August 05, 2005
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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.
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