Smithsonian Returns Discovery Institute Check:

A few weeks ago I noted that the Discovery Institute planned to premiere a film supporting "Intelligient Design" theory at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. (My description of the film is based upon press reports, as I have not seen it.) As I understood the arrangement, the Smithsonian wasn't endorsing the film. Rather, the Discovery Institute effectively purchased the use of the Smithsonian site with a substantial contribution. When I lived in D.C. I was under the impression that this sort of thing happened all the time, and never thought that the Smithsonian "endorsed" all of the programs shown in its auditorium.

In its publicity efforts for this film, the Discovery Institute gave the impression that the Smithsonian supported the film. The Discovery Institute website, for instance, announced the event in this fashion:

Discovery Institute is pleased to join the Director of the National Museum of Natural History in announcing the national premiere and private evening reception for The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, 2005.
Irrespective of the museum's usual practice, this could certainly create an impression that the Smithsonian -- a scientific institution -- was endorsing a perspective that (whatever its merits) is not scientific. Whether or not some intelligent entity, be it a deity or otherwise, "designed" the universe, this is not a scientific question, and hardly seems consistent with "natural history." [Somewhat tangentially, this is why I do not believe ID, creationism, and other related ideas have any place in science classes, as they are not science.]

Now, apparently, the Smithsonian has had second thoughts. As the New York Times noted in a tiny item a few weeks ago (that I missed at the time), the Smithsonian is explicitly disavowing any co-sponsorship of the event and is returning the Discovery Institute's $16,000 contribution. Due to contractual obligations, however, the film is still scheduled to be shown tomorrow evening. For contrasting takes on this resolution, see here (second item) and here.

NOTE: Following the example set by Eugene and Orin, I am enabling comments to this (and future) posts. The usual groundrules apply.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Smithsonian Returns Discovery Institute Check:
  2. ID Film at Smithsonian:
Matthew Patterson (mail):
A similar thing happened a few months ago at Rice University. The authors of the book The Privileged Planet, sponsored by the Discovery Institute and a group called "Reasons to Believe" (yes, that sounds *very* secular and scientific) gave a talk, which was advertised for a week in advance as being a colloquium sponsored by the physics department and Rice Space Institute. Now, the physics department and RSI do sponsor a lot of colloquia, but generally these things involve people presenting the results of actual research. Emails to the head of the physics department, the head of Rice Space Institute, and the coordinator of colloquia revealed that the advertising was false, and that the physics department in fact had nothing to do with the event. They had been included by "accident" in the advertising, since they usually do co-sponsor Rice Space Institute events.

I later found out that the head of RSI is a born-again Biblical literalist. Her response to my polite one-paragraph request for clarification was a several-page attempt to convince me that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific model. I rolled my eyes and did not engage. No sense making a full professor mad...
6.22.2005 4:11pm
Brian Leiter:
Who are you?
6.22.2005 4:12pm
Owner (www):

He's a dog. Probably an Aggie dog.
6.22.2005 4:28pm
Cheburashka (mail):
He's Mark Felt.
6.22.2005 4:35pm
Juan writes: "Whether or not some intelligent entity, be it a deity or otherwise, 'designed' the universe, this is not a scientific question . . . ."

I know next to nothing about Intelligent Design theory, nor do I know much about evolution for that matter. And I'm generally a religious agnostic myself. But I'm curious why Juan so quickly deems this question to be outside the realm of science.

As I understand it, "science" is the search for descriptive theories that explain observed phenomena. Why is a theory that explains the universe through evolution analytically different from a theory that explains the universe through "design"? Of course, one can argue about whether or not a particular scientific theory is valid (that is, the extent to which the theory explains what we observe), but it seems disingenous to dismiss it as "not science."

It appears that evolutionary theory and design theory BOTH try to answer the same question: What is the source or cause of the variety of plants and animals we see in nature? If both theories have the same question as their object, how can one be science and the other not?

Perhaps my ignorance on this issue leads me astray. If so, please correct me.
6.22.2005 4:47pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Brian, anonymous speech has existed since before the founding of this Republic. The Federalist Papers were written under psuedonyms.

There are plenty of good reasons for someone to remain anonymous. There are also not-so-good reasons. But the point is, you can take into account the fact that someone is anonymous when determining how much credence you are willing to give that person's argument.

