Monday, August 22, 2005

Intelligent Design and Genetically Engineered Bioterror

Blogger Tacitus makes a weak argument that Intelligent Design may be good for science. What caught my attention is a comment under the heading "Andromeda Strain" by user Irving, who writes:
Certainly normal statistical models "do not work for such things." That's the point of the find new models and frameworks.

...and we may not need to rely on merely statistical models either.

Let me put this another way in a story perhaps more attuned to the Tacitus readership...

In a period of 24 hours 3,000 people contract an illness in Omaha and die mysteriously. The country is alarmed. Medical teams have recovered bodies and isolated the causing organism. In the White House Situation Room the President ask the CDC...Is this the result of a chance mutation, or is this organism evidence of a specifically, genetically-engineered biological warfare attack? What does this organism tell us?

Perhaps an important with critical, far reaching impacts to National Security.

Now some are saying that it will forever be impossible for science to know...perhaps to prove. That development of such an analytical framework is impossible (and a waste of even any effort). That such an analytical process must forever remain a mystery of the universe and that if you can't prove it, there is zero value in any effort to even try to develop a framework that might establish design as--likely. And others are saying that any effort to do so is not even science at all.

I suggest that that is dogmatic fundamentalism from the Evolution camp which is willing to trash the foundational elements of science in a "means justifies the end" battle in the Culture Wars. I contend, that while it may turn out to be impossible, or at least beyond our current technology...that the efforts to distinguish design from nature can have positive impacts in society, and at the least, is legitamite scientific research.
Irving has created a straw man--I don't think any opponent of ID would argue against the possibility of methods (forensic or otherwise) for determining whether human beings--entities whose behavior we can study--are responsible for observed effects. What is questioned is whether it is possible to have methods which determine whether a deity--an entity whose behavior we cannot study, and who is capable of bringing about any possible state of affairs--is responsible for observed effects. (Now, certainly if such an entity existed it could bring forth evidence conclusive of its own existence, or at least fully persuasive of its own existence, but in the absence of its desire and action to make itself known, such evidence is not forthcoming.)

Irving also fails to notice that ID theorists are arguing for a position which amounts to the elimination of the distinction he argues science should be able to discover. According to ID theorists, biological organisms are produced by the interventions of an intelligent designer, not chance. (Presumably most ID theorists also maintain that even nonbiological things are the product of the interventions of an intelligent designer, so the distinction between natural and artifact disappears, leaving only the distinction between divinely created artifact and non-divinely created artifact.)

Opponents of ID oppose teaching ID in science classes (as do the major advocates of ID, now that the Dover, PA case looks like it's going to go against them) because ID has yet to put forth any theories or methods which have been shown to work. If ID can put forth methods that can distinguish between design and non-design--or between human interventions and natural occurrences--then they will have something that's scientifically useful. But it doesn't look like the advocates of ID are even working on such methods.

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