Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mechanics, Scientists, and Intelligent Design

Today's New York Times has an interesting article in the Science section about the recent Kansas Board of Education decision to define science in such a way that it is not limited to naturalistic explanations. Prior to this the state's standards defined science as "a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us" and restricted science to "explaining only the natural world, using only natural cause" because "science currently has no tools to test explanations using non-natural (such as supernatural) causes." The new definition calls science "a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." 

According to the Times, the old definition reflects the traditional view of science that the political right now wants to change. However, David Wells's research of other states' educational standards (HT: Jason Engwer) reveals that Kansas was the only state to define science primarily as "seeking natural explanations." Wells says:
The definition of science in the current Kansas science standards is unlike any other in the U.S. By defining science first and foremost as "seeking natural explanations," the current standards subtly shift the emphasis in science education from the investigative process to the end result. This shift is out of step with modern science education, which gives priority to the activity of formulating and testing hypotheses."
As expected, the article contains a number of alarmist quotes from scientists desirous of defending the philosophical precommitment to naturalistic philosophy. A physics professor at the University of Kansas says, "The only reason to take out 'natural explanations' is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations" and a Harvard professor of history of science says that the deletion of "natural explanations" means that now, "anything goes."

One comment that struck me as particularly interesting was that offered by Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas. In support of understanding science as being confined to the search for natural explanations, Weinberg states that a scientist's seeking natural explanations is analogous to a mechanic who searches for mechanical reasons for a car's malfunctioning. I don't think this is a good analogy at all. First of all, an auto mechanic searches for mechanical problems because he or she knows how automobiles were created (or more appropriate for this discussion - "designed"). A mechanic is justified in restricting his search for answers to why a car isn't working to mechanical explanations because he knows that cars were built by other humans using mechanical principles. But in the case of the debate over the legitimacy of intelligent design theory, the question of origins is exactly what is at issue. Scientists are not justified in restricting themselves to natural explanations unless they, like the mechanic, know how the objects of their study were produced.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Even if Well's research is accurate - and I have my doubts - the education standards diverge from the actual practice of science. Kansas's standards were re-written after the last go-round with a creationist state board of education. The iteration being changed by the current board actually represents the views of the board voted in to correct the creationist board.

The point I was trying to make is that our last set of standards may have been the most recent and best thinking of the experts.

At any rate, you can pull the adjective "natural" from the description of the explanations sought by scientist, but they will continue to seek exclusively natural explanations. Practice will not be altered.

If we wished to teach children the actual practice of science, the standards would not have been revised yet again.