The importance of applying consistent rules in a thesis: A Brit Professor defends Intelligent Design

The irony of this is that his basic premise has a flaw.

Last night I went to a discussion up at my university about the final presentation of PhD theses. I was told about the worst-case scenario of a thesis. This happened to a young mathematician. Imagine spending at least three years, often several more, working on a hypothesis, writing it up, and analysing its meaning. In maths everything is laid on a solid foundation of calculation and then you work upwards from there. At the end of your studies you present your thesis, its read by a committee (aside: I like the word ‘committee’, it has three double-letters in it :)) and then the committee gives you an interview, called a viva, about your study. This usually takes about an hour, although some places don’t restrict this and the viva can go on for up to six hours!

This mathematician had chosen his review committee, and things were looking good; however, the chairman fell ill and unfortunately had to be replaced at a late stage. The new chairman walked into the viva, pointed out a flaw in the maths on page five and the whole thesis was decreditted and it failed.


So, do you remember I mentioned a little while ago about there being a trial in America where a group of parents had taken a school to court because the school wanted to teach Intelligent Design theory as a legitimate rival to the theory of evolution? A British sociologist professor has testified in defence of ID claiming:

that because scientists have inferred the existence of a designer from observations of biological phenomena, it should count as scientific.


As much as this is a lovely idea, using the same logic as ‘it’s art because it was made by an artist’, it’s just not an accurate statement. This is the same as the mathematician’s mistake on page five: if their basic assumptions are not good science then anything built of them still is a victim to the initial difficulties in logic. Assuming that complexity can only be explained by supernatural phenomena/aliens is not a scientific proposition because it is fundamentally unverifiable. The argument ‘X did it, therefore it is a product with X’s attributes’ is acceptable for art where the product does not have to maintain conformity with rigidly logical rules and deductions, but that’s just not the same for scientists. A scientist could claim that the internal organs of a duck in flight transform into helium, but that wouldn’t make it good science; the proposition that some scientists like the idea of ID and therefore ID is scientific is a classic page five mistake.

5 thoughts on “The importance of applying consistent rules in a thesis: A Brit Professor defends Intelligent Design”

  1. Hmm.. ok.. I know everyone is getting really annoyed with me because my comment on every entry so far has involved the words, “i dont understand”..but, once again, I dont understand. I mean, I understand what you are saying, but what I dont understand is… ok, just tell me if ID is a theory or just a hypothosis.. I dont know. Im just lost.

  2. i don’t see how intelligent design can’t be a viable scientific theory. the way i understand the thought process, one looks at the universe (or as much of it as we can see) and says, “what are the chances of all of this arising by a random mutation?” between the sheer practicality of some things (the eye will not function without something like 90% of it’s parts), and the sheer beauty of others, i personally feel like it’s a bigger leap of faith to believe in pure evolution than to believe in a creator.

    and, since evolution is the main competitor for ID theory, i would readily point out that whichever theory you ascribe to requires a leap of faith. (i am not talking about micro-evolution, here, for which we have documented proof and which fits well into the ID model. i am talking about cross-species or macro-evolution, which is fundamentally different and without any concrete proof.) until we find a missing link between two species or video footage of the FSM creating the earth, both theories remain just that: theories.

    i’m not trying to force my opinion on anyone else. but don’t call me stupid for believing it. i’ve looked at the evidence and made a decision based partly on logic and partly on faith, which, essentially, is what scientific theory is all about.

    your argument against the british professor’s comments is a classic strongman fallacy. he is not saying that it’s art because an artist made it (although many galleries with crap on their walls have apparently believed that line as well). i think a more accurate way of translating his comments into the art analogy would be “if artists look at it, consider artistic factors, and still believe that it’s art, then it just might be art.” ok, it lacks the zing of the original, but that’s the gist of it. there is nothing inherently unscientific about looking at the scientific evidence and coming to a different conclusion.

    i’m honestly not sure what i think about teaching ID theory in public schools, though. it does seem an awful lot like bringing religion into the classroom, and i do believe in the separation of church and state. but it bothers me when something like the big bang theory is taught as cold, hard fact (which every movie schools and museums have showed me have seemed to imply). if nothing else, it would behoove us to teach children how much of what we claim to “know” is guesswork. when we teach the big bang theory, explain what evidence has led us to this conclusion and why, and explain what other conclusions it may support, including a general belief in intelligent design (but leaving it up to individual religions to explore the specifics of creationism). i think the best thing we can teach our children is how to ask questions and consider options, rather than just believing whatever story is fed to them because it happens to be supported by the highest percentage of the scientific community at the time.

    wow, this ended up being really long. sorry.

