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Old 05-03-2006, 08:06 PM   #1 (permalink)
 
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Intelligent Design: A Misunderstanding of Science...

I was reading a few threads on this forum, particularly this one, about creationism and its place in the public education system, and I was surprised by the amount of controversy around it. I know, you probably think controversy around this subject is a no brainer and that I must be daft to be surprised by it but what I mean is that many of the people who participated in that thread seemed to be honestly confused as to why intelligent design shouldn't be taught with the other scientific theories in science class and it was this that I found surprising.

In my opinion, for many people, the source of this controversy is that they don't really know what science is. I was very tempted to post a full explanation, including the motivations behind the scientific method but, for brevity's sake, I will merely state points that directly relate to intelligent design. Specifically, I intend to list criteria for scientific theory and show how intelligent design fails to satisfy them and, thus, disqualifies itself as scientific.

One criteria for scientific theory is that it can be falsified. This means that we must be able to construct an experiment that can challenge the claim. This is to help ensure that scientific theories remain real.
Intelligent design cannot be disproved. No matter what experiment we construct, one can always say that the Designer meant for the outcome to turn out that way. There is nothing that we can do to potentially disprove the theory and is, therefore, by definition, not scientific.

Another criteria for scientific theory is that it have predictive value. That means that, in some capacity, one can predict the future with it. This helps ensure that scientific theories remain, in some sense, useful.
Intelligent design makes no predictions. It only says, after the fact, that things are the way they are because He designed them that way. The theory says nothing about how the Designer chooses His designs and is, therefore, by definition, not scientific.

So, if intelligent design is not science then why would you want it taught in science class? I think it's obvious that you wouldn't...

Sadly, many of the people in those threads are no longer active participants of this forum so they won't benefit from this post but my hope is that new members who are here, and the ones who have stayed, could learn something. Thank you for reading...
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Old 05-03-2006, 10:55 PM   #2 (permalink)
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This was all talked about in the other forum. Did it need a new thread?
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Old 05-03-2006, 11:33 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Unfortunately, Knife -- people who propose ID are either don't care about what real science is, or they are too stupid to understand what real science is. Neither of those audiences will ever be swayed by yours or mine or anyone's pleas for them to think logically for one damn minute.

You're simultaneously preaching to the choir and falling on dead ears.
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Old 05-03-2006, 11:38 PM   #4 (permalink)
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Vincentt
This was all talked about in the other forum. Did it need a new thread?
I felt it did, or I wouldn't have created one! The focus of this thread is, specifically, on the meaning of science and how it affects the appropriateness of intelligent design in school. I don't recall anyone in the other thread explaining, in detail, the definition of science, so I don't think a new thread is so outrageous. Mind you, I didn't read too carefully after prosequence felt muscled out, so perhaps I missed something. I would be interested if you could list some post numbers of posts that did what this thread set out to do, thank you...
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Old 05-04-2006, 12:21 AM   #5 (permalink)
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JinnKai
Unfortunately, Knife -- people who propose ID are either don't care about what real science is, or they are too stupid to understand what real science is. Neither of those audiences will ever be swayed by yours or mine or anyone's pleas for them to think logically for one damn minute.

You're simultaneously preaching to the choir and falling on dead ears.
Well, regardless of whether ID proponents care that their theory is scientific or not, it doesn't change the fact that they are trying to include non-scientific content into a science course. Even they can't possibly think this is appropriate...
...and they don't. The reality is that they know that intelligent design and creation aren't science and, thus, want to change the definition of science. They're not stupid, they're just crazy.

The point of this thread is that there were many people, here, who weren't fervid creationists and genuinely thought that intelligent design was just another scientific theory, like evolution...

Last edited by KnifeMissile; 05-04-2006 at 12:52 AM.. Reason: Forgot to actually state my point...
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Old 05-04-2006, 06:33 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JinnKai
Unfortunately, Knife -- people who propose ID are either don't care about what real science is, or they are too stupid to understand what real science is.
Or they've had minimal exposure to the subject.

Insults are an excellent way of encouraging them to listen to you. Keep it up.
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Old 05-04-2006, 06:45 AM   #7 (permalink)
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ID is bad science but not more stupid than what most people believe.

