Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pennsylvania polka

It now seems fairly certain that presiding judge John E. Jones III of the intelligent design trial in Harrisburg, PA, will rule in favor of the plaintiffs; that is, that intelligent design should be kept out of science classes in the Dover, PA, public schools. Margaret Talbot provides a superb account of the proceedings in the December 5th New Yorker.

The star witness for the defense was, of course, that indefatigable champion of ID, biochemist Michael Behe, who is just about the only scientist with respectable scientific credentials who supports ID. Even Behe's colleagues at Lehigh University do not endorse his views.

The ID crowd insists that intelligent design is science, not religion, and that it can be tested empirically. Although ID has been around at least since the Reverend William Paley's 1802 book, Natural Theology, no experiments or observations supporting ID have yet appeared in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

As expected, Behe pushed the bacterial flagellum -- the little propellerlike appendage that pushes bacteria through aqueous media -- as the premier example of a biological system that is too "irreducibly complex" to have happened by natural selection. And, he says, like any other scientific theory, the intelligent design theory for the origin of the flagellum is falsifiable. "A scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure (for mobility, say), grow it for ten thousand generations, and see if a flagellum -- or any equally complex system was produced."

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Eric Rothschild, asked Behe if he had attempted such an experiment. Well, no.

The attorney pointed out that even if the experiment were performed and failed, it would hardy mean a thing. "It's entirely possible that something that couldn't be produced in the lab in two years or a hundred years...could be produced over three and a half billion years," said Rothschild. Behe conceded the point.

In other words, it's conceivable that an experiment might be performed that would show intelligent design is unnecessary to produce a flagellum, but impossible to imagine an experiment that would rule out natural selection. Indeed, even the first part of this statement is up for grabs. Presumably an Intelligent Designer -- if he (she, it?) had a sense of humor -- could cause a flagellum to appear in the experimental petri dishes, much to the consternation of those who champion the necessity of an Intelligent Designer.

One feels rather sorry for Behe. By all reports he is a nice fellow. He seems to have got himself out on a scientific limb and doesn't know how to get off, wanting desperately to be respected as a scientist, but unable to come up with a single test of his pet "scientific" theory.