I was going to write a post about this type of thing anyway and got a further intellectual push from reading a post at cosmic variance on the a televised debate for Republican party candidates in the US.
I think that the main problems scientists have with Intelligent Design, as opposed to alternative scientific theories are:
- Lack of respect for Occam’s razor – there are certainly many fields in science where there is legitimate debate as to which of a set of competing theories are more simple but once you try to explain complexity by positing the existence of an unobservable being with more complexity than the observed universe you go off the scale.
- Starting off with assumptions that prejudge the question. Scientists in any field will start off assuming that existing theories are mainly correct. Contrary to some anti-scientific propaganda this is not due to some conservative conspiracy – merely that existing theories have been extensively tested and peer reviewed. Any honest scientist would abandon a belief in evolution if it was shown to be incompatible with the observed evidence. However the big problem with Intelligent Design is that it starts off from a non-scientifice (theological) asumption and proceeds from there.
Personally, I always have difficulty understanding how some scientists maintain theist beliefs while having a strong evidence-based rational view of their chosen field – but it is undoubtedly true that many do and pull off the mental gymnastics necessary. So I do not agree with the view expressed by some prominent atheists that one cannot be a theist and a good scientist. Indeed one of the principal tenets of rational discourse is that the truth of a statement is independent of who is making it.
A classic example is Newton. He was undoubtedly was a great scientist, whose theories are used on a daily basis by rocket scientists and engineers. He also held a large number of ridiculous cranky beliefs on matters such as alchemy which have been dismissed by modern scientists. Then to show the middle ground, his development of the calculus included many theorems which are now accepted to be true but were derived from mathematically non-rigourous methods. Cauchy and other nineteenth-century mathematicians later filled in these gaps. So legitimacy is gained not by authority, but by logical consistency and agreement with the observed facts.
Which leads nicely onto my main point- the need for the development of modern rhetoric.
Classically rhetoric was an art (viewed as disreputable by thinkers such as Plato) for constructing real-world as opposed to philosophical arguments. The battle between some the proponents of rhetoric (the sophists) and the followers of Plato is given an interesting spin in Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. However in a modern society, arguments are often made with an appeal to official statistics and so on and thus a correct deployment of elementary probability and sampling theory is essential for the modern practitioner of rhetoric.
Questions like evolution and gravity are scientific and can only be answered by theories which are compared with experiment. The calculus example relates to mathematical reasoning which involves careful deduction from axioms which are taken as givens.
However, there are many questions which are not scientific or mathematical/logical.Questions like “what is the best way of funding health-care provision?” or “what is the best level of taxation for the UK?” are in this class. Often one hears politicians, pressure groups or members of the public putting forward views on such questions using blatant logical or mathematical fallacies. This suggests to me that there should be more study of what I term ‘modern rhetoric’ – that is the use of correct reasoning from personal convictions.
The ‘axioms’ in these type of debates are not arbitrary as in maths – but they cannot be judged against reality in a straightforward way like science either. Statements like “an equal society is a just society” or “the state should not create a culture of dependency on it” are matters of personal and political principle. However – once one starts from such a point, intellectual honesty means you should proceed rationally.
This means in my opinion:
- Any use of statistics or other maths to back up your views must be mathematically meaningful. This would stop moronic statements such as “we should try to make sure our poverty levels are below the EU average” (if you are part of the population from which the average is drawn reducing your poverty level will reduce the average too if everything else stays the same).
- You must only make logical, consistent and universal deductions from your starting position. A classic example of how not to do this is the ‘NIMBY fallacy’ (where a whole society believe in, say, more house construction but everyone thinks the growth should occur somewhere else).
- You should stick to objective statements. As I argued in my piece on secularism, subjective faith-based beliefs belong in the private emotional world and not in reasoned debate. A religious believer may oppose abortion because of his faith but when he uses his faith explicitly in a debate on the subject he is begging the question in the same way as a ‘scientist’ propounding Intelligent Design. He may start off with the ‘axiom’ that “all human life must be protected” but then he must rationally go on to demonstrate that a foetus is indeed human life and so on and arguments like “because the pope/bible says…” are automatically invalid.
- When appealing to scientific studies and the like, there is no such thing as ‘anecdotal evidence’. The most anecdotes can be is a spur to the starting of proper scientific research into an area and even a well-written properly conducted study published in a peer-reviewed journal is only the start. The only legitimate use of scientific theories in political debate involves theories which confirmed by several such experimental studies and any anomalies etc. accounted for to the satisfaction of most of those working in the field.
I do not claim that all my arguments are perfect in this way or that anybody else’s should be. However, logical or mathematical gaps in one’s arguments should be seen as flaws which must be addressed by those who have made them, rather than the debater reverting back to the ‘axioms’ and indulging in ad hominem attacks as is the norm in political debates.
Interestingly most teaching of maths at school level is justified by appeal to applications such as adding up prices and doing budgets. However, to be a competent citizen of a democracy, I would contend that an ability to analyze and create ‘modern rhetorical’ arguments is at least as important.
If the logical and mathematical level of debate could be improved we would be more free, our politicians less mendacious and our societies more democratic.