Friday, August 26, 2016

#1710: William Harris

Though he is probably not one of their most familiar characters, William Harris is one of the central strategists in the intelligent design creationist movement. Harris has a Ph.D in nutritional biochemistry from the University of Minnesota, and has apparently done some research on nutrition and heart disease. He nevertheless seems to have some struggle with quite getting into focus some of the more fundamental elements of science, such as the role of observations. More on that below.

Harris is managing director of the Intelligent Design network, which was really responsible for instigating the infamous Kansas Kangaroo Court a decade or so ago (they were behind the Minority Report submitted to the Kansas school board in defense of creationism). Harris himself – who seems to lean toward young earth creationism – testified, and you can read his testimony here (some notable concessions he made are discussed here). It’s interesting to see that one of his arguments against the “naturalistic philosophy” of Darwinism is that it is “a historical science. It doesn’t get much more historical than billions of years ago. Nobody was there to know what happened. Nobody watched it. We cannot say with any certainty how anything came to be.” That this guy fancies himself a scientist is actually rather shocking. Also, “you can’t test the evolutionary claim because there’s only one answer. In historical science you have to have at least two possible explanations for what you’re trying to explain.” Apparently he skipped the class where they went through how you test a hypothesis by deriving predictions from it and then testing them against the data.

The Intelligent Design Network is “a nonprofit organization that seeks institutional objectivity in origins science,” which is a nice way of saying that they want public schools to teach creationism and getting universities to pay attention by legislation; they are not interested in doing research or convincing fellow scientists by gathering, you know, evidence for their own hypotheses. Unsurprisingly, Harris is also a signatory to the Discovery Institute petition A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Harris is possibly most famous, however, for publishing a study that purportedly showed that prayer could help people suffering from heart disease a few years back. It was rather easily shown to be bunk, if anyone wondered. In the study Harris and his team had people pray for the recovery of some 500 cardiac patients, with a control group of 500. Even Harris admitted that “the time spent in the cardiac unit were no different for the two groups,” but he didn’t gave up so easily and went through the data again and again until he could find factors that could make it look as if the group receiving prayer did statistically significantly (if only minimally) better – as you would expect to find by pure chance if you could search far and wide enough among enough parameter. Calling it “junk science” is really not sufficiently descriptive. The “study” is discussed here (together with some other, equally questionable articles suggesting similar results).

Diagnosis: It would really be wrong to call this guy a “scientist”. He may have done some science at some point, but really has no idea how science works outside of his narrow field of expertise. He does plenty of pseudoscience and denialism, though. We’ll give him that.

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