If you don't think anonymous speakers have any credibility, there's a device on this website to filter out Juan Non-Volokh's posts. But if he wishes to remain anonymous, you have no business trying to prevent him from doing so. Trying to "out" people in this manner can result in good people losing their jobs, or being silenced. Is that what you want?
6.22.2005 4:50pm
Good for the Smithsonian. It's too bad that the film is still being shown, but it's nice to see that they've finally come to their senses. I don't think that there's much to debate here. Like Juan, I think that Irrespective of the museum's usual practice, this could certainly create an impression that the Smithsonian — a scientific institution — was endorsing a perspective that (whatever its merits) is not scientific. Whether or not some intelligent entity, be it a deity or otherwise, "designed" the universe, this is not a scientific question, and hardly seems consistent with "natural history."

Though maybe the more interesting question is why the Smithsonian decided to associate itself with the Discovery Institute in the first place.

Perhaps ironically, I was first alerted to this thing a few weeks ago on Brian Leiter's blog

PS: the "who are you" post is probably not actually Leiter.
6.22.2005 4:56pm
Gil (mail) (www):

Many (Popper, for instance) demarcate scientific and non-scientific theories using the rule that scientific theories must be falsifiable. They must make predictions that can, in theory, be tested and potentially disprove the theory.

ID is not falsifiable in this sense. There is no test or observation one could make that would lead all ID believers to agree that the theory has been disproved.

This doesn't mean that it's false; just that it isn't science.
6.22.2005 5:21pm
I think you mis-state the goal of science. It is the search for descriptive theories, but it is a search based on the scientific method; the process of testing and refining hypotheses. How exactly do you test the hypothesis that the world was created? The science isn't in the "explanation" itself (as you put it) but in the accumulation of evidence for and against, and the testing of, that explanation.
6.22.2005 5:21pm
As Gil so ably noted a few seconds earlier... :-)
6.22.2005 5:22pm
jrdroll (mail):
Shutting down debate is not scientific inquiry. If you want a current analogy it would be "global warming". Let this govenmental institution show all sides of the debate. Not just the socalled "scientific" side.

And if the "Big Bang" theory still has credence isn't it also found in Genesis :Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

More debate not less.
6.22.2005 5:26pm
Steve R:
JRL, the key to something being "science" v. "non-science" in this context (I.D. v. Natural Selection, both are evolution) is testability. You can design a test to see if traits which contribute to the success of a life form tend to become, over time, more prevalent in a given population or not, you may or may not get a conclusive answer via experiment or other observation. You cannot create a practicable test to determine if a non physical intelligence is or is not directing the development of life forms over time. It does not mean I.D. cannot be true, only that you cannot test for it and it is therefore not science, it remains in the realm of philosophy.
6.22.2005 5:34pm
Steve R:
Yikes, it took me too long to type!

jrdroll: I stand by my statement that Creationism and I.D. are both philosophy, not science. Global warming is a good example of science in action: There is a theory "The Earth is getting warmer"; There is testing and data collection and modeling of the results; The collected data is inconclusive, though becoming less so as more is collected and models (tests) are improved. The Governmental response to global warming data and research is not science, it's Politics. I am still amused by:
White House: "There is no Global Warming."
DOD: "Global Warming is a National Security Issue."
6.22.2005 5:42pm
NEC (mail):
I beg to differ from the bulk of the opinion above; while it is true that intelligent design is not experimental science, it nevertheless operates as a positive analytical system akin to pure logic or mathematics. I suppose we shouldn't teach math or logic given the unfalsifiable nature of their fundamental theorems.

I fear some commentators are writing without a firm grasp of the methodology or claims of intelligent design. May I suggest that "The Design Inference" by Dembski is a good place to go to start.
6.22.2005 6:02pm
A few issues:

1. A lot of very useful ways of looking at things (math for example) are based on assumptions which generally aren't falsifiable. So science isn't the only way to look at the world, even within the academy.

2. Perceived definitional limits of science have gotten folks into trouble before. For example, there's a definitional bias to regard more generalizable theories as more scientific. But a lot of the really useful advances in biology and medicine lead in the direction of more diversity and having to deal with more variation -- Theories that have to take diversity into account are often less generalizable than theories that don't, and harder to prove, but this doesn't make them less scientific.

3. The fact that science conserns itself with the observable and falsifiable also makes it potentially biased, because explanations which are falsifiable are more likely to be materially based. One could argue our preconceptions limit the things we can look at, and hence what we can find.

4. For all these reasons I generally take a very dim view of claims that science disproves religion. Science looks at a different domain from religion. Its limits generally prevent it from addressing issues like purpose or the existence of spiritual actors or phenomena. These limits may bias it.

