Saturday, January 14, 2006

Intelligent Design, or "Cargo Cult Science"

Catherine Seipp has a very nice piece in the National Review online discussing, among other things, intelligent design and the late Cal-Tech physicist Richard Feynman.

In addition to touting the achievements (and wit) of Feynman, Seipp puts together an interesting analogy between intelligent design and an anecdote from Feynman's writings about “cargo cult science.”
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The problem with intelligent design, according to Seipp, is its continual failure to recognize that it cannot be validated other than by faith:
None of the “debates” about evolution vs. intelligent design I’ve encountered seem to be aware that a theory by definition cannot be scientific if its proponents will only accept one conclusion or result. Naturally, any human being has hopes and preferences, which is why the double-blind test (in which experimenters as well as subjects don’t know whether they’re getting medicine or a placebo) is the gold standard in drug research, even though of course it’s not always practical.

But however much researchers might hope they’ve found, for instance, a new cure, they do not set out to prove that a specific one has to work because their religion requires them to have faith in it. Not if they expect to be taken seriously as scientists.

How does this relate to Feynman, or to something as intriguing as South Seas “cargo cult science”? I’ll let Seipp finish with her analogy:
The title comes, as Feynman explains, from primitive people in the South Seas who’d experienced airplanes landing with useful things during World War II and wanted this to happen again. For years afterward, they would station a man in a wooden hut next to an abandoned runway, with wooden pieces on his ears like headphones and bamboo sticking out like an antenna. But even though he looked just like an air-traffic controller, and fires burned as guide lights just like they did before, still no planes came.

It’s not a new point. But as long as intelligent design proponents keep attempting to inject unscientific, religious-based “theories” into public schools (the latest attempt is in California), it’s a point that must continue to be made. And Seipp does an excellent job.

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