Commentary: Recent research suggests ...

By IAIN MURRAY, Special to UPI   |   May 30, 2002 at 6:10 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 30 (UPI) -- When is a science not a science?

The eminent modern philosopher Karl Popper suggested that the answer should be when it is not falsifiable. In other words, if we have no means to prove a theory wrong -- by experiment, observation and the like -- then it's not scientific. Theories that cannot be falsified simply have no place in science books or classrooms. They fall under different academic disciplines, such as philosophy.

It was therefore disturbing to see major media, such as The Washington Post ("Teaching Alternative To Evolution Backed," May 29), give two Republican Congressmen a pass when they suggested their home state should alter its science curriculum to include references to the so-called "intelligent design" theory. Reps. John A. Boehner and Steve Chabot want the curriculum amended to include the language, "Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist."

Fair enough, except that most observers agree that the language is being used as a Trojan Horse for a theory that is decidedly unscientific.

"Intelligent design" argues that the complex nature of life and the universe is evidence of an organizing intelligence. This is an old theory. The ancients marveled at "the harmony of the spheres," while the early 19th-century theologian William Paley likened God to a watchmaker (something as complex as a watch could never have occurred naturally, and so the same must be true of man).

Intelligent design does have a lot of things going for it. It is a much more complex theory than previous attempts to reconcile the human need for divinity with the scientific evidence. It is not, however, science. In the end, the proposition that a designing intelligence deliberately put things together in the remarkably complex way we can observe cannot be tested. We can argue that natural selection can produce very complex things, and thereby falsify one or two elements of the theory, but the overarching proposition, of a pre-existing intelligence, cannot be put to any scientific test.

That is why the National Academy of Sciences stated quite categorically, "intelligent design ... (is) not science because (it is) not testable by the methods of science" in its definitive 1999 investigation, Science and Creationism: A view from the National Academy of Sciences.

By definition, therefore, the language Reps. Boehner and Chabot suggest that Ohio should adopt would not allow the teaching of intelligent design in science classrooms. There are many scientific reasons to question the current state of evolutionary science, but intelligent design is not one of them. It may have a genuine role to play in the classrooms of philosophers or comparative theologians, but certainly not in the science lab. How the major media could let the story run without mentioning this most fundamental objection is perhaps another question for the philosophers to ponder.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reported May 29 that pediatricians at the University of Alberta had calculated that almost 40 percent of medical studies on children never have their results published. The scientists theorized that most of the results were negative -- showing that a proposed treatment did not work, or that the benefits were doubtful. This sort of bias is not confined to pediatrics, as the Globe and Mail reported. One in four cancer studies never sees the light of day, according to an oncologist interviewed by the paper.

Such a selection bias does science a disservice. If journals do not publish negative research, then a misleading impression can be given of the efficacy of treatments. Both doctors and patients, for instance, could be given an impression that pharmaceuticals are universally effective. Conversely, the public might not realize that drugs manufacturers invest a lot of money in new treatments that do not work and have to be scrapped, thereby partially explaining the high cost of prescription drugs. Moreover, an important source of medical knowledge is the review of many different investigations into the same general issue. Without having the unpublished results to refer to, researchers following this path encounter a biased sample.

The news that the online medical publisher BioMed Central is to start publishing "The Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine" is therefore to be welcomed. Scientists will be able to consider a much fuller picture of the state of biomedicine. We should all be better off for that.

Time is money. Anyone who has ever run a business, from the loftiest corporate accountant to Mom and Pop keeping track of things using shoeboxes, can tell you that. What, therefore, propelled CNN to claim that "a mathematical formula calculated by a British university professor has found that time actually is money"? He claimed to have performed the first research that takes into account "the overall picture of how highly our time is being valued." Yet every transportation project, for instance, takes into account how valuable its passengers' time is to them. This simple extension of the concept of opportunity cost has been performed many times before. Perhaps every other economist thought it was just too simple an idea to deserve publication. A Nobel Prize is surely on the way.

Iain Murray is Director of Research at STATS - the Statistical Assessment Service - a Washington DC-based nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization (see

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