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Are intelligent design and string theory equally untestable? Hmmm.

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The blurb for a book review from Physics Web, copied in the Weekend Edition of Arts and Letters Daily (February 3-4, 2007 ) reads, “String theory and intelligent design belong in the same category as speculative and unproveable. They cannot be falsified.”

One would think, at first, that this was just another yawner denouncing ID. The sort of thing that trips unbidden to the lips of any third rate lecturer who has never considered the possibility that the grade school tales he was told about the  the Viceroy butterflies proving Darwinism by mimicking the Monarchs might not actually be true.

About the falsifiability of intelligent design: A specific hypothesis must be proposed for falsification. I remember replying, more or less as follows, a while back to someone who insisted that ID was unfalsifiable:

So far as I know, there are only a few ID hypotheses out there, at this time of writing, that are specific enough to be falsified: the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, complex specified information as always the result of intelligence; and possibly the privileged planet hypothesis – that planets like Earth are rare (Gonzalez and Richards, The Privileged Planet, 2004). If you are asking me whether an unspecified hypothesis is falsifiable by an unspecified means, all I can think of to reply is, please specify the hypothesis.

It is intriguing that this Arts & Letters blurb for the book review compares string theory to intelligent design. String theory is supposed to be way cool, after all.

So uncool so soon? Well, here is what reviewer Michael Riordan, who teaches history of physics and technology at Stanford, says, supporting cosmologist Lee Smolin’s latest, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next ( Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

If we accept string theory as valid while it evades observational tests, how can we legitimately rebut arguments about the “intelligent design” of the universe? The honest answer is that we cannot. For these arguments, too, are not falsifiable; they do not allow testing by measurements. To me, string theory and intelligent design belong in the same speculative, unproveable category, and Smolin apparently agrees. “The scenario of many unobserved universes plays the same logical role as the scenario of an intelligent designer,” he argues. “Each provides an untestable hypothesis that, if true, makes something improbable seem quite probable.”

Smolin and Riordan both seem confused about the difference between evidence of design and evidence that provides information about a designer. It is somewhat like the difference between knowing that someone torched your car and knowing whodunit.

About string theory, well, I dunno. Riordan says,

Like Narcissus, it increasingly began to contemplate its own reflection, to the exclusion of observable phenomena. To evade comparisons with dross reality, for instance, string theorists have invoked an unseen “metaverse” of parallel universes corresponding to the “landscape” of 10^500 possible solutions that might exist. The fact that our universe has spawned galaxies, stars, planets and intelligent life is explained away by the anthropic principle. Of late, a few leading theorists have even begun to suggest a radical new philosophy of science, rejecting Newton, in which hypotheses no longer require observable evidence in order to be accepted as valid theories. To a hardened experimenter like me, this is blasphemy.

Well,  “blasphemy” seems a bit strong, unless you think experiments are God. But how about this: ideas futilely grasping onto some kind of reality they never find? I sure wouldn’t advise anyone to bet the farm on strings.

By the way, I put up a bunch of news in the ID controversy here yesterday.

Strings have so far existed and will continue for some time to exist only in our minds. The Large Hadron Collider may begin to bring some of String Theory into the testable range, but we are still many years, much technology, and billions of dollars away from really being able to test String Theory. What makes String Theory so far removed from experimental science is that the theory has has over a decade to develop itself mathematically without there being any technology available to test its ideas. So it is theoretically perfectly plausible, but completely untestable in the physical world at this junctutre. jmcd
About String Theory: I've read that there MIGHT possibly, maybe hopefully, be some sort of indirect evidence for at least part of String Theory found in data from the soon-to-be fired up, mostest powerfulest, super-duper particle accelerator. Or is that just theory? Douglas
Gould may have been on the right track with NOMA although I don't know how sincere he was in giving religion/values the proper magistry (and authority). If the concept of a designer is conceded, the state of science would revert to what it was circa 1962 (at least in the U.S.) and the experimenters would have close to free reign as long as they avoided the footsteps of Mengele (which I fear they are not) tribune7

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