I posted this over at the Right Reason blog in the comments section of a post on Francis Beckwith's grant of tenure from Baylor University. Beckwith is the go to man on the issue of whether intelligent design should be taught in schools. In the Comments section, Ed Darrell argued against Beckwith's position on ID, which is that it should be allowed to be taught in schools:
I’m glad Perseus brought up the superstring point because I think this point is fatal to anti-ID position. The point is this: if the teaching of ID is to be banned in schools because it does not make falsifiable claims, then the teaching of superstring theory must be banned from schools on the same grounds. But it would obviously be ridiculous to ban teaching of string theory on such grounds. Therefore it should be considered ridiculous to ban the teaching of ID on such grounds.
It’s a classic modus tollens argument.
How does Ed try to escape the force of the argument? By presenting a weaker case argument: instead of saying ID is impermissible in schools on the grounds that it isn’t science, now the argument shifts to whether ID is “scientifically developed”. Notice the abandonment of the original position: that ID was impermissible because it wasn’t “science”. The criterion now has shifted from whether ID is “science” to whether it is “scientifically developed.” He is forced to abandon the first position because it obviously would disallow the teaching of string theory.
Martin Gardner pointed out in an article a few years ago that the problem with string theory was that strings were “irreducible mathematical abstractions.” He also pointed out that atoms and molecules were once considered to have a similar status, but eventually became “observables.” ““Whether this will ever happen to strings,” said Gardner, “is something no one can say. As of now there is no conceivable way to ‘observe’ them. It is possible there never will be.” [emphasis mine].
Now Gardner’s article was some years ago, and there may have been some progress in the status of strings as observables, but I don’t think so. But even if there was, that is irrelevant to the question of whether string theory is science. It was obviously considered science even when it was undeveloped. If it wasn’t, Gardner wouldn’t have been talking about it in an article on science. It was obviously assumed.
Ed says, “String theory is at least scientifically developed.” What does that mean? Has it been developed to the point that strings are observables? I’m not up on the most recent scientific literature, but even if it has not achieved this scientific benchmark, was it not considered a scientific theory even before this, albeit an “undeveloped” scientific theory?
It the criterion among the anti-ID crowd has now been abandoned in favor of the “scientifically developed” criterion (if, in other words, the criterion is no longer verifiability, but a certain state of development), at what point of development do we say that something is a scientific theory? And are we saying that if it is short of that benchmark, are we willing to say it isn’t science at all? And if we’re willing to say it isn’t science at all, then are we willing to say that at the point in time that all those other theories had fallen short of that mark (not only superstring theory, but atomic molecular theory), that they shouldn’t have been considered scientific theories? And if so, then why were they, in fact, considered scientific at the time?
Was atomic and molecular theory—when atoms and molecules were only irreducible mathematical abstractions—not scientific theory? These theories were quite obviously considered scientific at the time by “massive support in mathematics and physics,” the other criterion to which Ed appealed.
In a 1958 article by Freeman Dyson in Scientific American, Dyson mentions Wolfgang Pauli’s lecture in New York on his and Werner Hiesenberg’s unorthodox theory of particles. Niels Bohr was there. “We are all agreed,” said Bohr, “that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance to be correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.”
“When the great innovation appears,” remarked Dyson, “it will most certainly be in a muddled, incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half-understood; to everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.”
The question is: why is this standard applied to everything but Intelligent Design?