Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Did Michael Behe Admit that Astrology is Science?

The vast ranks of those who despise Intelligent Design are made up of frustrated Perry Mason fans, I think, pining for real-life court-room drama.  Thus the popularity of pseudo-historical dramas like Inherit the Wind, and numerous references to the 2005 Dover Trial and the heroic Judge Jones, who ruled that Intelligent Design is not science, thus single-handedly saving the tattered remains of American democracy from conquest by IDiot zombies growling, squinting scared faces, and scaling the sacred fences of public education.  Since folks who tell such horror stories are seldom historians, the tales grow into urban legends quickly (radical New Testament scholars appear to be right in supposing this can happen almost overnight), and live on in mutated form as enduringly as the dawn redwood.

One such legend is that in order to classify Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, in his testimony in the quasi-mythical Dover courtroom, Michael Behe admitted that astrology is science, too.  And since astrology is manifest nonsense, not real science, obviously ID must be nonsense, too, worthy of all scoffing.  Here's one succinct form in which I recently encountered this urban myth:

"The problem is that Intelligent Design is not science. Even Michael Behe admitted in the Kitzmiller trial that for ID to be considered science, then astrology would have to be considered science." 

"Yes!  I admit it!   ID
is witchcraft!" 
Is that really what Michael Behe admitted?  Did Perry Mason -- or was it Tom Cruise -- some suited hero or other, really break the witness on the stand till he yelled "You're damned right ID is witchcraft!", revealing "creationism" for the pernicious silliness that it is? 

Let's read the transcript, obtained from Talk Origins, and see what really happened, and what Behe really admitted. 

I'll highlight phrases that prove key, and provide occasional commentary.   

The Testimony

Q Now, you claim that intelligent design is a scientific theory.
A Yes.
Q But when you call it a scientific theory, you're not defining that term the same way that the National Academy of Sciences does.
A Yes, that's correct.
Q You don't always see eye to eye with the National Academy?
A Sometimes not.
Q And the definition by the National Academy, as I think you testified is, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses, correct?
A Yes.
Q Using that definition, you agree intelligent design is not a scientific theory, correct?
A Well, as I think I made clear in my deposition, I'm a little bit of two minds of that. I, in fact, do think that intelligent design is well substantiated for some of the reasons that I made clear during my testimony. But again, when you say well substantiated, sometimes a person would think that there must be a large number of people then who would agree with that. And so, frankly, I, like I said, I am of two minds of that.
Q And actually you said at your deposition, I don't think intelligent design falls under this definition. Correct?

Michael Behe, mixing potions.
A Yeah, and that's after I said (DM: cut, some shuffling of papers . . . )
Q Okay. And I said, "Intelligent design does meet that?" And you said, "It's well substantiated, yes." And I said, "Let's be clear here, I'm asking -- looking at the definition of a scientific theory in its entirety, is it your position that intelligent design is a scientific theory?" And you said, going down to line 23, "I think one can argue these a variety of ways. For purposes of an answer to the -- relatively brief answer to the question, I will say that I don't think it falls under this." And I asked you, "What about this definition; what is it in this definition that ID can't satisfy to be called a scientific theory under these terms?" And you answer, "Well, implicit in this definition it seems to me that there would be an agreed upon way to decide something was well substantiated. And although I do think that intelligent design is well substantiated, I think there's not -- I can't point to external -- an external community that would agree that it was well substantiated."
A Yes.
Q So for those reasons you said it's not -- doesn't meet the National Academy of Sciences definition.
A I think this text makes clear what I just said a minute or two ago, that I'm of several minds on this question. I started off saying one thing and changing my mind and then I explicitly said, "I think one can argue these things a variety of ways. For purposes of a relatively brief answer to the question, I'll say this." But I think if I were going to give a more complete answer, I would go into a lot more issues about this.
So I disagree that that's what I said -- or that's what I intended to say.
Q In any event, in your expert report, and in your testimony over the last two days, you used a looser definition of "theory," correct?
A I think I used a broader definition, which is more reflective of how the word is actually used in the scientific community.
Q But the way you define scientific theory, you said it's just based on your own experience; it's not a dictionary definition, it's not one issued by a scientific organization.
A It is based on my experience of how the word is used in the scientific community.
Q And as you said, your definition is a lot broader than the NAS definition?
A That's right, intentionally broader to encompass the way that the word is used in the scientific community.
Q Sweeps in a lot more propositions.
A It recognizes that the word is used a lot more broadly than the National Academy of Sciences defined it.
Q In fact, your definition of scientific theory is synonymous with hypothesis, correct?
A Partly -- it can be synonymous with hypothesis, it can also include the National Academy's definition. But in fact, the scientific community uses the word "theory" in many times as synonymous with the word "hypothesis," other times it uses the word as a synonym for the definition reached by the National Academy, and at other times it uses it in other ways.
Q But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis?
A No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term.
Q And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?
A Yes.
Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?
A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.