My best friend is a raging liberal, so of course he is 'anti-ID' which is fine as am I. He made some crack about it, and I remarked on the lefts love affair with equally bullshit theories such as powercrystals and the 'alternative' like. His defense was 'well we are not trying to get that taught in schools' and my reply was 'yet' . It really doesn't matter, most people are completely ignorant of the world around them. To a non-scientist, ID sounds great, hell it WAS science in the early 1800's before alternative theories came about.

ID on paper is a wonderful theory, and gives people warm fuzzies. Hell I'm an evolutionary -biologist by training and I am often in awe of what I see. It may be bad science, and I think its wrong, but its a LOT less hairbrained than some of the shit out there right now.
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Old 05-04-2006, 06:55 AM   #8 (permalink)
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ID isn't a theory, though! They take no position. It's a bloody excuse and a reason to avoid doing actual research.

OH look Jane, that's a creature we've never seen. Rather than study it and develop theories about how it works, let's just assume it's either (a) too complicated for our feeble minds to understand or (b) so perfect that we'd be foolish to study it.

There's a colloquial term for people when they use excuses like this.. it's called a cop-out.

Quote:
Originally Posted by cop-out
choose not to do something, as out of fear of failing; "She copped out when she was supposed to get into the hang glider"
And FoolThemAll, as I said above -- anyone who blindly backs a "theory" like ID with only "minimal exposure" doesn't deserve to be arguing. And they're also very unlikely to listen to someone who actually understands the science, because they've been thus far too lazy to do any learning themselves before yammering away needlessly.
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Old 05-04-2006, 07:10 AM   #9 (permalink)
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I doubt that it is as simple as people being "too stupid". It's more likely that they have a different criteria for what should be taught in schools - that what they want their kids to learn comes higher in the decision making pipeline than subject/content organization. Then they try to justify the place that these priorities take them.

I you persist in thinking that everyone who think things you can't believe is stupid, you'll never talk to them in a way that will change anyone's mind - not theirs and not yours. This is true of a spectrum of topics.
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Old 05-04-2006, 07:19 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Evolution vrs ID.

ID: Magic = advanced Creature
Evolution: Unknown = Creature = Advanced creature

That unknown is currently as untestable and unprovable as ID's magic god step. I have 'faith' that life can spontaniously form under the right conditions, but its only faith, there is no science to prove this can happen. Remember the theory of evolution does NOT explain how life was formed, only that life forms can change.

Right now you would be equally right saying it goes...

God - Creature - Advanced Critter
Unknown explainable process - Creature - Advanced Critter
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Old 05-04-2006, 08:06 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ustwo
Right now you would be equally right saying it goes...

God - Creature - Advanced Critter
Unknown explainable process - Creature - Advanced Critter
Well, I don't think its accurate to refer to the God hypothesis as "right" in this situation. It strikes me as similar to the following two statements:

"George Allen is the 44th President of the United States."

"I do not know who is the 44th President of the United States."

Now, it seems odd to say that the first statement is "right", despite the fact that it could potentially be true. Similarly, in the absence of sufficient evidence, it is odd to claim that X caused the creation of life on Earth, even if X is a potentially true explanation...
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Old 05-04-2006, 08:46 AM   #12 (permalink)
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I must admit that being agnostic I feel a bit hypocritical on this issue. On one hand, I absolutely reject ID because its proponents are so noncomittal; we don't understand the science so it must be God. It's a wishy-washy position where they're afraid to admit they're really just Creationists ignoring science. In the same way, I refuse to say that there is or isn't a God, only that I'm withholding judgement until better evidence comes up. I'm not actively IGNORING current evidence, as I believe ID supporters do.

There's a big difference to me between waiting to make a decision based on better information and ignoring the information you already have in front of you.
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Old 05-04-2006, 09:43 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by politicophile
Well, I don't think its accurate to refer to the God hypothesis as "right" in this situation. It strikes me as similar to the following two statements:

"George Allen is the 44th President of the United States."

"I do not know who is the 44th President of the United States."

Now, it seems odd to say that the first statement is "right", despite the fact that it could potentially be true. Similarly, in the absence of sufficient evidence, it is odd to claim that X caused the creation of life on Earth, even if X is a potentially true explanation...
My point was they are equally unprovable at this point.
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Old 05-04-2006, 09:52 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Knifemissle, you are both knife and missle. I can respect that.

