Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) has recently thrust himself into the public eye with some commentary on the implications of the persistent fights over the teaching of evolutionary theory in the United States. One of the soundbytes that emerged from the whole thing really jumped out at me:
Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.
As an evolutionary biologist, my first defense against any religious impingement on science is often to say that appeals to divine intervention are not rejectable. Therefore they cannot be addressed using in the hypothetico-deductive method and so should be excluded from scientific inquiry. I often add when talking to undergraduates that if any of them came up with a rigorous, falsifiable model of divinity, they would certainly be famous for it.
But when I read this quote, I realized I’d been selling science short. Bill Nye’s statement suggests that we don’t HAVE to view religious hypotheses as untestable simply because they are unrejectable. In many cases in science, we are interested in finding a useful working model of some phenomenon. In those cases we regularly view the issue as one of choosing the best model from among a set of candidates rather than one of rejecting all models that are wrong. In at least one case I can think of, we apply a complex, unrejectable model in a test of the adequacy of a much simpler model (about which, more below).
When we engage in this process, we often employ Information Theory to guide our selection. Without getting into the details, we can think of information theoretic criteria for model selection as formally implementing Occam’s Razor: the simplest model with the most explanatory power is to be preferred. By preferring simple models, you guard against overinterpreting data, a pitfall that can make models poor predictors of new observations.
So, I realized as long as we can formulate any mathematical model of “The Hand of God”, rejectable or not, we can compare it to an evolutionary model in this framework. If, as Nye suggests, evolutionary theory is simple and powerful, and creationism is a model of fantastical complexity that doesn’t much improve our understanding of the data, information theory would help us sort that out.
So why not give it a whirl?