the assumption of absolute methodological naturalism. That just isn’t so. Many giants in the history of science, Netwon not the least among them, started with the assumption of a creator / designer who built intelligible order into the universe. In fact, from an historical perspective, absolute methodoligical naturalism arguably is the anomaly.
b. He distorts the philosophy of science by essentially equating the assumption of naturalism with the definition of science. I have to go back and check carefully, but I don’t recall any serious mention of how the philosophy of science has developed from the Enlightenment to Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion, and then from there has split into numerous strands including Kuhn’s observations about paradigm shifts, Lakatos’ criteria for a “scientific program,” and Polanyi’s critiques of what constitutes scientific “knowledge.” Given the rich debates that surround serious discussion of the philosophy of science, it’s facile to conclude that absolute naturalism must be the sine qua non.
c. He further distorts the demarcation (“science” or “non-science”) question by focusing the definitional question on whether a theory has gained acceptance within the scientific community. It seems that, in the court’s view, it is “science” only if it has a sustained record of peer reviewed pubications and endorsements by major scientific organizations. That can’t, however, be a test for whether something is categorized as “science.” Almost any new theory initially meets with resistance. Under the court’s “science is what science says it is” test, most theories would start out as “not science” and then only later evolve (pardon the pun) into “science.” We’d have to say, for example, that many of the revolutionary scientific theories of the past centuries were not “science” when first proposed, and that many important theories today, such as string theory and multiverse theory, may not really be “science” yet.
d. He misrepresents key ID arguments by stating that they are only negative arguments against evolution rather than positive evidence for design. Once again, this is flat wrong. The irreducible complexity argument, for example, doesn’t only state that an IC system can’t have evolved and thus must be designed. It states that an inference of design can be drawn if there is a system is irreducibly complex, there is a statistical probability that the system could not have been assembled merely by chance, and there are no reasonable explanations for the system’s development other than design. It is true that this analysis includes negative arguments against other possibilities for the system’s appearance, including evolution, but every scientific claim proceeds by discounting alternative explanations.
e. He misrepresents the merits of key ID arguments, in particular irreducible complexity. As noted above, he simply doesn’t understand the irreducible complexity argument. Moreover, he uncritically credits arguments by Ken Miller and others against certain ID systems, such as the bacterial flagellum, that have been responded to effectively in many cases by ID proponents, and that should remain the subject of vigorous debate in the scientific community.
In short, it seems to me the court is saying that any truth claim not based on absolutist naturalistic materialism cannot be “science,” regardless of the history of science, the philosophy of science, or the nature of the claim. That seems to me a recipe for censorship rather than for free and open scientific inquiry.