I caught about half of the NOVA special on last night about the Dover case ruling on Intelligent Design. I thought the whole procedure, and its logical outcomes, was spectacular. However, I was a little bothered by the sort of epilogue that followed discussing the actual trial.
The Discovery Institute has been a proponent of Intelligent Design, the idea that the universe is just too friggin’ complex and weird to have arisen from natural processes that it can only have been intelligently designed. After Judge Jone’s opinion against Intelligent Design, aligning it with creationist and religious (otherwise unscientific) antecedents, the viability of “intelligent design is the only viable explanation” sunk a little. So, the Discovery Institute has taken a new approach to their “teach the controversy” campaign. They are now re-directing their attack against evolution itself, as was the case in the early 20th Century debacle that made the Scopes-Monkey Trial possible.
What strikes me as odd about this move is that it seems to take a feature away from the scientific process (falsification), and claims it as a radically subversive technique that belongs to anti-Evolutionists. I guess that in a sense good science is always at odds with itself. Many of us are familiar with Karl Popper’s argument about the necessity for falsification in science. What the Discovery Institute is suggesting is that Evolutionary Theory is all or nothing; that every “hole” is the noose around which Evolutionary Theory can be hung; and that the viability of Evolutionary theory as a whole hinges upon the filling up of every one of these holes in a way wholly consistent with how the theory has always been imagined. This last part is really basic rationale underpinning the false-dichotomy between Evolution and Intelligent Design, and the best reason why Intelligent Design (as a so-called theory and as a movement) cannot be accepted as scientific.
This points to a dangerous failure in understanding how theories work. Of course, if something as fundamental to Evolutionary Theory as the age of the universe/earth or the nature of hereditary genetics were shown to be otherwise, there would be serious problems for the theory. As Hume spoke of miracles though, extra-ordinary claims (this huge body of otherwise tested, demonstrated and useful scientific theory is just on the whole wrong) require extra-ordinary evidence.
Such evidence as far as I know is not lurking in the kinds of gaps that IDers want to fill with their notion of intelligent design, but rather in the falsification of otherwise well established facts of science. The targets of Intelligent Design are not these structural supports though, but rather the frontiers of scientific explanation that are there simply because we haven’t taken the theory far enough. In other words, Intelligent Design treats the built-in limits of science (i.e. the practical fact that it hasn’t explained everything) as grounds for its failure at a much deeper level; as license to abandon scientific thinking altogether.
What the Intelligent Design movement signals to me is a staggering failure to think scientifically, not because its MacGuffin (an intelligent designer) is ludicrous, but because its goals amount to the end of sound theory itself.