Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Silly Rabbit, Tricks Are For Kids

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I just finished reading a recent Los Angeles Times article by P.J. Huffstutter, entitled “Evolution Hearings Under Way.” In it, Huffstutter describes the Topeka, Kansas intelligent design hearings and the associated scientific boycotts. Two quotes jumped out at me.
“There are alternatives [to the theory of evolution]. Children need to hear them. We can’t ignore that our nation is based on Christianity – not science.

-Kathy Martin, member Kansas State Board of Education

“Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is in our schools. This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications.”

-William Harris, chemist and witness speaking in favor of changing the Kansas curriculum to mandate the teaching of intelligent design
Scientists – excepting those on the fringe, like Harris - have boycotted these hearings, believing that their presence would only strengthen the case for intelligent design. Debating the legitimacy of I.D., they worry, will suggest that the "theory" is worth scientists’ time, lending the movement credence in the public eye. Yet the absence of scientists has given I.D. proponents a different sort of ammunition: taunting.

“Are [the scientists] afraid to show up? Are they afraid to defend themselves?,” asks Brian Sandefur of the Intelligent Design Network. After all, even Pennsylvanian Republican senator Rick Santorum has called intelligent design “a legitimate scientific theory.” Who better to distinguish sound science from hokum? (Perhaps nobody; Santorum was responsible for adding an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public school biology teachers to raise questions about “the continuing controversy” over evolutionary theory. Fortunately, this amendment was removed before the act was signed into law.)

But what exactly is this continuing controversy? The vast majority of scientists worldwide (over 95%) accept the theory of evolution as the primary springboard for investigation into the formation of life on Earth. The theory doesn’t deny the existence of God or demand that we all practice eugenics anymore than the theory of gravity insists we hurl ourselves out of skyscrapers. Simply put, there is no scientific controversy.

There is, however, plenty of social debate. The Wedge Document of the Discovery Institute, a west coast think-tank and the principal bastion of I.D. rhetoric, claims that Darwin fathered “a materialistic conception of reality” that has “infected virtually every area of our culture.” Apparently, the American majority didn’t get the memo. As H. Allen Orr points out in his fantastic article, “Devolution” (The New Yorker, May 30, 2005), the “eighty percent of Americans [who] say that God either created human beings in their present form or guided their development” is responsible for all the noise. As a country, we still don’t want to believe that we evolved from monkeys, much less burbling blobs of pond scum.

Many of these Americans may be surprised to learn that the two men behind the popularization of I.D. have different notions of what exactly intelligent design is and both accept that Homo sapiens were once, at an earlier stage in our development, pond scum. I won’t go into detail about the flawed pseudo-science of Michael J. Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, and Dr. William A. Dembski of Baylor University – I highly recommend the Orr article as it describes and evaluates the I.D. arguments in a wonderfully comprehensible way – but it is worth noting that Behe has admitted that his arguments against the theory of evolution were “sloppy”(1) and Dembski’s methodology was dismissed by the very mathematicians whose work he relied on to debunk Darwin’s theories in the first place(2), forcing Dembski to backtrack, claiming that he “never argued that the N.F.L. theorems provide a direct refutation to Darwinism,” even though he had done exactly that.

The two men also have differing philosophical viewpoints. Behe believes an intelligent creator designed the first cells, and then Darwinian evolution accounted for everything that follows. Dembski believes Darwinian evolution totally absurd, and that the intelligent creator “programmed design into the…early universe” and this design “then unfolded through the long course of evolutionary time, as microbes slowly morphed into man.” Both men accept evolution, in other words, but only if it is directed by a divine hand or set in motion by an omnipotent creator.

Why then should I.D. be taught in the classroom? No biology teacher tells his students that evolution is proof of God's absence and many respected evolutionary biologists are devout Christians. Faith is a matter of individual choice, not biology class.

The furor in Kansas, though, is about whether or not biology class should include "faith based" instruction. I.D. has been hijacked by a growing right-wing, Christian agenda. Behe and Dembski considered Darwinian evolution, decided it was too messy and uncertain, and chose instead to promote the magic wand approach. "Look! The bunny isn’t in the hat anymore. Ooooooooo!" Conservative fundamentalists recognized this wave of the wand as a chance to make gains for their cause. By tapping into societal doubt, they have succeeded beyond expectation. It is they, not the I.D. proponents, who are the real force behind the assault on science education.

Intelligent design, no matter how one dresses it up, boils down to a refutation (based in fear) of random mutation. I.D. proponents insist that nothing is random, ultimately, because God is behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. “Hard” science doesn’t aim to throw back the curtain and expose the fraud, but it does demand that our body of knowledge progress based on the scientific method, not mere conjecture. I.D. proponents can make the rabbit vanish by marrying philosophy to pseudo-science, but who can’t? When asked to make an argument for intelligent design in an accepted, scientific fashion, the rabbit stays put and the illusion is spoiled.

I have no beef with I.D. when it isn’t claiming to be science. The notion that the universe must have been fashioned by a higher being is not new and it is one many people, particularly Americans, still hold dear. I see no reason why this should change, even if I do not believe in a Creator myself. However, such 'theories' belong in religious schools and the family living room, not in the biology classroom.

(1) “I quite agree that my argument against Darwinism does not add up to a logical proof.”

(2) “[Dembski’s use of the theorems was] fatally informal and imprecise.” (David Wolpert, physicist)

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well argued, most impressive