Creationism being taught in school isn't an issue of science. As someone who is a born again agnostic, I understand the line between science and theology...and how that line often is a battle line. No, creationism is not based in science, and any scientist worth his salt will agree, but this isn't about science (I think I used too many commas in that sentence). This is simply about two things: power, and fear. As far as power, those faithful who see the oportunity to bring Jesus to more people will do anything to take advantage of said opportunity. It's about trying to take back the power that evolutuion took from theology. Fear? Well I'd be afraid of God, too.
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Old 05-04-2006, 10:29 AM   #15 (permalink)
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It is surprising how many seem to be offended by the concept that life may be evolving without the active guiding hand of an intelligent designer. Many seem to think it is an affront to their religious belief. There is nothing in evolution theory that precludes the existence (or not) of a superior being and creator.
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Old 05-04-2006, 11:13 AM   #16 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JinnKai
And FoolThemAll, as I said above -- anyone who blindly backs a "theory" like ID with only "minimal exposure" doesn't deserve to be arguing. And they're also very unlikely to listen to someone who actually understands the science, because they've been thus far too lazy to do any learning themselves before yammering away needlessly.
Everybody's got an opinion on everything. That doesn't mean that every opinion is stubbornly held. Broad generalizations are a sign of laziness, too.

Your thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy: treat them as though they won't listen and they won't.
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Old 05-04-2006, 11:36 AM   #17 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by flstf
willravel

It is surprising how many seem to be offended by the concept that life may be evolving without the active guiding hand of an intelligent designer. Many seem to think it is an affront to their religious belief. There is nothing in evolution theory that precludes the existence (or not) of a superior being and creator.
Oh don't get me wrong, I believe it's very possible to explain God by science eventually, but for now we have to learn using the proven scientific method. Having a scientific theory based on 1) the inability to explain everything in nature, and 2) a book that was written thousands of years ago, offends me deeply, and I am speaking as someone who believes in the existence of God. Evolution has no place in theology (for most people), and creationism has no place in science.
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Old 05-04-2006, 12:14 PM   #18 (permalink)
 
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Originally Posted by Ustwo
My best friend is a raging liberal, so of course he is 'anti-ID' which is fine as am I. He made some crack about it, and I remarked on the lefts love affair with equally bullshit theories such as powercrystals and the 'alternative' like. His defense was 'well we are not trying to get that taught in schools' and my reply was 'yet' .
Hey, if your opinion of the left is based on people who believe in New Age "powercrystals" then no wonder you don't think much of them!

If it makes you feel any better, there's an entire country filled with lefties just north of yours and they would never want "powercrystal" theory taught in science class...
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Old 05-04-2006, 04:08 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Everybody's got an opinion on everything. That doesn't mean that every opinion is stubbornly held. Broad generalizations are a sign of laziness, too.

Your thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy: treat them as though they won't listen and they won't.
Alright, I get it.. I get it. You don't like me. No need to keep not-so-subtly bashing me.
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Old 05-04-2006, 05:56 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by JinnKai
Alright, I get it.. I get it. You don't like me. No need to keep not-so-subtly bashing me.
I don't know you. It's your blanket insult I didn't like.
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Old 05-04-2006, 06:09 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KnifeMissile
Hey, if your opinion of the left is based on people who believe in New Age "powercrystals" then no wonder you don't think much of them!

If it makes you feel any better, there's an entire country filled with lefties just north of yours and they would never want "powercrystal" theory taught in science class...
Hes not into that crap but his wife is.

On the other hand there is also an entire country filled with righties who don't want ID taught in schools. I was taught evolution myself in Catholic schools.
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Old 05-04-2006, 06:42 PM   #22 (permalink)
 
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Originally Posted by flstf
It is surprising how many seem to be offended by the concept that life may be evolving without the active guiding hand of an intelligent designer. Many seem to think it is an affront to their religious belief. There is nothing in evolution theory that precludes the existence (or not) of a superior being and creator.
Well, according to The Wedge Document, modern science encourages materialism over theistic truth and that this is such a danger to us all that it must be subverted by any means necessary. At least, that's what I got when I read the damn thing...

