Feb 21 2007

Buckley on Darwin

For science to function optimally it must be free from ideology. Ideology constrains our thinking. It forces us to cogitate backwards – to start with an ideologically desired conclusion and then cherry pick evidence, contort logic, and choose emphasis that appears to support that conclusion. This pathological process is the essence of pseudoscience, and of course my perpetually favorite example of this is creationism.

William F. Buckley Jr., a conservative columnist and thinker, has aligned himself (as has, unfortunately, a significant portion of the political right) with creationist ideology. Now we expect from political commentators, especially those who have staked out an ideological turf, like conservatism in the case of Buckley, that they will marshal what arguments they can to defend their turf. We don’t expect objectivity, we expect advocacy. It’s bad enough when ideological advocacy becomes excessively rigid in the world of politics, but when such intellectual habits and methods are applied to essentially scientific questions, we have a real problem.

Buckley, an undeniably articulate, educated, and thoughtful intellect, flounders when he attempts to defend creationist ideology on the scientific question of evolution – as he did in a recent editorial.

Buckley has long been on record as a doubter of evolution, so the editorial comes as no surprise, but it is still disappointing. In the editorial he says, regarding a Firing Line debate on the topic he hosted a number of years ago:

“Four of them took the establishmentarian scientific position. It is, essentially, that not only is naturalism established as verified science, but any interposition into the picture—of inquisitiveness, let alone conviction that there might have been design in the evolution of our world—is excluded.”

This statement is patently false. Establishment science does not abhor inquisitiveness. Also, notions that there is design in the natural world are not a-priori excluded. Intelligent Design (ID) is excluded from science because it is not science. And it is not science for a reason very different than Buckley’s straw man – it is not science because it does not propose a testable hypothesis. ID proponents have not put forward a statement to the effect – ID predicts that this is what we will see when we look at nature – and it goes without saying that they have not conducted any research to test their non-existent predictions.

The reason for this is the same as for classic creationism (in fact, ID and creationism are the same ideology; the former simply removes any overt reference to God or the Bible). Specifically, the unnamed intelligent designer (ahem) could have designed the world to look like anything they desired. So no matter what we find in nature, that is how it was designed (functionally equivalent to saying that is how God created it). This renders ID unfalsifiable, and therefore not science. Period.

Buckley also writes, referring to Philip Johnson’s performance during the debate;

“Johnson’s objections have to do with separating real science from the materialist philosophy that provides ‘the only support for Darwinist theory.’”

In essence Buckley is repeating Johnson’s core claim – that the modern institution of science unfairly excludes supernaturalism a-priori, thereby rigging the game in favor of pure materialism. They are trying to portray evolution as an ideology – the ideology of materialism. If they can drag evolutionary theory into the arena of ideology, then they feel they can win (or at least they can fight) – for arguments of faith and fairness will tend to hold more sway in our society than those of strict materialism and scientific elitism (at least that is how they frame the ideological debate).

Unfortunately for Buckley and Johnson, science is not an ideology. Science, rather, is a methodology. Science is a set of methods for investigating nature, and scientific methods require what is called methodological naturalism. Basically, science requires explanations for natural phenomena that can potentially be subjected to scientific falsification. Supernatural explanations are excluded, not for unfair ideological advantage, but because supernatural explanations, by their very nature, cannot be scientifically falsified. The supernatural (as the very word itself implies) is not constrained by nature, it must follow no immutable laws. We can’t test the supernatural.

Buckley and Johnson, and the entire ID crowd, simply do not get this (at least they give no indication of getting this). They also seem to miss the fact (as do some scientists) that science restricting itself out of necessity to methodological naturalism does not mean science is declaring there is no supernatural – it means that science can only be agnostic toward the supernatural. IDers and creationists want to set up the false dichotomy that if you accept evolution (and by extension materialism) you are rejecting God. This is not a valid position – the one has nothing to do with the other. Science cannot test an unfalsifiable god, or any supernatural notion, so must remain agnostic toward it. Likewise, supernatural concepts must remain outside of the realm of science.

It is worth noting also that evolutionary theory is a solid scientific construct that is highly testable, and has survived countless tests since the publication of Origin of the Species. It is a beautiful and elegant scientific theory that not only accounts for the evidence, it predicted it. It predicted that we would discover a form of inheritance that is not infinitely diluted (we did, genetics), it predicted we would continue to find fossil evidence of extinct species that fill in the morphological gaps between extant species (we did, and do), it predicted that no matter how we choose to analyze the pattern of genetic information among various species, they would follow an evolutionary pattern (and they do).
ID/creationism is pseudoscience not only because it does not propose a testable scientific theory, but because of its false attacks against evolutionary theory. Such attacks are an embarrassing laundry list of logical fallacies and distortion of evidence. Exactly what you would expect from an ideology thinking backwards.

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