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Ken Keller contra ID

Former University of Minnesota president Ken Keller gave a speech two weeks ago for U of MN’s graduating Institute of Technology (IT) students. In his speech he trashes ID proponents, global warming doubters and anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) people. Here is the speech:

IT COMMENCEMENT
Kenneth H. Keller

May 6, 2005

Good evening to all of you. I’m delighted to be here to share in this celebration. I know how special it is for all of you who are graduating and for this auditorium filled with your family and friends, the people whose support and encouragement has been so important in getting you to this point.

This isn’t a country with many formalities or ceremonies or rituals and, in fact, over time there seem to be fewer of them. But I’m glad that this celebration, at least, continues—because what we acknowledge seems so overwhelmingly important. Each of you who are graduating has reason to be grateful for the intellectual gifts you’ve been given, and you should be proud of the discipline and hard work involved in using those gifts. Clearly, you needed both to get you here.

We call this event a commencement because it’s a new beginning for you—perhaps a depressing thought if you’ve been under the illusion that you could finally relax next week when your last exams are over. However, I hope—and I sense—that for most of you it’s an exciting prospect. As graduates of IT, part of that excitement is that you’re entering a world more affected by science and technology than at any time in the past. But, I hasten to add, the reverse is true as well—a world that expects, that insists, on influencing what we do as scientists and engineers, more than ever before. It is that bi-directional interaction, that new intimacy between science and society, that I want to talk about in these next few minutes.

Let me start with a story, a true story. As many of you know, among the things that late spring brings in Minnesota, in addition to graduations, are tornadoes. And back in the 70s, one such tornado tore through southwest Minneapolis, rendering considerable havoc around Lake Harriet. Shortly after that, the then head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Neal Amundson, one of the most distinguished chemical engineers in the world, received a telephone call from a person who said, “I’ve heard that some scientists are working on a chemical to dissolve tornadoes. Do we have any of that work going on here?” Now, unfortunately, Amundson was more distinguished for his intellectual prowess than his tact, so he said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You can’t dissolve a tornado!” To which the response came in a huff, “If you can land a man on the moon, I don’t see why you can’t dissolve a tornado!”

Now I suspect that one of the things that you’ve learned during your years here is that just because you can land a man on the moon does not mean that you can dissolve a tornado. Because although science is a powerful explainer of “how and why things are as they are” and technology does teach us, within limits, “how to use the forces and resources of nature to fulfill human purposes” (two wonderfully concise definitions, by the way, that we owe to a wise historian of science named Harvey Brooks), they also give us a pretty good idea of where the boundaries are between the possible and the impossible. That knowledge is far from perfect, and there’s alot left for you to do in your careers, but we’ve learned to discipline ourselves to proceed cautiously, to deal with our imperfect knowledge, to respect nature, and to stay away from magic. There is a reason that we abandoned alchemy and vitalistic theories, just as there’s a methodical process by which we judge the scientific validity of cold fusion or polywater or tornado-dissolving chemicals on the one hand and the big bang theory, or continental drift, or evolution, or global warming on the other hand.

In an earlier era it didn’t matter much whether most people understood these realities and characteristics of science, although I suppose the person who called the University about the tornado-dissolving chemical may, sadly, still be a little piqued at the U. But as science has become more and more influential in our daily lives—more and more relied upon in legislative decisions and in our courts, more and more drawn on in the technologies that affect our environment and our health care and our economy—the gap between how the public is affected by science and what it understands about it, is and should be of increasing concern.

Consider, for example, the recurring and increasingly insistent debates over the teaching of evolution in our schools. In states and school districts around the country, we hear repeatedly that evolution is “only a theory, not fact” that we are “uncertain” about many of its details, and that we ought to be offering a counter-theory called “intelligent design”, a stalking horse for creationism. Now let me say immediately, strongly, sincerely, that I don’t mean in raising this issue to discredit, disparage, or in any way deny what each of us may believe about the higher or deeper or more wonderful realities of our existence—things that are beyond our ability to reason about or to understand, which therefore rightly belong in the realm of what we believe. What does concern me is that, in the interest of defending that higher belief which, in my view, needs no defense, those arguing for teaching creationism as a competing theory, distort and destroy the integrity of science, which is the discipline we depend on for, if you want, a human and practical understanding of nature.

