Monday, March 24, 2008

Ben Stein's Baloney

Ben Stein, who gained improbable fame as the quintessential burnout, monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off parlayed that notoriety into several commercial gigs and a short-lived cable game show with a misleading premise. Nobody on "Win Ben Stein's Money" actually won Ben Stein's money; the cash was fronted by the producers of the show and Stein, in addition to his salary, got whatever was left after the contestants were paid off. This little bit of misdirection, however, pales in comparison to Stein's earlier and subsequent work.

Before his celebrity breakthrough, Ben Stein was best known as a persistent apologist for Richard Nixon, the disgraced 37th President of the United States. Stein had been a speechwriter for Nixon, a politician known more for his revelatory extemporaneous asides ("I am not a crook!") than for his soaring rhetoric. To this day, Stein insists that Nixon's misdeeds were trivial, and that those who brought him down are responsible for the genocide visited on Cambodia by Pol Pot (Nixon, ever the humanist, would evidently have prevented the massacre for which his unwise invasion of Cambodia first lit the fuse). Fortunately, anyone inclined to believe Ben Stein on any of these points need only review the tapes and transcripts of Nixon's own words, reminding all of us just what an amoral, vicious, contemptible man Stein once worked for.

Well, it turns out that rehabilitating Tricky Dick is only one of Mr. Stein's bad ideas. While we were not looking, it seems that he has also taken up the banner of Intelligent Design (ID), the latest pseudo-scientific offering from the creationist community. Stein has lent his notorious voice to the production of Expelled, a documentary bemoaning the inability of opponents of the theory of evolution to be given total access to college biology classrooms.

For the purposes of this blog, I have no opinion as to how life on Earth began. Plenty of believers in evolution argue that a higher power summoned the Big Bang and started the whole thing going according to His or Her design. That's fine with me. Science was always intended to explain the natural world and to leave the realm of the supernatural to others.

Intelligent Design, however, is not a theory; it is an assertion. Theories, at least in the scientific sense, are both testable and falsifiable. Biologists have spent decades testing propositions about the development and adaptation of various species. Some have held up, and others have been discredited. But the evidence in favor of the reality of evolution simply overwhelms. Not the assertion; the evidence.

Some would-be scholars, most if not all driven by fundamentalist religious beliefs, have entered the scientific field with an eye toward discrediting evolutionary theories. That is, in itself, unscientific. Real scientists go where the evidence leads them. They do not drag the evidence along, kicking and screaming, in another direction. One may certainly conduct tests demonstrating the flaws in one or another study. Scientists refer to this as replication, and it is an important part of the process.

But a flawed study here and there, or even a hundred of them, says nothing about the broader issue of how life emerges and changes over time. The fatal weakness in ID, from a scientific point of view, is that it contends that every hole poked in research on evolution somehow provides positive evidence in favor of the notion that God created the universe, the flora, and the fauna. This is, very simply, bad science. Even if these neo-creationists were able to debunk every one of the thousands of pro-evolution findings in the literature—something they can never and will never do—the burden would still be on them to develop hypotheses by which Intelligent Design could be tested.

The question, then, is whether or not proponents of Intelligent Design—who have never developed a single empirical test of their "theory", indeed who believe it to be, a priori, unfalsifiable—should be permitted to peddle their wares in any Department of Biology worthy of the name. And the answer, obviously, is no. The minimum standard for serving as an academic scientist ought to be an adherence to the scientific method. Unless we are going to admit students of astrology into astronomy departments, this point should be fairly clear (and to be fair, astrology, unlike ID, actually does posit some testable—and presumably falsifiable—hypotheses, though astrologers rarely submit their work to such analysis).

Let's say I'm a poet, perhaps a very good one, but I insist that my proper role is to serve as a Professor of Music. When the time comes to present a recital, I read my poetry aloud without accompaniment. This, I insist, is every bit as musical as the output of the pianist, trumpeter, or mezzo-soprano. When I was ultimately fired—and it wouldn't take long—nobody would pay much attention to my complaints that I was unfairly expelled because of my renegade beliefs about music. Everyone would understand that my appropriate academic position would be in an English or creative writing department.

The same holds for proponents of Intelligent Design. They are not scientists; they do not begin with the premise that their ideas can be falsified. They would not, for example, agree that any appearance of an elementary design flaw in, say, the construction of a human being might provide evidence against ID. Ask an Intelligent Design advocate whether or not she would have developed the human throat so that both food and oxygen have to pass through the same opening, creating the possibility of choking. I doubt you could find a single one who would agree that this reality presents even a minor challenge to their worldview, even though it clearly does.

My point is not that choking proves there's no God. It is perfectly appropriate to debate these issues in theology or religious studies classes, and to insist that God has reasons and motivations that transcend human understanding. Scientists don't pretend to have answers to every one of life's biggest questions. Indeed, a fairly large percentage of them are themselves religious believers.

But the idea that Intelligent Design deserves equal billing with evolution as an alternative scientific theory is preposterous. It's just as absurd as suggesting that Richard Nixon was a misunderstood martyr. Or that game show winners' prizes were taken directly out of Ben Stein's checking account.

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