  3. There is a very simple reason that Intelligent Design cannot be a valid scientific theory that is easily explained by looking at what is ‘scientific’. Science is the application of scientific method, which can be summarised as follows:

    1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
    2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
    3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
    4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

    Since there is no evidence for ID, only an absence of evidence, then you cannot use the hypothesis to make predictions of findings. It relies on there being an absence of an explanation for everything, not on the process of proving itself. You can still believe in it, but it’s not scientific!

    There is evidence of macro-evolution; a personal favourite is the whale with feet.

    The article discussed on that link was published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, giving it a high probability of veracity. Nothing is beyond question, but that page contains many other reviews of journal publications with supporting evidence for macro-evolution. All it needs is for one of them to be right and macro-evolution is proven.

    I personally don’t see what the problem is. I have a strong faith in a supernatural power, but I also believe that I have no understanding of what it actually is. I’m happy to think that maybe a deity of some sort invented time, gravity, evolution, etc. but with the weight of observable evidence pointing towards a set of natural progressions between species on earth I think it is a little stubborn to rigidly believe that evolution isn’t the most accurate description of the history of life on this planet. This isn’t about dismissing ID because I don’t like it, I just think it’s a bit silly because there’s already a better explanation for the state of the world.

    When it comes to teaching it in schools I’m a bit more passionate, because, as I say, the weight of evidence strongly supports evolution and I think it would be misleading to children to suggest otherwise. Yes, they should be encouraged to ask questions, but they need to be given reasonable information to begin with, and presenting ID as scientific is simply not accurate.

  4. They might as well teach it in schools. I’m noticing as I get into more advanced classes that much of what I was once taught is “fact” is actually just theories. I have to admit, it is quite confusing when then have told you for 11 years that blue and yellow make green, and I get into advanced art and discover that blue and yellow, in fact, make black. It’s just not nice to mess with a little kid’s head like that!

  5. I disagree. There are levels of complexity. In art, it you put blue paint with yellow paint you do get green paint.

    I’ve done that enough times to know that it’s true. Is there any need to explain to children about the properties of light waves when all they want to do is learn to mix green paint? Equally, the understanding of many processes of the way light works are ‘facts’.

    There is a common problem of the distance between the use of the word ‘fact’ and ‘theory’ by regular people and scientists. If you look up this thread at the steps in scientific method you can see that there is no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’ only theories that have a massive weight of evidence behind them, one such theory is that mixing blue paint with yellow paint creates green paint. If something else were to happen, for example red paint were produced then either the theory would be disproven or a special circumstance would be discovered, such as a chemical reaction.

    A scientific ‘fact’ is the result of a test, e.g. that a specific apple fell from a specific tree. That proves only that the apple fell, not that all apples forever afterwards will always fall. Even when millions of objects have been observed falling gravity is technically only a theory. It’s called ‘the law of gravity’ because it is such a commonly observable physical phenomena that it is considered to be pretty much beyond question.

    Physics is a classic example of complexity in studies. Young students are told about gravity. For them that’s a useful example of physics in the real world. They are told about light, mass, heat, and energy. Older students are taught that these things are all part of the same system, and in fact everything is energy. After that you’re taught that there really is no such thing as a reliable result because of quantum uncertainty meaning that there is a absolutely tiny, but real, possibility that while falling the apple might turn into a vase of flowers. That’s complexity that a young student doesn’t need.

    When most people say ‘yes, that’s one theory’ they mean that it’s an idea that fits with the thing observed, whereas a scientist would term that a ‘hypothesis’. A theory is something that has been tested and proven accurate, or, more importantly, proven inaccurate and adjusted to be more accurate until it can reliably predict future results. Evolution has been tested rigourously and has yet to be disproven to breaking point (minor adjustments in sub-processes are always going on, but the overall principle has been found to be extremely solid), whereas ID cannot be tested, hence it is not a scientific theory. Just because something is called a ‘theory’ by scientists it doesn’t mean it’s not what a regular person would call a ‘fact’.

    Education is about giving students enough information to perform at a suitable level. Telling them that ID is a scientific rival to evolution is misleading. It is a philosophical or theological rival and I have no problem with it being taught as such (in the UK children are often taught religious studies), but it is in no way a scientific theory.

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