Really, their point is that science is so objective that it leaves no room for religious understanding and, because science is so effective, people will be encouraged to think less religiously, which is bad for society. Therefore, we really need to redefine science to incorporate religious truth so that society can be saved. It's just that the cold methodology and sheer guile of the wedge tactic makes me believe that they will do anything they can to accomplish their goals. After all, the sixth commandment didn't stop the Crusades...
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Old 05-04-2006, 08:00 PM   #23 (permalink)
 
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Originally Posted by Ustwo
On the other hand there is also an entire country filled with righties who don't want ID taught in schools. I was taught evolution myself in Catholic schools.
While I'm sure that your words are meant to comfort me, if I were to judge from articles like this and this, I don't think you could honestly say the country you were referring to was the US of A...

I'm glad to hear about your Catholic schools, though...
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Old 05-05-2006, 01:54 PM   #24 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ustwo
He made some crack about it, and I remarked on the lefts love affair with equally bullshit theories such as powercrystals and the 'alternative' like. His defense was 'well we are not trying to get that taught in schools' and my reply was 'yet' .
Exaggerate much? A few looneys is hardly a "love affair". Flakes who believe in that crap represent a much smaller fraction of "the left" as the amounts of fundies that believe in ID.

For the record, I think alternative faiths are silly, but no more silly than some dude who was born from a virgin that died and was ressurrected. All faiths seem silly to someone who hasn't taken time to study them.
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Old 05-05-2006, 03:08 PM   #25 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by JinnKai
Unfortunately, Knife -- people who propose ID are either don't care about what real science is, or they are too stupid to understand what real science is. Neither of those audiences will ever be swayed by yours or mine or anyone's pleas for them to think logically for one damn minute.
Wouldn't the scientific method require as proof of evolution that someone create life by having lightning strike a puddle, and that same life was observed to mutate into some higher organism?

Or are we supposed to accept, on "faith," that this progression of events occurred?

I'm not sure what virgins and resurrection have to do with ID, either.
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Old 05-05-2006, 06:08 PM   #26 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Marvelous Marv
Wouldn't the scientific method require as proof of evolution that someone create life by having lightning strike a puddle, and that same life was observed to mutate into some higher organism?
Evolution does't try to answer the question of how life started, just how it evolved once it started.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Marvelous Marv
Or are we supposed to accept, on "faith," that this progression of events occurred?
I prefer to accept it scientifically, faith has nothing to do with it.
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Old 05-08-2006, 07:20 AM   #27 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ustwo
ID is bad science but not more stupid than what most people believe.

My best friend is a raging liberal, so of course he is 'anti-ID' which is fine as am I. He made some crack about it, and I remarked on the lefts love affair with equally bullshit theories such as powercrystals and the 'alternative' like. His defense was 'well we are not trying to get that taught in schools' and my reply was 'yet' .

Well you know I lean to the left and I certainly don't believe in power crystals. I don't even know what they're supposed to be.

My argument is, I don't go trying to teach chemistry or physics to a sunday school class, keep religious teachings out of science classes. I don't for a minute believe that the ID proponents actually think what they are proposing is science. I think they believe it's a good way to sneak religion into schools under a very, VERY thin veil of pseudoscience.
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Old 05-08-2006, 12:02 PM   #28 (permalink)
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I really wouldn't worry about the opinion of someone who urinates in his own breakfast!

But seriously, apart from making silly generalisations about which side of the political fence various ideas and beliefs fall (remind me again what politics has to do with the OP?) I think that we are getting close to the point of being able to prove that life can spontaneously emerge from the natural (end experimentally verifiable) tendency of nature to self-organise itself into increasingly complex structures.
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Old 05-08-2006, 12:21 PM   #29 (permalink)
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Evolution does't try to answer the question of how life started, just how it evolved once it started.

I prefer to accept it scientifically, faith has nothing to do with it.
Would you please reference whatever scientific experiment that you believe resulted in the evolution of a more complex organism from a simpler one?

Personally, I don't care if someone believes in ID, evolution, or reincarnation. I haven't seen ANY of them proved or disproved.