Let me be more specific. To say that something is “only a theory” and therefore “not a fact” and “not yet proved” misses several very important concepts in science. First, we do not call something a theory to suggest that it is not yet proved. Nothing is ever proved for all time in science, but theories, over time, come as close as possible to that finality. I caution you, for example, if you contemplate stepping off the edge of a cliff, to give prudent heed to the theory of gravity; it may not be proved yet, but I wouldn’t count on its being wrong. I advise you not to waste too much time trying to build a perpetual motion machine because another theory, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, gives you pretty reliable guidance that it won’t work. And I’m glad that the people in our space program have accepted the rather counter-intuitive special theory of relativity because our astronauts would be having a rather tough time of it if that weren’t the case.

And are facts really more reliable than theories? Just what do we mean in science by a fact? Well, one way of putting it is that it is a “believed observation”. And the reason for putting it that way is that the only way we get to facts is through observations and thus much depends on how good those observations are, as all of you who have lived through our laboratory courses can attest. Most in this audience have observed, for example, that the full moon looks a great deal larger just as it rises, than it does later in the evening when it’s higher in the night sky. We know that’s not true because of a host of other observations that, through theory, tell us that the moon doesn’t actually change in size. Closer to home, you might offer as an observation, and mistake as a fact, that the chairs you’re sitting in are pretty solid. But, of course, what we know, because of molecular theory, is that that chair is mostly space with a few electrons and nucleii bouncing around rather vigorously to give you the illusion of solidity.

These interrelationships between facts and theories are important aspects of science and if they are not understood, it’s difficult for us to know whether we are hearing about, or teaching about, real science, or whether we are being duped by what Robert Parks calls voodoo science. And the reason for not teaching creationism—or intelligent design—in biology classes as an alternative to evolution is not that it is wrong, but that it is not science. Its theories are not testable by observation and can’t be disproved by any facts. After all, if your theory is that anything is possible if an “intelligent designer” chose to make it so, then nothing is impossible and no experiment can test its validity.

I mentioned uncertainty as another issue in the evolution-creation debate. In fact, scientific uncertainty, something that all of us who do science live with as a matter of course, has, unfortunately, become a political football in many debates, perhaps chief among them the discussions concerning the environment and global warming. I’m sure all of you are aware that in the political arguments over whether and how to take action to limit global warming, those who oppose any drastic or immediate action depend heavily on the argument that it is uncertain whether the observed global warming is anthropogenic, that is, whether it arises from the actions of human beings and their societies. But, of course, there is always uncertainty in science—in every measurement, in every theory, in every fact. But the fact that we do not know everything about a particular phenomenon does not mean that we do not know anything. Science is a process of narrowing uncertainty and there is little question that the evidence supporting the reality of man-caused global warming is inexorably increasing.

But in this case, too, my concern is less over whether the reality of global warming is acknowledged than over the propagated misunderstanding of how science works. Uncertainty is not failure, it is not culpable, it is part of the process of coming to understanding. In a world that depends more and more on scientific knowledge, it is vital for the public to understand and to learn to deal with that reality. The irony is that we have long since learned to deal with economic uncertainty, with political uncertainty, with military uncertainty. But we are uncomfortable with scientific uncertainty—and I submit that is because for too many people science is a mysterious and arcane pursuit, sometimes the work of angels, sometimes of devils; never of mere mortals.

Which brings me to my third and last example: genetically-modified organisms or GMOs, sometimes ungenerously referred to by critics as “Frankenfoods”. Here the issue is real enough; when we alter the genetic structure of a plant or an animal to confer on it some property of nutritional improvement or disease resistance, do we also do some mischief that we don’t know about? This suggests, quite reasonably, that we need to exercise caution in implementing such changes, a view that has been captured in the phrase “the precautionary principle” and much of the debate has been over the details of how to apply that principle.

