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Robust, Reliable, Effective: Pick Two Or Go To Hell - Elf M. Sternberg
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Robust, Reliable, Effective: Pick Two Or Go To Hell
I used to believe that, in science, there were two measures of the worth of a theory. Those measures are reliability and robustness. A theory is reliable if it covers more evidence currently extant than any other over a given set of phenomena. A theory is robust if it makes predictions about other discoveries we can make, and those predictions turn out to be accurate.

There's a third measure, that's becoming more important as physics dives deeper and deeper into the structure of the universe and the bizarrities of String Theory and E8 Theory and all the rest rise with the number of unusually high energy tests. That measure is efficacy, which basically says "Does this theory give us control over some part of the world?"

I was thinking about Intelligent Design the other day and I realized that in those three measures, Intelligent Design actually wins at one. Intelligent Design is actually better at explaining existing evidence than evolutionary biology. It's better because it surrenders all attempts at explanation: ID is reliable because, when you come up against a brick wall of explanation you have a fallback position: "God the designer did it that way." Biology has to embrace the facts, however awkward, and make our understanding of evolution and biology fit one another. ID doesn't.

(This is why, even if there are "weaknesses" in evolutionary theory, they do not constitute a Kuhnian crisis by any measure, nor does Intelligent Design warrant the label of "functional new paradigm" for replacing it, regardless of what the ID people might believe.)

ID makes one and only one prediction: that we will find in the future features of biology that cannot be explained by common descent with modification. It's a negative prediction, and therefore the only way of disproving this prediction is to discourage or ban research into evolutionary biology.

But most egregious of all, ID provides us with absolutely no tools of efficacy. Using the principles of Intelligent Design you cannot create a promising research program in the biological sciences. Every research proposal you might make can be thwarted with the observation that your assumptions might be contrary to the designer's. Only by assuming that the universe is regular, that is, that it proceeds from a fundamental set of mechanistic or stochaistic processes, can you create research programs. Once you assume that our observations might be externally influenced, or that what we have not yet observed we might also not be able to reason about with reliability, the very notion of "research" ceases to have any meaning whatsoever.

Intelligent Design takes away from us our ability to control the world. We lose the power to meaningfully create new drugs, new plants, new animals. We lose the power to create new manufacturing processes for dyes, flavors, and even solar cells. If you're going to give up that kind of power, what you get in return had better be extraordinary.

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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 8th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I still hold that ID relying on us finding some time proof that evolution is insufficient to explain development of life is laughable. You must assume either god intended such (seems highly unlikely) or god is prone to making mistakes, and thus isn't quite so omnipotent as you might imagine.

It is also logical that were god so omnipotent and he objected to evolutionary theory he could have guided us away from it, like the prescience in the Dune series.
abostick59 From: abostick59 Date: December 8th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was thinking about Intelligent Design the other day and I realized that in those three measures, Intelligent Design actually wins at one. Intelligent Design is actually better at explaining existing evidence than evolutionary biology. It's better because it surrenders all attempts at explanation: ID is reliable because, when you come up against a brick wall of explanation you have a fallback position: "God the designer did it that way." Biology has to embrace the facts, however awkward, and make our understanding of evolution and biology fit one another. ID doesn't.

That is precisely why ID is a failure as a scientific hypothesis: it is not falsifiable. It isn't theory; it is tautology.
maureenlycaon From: maureenlycaon Date: December 8th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, yes, thank you! That is exactly what is most wrong about ID, in my humble opinion. It makes no predictions except one, and gives us no ability to research or understand biology. In fact, it denies we can ever understand it.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 8th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suppose a better term for ID than "explaining" is "handwaving". Geesh it makes it all sound like a P&P RPG.
rhonan From: rhonan Date: December 8th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
We lose the power to meaningfully create new drugs, new plants, new animals.

That is where ye of little faith are wrong. When we seek to know the glory of his design, and when we are touched by His Noodley Appendage, great discoveries are possible.
dossy From: dossy Date: December 9th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
R'amen.
jordan179 From: jordan179 Date: December 9th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Design is actually better at explaining existing evidence than evolutionary biology. It's better because it surrenders all attempts at explanation ...

Exactly. It is not a biological theory, it is an abandonment of biological theory in favor of engineering theory.

Now, it would make sense to do, if there was any evidence that someone designed our biology. But there is no such evidence, and thus it is merely a cop-out.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 9th, 2007 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's as bad as all these people who claim they can speak to the "other side". They say if you don't believe it won't work, thus anyone who disagrees automatically has their argument invalidated.

"Prove it." "Look around you and you'll see god's creation everywhere."

To paraphrase "Absence of proof against a theory is not proof that such evidence is absent."
dossy From: dossy Date: December 9th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
You had me mostly agreeing with you until your last paragraph. While I personally don't ascribe to the Intelligent Design theory personally, it does--as any good theory should--make clear to us our lack of ability to control the world.

A good theory will explain what the world IS and how we can be a part of it--interact with it, make use of it, and so on. Evolutionary biology and Intelligent Design both posit an explanation as to how we got here today. Frankly, is that entirely useful? Are we going to use this knowledge to predict what our great-great-great-...-great grandchildren are going to be, many millenia from now? Truly, how useful is it to "agree" whether Evolutionary biology vs. ID is correct?

As you point out, where ID wins is reliability. Not worrying about "how things got to be" frees us from wasting time thinking about it. In that regard, I think it may indirectly win with robustness: once you accept ID, many new predictions can be made and many can turn out to be accurate. It also wins on efficacy because it forces us to focus on the present: where we are in the world and how we fit into it, right now, and what follows from what we observe today about the Designer's actions. Accepting that any apparent causality has no discernable nor predictable theory because there is no actual causality because it was all the work of an Intelligent Designer, means that we can focus on how to control our world, instead of trying to formulate a logical coherent theory that tries to piggy-back on a long-running chain reaction of causality and effect.

Predicting the past or predicting the future, neither activity is as useful as living in the today.

Personally, I tend to believe that Evolutionary biology may more likely be the correct explanation rather than Intelligent Design, but I would hate to see ANY money spent on researching either. It's irrelevant. I'd rather see money spent on better drugs, more cures for diseases, more efficient distribution of wealth, etc. Whether we evolved from dirt or were designed by God won't feed, clothe or heal people. Stop wasting money on it.

Amen.
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