Saturday, August 02, 2003

(Un)intelligent design
Last month two bills (here and here) were introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives and referred to the Education Committee that pave the way for requiring the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools. Intelligent design is simply creationism in new clothes. It is a tactical effort by creationists to undermine the teaching of evolution and bring their narrow sectarian form of religion back into the public schools.

When the creationists finally exhausted all arguments for teaching overtly religious creationism in schools—the type familiar from the play and movie “Inherit the Wind”—they tried a strategy of repackaging their product. For their first attempt in the seventies, they gave creationism a scientific veneer and called it “creation science”. After failing for twenty years to insert creation science into the schools, they changed the packaging to a philosophical veneer and called it “intelligent design theory”.

Intelligent design theory is a “god in the gaps” philosophy. Anything we can’t explain must be left to God. As this affects evolution, the intelligent design philosophers concede all observational data—yes the universe is old, yes species change over time—and stake their claims on two areas: origins and causes. They introduce a designer to start things and they use the designer to keep things going. They are fond of pointing out how unlikely it is for complex organisms (almost always the eye) to have happened by pure random chance. The designer must intervene to tell things how to change.

The emergence of intelligent design theory shows a growing sophistication on the part of creationists and their political allies. It avoids any hint of religious language or any other terms that might warn students that they are being taught something nonscientific. Creation science and intelligent design both depend on co-opting the American sense of fair play to their cause. Their proponents come forward and say in the most reasonable of tones, “evolution is a theory; intelligent design is a theory. Isn’t it only fair to teach both and let the students choose?”

Intelligent design is not a theory in the same way evolution is. It lacks a key component of the scientific method. It is unfalsifiable, that is you cannot design a test for which the failure to pass would disprove the theory. The requirement of falsifiability is what most people have in mind when they think experiments are necessary for science. Experiments are the best way to test a theory because they allow you to control most variables, but a predicted pattern of observation is also an acceptable test.

I think it’s amusing that the intelligent design theory doesn’t say who the designer is. It’s proponents all know they mean the God of the Old Testament that learned about in Sunday school, but the careful language of most intelligent design statutes allows ancient astronauts to fill the role of designer. So far I haven’t heard of any Raelians demanding equal time. I also find it interesting that the fair play argument is the preferred strategy of Holocaust deniers on college campuses. I’m not suggesting that all creationists are closet Nazis (though I suppose some are; there is quite a bit of overlapping at that end of the spectrum). I have the beginnings of a larger theory of rhetorical dishonesty on the right that I should attempt to codify someday.

Intelligent design theory has implications for science education beyond what students believe about human origins and evolution. Intelligent design is based on a strategy of undermining the whole idea of the nature of science. Intelligent design, like creation science before it, plays fast and loose with the definitions of such key scientific ideas as “theory,” “evidence,” and “proof.” They encourage common misunderstandings about probability and chance (which leads to depending on the gambler’s fallacy. Eh, Mr. Bennett?).

A student taught intelligent design comes out of the school system with a confused and inaccurate idea of what science is and how it is done. Their chances of succeeding in higher education are greatly reduced. Ultimately, industries that depend on a scientific and technically savvy workforce have trouble finding qualified candidates. But none of this matters to the proponents of intelligent design. They have planted the thin end of the religion wedge back in the school system and are shoving it as hard as they can.

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