The logical course of action would be to teach all three, and maybe a few more of them in schools, in order that the students are exposed to as many of the widespread beliefs as possible.
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Old 05-08-2006, 12:33 PM   #30 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by SteelyLoins
The logical course of action would be to teach all three, and maybe a few more of them in schools, in order that the students are exposed to as many of the widespread beliefs as possible.
Obviously teaching the most topics is beneficial. The problem is when non-science is forced into a science class. ID and Reincarnation belong in a comparative religion class, not a biology class.
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Old 05-08-2006, 01:01 PM   #31 (permalink)
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Would you please reference whatever scientific experiment that you believe resulted in the evolution of a more complex organism from a simpler one?
The fossil record (esp. Pre-Cambrian/Cambrian) shows evidence of a multitude of extremely simple life-forms - and nothing else. Fossil records dated later-on show more advanced (i.e. more cells, the beginnings of organs etc) structures. Still later we find species such as archaeopteryx that show new features (in this case feathers) emerging in species that didn't exist earlier in the fossil record, but become more abundant later. There are other examples, (arms, legs, vertebrae etc) which I can help list for you if you like.

Last edited by nezmot; 05-08-2006 at 01:08 PM.. Reason: can't spell archaeopteryx
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Old 05-08-2006, 02:41 PM   #32 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SteelyLoins
Personally, I don't care if someone believes in ID, evolution, or reincarnation. I haven't seen ANY of them proved or disproved.

The logical course of action would be to teach all three, and maybe a few more of them in schools, in order that the students are exposed to as many of the widespread beliefs as possible.
At some point, quantity of theories becomes detrimental to quality and depth. Being exposed to as many beliefs as possible is a regression in intellectual history because so many ideas have already been proven false: we needn't take the flat-earthers seriously anymore because their ideas have been so thoroughly discredited.

But, you respond, ID has not been proven false yet. This is, of course, true. By definition. That is, ID is (as the OP mentioned) not falsifiable. There is nothing that could happen that would prove ID is false, whereas evolution could be proven false by (for example) the existence of a fossil record that indicated that all forms of life, regardless of complexity, have existed since life began on earth.

The reason that ID should not be taught in science class is that ID is a non-scientific theory that appears to be contradicted by the available evidence. Until I see evidence that God created the Ebola virus, AIDS, smallpox, and all the other delightful lifeforms we encounter on Earth, I will continue to believe the evidence supporting evolutionary biology. Religious authorities are not qualified to determine the accuracy of biological claims.
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Old 05-10-2006, 12:41 PM   #33 (permalink)
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Old 05-10-2006, 12:58 PM   #34 (permalink)
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This is a good explanation for why we teach evolution and not ID.

Quote:
The Relativity of Wrong
pg.. 35-44

I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, so I read on.)

It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight.

I didn't go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What's more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.

These are all twentieth-century discoveries, you see.

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.

...When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree? Let's take an example.

In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. It was not just a matter of "That's how it looks," because the earth does not look flat. It looks chaotically bumpy, with hills, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and so on.

Of course there are plains where, over limited areas, the earth's surface does look fairly flat. One of those plains is in the Tigris-Euphrates area, where the first historical civilization (one with writing) developed, that of the Sumerians.

Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days.

Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.

Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.

There were reasons, to be sure, to find the flat-earth theory unsatisfactory and, about 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized them. First, certain stars disappeared beyond the Southern Hemisphere as one traveled north, and beyond the Northern Hemisphere as one traveled south. Second, the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse was always the arc of a circle. Third, here on the earth itself, ships disappeared beyond the horizon hull-first in whatever direction they were traveling.

All three observations could not be reasonably explained if the earth's surface were flat, but could be explained by assuming the earth to be a sphere.

What's more, Aristotle believed that all solid matter tended to move toward a common center, and if solid matter did this, it would end up as a sphere. A given volume of matter is, on the average, closer to a common center if it is a sphere than if it is any other shape whatever.

About a century after Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes noted that the sun cast a shadow of different lengths at different latitudes (all the shadows would be the same length if the earth's surface were flat). From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25,000 miles in circumference.

The curvature of such a sphere is about 0.000126 per mile, a quantity very close to 0 per mile, as you can see, and one not easily measured by the techniques at the disposal of the ancients. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.000126 accounts for the fact that it took so long to pass from the flat earth to the spherical earth.

Mind you, even a tiny difference, such as that between 0 and 0.000126, can be extremely important. That difference mounts up. The earth cannot be mapped over large areas with any accuracy at all if the difference isn't taken into account and if the earth isn't considered a sphere rather than a flat surface. Long ocean voyages can't be undertaken with any reasonable way of locating one's own position in the ocean unless the earth is considered spherical rather than flat.