(Note one: Clearly, it would be incorrect to represent what Behe says above as, "for ID to be considered science, then astrology would have to be considered science."  That implies that Behe sets calling astrology "science" as a necessary condition of calling ID "science."  But he does not say that.  The connected may be implied by Perry Mason, here, but it is neither raised nor stated as such by Dr. Behe. 

Let's be clear.  The ONLY difference admitted or even purported so far between science on the National Academy definition, and on Behe's definition, is social.  Behe thinks ID might not qualify on the Academy definition merely because there is not yet a "large number of people" who accept it.  But that definition is plainly absurd: it would mean that an idea is NEVER scientific in its beginnings, but only becomes scientific as it is accepted by a wider community.  So Newton, Darwin, and Einstein were not, on that definition, doing science at all.  And Perry Mason has not even tried to find any other differences between the two definitions, yet. 

But let us go on.) 

Q The ether theory of light has been discarded, correct?
A That is correct.
Q But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?
A Yes, that's correct. And let me explain under my definition of the word "theory," it is -- a sense of the word "theory" does not include the theory being true, it means a proposition based on physical evidence to explain some facts by logical inferences. There have been many theories throughout the history of science which looked good at the time which further progress has shown to be incorrect. Nonetheless, we can't go back and say that because they were incorrect they were not theories. So many many things that we now realized to be incorrect, incorrect theories, are nonetheless theories.
Q Has there ever been a time when astrology has been accepted as a correct or valid scientific theory, Professor Behe?
A Well, I am not a historian of science. And certainly nobody -- well, not nobody, but certainly the educated community has not accepted astrology as a science for a long long time. But if you go back, you know, Middle Ages and before that, when people were struggling to describe the natural world, some people might indeed think that it is not a priori -- a priori ruled out that what we -- that motions in the earth could affect things on the earth, or motions in the sky could affect things on the earth.
Q And just to be clear, why don't we pull up the definition of astrology from Merriam-Webster.
MR. ROTHSCHILD: If you would highlight that.
Q And archaically it was astronomy; right, that's what it says there?
A Yes.
Q And now the term is used, "The divination of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on human affairs and terrestrial events by their positions and aspects."
That's the scientific theory of astrology?
A That's what it says right there, but let me direct your attention to the archaic definition, because the archaic definition is the one which was in effect when astrology was actually thought to perhaps describe real events, at least by the educated community.
Astrology -- I think astronomy began in, and things like astrology, and the history of science is replete with ideas that we now think to be wrong headed, nonetheless giving way to better ways or more accurate ways of describing the world.
And simply because an idea is old, and simply because in our time we see it to be foolish, does not mean when it was being discussed as a live possibility, that it was not actually a real scientific theory.
Q I didn't take your deposition in the 1500s, correct?
A I'm sorry?
Q I did not take your deposition in the 1500s, correct?
A It seems like that.
Q Okay. It seems like that since we started yesterday. But could you turn to page 132 of your deposition?
A Yes.
Q And if you could turn to the bottom of the page 132, to line 23.
A I'm sorry, could you repeat that?
Q Page 132, line 23.
A Yes.
Q And I asked you, "Is astrology a theory under that definition?" And you answered, "Is astrology? It could be, yes." Right?
A That's correct.
Q Not, it used to be, right?
A Well, that's what I was thinking. I was thinking of astrology when it was first proposed. I'm not thinking of tarot cards and little mind readers and so on that you might see along the highway. I was thinking of it in its historical sense.
Q I couldn't be a mind reader either.
A I'm sorry?
Q I couldn't be a mind reader either, correct?
A Yes, yes, but I'm sure it would be useful.
Q It would make this exchange go much more quickly.
THE COURT: You d have to include me, though.

(Note: Perry Mason is acting like a snarky adolescent, here, and not a very sensible one.  Behe said astrology COULD qualify as science under his definition.  Neither the question, nor the answer, has any kind of a time stamp on it.  In an oral deposition, I would think it would be his job to pin down the witness' precise meaning, not play "gotcha" games like this.  Astrology has, as Behe and I think any historian recognizes, been on the fringes of science for millennia.  What is more important, again, is that Mason has yet to point to any divergence between Behe's definition of science, and the Academy's definition, aside from the ambiguous role popularity plays in the Academy's definition.  To my mind, ambiguity in such definitions is best resolved.  Behe ought to earn credit for trying to resolve it, here.) 