5. But at the same time, I also generally take a very dim view of claims to have scientific proof of religious propositions, and find that religious ideas dressed in scientificish garb do not gain any extra scientific validity as a result, whatever their merits outside the constraints of scientific analysis. This is as true of intelligent design theories as their predecessor.
6.22.2005 6:25pm
Thank you all for the clarification. However, I am still a little unclear about what it means for a theory to be "falsifiable." Couldn't one show intelligent design to be false by proving any alternative - e.g., that the world was created by a big bang and evolved through natural selection - to be true? The more evidence one discovered for the alternative theory, the more false intelligent design would look. According to Popper or anyone else, must a scientific theory be susceptible to a test that would conceivably prove it 100% false? Or could a scientific theory simply be shown to be false more probably than not? If the latter is not science after all, I don't see how we can call natural selection science either. Can we think of a test that would absolutely prove natural selection false? How can we prove that something cannot possibly have evolved from something else? Or that seemingly prevalent bad traits have some yet undiscovered function?

On a slightly different note, why should we care whether the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is exclusively "scientific" in the formal sense? The Discovery Institute's disingenous marketing notwithstanding, why can't the natural history museum become a forum to debate "non-scientific" as well as "scientific" ideas about natural history?
6.22.2005 6:28pm
Lee (mail):
2 great links when discussing ID, evolution and creationism.


The Panda's Thumb goes in to excruciating detail as to why ID is not science.
6.22.2005 6:29pm
Lee (mail):
My links did not work. The chair/keyboard interface must be having a problem ;)

6.22.2005 6:31pm
Assuming the good faith of ID proponents (rather than assuming they are motivated by a desire to introduce Creationism into science classrooms), summary dismissal of it as philosophy rather than science is unjustified. It is similar to forensic sciences, such as archaeology, in that its observations of structure, order and functionality throughout nature lead it to the conclusion that the universe must have been designed. Of course, an archaeologist makes a well-founded assumption that the artifacts he studies were created by someone fundamentally like himself, whereas intelligent design has basis, other than the "artifacts" it studies, that the designer is or was like ourselves (although far exceeding human creative ability). I'm of the view that ID is philosophy, not science -- its hypothesis can neither be proved or disproved by scientific methods, and all observations support the hypothesis, but only if one presumes the truth of the hypothesis.

Nevertheless, ID is at least as scientific as global warming and, in very important respects, it resembles religion less than does global warming. Indeed, the global warming establishment resembles nothing if not the pre-Enlightenment Church: Its hypothesis rests entirely on dubious extrapolations from a few observed facts, which extrapolations can be believed only if one ignores likely alternative causes for the observed phenomena; the extrapolations are formulated by computer models fashioned by proponents of the hypothesis, and these models are offered as infallible sources of knowledge, much in the same way that the Church insists that the selected writings of human beings it calls the "Bible" are really the word of God; global warming predicts an apocalyptic end of our existence as we know it (or was that a tropicalyptic end?) if we do not repent of our carbon-dioxide producing ways and surrender policy-making authority to the priests of global warming; and much like the Church which silenced Galileo, the church of global warming ruthlessly suppresses any dissent from its dogma.
6.22.2005 7:03pm
Oops. Missing word in the first paragraph. Should have read "intelligent design has NO basis, other than the "artifacts" it studies . . . . Sorry 'bout that.
6.22.2005 7:07pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
NEC and others have raised mathematics and logic as non-scientific disciplines. Neither of these is usually taught as a science. In fact, back when I was in college, a course in Logic satisfied distribution requirements for Philosophy.

But then they don't pretend to be sciences; they're toolsets, useful so long as they can be massaged to fit some real-world, testable problem. At that point, the value of any particular mathematical relationship can be tested for its correspondance to the observed data. If it matches, it is adopted until something matches better, or it can be shown that the determination that it matches was made in error. The use of math or logic in science is a search for a relationship that can be shown to make testable predictions, not a search for some relationship that is correct on its face.

I can postulate that the world was created the instant before you read this, with all of your memory and environment intact. To any suggestion that evidence doesn't bear out my claim, I can reply that said evidence was created at the same time. This is inherently unfalsifiable. Such a claim is not science.