But as in other cases, the debate takes place in a public setting where the science is a total mystery. For example, a couple of years ago a poll was taken asking the public what the difference was between a natural plant and a genetically-modified plant. A large fraction of the responders said that genetically-modified plants contained genes. Well, they certainly do, but that context is hardly one in which a serious discussion of how to implement a “precautionary principle” can take place. So the debate becomes, instead, a political one in which the phrase “precautionary principle” is not a guide to a scientific process of assessment of the safety of a GMO, but a strategy for more or less absolutely blocking the introduction of these new species. And this distortion takes its toll on both sides; a search for truth gives way to an advocacy debate, with each side selecting just those data that support its case, with critics pretending they are seeking a cautious road forward when they have no road in mind and proponents appearing to reject the perfectly sound idea of proceeding with caution.

The losers? All of us. Debate about scientific issues is reduced to a series of anecdotes: about animals whose ingenious physiology proves that there must be intelligent design; about, on the one hand, unexpected cold snaps that contradict global warming, or, on the other hand, unusual solar flares that explain it; about the unmeasurable, but nevertheless “real” differences claimed between altered and unaltered plant species. And lost in it all is a fundamental truth that you should have learned implicitly in your education here, but which may not have been expressed as clearly as it was recently by Alan Leshner, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who said, “The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”

So why do I tell you all of this? Because the developments that I’ve tried to illustrate will affect your professional lives in the years to come. The truth of the matter is that just as we have stressed in your education that most engineering problems require a systems approach, a recognition that no one part of a system can be successfully understood on its own; that each part affects and is affected by the others, science and engineering themselves are part of a larger social system and the connections can’t be ignored. How and what science is funded—or not funded; how scientific knowledge is used, or ignored, or distorted by governments; what aspects of our culture or our political structure, or our economy lead new technologies to produce unexpected and unintended results. The Minneapolis citizen looking for a chemical to dissolve tornadoes is not a problem; but when Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan remarks, as he famously did, “Computer chips, potato chips, they’re all chips”, it signals that we do have something to worry about.

If there’s a solution to the problem, it lies with each of you. You enter society with the general obligation of citizens and the special knowledge of scientists and engineers. More than ever before, you’ll have to be concerned with the whole system, not merely the specialized parts you’ve been particularly trained to understand. Indeed, your success in using your skills to benefit society will depend on your bringing your knowledge as a specialist to your role as a citizen. Not everyone in our society can or needs to be a scientist or an engineer. But they do need to understand what the enterprise is about and you, collectively, need to be able to explain it—continually, repeatedly throughout your careers. You will have to teach as well as do. And if you’re willing to accept a final comment from someone who has spent most of his adult life trying to do just that, let me assure you that it can be enormously satisfying, especially at moments like this. My best wishes to all of you. Do well and do good.

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6 Responses to Ken Keller contra ID

  1. IT IS AND IT CAN

    When atheist Bertrand Russell was countering the arguments of Aquinas one of the things Russell conceded was the great knowledge and sincerity with which Aquinas faced them. Aquinas did deeply understand those things against he fought… certainly not a valid point for most of ID critics. When they say ID is creationism, when they say that ID is not science because its theories are not testable or cannot be disproved by any facts they are (once again) “gloriously and utterly wrong”. When they say ID is creationism they are lying, when they say it s not testable and can’t be disproved they are showing their lack of knowledge of the theory… all the opposite of Aquinas.

    It IS testable: go to those biochemical systems and see if they are irreducibly complex. Indeed go to any system (not necessarily biochemical) and see if it is irreducibly complex, or more general, if it has specified complexity.

    It CAN be disproved, indeed the idea to disprove it is so easy: go around and see if you find some specified complex event or irreducibly complex system whose known cause is not design but necessity, chance or a combination of these two. If you find it, you have overthrown all the theoretical apparatus over which ID is founded.

    Deep sincerity and deep understanding: two virtues Ken Keller doesn’t show in his speech and critic of ID.

  2. So ID is testable in the negative sense: find a case or experiment that disproves it, and ID is debunked. But, until then, it stands? Innocent till proven guilty? Is that how science works?

    I wish there were a positive test: make a hypothetical prediction based on ID principles (and which couldn’t be explained via evolution) and through observation or experimentation, validate this prediction. This would not only strengthen the case for ID’s testability, but it would also move ID from being perceived as anti-evolution weaponry to being acknowledged as a productive line of inquiry. ID would then drive a research program. Many of ID’s critics claim ID is not real science because it has no predictive power and is therefore incapable of arriving at new discoveries. ID must falsify this claim by going positive.