Q Now, you gave examples of some theories that were discarded?
A Yes.
Q One was the ether theory?
A Yes.
Q And the other was the theory of geocentrism, right?
A That's correct.
Q And what you said yesterday was that there was some pretty compelling evidence for observers of that time that that was good theory, right?
A Yes, sure.
Q Look up in the sky, and it looked like the sun was going around us, correct?
A That's right.
Q And we know now that those appearances were deceiving, right?
A That's correct.
Q So what we thought we knew from just looking at the sky, that's not in fact what was happening, right?
A That's right.
Q So the theory was discarded?
A That's correct.
Q And intelligent design, also based on appearance, isn't it, Professor Behe?
A All sciences is based on appearances. That's -- what else can one go with except on appearances? Appearances can be interpreted from a number of different frameworks, and you have to worry that the one that you're interpreting it from is going to turn out to be correct. But in fact since science is based on observation, now that's just another word for appearance. So intelligent design is science, and so intelligent design is based on observation; that is appearance.
Big Bang theory is based on observation, based on appearance, so yes, it is.
Q The whole positive argument for intelligent design as you ve described it, Professor Behe, is look at this system, look at these parts, they appear designed, correct?
A Well, I think I filled that out a little bit more. I said that intelligent design is perceived as the purposeful arrangement of parts, yes. So when we not only see different parts, but we also see that they are ordered to perform some function, yes, that is how we perceived design.

It is clear, from this testimony, that in typical sleazy lawyer fashion -- this fellow seems a lower order from Perry Mason, actually -- that the questions here are designed to trick Behe into making ID foolish.  Apparently the judge bought it.  But there is no reason for us to.  Over this part of the deposition, at any rate, I am impressed with how Behe kept his cool, and answered questions of no real intellectual consequence, really a ritualized kind of scoffing meant to elicit gaffs, more than anything an intelligent person should take seriously, calmly, rationally, and with his humor intact, though perhaps frayed at the edges. 

Yes, astrology might indeed have been considered a scientific hypothesis, in the Middle Ages.  (Add: Actually, Rodney Stark points out that Sir Isaac Newton himself wrote extensively on astrology (and, indeed, Kepler practiced the "science," as well), and that Newton wrote a million words on alchemy.  [Which was not only a science, it was one of the sciences that got science going.]  Kepler and Newton can hardly even be called Medieval.) 

For all the Medievals knew, perhaps the planets do influence our lives directly -- note my use of the verb in the present tense, does one have to be a mind-reader not to understand that astrology is an historical phenomena as well as a column in the National Inquirer?  Not knowing what planets were, they charted celestial paths and life experiences and putting two and two together to find apparent patterns.  Charting those paths often involved careful observation of the night sky, and generalizations and predictions based on that observation.  One of the Chinese classics is full of records of celestial events, on the reasonable hypothesis that Heaven influenced the Earth.   Sure, they were wrong about the details.  But Medieval scholars testify that modern science in some ways grew out of alchemy.  Kepler himself practiced astrology as his off-duty gig. 

And it turns out that the planets do, in fact, influence us here on Earth.  Jupiter and Saturn shield us from comets.  The planets help stabilize our orbit.  The moon is the life-giving remains of a collision with another now long-extinct planet about the size of Mars, it seems. 

So in an attenuated sense, astrology, defined by Wikipedia as "several systems of divination based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world," not only once was a science, it remains a legitimate science based on a true premise.  Modern astronomy proves that there really is such a relationship.  And now we know that even the gravitation of planets circling other stars effects us to some infinitesimal degree.  But science moves on, and most of us recognize "The Age of Aquarius" as a pop song, not a scientific hypothesis.

The irony is, of course, that astrology also would seem, under the circumstances Behe proscribes, to meet the definition of science offered by the Academy of Science, aside from that "well-substantiated" bit: (An) explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypotheses.

So should Intelligent Design be considered a science?  Sure, why not?  The only real reason this lawyer milks out of Behe to think otherwise, is that a political body of scientists, perhaps pining for an excuse to exclude ID, has issued a certificate according to which a certain number of people need to find an idea plausible to call it scientific.  By which definition, no science in its infancy is yet science -- however well-ordered and reasonably its work is carried out, whatever laws and inferences and tested hypotheses it appeals to.  So Behe may be right to consider ID a scientific approach to Nature.  That does not necessarily mean it is correct, of course, or that it should be taught in schools -- the issue actually at stake, here.  But it is silly to use Judge Jones' decision as some sort of a taunt against ID.  Especially since Jones himself was very far from even belonging to that community of scientists to which the Academic definition of science ambiguously, and dubiously, appealed. 


  1. Following the ID debate closely over the years has been eye-opening for me. It's hard to find a topic with as much willful misrepresentation as this one. Accent on the willful.

  2. Yes. I was just rereading Stark's For the Glory of God yesterday. He pointed out that Sir Isaac Newton wrote extensively on astrology. (Kepler also acted as an astrologist.) He also wrote some one million words on alchemy, which was certainly science in a broad sense, in fact one of the original goals of early science. So you don't really have to go back to the Middle Ages. These people badly need to broaden their minds, a little.


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