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Rules for Discounting Scientific Pretensions

An unusual article appeared recently in Nature. Three scientists -- a biologist, a mathematician, and a biosecurity expert -- offered twenty reasons why politicians should be wary of scientific claims.

William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter and Mark A. Burgman, in "Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims," acknowledged that scientists are often too busy to get involved in politics. Politicians, on the other hand, are usually too busy to learn the evidence and methods behind the claims of scientists. Yet the decisions politicians make often affect science. How can scientists help them make more informed decisions?

In this context, we suggest that the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. These skills are more accessible than those required to understand the fundamental science itself, and can form part of the broad skill set of most politicians. (Emphasis added.)

Realizing that "others will have slightly different lists," they offered their twenty best tips for politicians. We won't list all of them, but some have relevance to the debate on origins. Skipping the ones dealing with lab technique, error rates and significance tests, let's look at a few that are important for evaluating Darwinian claims and considering the validity of intelligent design.

3. Bias is rife. "Confirmation bias arises when scientists find evidence for a favored theory and then become insufficiently critical of their own results, or cease searching for contrary evidence," they say, providing examples. Do we not see Darwinists doing this all the time? Because they approach data with the presumption that Darwinian theory is a fact, every observation becomes a confirmation of Darwinism, no matter how counter-intuitive.

5. Correlation does not imply causation. One commenter recalled the old chestnut that a rooster always crows before sunrise, therefore the rooster causes the sunrise. The authors point out that coincidence or hidden variables can be responsible for a pattern. We've seen origin-of-life researchers conclude that a change in oxygen levels allowed life to emerge, or that some catastrophe cleared the way for a rapid diversification of life in the Cambrian explosion.

7. Extrapolation beyond the data is risky. "Patterns found within a given range do not necessarily apply outside that range." Darwinians are notorious extrapolators. They will stretch an inch into a mile: extrapolating millimeter-size changes in finch beaks into the origin of finches, or hardly-observable differences in cichlid fish as vindication of Darwin's theory of universal common descent. All macroevolutionary claims are extrapolations of microevolutionary changes.

9. Controls are important. As a historical investigation, Darwinism is essentially an uncontrolled science. There's only been one history of the world. We can't replay the tape of evolution to see what would happen a second time, let alone provide two worlds, one unconstrained and the other using a placebo of some sort. The same complaint might be made against intelligent design; in that case, though, we have many examples of how intelligent agents work.

12. Scientists are human. This truism bears quoting the authors' elaboration:

Scientists have a vested interest in promoting their work, often for status and further research funding, although sometimes for direct financial gain. This can lead to selective reporting of results and occasionally, exaggeration. Peer review is not infallible: journal editors might favor positive findings and newsworthiness. Multiple, independent sources of evidence and replication are much more convincing.

16. Study relevance limits generalizations. "The relevance of a study depends on how much the conditions under which it is done resemble the conditions of the issue under consideration." Intelligent design advocates need to establish the resemblance of biological codes to human-generated codes, not assume it. Darwinists, on the other hand, need to show how "evolutionary algorithms" relate to the origin of life or to natural selection, when the latter have no guiding hand selecting the target and ensuring a desired outcome.

19. Data can be dredged or cherry-picked. "Evidence can be arranged to support one point of view." In a sense, any argument arranges evidence to support a viewpoint. A good argument, though, takes due consideration of all contrary evidence and alternative explanations. That's what Stephen Meyer did in his books Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt; though defending the case for intelligent design, he exercised diligence to fairly consider all the leading arguments against it. Darwinians, by contrast, mention intelligent design only in the context of snarky insults or misrepresentations when not ignoring it altogether.

Sutherland, Spiegelhalter and Burgman are to be commended for bringing this reality check to readers of Nature. Their list is far from exhaustive; about ten more were added by readers in the comments. One reader said that this list did not "weight" each entry in a practical way to render it useful for measurement. Additionally, an introductory course in philosophy of science could expand the list substantially. Even basic questions such as the definition of science, demarcation criteria between science and pseudoscience, the nature of evidence, the validity of induction, and the role of explanation prove to be highly inscrutable.

With this partial list, though, we can see useful ways to scrutinize evolutionary claims, and to render research into intelligent design more robust. One hopes the article makes the rounds and helps policy makers and politicians -- not least school board members -- improve their interpretive skills when confronted with the all-too-common bombastic slogans, "Scientists now know," and "All scientists believe."