Turning the Microscope on Intelligent Design, Part 2 of 2

Turning the Microscope on Intelligent Design, Part 2 of 2

Invention of a New Type of Microscope Delineates the Difference between ID and Science

The debate over including intelligent design (ID) in public school science curricula remains a hot topic. The pivotal question of this controversy is whether ID is or isn’t science.

Many in the scientific community answer, “ID is not science.” There are two primary reasons for their rejection of ID: the appeal to a supernatural agent to explain the universe and life; and the absence of a scientific theory of intelligent design.

Last week, I discussed the first concern. This week, I will address why we, at RTB, agree with the scientific community’s second criticism of ID.

The production of a new type of miniaturized microscope helps illustrates why we don’t think ID, as currently conceived by the ID movement, is science.

Lensless High-Resolution Microscope on a Chip

Microscopy is one of the most important techniques in the life sciences. Remarkably, the fundamental design used to construct microscopes today is the same as when these devices were invented in the early 1600s.

The endurance of this design stems from the fact that it performs well. Yet there are problems. One is the expense. The optics and cameras used in contemporary microscopes are costly to manufacture. Additionally, the design is extremely difficult to miniaturize.

Miniaturization represents an important way to reduce costs and improve work efficiency in the biosciences and biomedicine. Because of this need, one of the goals of bioengineering is to develop a cost-effective, miniaturized microscope.

Recently a team of engineers from the California Institute of Technology invented a lensless microscope that could be placed on a CMOS chip. (To hear an interview with the senior investigator of this research team go here.) This design radically departs from the blueprint of a conventional microscope. And it’s amazingly simple, essentially consisting of a thin film of metal coating a grid of CMOS chips. A linear sequence of regularly spaced small holes is punched into the metal film.

The sample is imaged by suspending it in water and passing it over the pinholes. Ambient light illuminates the chip and makes its way through each pinhole to the sensor below. As the sample moves over each hole it prevents sunlight from impinging on the sensor. This creates an image of that object. By orienting the line of holes at an angle with respect to the direction of the flow, the image at each pinhole overlaps with images of adjacent openings. This overlap allows a two-dimensional image of the sample to be constructed. The resolution of the microscope is not limited by the wavelength of light, but instead by hole size with a magnification that is comparable to a conventional light microscope.

The cost of this new microscope, which is about the size of George Washington’s nose on a US quarter, is about $10.

The applications for this microscope are limitless. Its low cost and portability make it particularly suited for field work and biomedical applications in the Third World. It can also be used to develop high-throughput devices that can examine large numbers of samples simultaneously.

Is it Science?

As important as microscopy is to the life sciences and medicine, the design of improved (or, in this case, miniaturized) microscopes is not science. It’s an activity that enables science. As such, these types of endeavors are associated with the scientific enterprise, but they are not in the strictest sense science. Scientists and engineers who build new instruments or devise new methods and techniques may even employ the scientific method to develop workable designs and optimize methods, but still these activities are not science. They are the creation of tools that allow scientists to answer questions that are part of the scientific construct.

At its very essence, science centers on advancing and evaluating hypotheses, theories, and models. Science is more than a collection of facts and observations about nature. Instead it’s an enterprise that seeks to explain the natural world. In order to accomplish this goal, scientists propose hypotheses, theories, and models as descriptions of how natural phenomena behave. For an explanation to be “scientific,” it must be testable. It must make predictions about scientific discoveries. These predictions serve as a way to validate and falsify the hypotheses, theory, or model. If the model successfully predicts scientific discoveries, then it has validity. If not, then the theory must be scrapped, or revised. Good scientific theories also provide a framework to organize and make sense of observations and guide scientific investigations.

Tools like microscopes help scientists evaluate their theories. Looking into a microscope and seeing cells is not science. Looking into a microscope and observing cells in order to form a theory about cell biology or evaluate an existing cell model is science.

Currently the ID movement has no theory or model. ID holds no positions on critical ideas like the age of the Earth, the history of life on Earth, and common descent. ID makes no attempt to identify the designer. Because of these self-imposed limitations, this movement offers no explanation of the natural world. The design detection methods developed by the ID community represent powerful tools to evaluate ID models—if they are ever developed—but do not serve as a science.

The new lensless microscope is not an alternative to cell theory. It’s a tool that could be used to advance an alternative to cell theory, but it’s not a scientific construct. In the same vein, ID is not an alternative (at least in the way it’s been presented to the scientific and educational communities) to the theory of biological evolution. It’s a developing collection of tools that can be used to support an alternative to the evolutionary paradigm.

Can Intelligent Design become Part of Science?

This criticism does not mean that we think that ID can’t be science. It can be. All that is required is a model that explains life’s origin, history, and diversity. In fact, at RTB we have proposed an ID model, of sorts, in direct response to the concern raised by many scientists that creation and ID is not science, since it cannot be falsified. (Here is a summary of RTB’s creation model)

The RTB creation model finds its basis in the descriptions of God’s creative work found in Scripture. The process of building the creation model starts by collating the biblical data from the major creation accounts and individual scriptural passages that describe God’s creative actions. Once interpreted, the biblical data are recast in scientific terms rendering the biblical creation account testable.

Biblical statements about God’s creative activity are subjected to experimental validation. They also lead to predictions regarding future scientific discoveries. This approach makes creation a scientific endeavor. Creation becomes testable. Creation falls within the domain of science. The models’ predictions delineate the features we would expect to see in the record of nature—God’s fingerprints—if the creation model has validity.

Scriptural text inspires the creation models’ tenets and constrains the overall model. However, within these constraints, the model finds considerable freedom for adjustments and fine-tuning as scientists and theologians make new discoveries.

With the advent of the creation model approach, creation (and ID) falls squarely within the domain of science. The tools developed by Behe and Dembski to detect design in nature (and the approach I propose in my book The Cell’s Design) can be used as tools to evaluate key prediction of our model and enable science.