Furthermore, the flat earth presupposes the possibility of an infinite earth, or of the existence of an "end" to the surface. The spherical earth, however, postulates an earth that is both endless and yet finite, and it is the latter postulate that is consistent with all later findings.

So, although the flat-earth theory is only slightly wrong and is a credit to its inventors, all things considered, it is wrong enough to be discarded in favor of the spherical-earth theory.

And yet is the earth a sphere?

No, it is not a sphere; not in the strict mathematical sense. A sphere has certain mathematical properties&emdash;for instance, all diameters (that is, all straight lines that pass from one point on its surface, through the center, to another point on its surface) have the same length.

That, however, is not true of the earth. Various diameters of the earth differ in length.

What gave people the notion the earth wasn't a true sphere? To begin with, the sun and the moon have outlines that are perfect circles within the limits of measurement in the early days of the telescope. This is consistent with the supposition that the sun and the moon are perfectly spherical in shape.

However, when Jupiter and Saturn were observed by the first telescopic observers, it became quickly apparent that the outlines of those planets were not circles, but distinct eclipses. That meant that Jupiter and Saturn were not true spheres.

Isaac Newton, toward the end of the seventeenth century, showed that a massive body would form a sphere under the pull of gravitational forces (exactly as Aristotle had argued), but only if it were not rotating. If it were rotating, a centrifugal effect would be set up that would lift the body's substance against gravity, and this effect would be greater the closer to the equator you progressed. The effect would also be greater the more rapidly a spherical object rotated, and Jupiter and Saturn rotated very rapidly indeed.

The earth rotated much more slowly than Jupiter or Saturn so the effect should be smaller, but it should still be there. Actual measurements of the curvature of the earth were carried out in the eighteenth century and Newton was proved correct.

The earth has an equatorial bulge, in other words. It is flattened at the poles. It is an "oblate spheroid" rather than a sphere. This means that the various diameters of the earth differ in length. The longest diameters are any of those that stretch from one point on the equator to an opposite point on the equator. This "equatorial diameter" is 12,755 kilometers (7,927 miles). The shortest diameter is from the North Pole to the South Pole and this "polar diameter" is 12,711 kilometers (7,900 miles).

The difference between the longest and shortest diameters is 44 kilometers (27 miles), and that means that the "oblateness" of the earth (its departure from true sphericity) is 44/12755, or 0.0034. This amounts to l/3 of 1 percent.

To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth's spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth's oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.

The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.

Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. In 1958, when the satellite Vanguard I was put into orbit about the earth, it was able to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth--and therefore its shape--with unprecedented precision. It turned out that the equatorial bulge south of the equator was slightly bulgier than the bulge north of the equator, and that the South Pole sea level was slightly nearer the center of the earth than the North Pole sea level was.

There seemed no other way of describing this than by saying the earth was pear-shaped, and at once many people decided that the earth was nothing like a sphere but was shaped like a Bartlett pear dangling in space. Actually, the pearlike deviation from oblate-spheroid perfect was a matter of yards rather than miles, and the adjustment of curvature was in the millionths of an inch per mile.

In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.

What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured.

Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long.

Again, it is because the geological formations of the earth change so slowly and the living things upon it evolve so slowly that it seemed reasonable at first to suppose that there was no change and that the earth and life always existed as they do today. If that were so, it would make no difference whether the earth and life were billions of years old or thousands. Thousands were easier to grasp.

But when careful observation showed that the earth and life were changing at a rate that was very tiny but not zero, then it became clear that the earth and life had to be very old. Modern geology came into being, and so did the notion of biological evolution.

If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.

Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.

The Greeks introduced the notion of latitude and longitude, for instance, and made reasonable maps of the Mediterranean basin even without taking sphericity into account, and we still use latitude and longitude today.

The Sumerians were probably the first to establish the principle that planetary movements in the sky exhibit regularity and can be predicted, and they proceeded to work out ways of doing so even though they assumed the earth to be the center of the universe. Their measurements have been enormously refined but the principle remains.

Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.
Isaac Asimov - The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 14 No. 1, Fall 1989
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