August 05, 2005

Intelligent Deception

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The other day, President Bush told reporters that a theory called "Intelligent Design" should be taught in public schools. Although his support of the idea was eminently predictable, observers suggested that the president's support gave the proponents of the theory a big boost--as if Bush had to think long and hard on it, and reluctantly and unexpectedly decided to support the new theory. Of course, he was predisposed to do so, and therefore his support means little except that he's on their side, as everyone knew all along.

The real questions should be, "what is intelligent design?" and "does it belong in our schools?"

There is really no doubt on the first question: Intelligent Design ("ID") is an attempt to disguise religious creationism in the clothing of scientific theory so as to allow the teaching of religious dogma in public schools. An analogous case is Alcoholics Anonymous and their "higher power." In response to criticism that AA is a program used to propagate religion as much as it is to help alcoholics (which would be unacceptable as it is often a court-mandated program), AA proponents suggest that the "higher power" need not be God. Instead, the "higher power" could be a rock in your garden, or anything else you want to imagine it to be. Which is ludicrous, of course. But then so is the ID proposal: it is simply an attempt to disguise religious proselytization in public schools so as to bypass First Amendment protections.

ID's basic argument is that since life, particularly human life, is so complex and organized, it could not possibly have evolved by the mechanisms that scientists claim. It must have been created by some intelligent force--perhaps that rock in your garden, for example. This central claim is crucially flawed, of course: there is no proof of any sort that would suggest that extremely high levels of complexity or organization cannot arise spontaneously. To ascribe them to ID is not an objective scientific observation; it is instead a very subjective example of anthropomorphism.

What is ignored by ID proponents (assuming they are even really bothering to think about this at all, instead of simply trying to disguise religious dogma) is the fact that we are talking about a time frame that completely obviates the "common sense" these people are using to reason. This is a common logical flaw when human beings consider situations that are completely outside their common perceptions. When we try to imagine what things are like at the subatomic level, or at speeds approaching the speed of light, or in time frames spanning millions or billions of years, our human perceptions become not only useless but in fact interfere with our ability to understand realities involved. We expect things to be like we experience them, when they are most decidedly not. The reactions of chemicals in building more complex forms over the span of billions of years cannot be judged accurately by a human being considering what level of complexity seems reasonable to them.

Furthermore, what we are really talking about is the introduction of ID into science classrooms. Before we decide to do that, we should reflect on what exactly belongs in such classrooms. The teaching of science does not include any wild idea that anyone comes up with. Every theory goes through a process. That process includes the laying out of the theory, the introduction of evidence to support the theory, the construction of tests to challenge the theory, the contrary arguments by opponents in an attempt to bring down that theory, the introduction and acceptance or dismissal of alternate theories based upon their merits, and then a continuous, repetitive cycle of review, challenge, and refinement. This is the process that evolution has gone through for nearly one and a half centuries. ID, on the other hand, is still at step one: it has been suggested as a theory, but has not provided any evidence beyond subjective perception, and partially because there is no evidence to judge, it has not experienced real reviews and challenges. If it were proposed as part of a philosophy or comparative religion course, it would have a place in schools under those categorizations. But not in science classes.

Now, it most definitely does have a place in science. If it is, as its proponents claim, a scientific theory, then it must be listened to and given its due place in the system of scientific review. It must be taken seriously, but it must also be put forth seriously--in other words, there must be evidence to back it up. So far, I am aware of no evidence beyond the purely metaphysical arguments, which are not science. If the proponents of ID could, for example, construct an argument based on observation and established fact that it would be impossible for higher forms of life to spontaneously develop over billions of years, then that could go through the process. But they have most decidedly not done this. This article states the matter perfectly:

"Intelligent design" is not science. Its proponents have never had an article published on the topic in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. They conduct no experiments that would prove or falsify their hypothesis. Their conjecture makes no useful predictions, nor can it be mathematically modeled. There are no research labs doing ID science.
So can this theory be taught as equal to evolution in school classrooms? No. We do not introduce, as a major and serious element of science courses, any wholly untested and unproven theories simply because they are receiving political support. To do so would be to destroy the very integrity of that segment of education--which I am fairly certain ID proponents would not really mind doing at all.

But the key factor here is that scientific theories taught in standard accepted curricula, as a rule, go through the scientific process of review. To put ID in classrooms would in essence vault it to a prime position of privilege, as it would be taught without having to go through the same rigorous testing that all other theories must go through.

What this really all comes down to is that you have religious people and groups who (in my opinion quite prejudicially and needlessly) refuse to accept scientific observations when they contradict popular interpretations of religious scripture. That these people resent the fact that scientific observations are taught in public schools, which children must attend. And that their religious beliefs are not given equal voice in a science classroom. So they want to inject their own religious dogma into the public school system, and have tried repeatedly to no avail, due to First Amendment restrictions. And so they cooked up this red herring in secular clothing in an attempt to make an end run around the First Amendment.