To the extent that ID proponents identify reproducible problems with existing theory, they are doing science, but any inherently untestable claim about the causes of those problems is also inherently unscientific. Note that this is definitional, not judgemental, except in that some person or people may feel that "science" is more valuable than "philosophy" or the reverse.
6.22.2005 7:43pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
I wasn't aware that 2 + 2 = 4 explains why we breathe oxygen, to put it bluntly.
6.22.2005 8:04pm
I attended a religiously affiliated college and my experience with the ID adherents is that very little of their work sounds like science, but almost all of it smacks of theology through statistics. Interesting on the surface, but beneath the Oliver Stone-ish approach to long odds and coincidences, you quickly run into Biblical literalism.

Sadly, the behaviors attributed to ID conference organizers above are not unusual. They often seek credibility by latching on to any name they find (e.g. associating themselves with Yale University in promotional literature just because Yale let them have a brown-bag lunch on campus.) The big ID proponent at my college desperately wanted to emphasize that he was a computer science professor, even though what he was teaching was obviously religion. The oddest thing was seeing how ID supporters would scream persecution, even at a religious school, just because science professors there didn't want to see it in the curriculum when it first started getting pushed heavily. I certainly took note when science professors who openly professed a belief in God still dismissed the methods by which ID proponents advanced their claims.
6.22.2005 8:06pm
gr (www):
Too bad they gave it back. They should have given it to the Kansas Citizens for Science
6.22.2005 8:38pm
Steve R:
ReaderX: I agree.

PVMaro: You seem to be confusing the science of weather with the politics of weather. Warming of the globe is an observable fact. Average global temperatures are trending upward during the time period since the Industrial Revolution. Global Warming is the politicized football of trying to determine the causes and results to human society of the warming trend. I do not recall where to find it, but Eugene's brother Sascha did a terrific economic analysis of Global Warming and what we should do in response to it.

William Spieler, you have mis-understood the mathematics argument: 2+4=4 proves that 2+2=4, the formulas used to show why we breathe oxygen are much, much more complex.
6.22.2005 8:41pm
Drew (mail):
What is science? The simplest answer is any science is an algorithm for winning bets. Anything that two people can objectively agree on (and as such can resolve a wager definitively) is in the realm of science. Such as will the ball move up or down when I let it go? Will John get better withing 5 days of taking this pill? What will the weather be tomorrow? Any algorithm that purports to answer any of these questions is scientific.

No to move on to the question at hand what about ID? Well in its purest for it is just the statement "The universe was made by an inteligen being". See anything to bet on there. If not then its not science. Unless you constrain said being to only be able to/want to do certain things there are no physical (betable) consequences of this statement. It has as much testable content as "The universe exists".

Now on the other hand one can supplement pure ID with facts, or other theories. Then the question becomes does including the intelligent designer allow for more accurate bets? Specifically make a theory which is exactly ID of any variety, but has no intelligent designer present. If this alternate theory exactly reproduces all testable results of your variety of ID then it is equally valid scientifically. If you persist in arguing for the superiority of ID over the IDless theory, that is philosophy not science.
6.22.2005 8:48pm
Hank Barnes (mail):
A few observations:

1. There's nothing wrong with showing a movie at the Smithsonian. If you don't like it, don't watch it.

2. Science is a method. Observe, experiment, predict, repeat. Often the method is employed to determine whether X causes Y.

3. ID and consequent hulabaloo it has generated, obscures item 2; namely, Does ID employ scientific methods or not?

4. A subsidiary hypothetical question: Can one employ scientific methods to ascertain whether or not God exists? I would think, Yes. But, I don't know what they are or whether they have suceeded.

5. But, the better, more scientific questions, though, is, What force(s) caused human beings to exist? Most scientists will answer, random mutations from lesser species, propelled by natural selection. The problem: this is vague and all-encompassing. A theory that attempts to explain everything, explains nothing.

6. So, in many respects, ID is being criticized (validly, in many cases) for the same defects that run rampant within Darwinian evolution.

7. I would stick to the science for both theories, avoid ad hominem attacks, avoid appeals to authority, avoid attacks on motivation, and just see where the chips fall.
6.22.2005 8:50pm
jrdroll (mail):
If anyone can reproduce the "Big Bang" theory please do so.
In the mean time do discuss all aspect of this scientific/philisophical arguement.
6.22.2005 9:03pm
Nathan_M (mail):
Thank you all for the clarification. However, I am still a little unclear about what it means for a theory to be "falsifiable." Couldn't one show intelligent design to be false by proving any alternative - e.g., that the world was created by a big bang and evolved through natural selection - to be true? The more evidence one discovered for the alternative theory, the more false intelligent design would look.

