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What's science, what's not

Out of the blue come letters to the editor attacking evolution, which is to say, biology. While every person is entitled to their own opinions, they're not entitled to their own facts.

One evolution denier recently used this partial quote from Oxford University zoologist and evolution writer Mark Ridley: "No real evolutionist ... uses the fossil record as evidence in favour of the theory ... as opposed to special creation."

The writer cut the quote without using the ellipses I've added to indicate the missing words. More crucially, he skipped Ridley's next sentence, which was this: "This does not mean that the theory of evolution is unproven."

Ridley lists the kinds of evidence he prefers to focus on: "the observed evolution of species, from biogeography, and from the hierarchical structure of taxonomy."

Taking quotes out of context to make them appear to agree with one's viewpoint is known as "quote mining." It's cheating, and it's a tactic often used by Intelligent Design (ID) proponents.

ID is the latest iteration of the Creationism movement of the 1980s. It seeks to discredit science and promote a pseudoscience based on religious beliefs. It is not even a bad theory, like cold fusion, Einstein's static universe or the ether once thought to be a medium through which light moved. ID is a public-relations campaign.

The nexus of the ID enterprise is the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank in Seattle. The institute's website says it "seeks to counter the materialistic interpretation of science by demonstrating that life and the universe are the products of intelligent design and by challenging the materialistic conception of a self-existent, self-organizing universe and the Darwinian view that life developed through a blind and purposeless process."

The Wedge Document, an internal Institute memo leaked in 1999, is frank about ID's real aim (unlike the Institute's public pronouncements), stating, "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialistic worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic values."

Well, good luck with that.

A favorite tactic of ID proponents is to crank up the noise machine, point to the noise as "controversy," then demand to "teach the controversy," meaning to put ID in schools.

Prof. Charles Welden, a Southern Oregon University ecologist who teaches biology, says the claims of ID hurt the cause of science education and literacy.

"ID is a religious position," he says. "It misrepresents the process of science. Its basic claim is that complexity cannot arrive out of simplicity. Darwin was the first person who showed how it could."

Evolution deniers like to say evolution is "only a theory." In science that's not the same as a guess or hunch. It's a framework of data about the real world that explains phenomena not previously understood. It is based on research, observations, experiments and results that can be duplicated by other experimenters.

A scientific theory must make predictions. It must be falsifiable. Evolution passes the test. Famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky titled an essay, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

A scientific theory does not appeal to authority, posit supernatural agencies or address questions of "purpose."

It is always subject to being modified or dropped. If it is wrong, it won't work. No quantum mechanics, no computers. No general relativity, no black holes. No evolution by means of natural selection, no antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Welden calls evolution by means of natural selection "blindingly simple." University of Chicago biologist Jerry A. Coyne, author of the book "Speciation," sums is up like this (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Species are descended from other species. 2. Evolution occurs through genetic transformations over time. 3. New forms arise from the splitting of one lineage into two (speciation). 4. Much of this occurs through natural selection, because individuals with genes that give them an advantage tend to produce more offspring.

Try these common-sense thought experiments. What kind of intelligent designer would bury the oldest fossils the deepest, and why? Why do the living animals of a region tend to resemble the region's fossils? Why, as Darwin asked, are islands populated by species similar to those on the nearest mainland?

United States District Court Judge John E. Jones III, a George W. Bush appointee, in 2005 in Pennsylvania took up the question of whether ID is science, in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The judge ruled that ID failed on three levels, any one of which was enough to rule out claims that ID is science. Here's the passage:

"(1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community."

The judge added that ID has not been accepted by scientists, has not been the subject of testing and research, has not generated peer-reviewed publications. Then, in a memorable phrase, he called the Dover School Board's decision to let ID into the schools a piece of "breathtaking inanity."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.