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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cornell versus Intelligent Design

As a Cornell University alum I get the occasional email from the president talking about the great things going on on the Ithaca campus. Today's email I received from Hunter Rawlings, the old president who's minding the store while the university finds a replacement for Jeff Lehman.
This strength and stability of purpose allowed me to use this year's state of the university speech to address a matter I believe is of great significance to Cornell and to the country as a whole, a matter with fundamental educational, intellectual, and political implications. The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously-based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as "intelligent design."

This controversy raises profound questions about the nature of public discourse and what we teach in universities, and it has a profound effect on public policy.

I believe the time has come for universities like Cornell to contribute to the nation's cultural and intellectual discourse. We must be willing to take on a broader role as defenders of rational thought and framers of discourse about culture and society. In this spirit, I have asked our three academic task forces, on life in the age of the genome, wisdom in the age of digital information, and sustainability, to consider means of confronting the following questions: how to separate information from knowledge and knowledge from ideology; how to understand and address the ethical dilemmas and anxieties that scientific discovery has produced; and how to assess the influence of secular humanism on culture and society.

Makes me proud to see my alma mater taking a proactive approach to this important debate.

17 comments:

  1. "The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously-based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as 'intelligent design.'"

    This is, unfortunately, the exact wrong way to look at it (although people on both "sides" do) and creates a false dualism between science and religion. No truth will ever be found starting from this assumption--only passionate anger.

    I'd be crestfallen (though not at all surprised) if my alma mater president said that.

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  2. I don't think the statement implies that religion and science fundamentally conflict.

    It appears to say only that the religious beliefs of the particular people promoting intelligent design conflict with evolution. This seems reasonable. (I am assuming, of course, that support of ID is primarily motivated by religious beliefs, despite the explicit claims to the contrary. However, I haven't have any quantitative evidence of this.)

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  3. I agree with pbg... the focus of the statement is on "opposition to evolution," not "religion" (which doesn't even appear as a noun). It might have been more to the point to use a qualifier like "anti-scientific," which can be argued objectively, rather than "religiously-based," which (though true for most ID adherents) is more subjective, and potentially more inflammatory.

    - David

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  4. Thought some people might find Scott Adams's recent thoughts on
    evolution vs ID
    interesting.

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  5. One could also get a perspective on the matter from this:
    http://www.newyorker.com/shouts/content/articles/050926sh_shouts

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  6. It's indeed very important that universities tackle this issue. The fact that people are receptive to the ID argument, and don't find the idea of having school kids be the judges of scientific truth ludicrous, means that there's a serious communication gap between scientists and the general public.

    At the heart of it, the ID debate is not about Paley's argument inferring intelligence from order, but rather it is a "postmodern" claim that scientific research does not discover truth but but is more a product of the scientists cultural upbringing. Scientists have to share the fault for this, since some indeed have used in the past exaggarations and unjustified inferences to promote political goals, or even to simply get publications and funding.

    When people read in the paper one day that X causes cancer and then the next day that X does not cause cancer, or they read that the world will come to an end via an environmental catastrophy and then it does not happen, they start treating scientists as equivalent to politicians, columnists or astrologers - sometimes they're right and sometimes not.

    Of course they don't realize that the majority of scientific work, does not get any outside publicity, but is done with extreme rigor and integrity that are unmatched in any other field (I wish jurors in capital cases or politicians making life and death and/or multi-billion decisions would take their work this seriously).

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  7. they start treating scientists as equivalent to politicians, columnists or astrologers - sometimes they're right and sometimes not.

    You are saying scientists are not like that?

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  8. I'd trust that the main result from a paper from the last FOCS is correct before I'd trust a politician (even though my trust in the former is not 100%).

    I definitely trust an older result that was verified by the scientific community several times, more than anything coming out of a politician's or reporter's mouth.

    For example, I'd be more suprised to find that the time hierarchy theorem is false than to find out that there was an error in a claim that the president of the U.S. made to the American people and the United Nations.

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  9. You are right, of course, theorems are often reliable. However, theorems are about language and science is about interpretation. Let me ask whether you would trust a scientist claiming efficacy for a certain cancer drug more than a politician?

    I would probably trust the scientist a bit more, but not much.

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  10. 1) There is no question I would "trust" the scientist more than a politician--because ultimately I would not have to *trust* him: I could ask for the data, for the statistics, for the methodolgy used, and make up my mind about how credible it is.

    2) ID comes in two flavors: one isa version of the old argument that "in order to have a creation, one must have a creator." Of course, the problem with that is that logically it is just as much a leap of faith to assume a creation as to assume a creator. The creator hypothesis is only stronger because it is theologically sound.

    The second argument is that "the world is just too complicated, wonderful, purposeful (put your favorite adjective here) that it is inconceivable that it arose by itself. Someone must have designed it."

    In a computational complexity blog the argument should be seen as untenable. (Note, I am NOT saying that the idea of a creator is ridiculous, only that a complicated world is not enough of an argument to imply it.) We know of simple pseudorandom genrators, Lindenmeyer Systems, and universal Turing machines with number of states times alphabet size only 24. So apparent complexity is no proof of purposeful design. (Of course biologists can point to incredibly kludgy natural systems: what kind of an intelligent designer came up with the appendix? Again this does not exclude purposeful design, but makes the designer seem at a minimum inattentive to details.)