In an upcoming blog post, I plan to discuss what I see as being at the core of legal reproductive rights in this country, but suffice it to say for now that I see the core element to be the same: religious people want to enforce laws and base government policy on religious tenets, and in order to do so, claim a false secularity that attempts to hide the religious basis of their desires.

And such attempts, however well-intentioned, must be stopped in order to protect the very freedom of religion that these people mistakenly believe they are trying to practice. Freedom of religion is a private thing. Trying to force it on others is not a freedom--it is exactly the opposite.

Posted by Luis at August 5, 2005 12:40 AM

I was hoping to argue with you on this one, too, but, I agree with your position. Although I wouldn't mind seeing "intelligent design", "creationism", or whatever you want to call it, taught in schools, it would have to be as a philosophy or religious studies course and not science.

As for why I think it ought to be taught....given that a majority of our planet's population as well as our country's population believe in some form of ID, given that such concepts lie at the foundation of many of our (global) cultural ideas, and given that we really don't know how it all started (was it God, the Great Spirit in the Sky, The Force??), making such a course part of our public education curriculum (at the high school level, I would think) makes sense. We'll see how it turns out.

Posted by: Morgan at August 5, 2005 09:43 AM

Why does the “right” think we need to teach creationism/intelligent design along with evolution in public schools but should only teach abstinence when it comes to sex ed – why does needing to “teach both sides” only come into play when they are trying to crowbar something into schools but not when it comes to teaching kids how not to get pregnant and drop out of school?

Posted by: Sean at August 7, 2005 09:50 AM

You said in the in the initial post "there is no proof of any sort that would suggest that extremely high levels of complexity or organization cannot arise spontaneously."

Darwinists come at any observable fact pre-supposing that there cannot be an intelligent designer. In other words, they refute any evidence that would support such prior to weighing its merits. So, Darwinism is simply a world-view that rejects evidence to its contrary. In fact, empirical evidence makes it clear that natural forces to not produce structures with high information content. Holding hope that natural processes WILL BE found to explain DNA is irrational.

Life, living things, do not arise out of something non-living. Also, nothing never produces something. Matter is not eternal, it all had a start. Matter breaks down over time.

Let me ask you this: When an archaeologist finds a rock, what test would he or she put that stone through to determine if its shape was from natural weathering or if it had been deliberately changed by an intelligent being (man)? Trying to explain the order, organization and information through natural processes that never create these things seems irrational. Why do Darwinists or Naturalists reject the possibility of Intelligent Design instead of allowing the evidence to lead them to a scientific conclusion? Doesn't their rejection of that possibility slant any conclusion they arrive at?

Posted by: Paul at September 19, 2006 10:00 AM

Morgan, your post makes very good sense. Fact is, Intelligent Design is threatening to some. It represents a world-view that cannot exist with theirs. The two world-views are mutually exclusive, either one can be right, but they both can't be right. If one is correct, the other is wrong. Therefore they are at war. I think.

Posted by: Paul at September 19, 2006 10:03 AM

Paul: your post contains the same fallacy that I have noted in conservative posts in general: it claims rightness through evidence without providing said evidence. You said: In fact, empirical evidence makes it clear that natural forces to not produce structures with high information content.But you did not point out or explain said "empirical evidence," making it impossible to judge your argument. Kindly provide the evidence, outlining it here and linking to the detailed source.

You also state: Life, living things, do not arise out of something non-living.Are you aware of the problematic nature of proving a negative? This is like my claiming that God does not exist. The same proof is required, and cannot be provided.

You also ask a question: When an archaeologist finds a rock, what test would he or she put that stone through to determine if its shape was from natural weathering or if it had been deliberately changed by an intelligent being (man)?But you do not demonstrate precisely how this question proves your point; which test do you believe they would use, and how does the application of that test suggest irrationality? Why do Darwinists or Naturalists reject the possibility of Intelligent Design instead of allowing the evidence to lead them to a scientific conclusion? Scientists do not reject the possibility of ID out of hand, they reject it because there is no empirical evidence to support it. As I noted in the post, some sort of evidence would be necessary, such as a mathematical, statistical, or (better) chemical analysis showing that natural creation of recombinant genetic material is impossible. So far, no such evidence exists. Either ID simply claims it is impossible without evidence, or the arguments provided have been scientifically refuted in the gauntlet of scientific review that any theory must survive to become accepted--as evolution has over the past century and more. ID has been torn to shreds by that gauntlet; believers in ID, being creationists at heart and truly depending on faith rather than reason, simply choose to ignore the fact of its scientific fallacy and demise.

Posted by: Luis at September 19, 2006 11:27 AM