The Proof is in the Pudding, Not the Recipe

| By Karl Giberson

It will soon be time for Easter dinner, a wonderful family event at our home on Boston’s South Shore. Three generations of family will gather at our table, joined by some friends whose families are far away, a new fiancé, and a couple of stranded college students who had nowhere to go.

At these extended family dinners everyone, except the poor college students, brings something for the meal. Contemplating the upcoming dinner has put me in mind of a thought experiment. Imagine that a guest brings a new pudding to dinner and, prior to serving it, goes on at some length about the recipe. The recipe, you learn, was developed with great rigor. It had been formulated by Ph.D. biochemists, who also had cooking certificates from culinary institutes in Paris. It followed all the rules of recipes. In fact you were amazed to discover that there were such things as “rules” for recipes. You had been laboring under the assumption that there were just recipes.

After the main course, desserts are served and, although you prefer pie, you feel obligated to have some pudding, since it—and its marvelous recipe—has been promoted with such enthusiasm by the well-educated cosmopolitan pudding-makers.

Unfortunately, the pudding tastes terrible. Nobody at the table but the pudding-makers likes it. But they aggressively celebrate their pudding anyway, arguing that their diligent adherence to such a perfect recipe must certainly have produced a good product and what was wrong with everyone that they were not impressed?

I offer this little parable about pudding to make a point about science. There is no “recipe” for doing science. Philosophers starting with Francis Bacon in the 17th century have tried to specify rules for doing science. Bacon said to use open-minded induction and draw only cautious generalizations. Two centuries later Karl Popper said do the opposite—make creative hypotheses and try to falsify them. But, for various reasons, none of these “recipes” for doing science have actually worked very well as a universal method. Science is always more complicated and messy than the recipes imply.

Recently a biology teacher inquired of Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute how science works in the Intelligent Design paradigm. How, the teacher asked, does one “test intelligent design using the scientific method?” The response was that ID uses the scientific method: “a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion.”

This four-step process is, unfortunately, widely known as the scientific method. This creates the misleading impression that all you need to do is follow this one method—this recipe—and the result will be “science” Any investigation following this method will supposedly be “scientific.” If only it were this simple….

The only way to truly tell when “science” is happening is if new knowledge is being generated. And new knowledge is just that—new. New in the sense of novel, exciting, surprising. New in the sense of “How can that be?” This is how science has always worked, and this is where new ideas get their power.

When Mendeleev developed the periodic table of the elements in the 19th century he discovered it had a “hole”—an empty block in between Gallium and Arsenic, right under silicon. For his idea about the regularity of the elements to be valid, there had to be an element to fill that hole. So he made some reasonable extrapolations and developed a description of the atom that would naturally fit in the hole. And then Germanium was discovered, with exactly the properties that Mendeleev had predicted.

When Einstein developed General Relativity it made the unusual prediction that gravity would bend starlight and make stars appear in different locations. And then in 1919 this prediction was confirmed by Sir Arthur Eddington who photographed some stars under the conditions that Einstein had described. It was such a success that the New York Times ran a headline shortly thereafter: “Lights All Askew in the Heavens.” And scientists knew that General Relativity was a robust new science.

Revolutionary scientific ideas generate new knowledge about the world. They tell you something surprising and compelling.

The examples offered as indicators of ID’s scientific depth are not convincing. ID may follow the scientific method, but the “knowledge” generated is quite unimpressive. Luskin notes that, “ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI).” This is a fancy way of saying “intelligent agents produce intelligence.”

Next we are told that “Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI.” And how do we know that something is designed? Because it contains high levels of CSI. So we now understand that things with high levels of CSI will, if our hypothesis is true, have high levels of CSI.

But, as obvious as all this seems, it still doesn’t quite make sense to me. Are there not many things that are carefully and intelligently designed to be simple rather than complex? I once hired a landscape architect to help me plan my yard and I got the distinct impression he was using his considerable talents to make things simple rather than complex. I think he was minimizing the CSI in my yard.

To follow the scientific method ID has to make “testable predictions.” Here, apparently, is an example of how this is done: “Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function.” I am wondering how such a prediction would be verified though, since conventional evolutionary theory predicts exactly the same thing.

The upshot of all this is, as has become clear over the past few years, is that ID is still trying to find itself. If it succeeds in figuring out what it is trying to do, we will all know. But not because the “scientific method” was followed. We will know because ID will have generated some brand new information about the world.

The proof is in the pudding, not the recipe.


About the Author

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.