    Admittedly, evolution only goes so far. Even if there was a universally accepted timeline, from Big Bang to planet formation, to synthesis of suitable organic molecules, to life, and to its currently existing forms on Earth, where the last step was clearly explained by some suitable version of evolutionary theory, the idea of an Intelligent Designer who thought all of this out is not absurd. One can have faith.

    However, such an idea is not science, it is faith.

    As for the arguments that evolutionary theory is incomplete, evidence is not continuous, dating is imprecise, and there are conflicting subtheories--welcome to the usual nonmathematical scientific theory. Do we know what causes cancer, aging, or acne? Do we know how Aspirin works?

    Should Kansas require that engineers read to their clients: "The calculations I made for the foundations of your house are based on a THEORY, Newtonian Statics, and
    a presumed Law of Universal Gravitation. They may be wrong--in fact there are respected scientists who believe so."

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  11. Hooray!

    Avoiding pointing out that the whole reason for the ID movement is religious teachings is simply giving in to ID propoganda.

    Speaking of god, is there any work on doing cryptography where both the encripter and the code breaker have access to oracles which say whether a given turing machine halts, with the idea being to increase the ratio of oracle lookups the code breaker must do to the number of lookups the encrypter must do. Obviously Merkle puzzles still work fine, I'm wondering if there are techniques for public key encryption and secure hashes though.

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  12. Bram,

    Rudich and Impagliazzo proved (1989) that in a world where P=PSPACE no public-key encryption is possible, even given a random oracle (a perfect private-key encryption scheme). Since the next post on Lance's blog shows that P=PSPACE relative to a halting oracle, you can draw the appropriate conclusion.

    -Nick Hopper

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  13. Intelligent Design is clearly religiously motivated.

    In order to help justify inserting ID into science curricula, the Kansas school board conveniently redefined science by removing the stipulation that science always seeks natural explanations of phenomena.

    Just a guess, but I doubt that they had in mind including, say, astrology into the science curriculum.

    ID is not science, but lots of other things are not science either, and they are not being pushed like ID is. Why? Because ID is consistent with prevalent religious dogma, and the others (e.g., astrology) are not. To argue that there is no religious motivation to ID is to ignore the giant elephant sitting in the middle of the room.

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  14. 1) There is no question I would "trust" the scientist more than a politician--because ultimately I would not have to *trust* him: I could ask for the data, for the statistics, for the methodolgy used, and make up my mind about how credible it is.



    Most people are not trained to interpret data and will have difficulty judging whether it supports the claims, so this argument does not apply to 99% of the population.
    Why should they trust a scientist?
    Even for a trained scientist it may not be easy to adequately assess claims in a different field.
    Even verifying claims in one's own area is not always easy!

    ID could be a scientific (no matter how unlikely) theory, if one were to ask questions like when exactly the intervention happened and what forms did it took. That has to be reconciled with geological, biological, etc knowledge, of course. However even proponents don't seem to be interested in this hopeless enterprise.

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  15. --- There is no question I would "trust" the scientist more than a politician--because ultimately I would not have to *trust* him: I could ask for the data, for the statistics, for the methodolgy used, and make up my mind about how credible it is.

    --- Most people are not trained to interpret data and will have difficulty judging whether it supports the claims, so this argument does not apply to 99% of the population.


    But the heart of the argument still applies: I don't have to trust the scientist. I can bring her data to any suitably qualified scientist that I trust (perhaps myself) to be vetted.

    Of course data can be faked and so on. But if it's not independently verifiable by checking the proof or duplicating the experiment (as appropriate), it probably shouldn't be called science.

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  16. Nick,

    I meant that the encrypter has a halting oracle, not a random oracle. Clearly public key encryption is possible under such circumstances because Merkle puzzles work, the question is whether it's possible to do better than Merkle puzzles.

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  17. A real monkey wrench is about to hit both sides in the ID vs Evolution debate and religion may be in for difficult times? For there is a wholly new interpretation of the teachings of Christ, contained within the first ever religious claim and proof that meets all the criteria of the most rigorous, testable scientific method, published and circulating on the web. It is titled The Final Freedoms.

    It is described as a single Law and moral principle, offering its own proof, one in which the reality of God confirms and responds to an act of perfect faith, by a direct intervention into the natural world, providing a correction to human nature including a change in natural law [biology], consciousness and human ethical perception [proof of the soul], providing new, primary insight and understanding of the human condition!

    So while proponents of ID may have got the God part right, but if this development demonstrates itself to be what it claims, all religious teaching, tradition and understanding of ID are wholly in error, and the proponents of evolution who have rightly used that conception to beat down the credibility of religious tradition, but who have also used it to deny the potential for God, are in for a very rude shock.

    However improbable, the impossible may have become possible. This is no joke, no hoax and not spam.

    A free pdf download of the manuscript is available at www.energon.uklinux.net and http://thefinalfreedoms.bulldoghome.com

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