Monday, October 10, 2005

No true Scotsman

Antony Flew used to be fond of this example:

A: No true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.
B. But what about Mr. Campbell here. He's as Scottish as can be, surely.
A: He's not a true Scotsman.
B: Why not?
A. He puts sugar in his porridge.

Sometimes I could swear that I hear this line of argument:

A: No true scientist accepts intelligent design.

You fill in the rest of the dialogue.

Tell me this isn't so.


Ahab said...

Victor, do you think the faculty at Lehigh are commiting the true Scotsman fallacy HERE ?

David said...

I know you asked Victor and not me, but I don't find that Lehigh statement indicating that Behe is not a true scientist. It merely claims that ID is unscientific, which I think is a questionable claim, but nevertheless not a clear example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Mike Darus said...

The Lehigh Department of Science says. "It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific."

They did not say ID cannot be tested experimentally. They say it has not (yet) been tested experimentally. Are they saying, "Because ID has not (yet) been tested experimentally, it has no basis in science." Or would they say even if experimental tests were done, it could still have no basis in science? How does a theory attain a scientific basis?

They state it "should not be regarded as scientific." Is this a moral judgment? Is this a suggestion to the employees of Lehigh university about what their positions should be if they were thinking properly?

David said...

Mike d,

You raise a significant problem: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that qualify something as scientific? This is actually a very difficult question to answer.

Most answers either tend to allow room for some field that is prima facie unscientific or they eliminate a discipline that we want to recognize as legitimate science.

So it's not obvious on what basis opponents can exclude ID from the scientific roundtable.

By the way, I don't understand why it would be a moral judgment to claim that ID should not be regarded as scientific. Can you explain that statement?

Anonymous said...

Of course the problem with invoking the Scotsman analogy is that the future of ID does not hinge on the credentials of any one scientist. Within the scientific community ideas are judged based on their explanatory power, not by the identity of the proponents. The scientific community has found the concept of irreducible complexity to be without merit. Sorry for the absolute nature of that statement but as I have said before I truly believe that if people working in the fields of molecular evolution saw value in the ideas Behe put forward they would not stay quiet.

Behe is a scientist, he has the degree, he has the faculty position and he publishes in peer reviewed journals. You want an idea of how science works look at Behe’s latest peer reviewed paper in Protein Science. In it he argues that the probability of certain mutations occurring is very small. More recently Michael Lynch put forward a criticism and Behe responded. No hard ball tactics here Victor, just a presentation of competing ideas, with the community as a whole left as the final arbiter. So far ID has failed to gain any traction at all. Behe is welcome to keep trying but you must forgive the rest of us for deciding to move on.

David said...


I'm curious, do scientists distinguish between hypotheses that are scientific but false, on the one hand, and hypotheses that are scientific and true, on the other hand?

I ask because I wonder what is really meant when one claims that ID is unscientific. If the above distinction is not made, then it would seem that if a theory is not true (or not likely true) then it's necessarily (or probably) not scientific.

In this case when opponents claim ID is unscientific, they merely mean they don't think it's true. But I've always interpreted the label "unscientific" to mean that the hypothesis doesn't even belong in the discussion; that it's a category mistake to include ID in the first place.

But now I'm not so sure. Maybe not all scientists have this meaning in mind. Your insight, I think, would prove very helpful for me.

Anonymous said...


There is a ton of material on the web critical of the ideas put forward by ID proponents and I am not going to hash them all out here. The most straightforward answer to your question is that the ideas put forward by ID proponents are unscientific not because they are untrue; they are unscientific because they are expressions of belief, not attempts to put forward explanations for the complexity we observe around us.

Anonymous said...


I have been thinking about the first part of your question which I will take the liberty of rephrasing as: Do scientists distinguish between hypotheses that are scientific and have been demonstrably falsified, on the one hand, and hypotheses that are scientific and have not been falsified, on the other hand?

The answer is yes, but the more interesting issue this raises is what we do with falsified hypotheses. There is value in studying them to understand why they failed with the goal of avoiding similar mistakes in the future, but scientists do not as a mater of practice go around promoting falsified hypotheses. To do so would be unscientific.

Neither the mousetrap nor the bacterial flagella are irreducibly complex based on Behe’s own definition yet he continues to insist they are. Here is one example from the peer reviewed literature showing that you can remove almost 40% of the amino acids in the flagellin protein of E. coli and still get a functional flagella. I chose this example because it came out a full 8 years prior to Behe’s book and demonstrates that the removal of parts (amino acids from the flagellin subunits) of the flagellar system results in a functioning flagella. Therefore flagella are not IC. Behe chose to ignore this and other data in formulating his thesis, this is unscientific and it is why his ‘theory’ is not taken seriously.

I am not arguing here that everyone needs accept TOE, what I am suggesting is that you not hook your wagon onto the current ID movement. IC is bankrupt, Dembski bases all of his probability analysis on the assumption that IC is correct therefore his work is invalid. If they come up with something other than IC we’ll all take a look but so far they have not.

Mike Darus said...

I was trying to determine the meaning of "should not" in the Legigh statement that ID "should not be regarded as scientific." One meaning of "should not" is in a moral sense that it would be a wrong thing to do. They probably did not mean this. The other possibility I was suggesting is that their employees "should not" take this position if they want to remain in good standing. They probably meant it in neither sense.

Anonymous said...

Mike D.

Why do you see this as being primarily targeted to employees? I think from the position of an academic department the most important thing they would want to is to distance themselves from ID in order to attract the best students, postdocs and new faculty hires as positions open up. To me that statement is just their polite way of telling the world that Behe stands alone in his opinions on ID and that the rest of the department ought not to be judged in light of his views. I am looking for a faculty position right now. When I see a job announcement, one of the first places I end up is on the department’s web page. Students looking into programs go there too. If I saw that a position was open at Lehigh the first thing I would think of was Behe. They can not do anything about that, but what they can do is make sure the second thing I think of is the deparment’s position statement. Damage control

David said...


You may not be reading this post anymore, but I do have a question: If ID is unscientific because, as you say, it is only an expression of belief, then why is it even necessary to refute irreducible complexity? It seems it would be much easier to reject ID as unscientific rather than actually engage the particulars of the hypothesis (akin to the logical positivist tactic of dismissing God-talk as meaningless).

Also, I don't understand your statement that ID proponents make no attempt to put forward explanations for the complexity we observe around us. You may not agree with their conclusions, but surely these conclusions are attempts to provide explanations.

Anonymous said...

The real fallacy here is the strawman. ID isn't a scientific theory, but that doesn't mean that a true scientist can't accept it; true scientists accept all sorts of non-scientific things.

As to why ID isn't a scientific theory, number one is that it makes no testable predictions. Notably, the existence of irreducibly complex mechanisms is not a prediction (a logical consequence) of ID (although it is a prediction of the theory of evolution, since IC mechanisms are resistant to modification through mutation and therefore are expected to persist once evolved -- and there's no reason they can't, contrary to Behe's unreasoned claims).

Anonymous said...

I'll try to fill in the rest of the dialogue, as you asked:

A: No true scientist accepts intelligent design.
B: But what about Mr. Behe here. He's as scientific as can be, surely.
A: He's not a true scientific.
B: Why not?
A: Because he regard as scientific theories that have been not tested experimentally; he doesen't use the scientific method to validate those theories; he deffend theories pretendedly scientif, but actually based on moral or religious interests; and deny the scientific character of theories that have been undoubtly proved during the last 150 years. Just that.

Does it seems to the Scotsman falacy?

PS. Please, excuse my English; it is not my primary language.