That's true, jrl, but it's not what "falsifiable" means in a scientific context. A falsifiable theory is one that makes specific predictions that can be falsified.

Look at the Big Bang, which jrdroll suggests is not scientific because it cannot be reproduced. But the Big Bang is falisifiable, and so scientific. It makes a number of predictions (for example, the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation) that can be directly observed. Big Bang theory can be proven false by observations in a way ID cannot.

Evolution, like other scientific theories, will never be "proven" true. It's very plausible, because it makes a lot of predictions none of which has been falisified even though we have lots of data, but no one will ever prove evolution is true and ID is false. So, I would say ID is not falsifiable even in the limited way you suggest it is. Even if I am wrong in this, it is not falsifiable in a scientific sense. ID theory makes no predictions about the natural world that can be directly tested. There is no experiment you could do or observation you could make that would convince you ID is false. That's why it's not scientific.

I do not want to suggest only scientific theories have value. As an earlier commentator rightly pointed out, math and logic are not scientific.
6.22.2005 11:29pm
Shapoklyak (mail):
Cheburashka: how dare you interfere with scholarly discussion! I will out you to BL.
6.23.2005 12:17am
Cheburashka (mail):
Oh no, Mrs. Shapoklyak!

6.23.2005 6:04pm
Cheburashka (mail):
Hypothetical: A segment of DNA common among many species, which otherwise seems to have no purpose, spells out all 15 commandments in aramaic when converted from tetrary.

The statistical likelihood of this occurring randomly is millions to one. The statistical likelihood that _some_ strand of DNA, using _some_ simply code, will spell out the first ten commandments in _some_ language is only a few thousand to one.

Proof of intelligent design?

I can dismiss ID without getting to the falsifiability question. I can't figure out what sort of mathematical tool they could be using, or what it is that they would subject to analysis using that tool. ID doesn't seem to have any relation to, or to have taken any notice of or made any use of, the extensive research done into pattern recognition in the fields of computational mathematics and cybernetics.

If this is a science, and these folks are asking scientific questions about something, where's the math?
6.23.2005 6:12pm
JohnEMack (mail):
I am not sure that intelligent design theory is unfalsifiable. Note that intelligent design theory only asserts (publically) that the nature of the creator implies a designer -- it does not (explicitly) assert that this designer is God. If it could be demonstrated that (e.g.) fungal DNA were developed in a laboratory on Mars and "planted" on the primative Earth (and it is possible that a Mars probe might find the lab), then the intelligent design theory might be proved in part, although not the way most of its exponents would intend.

The essence of intelligent design theory -- again to put it in a way its proponents would not like -- is that many of the biological structures found in earthly flora and fauna are artificial. Now anthropoligists, archeologists and others have developed elaborate protocols for determining whether structures and objects are artificial. There is no reason in principle that similar tests cannot be developed for biological structures. Now that humans can manipulate and even manufacture viruses and other genetic structures, such tests are likely to become necessary. There is an outside possibility that such tests will indicate the artificial nature of some structures. But if no biological structure can be shown to be artificial, one of two things must be the case: either the intelligent design theory has in fact been falsified, or intelligent design theory is functionally equivalent to ordinary evolutionary theory -- that is, it makes no predictions (or postdictions) which would differ from the predictions of Darwinism, and all the predictions which Darwinism makes. If the latter is the case (and of course it is not), the odd conclusion is that intelligent design theory is a legitimate science with a cumbersome jargon. If the former is the case, then intelligent design theory is also a scientific theory -- merely a false one.
6.26.2005 11:23am
RB (mail):
ID is better understood as a refutation of the materialistic story of life (i.e. it emerged from nonlife by chance and developed solely according to the natural selection algorithm (heritable variation + differential survival/reproduction rates = incremental change) than a theory of its own. The real point of ID is that the Darwinian story of life has already been effectively falsified by the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, the as-yet-inexplicable Cambrian explosion, the absence of a plausible explanation for the emergence of life from nonlife, the complexity of unicellular life forms, etc. In other words, based on the evidence available right now, the materialistic theory is inconsistent with the evidence. Some other factor -- whether it is an "intelligent designer" or some as yet undiscovered natural force that is capable of biological "design" -- must be involved. From a scientific point of view, this is no different from inferring the presence of an otherwise onbersavable black hole in space from the behavior of the surrounding matter. It is perfectly appropriate for materialists to continue searching for a materialistic explanation for the origin and development of life, but it is not good science for them to declare victory by default because their only competition is disqualified because it is "religious."
1.6.2006 2:32pm