Tuesday 1 December 2009

Creationist twaddle in the Guardian

This article by Alastair Noble in the Guardian's Comment is free section was flagged at RD.net. No doubt it will be kicked to death — deservedly so — but I did find some particular dumbosities that made me wonder whether the Guardian is being deliberately provocative having it appear on their site:
As a former science teacher and schools inspector, I am disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design. I also think the views of most British people in this matter should not be so readily set aside.
I am disturbed that a former science teacher and schools inspector should propose the teaching of non-science in a science class. "Near-complete ignorance" is pretty much the most anyone can know about intelligent design, because there's nothing there. And scientific truth is not a matter of public popularity — even if every last British citizen thought creationism was true, that would not make it so.
It is an all too common error to confuse intelligent design with religious belief. While creationism draws its conclusions primarily from religious sources, intelligent design argues from observations of the natural world. And it has a good pedigree. A universe intelligible by design principles was the conclusion of many of the great pioneers of modern science.
Intelligent design is a religious belief (and was declared so by Judge Jones in the famous Dover trial in America). If you look at the natural world and conclude that it was intelligently designed, you must take the next step and ask who designed it. Aliens? God? You choose, but you must base your choice on scientific evidence. If you have no evidence, then why are you proposing this as science? Intelligent design does not have "a good pedigree". It's true that great pioneers of modern science were creationists, but they were pre-Darwin. They were also religious, along with the majority of the population at the time.
It is easily overlooked that the origin of life, the integrated complexity of biological systems and the vast information content of DNA have not been adequately explained by purely materialistic or neo-Darwinian processes. Indeed it is hard to see how they ever will.
Actually the integrated complexity of biological systems has been largely explained by evolution and natural selection. The information content of DNA will probably be explained too. It may be hard for you to see how, Mr. Noble, but just because you can't imagine it, that's no excuse for throwing your hands in the air and proclaiming it must have been done by aliens or God. There's progress on the abiogenesis front too — I understand it's been suggested in some quarters that the production of life in the laboratory may be achieved within a few years.
In an area such as this, where we cannot observe what happened directly, a legitimate scientific approach is to make an inference to the best explanation. In the case of the huge bank of functional information embedded in biological systems, the best explanation – based on the observation everywhere else that such information only arises from intelligence – is that it too has an intelligent source.
The "observation everywhere else" is that information is created by human intelligence. That's a sample of one, from which you cannot extrapolate anything because it's statistically unsound. Much of biology that was once thought to be irreducibly complex has now been shown to have evolved, or to have plausible evolutionary pathways to its present form. There's no reason to suppose that the presence of information in DNA will not be similarly explained.
There is a tendency in school science to present the evidence for evolution as uniformly convincing and all-encompassing, failing to distinguish between what is directly observable – such as change and adaptation over time through natural selection – and the more hypothetical elements, like the descent of all living things from a common ancestor. The evidence for these various strands is not of equal strength.
The research accruing from the complete sequencing of both the human genome and the genomes of other animals makes it far more likely that all living things have a single common ancestor, now that we understand so much more about how DNA works. Evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a scientific theory that's been consistently hammered for 150 years. Every scrap of new evidence uncovered has had the potential to falsify the theory, but instead has reinforced it, to the extent that evolution can be considered as much a scientific fact as the "theory" of gravity.
If you insist that intelligent causation is to be excluded in the study of origins then you are teaching materialist philosophy, not science.
I'm at a loss to know how intelligent causation could actually be taught in a science class. What do you tell the students? What demonstrations do you devise? Let's say, for instance, you're looking at the structure of primitive, single-celled organisms and you want the students to understand how they might have come into existence. You might talk about amino acids and self-replicating molecules — or you might simply close the textbook and say, "An intelligent causative agent caused the first cells to come into existence." That's not science, that's an intellectual cop-out.
I believe current government guidance is wrong in denying intelligent design the status of science. However, it does encourage teachers to handle it "positively and educationally". That's a small step in the right direction.
"Intelligent design" is not science.


  1. I read this piece as well. I can't believe that The Guardian published it. I know the section of their website is called "Comment is Free", but this was a pretty cheap shot against Darwinism!


  2. The Guardian has now published a (somewhat lukewarm) response by Denis Alexander.