  3. Nop,

    I made two points one for the testability of ID and another for disprove it and you mixed them.

    Now, is it not possible to test if a system is irreducibly complex? Or if an event is specified and complex? YES: take out the parts of a system, one each time if the system doesn’t work anymore it is not irreducibly complex, if after repeating the experiment with each part the system still works then it is irreducibly complex. Regarding to specified complexity just use the explanatory filter, that’s the way to test it. And of course it is possible to make predictions regarding specified and irreducible complexity of events… the way to verify or deny them is applying the tests.

  4. The ignorance of the speaker, Ken Keller, is astounding.

    Not a single astronaut ever relied on the special theory of relativity. Its effects in the domain of near earth space at orbital velocities is trivial to navigation. Newtonian physics is all that’s required or used. The Global Positioning System is the only navigation aid for manned craft that needs to take relativistic effects into account as it relies on being able to synchronize a number of precision clocks on satellites and earthbound receivers with nanosecond accuracy but even so, it is not used for spacecraft navigation! First of all the system does not function in locating objects in orbit – it only works closer to the ground. The space shuttle may have been upgraded with GPS guidance for landings but technically the shuttle is an aircraft inside the the atmosphere.

    The 2nd law of thermodynamics isn’t a theory. It’s a “LAW”. That’s why isn’t called the 2nd theory of thermodynamics. While we’re on the subject of laws and theories when an apple falls from a tree it’s due to the law of gravity not the theory of gravity.

    On the (mis)use of the word theory in science it’s a totally bogus claim to say it’s used only to label well tested and widely accepted hypothesis. Any that has ever read any peer reviewed science literature can see, provided he focuses on seeing it, that the words theory/theorize/theoretical are used with great frequency when the correct word would be hypothesis/hypothesize/hypothetical respectively.

    On yet another note, comparing the forensic science of theoretical evolution with a hard science such as physics is comparing apples to oranges. A comparison to theoretical physics might be appropriate but a comparison to a Tolkien novel would be even more apt in my opinion. And technically it’s hypothetical evolution and hypothetical physics because not a single shred of empirical evidence exists to prove or disprove either one of them. The laws of gravity and thermodynamics on the other hand, are laws because they have been proven by experiment and observation in every single instance in which they were tested or observed. Random mutation + natural selection has never been tested or observed to have the capacity for creating novel cell types, tissue types, organs, and body plans. Anyone that can’t see the difference, like Ken Keller, is either a dunce or a liar. I think it’s a combination of both but that’s just a theory. ;-)

  5. Eswrite

    ID predicts that irreducible complexity and/or complex specified information exists in living systems. It predicts that in these instances no explanation of how it came to exist through chance interaction of matter governed by known physical laws can be shown to have a reasonable possibility of happening given the constaints imposed by finite time and space. In Darwin’s day the universe was widely accepted to be infinite in time and space. In such an unconstrainted environment the othewise wildly improbable becomes the absolutely assured. Such is the nature of infinity. Compounding the fallacious belief in an infinite material and temporal universe, Darwin believed in the Lamarckian concept of heritable acquired traits which has since been falsified. Adding more insult to injury Darwin believed that the fossil record would eventually provide testimony to evolutionary gradualism. 150 years later the only thing the fossil record shows is that differentiated species appear in the record without predecessors and remain constant in form until extinction. Darwinian evolution was a reasonable hypothesis in light of all those misconceptions. Any theory that failed in so many ways should have been relegated to the trash heap long ago. But not the Darwinian narrative. Karl Popper is rolling over in his grave – a perfectly good theory like Darwin’s has failed its major predictions yet continues to live through ad hoc modifications. Popper came up with the notion of falsifiability precisely because the predictions of Marxist theory were falsified yet the theory continued to live through ad hoc rationalizations. The longer this farce is supported by a majority in the scientific establishment in denial of the mounting evidence the more damage it does to science in the public eye. I love science and I hate what’s being done to it by the Darwinian narrative apologists. Trust in the objectivity of modern scientists is being eroded due to stubborn a priori unbending commitment to materialist ideology. That really sucks.

  6. ID as a negative argument is discussed in this FAQ:

    http://www.ideacenter.org/cont.....hp/id/1161

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