Dean Esmay, a blogger I respect, has a post about ID that might surprise some folks. Dean is an atheist, you see, but he doesn’t think it’s a bad idea to teach ID in schools, or at least to bring it up in biology classes and mention that there are some smart people who advocate it. The question he wants answered is essentially this: what would the negative consequences be of taking time in science classrooms to discuss intelligent design? So far all he has heard are vague slippery slope arguments (which he appears to erroneously believe is always a logical fallacy; it is not) and arguments to the effect that ID isn’t science and therefore doesn’t belong there. It’s a fair question, of course, and it deserves a serious answer. As someone who is involved in the day to day battle against the movement to put ID into public school science classrooms, I hope to provide that answer here, but first I feel I need to correct some of Dean’s misconceptions about ID and those who advocate it. For instance, in answer to a comment he says:
Actually the Discovery Institute folks–who if you examine their list of senior fellows includes a number of biologists, astronomers, and other Ph.D. level scientists as well as some historians and philosophers–make it fairly clear that they have no answer to that particular question. Some of their members believe there might be an alien intelligence involved; others some sort of universal demiurge, still others some sort of God, and so on.
This is false, so far as I know, and I’ve read virtually everything the CSC (Center for Science and Culture, the Discovery Institute’s ID branch) has ever put out. I don’t know of a single CSC fellow who believes in an “alien intelligence” or a “universal demiurge” or anything like that. Every one of the CSC fellows is a conservative Christian, with only two exceptions (David Berlinski is Jewish and Jonathan Wells is a Moonie). All of them, so far as I know, believes in not only “some sort of God”, but in the same God (though the Moonie might be an exception to that, their views on God are so bizarre as to be impossible to define). They like to claim publicly that their claims are consistent with belief in an alien intelligence (such as the Raelians believe) or a “universal demiurge”, or what have you, but none of them actually believes this. Now, this isn’t terribly relevant in and of itself; the mere fact that they share a common religious belief is not necessarily a reason to doubt what they say. But when they go to such trouble to disguise this fact, and when they’ve said publicly that they do so as part of a public relations/political strategy, and when they have declared in a document that was intended to be secret that their goal is nothing less than to put God at the center of every facet of society, it’s certainly worth looking at.
In fact, this deceit is part of their strategy, which was born out of a need to get around the Federal court decisions that said that teaching creationism was unconstitutional because it is a religious belief, not a scientific one. It is also important to note that this is not an assumption on my part. I’m not trying to read their intent. They made it very clear what their goals are in the Wedge document, a strategy blueprint for how they would destroy evolution and replace it with ID that was found on the DI website. After months and months of denying that it was authentic, they eventually admitted that it was genuine when they had no choice. This document makes clear their theological motivations, and they have nothing to do with an alien intelligence or universal demiurge, but with the very blunt goal to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” Now, this does not in and of itself mean that their scientific claims are false, of course, and we will examine those claims in more detail later. But let’s at least start by being honest about their goals and motivations. I know that they don’t like it when we do that, but it is the truth and it’s easily documented, so let’s call a spade a spade. Their advocacy has one and only one goal, establishing a “theistic science” and destroying evolution and “materialism”.
It should also be noted that science is not simply whatever a given scientist advocates is true. The fact that there are genuine PhDs at the DI doesn’t mean that what they are doing constitutes science at all, much less good science. There have been scientists who did good work in their field and still advocated all sorts of nutty ideas. Isaac Newton and his ruminations on alchemy come to mind. The fact that the DI fellows have credentials matters as little as the fact that some of them are very nice guys (Paul Nelson and Frank Beckwith in particular are very pleasant and charming gentlemen). Even Nobel Prize winning scientists do not get a free pass on ideas they propose; they have to go through the same process of proposing a model, testing it and convincing their colleagues that it’s a fruitful idea that every other scientist has to go through. And it is the fact that ID is being promoted as a compelling alternative in the absence of that process that should raise red flags.
The second misconception that Dean has about the ID advocates is this:
And contrary to some assertions, they have published peer-reviewed literature on the subject.
Technically true, but let’s delve a little deeper into that. They managed to publish a single piece of “peer-reviewed literature”, in a fairly obscure journal. That article was ushered through to publication by one of their fellow travelers and the editorial board unanimously voted to disavow it publicly. But that’s not the most important reason why this is a misconception. The real problem with this article is that it contained nothing original at all. It was not a research article, it was a review article, and all it really did was review their own repeated claims about the subject. Equally as important is the fact that the only mention of actual research in the article was to instances where scientists had yet to give an explanation of the evolution of a specific biochemical system that they found satisfactory. This is a very important point because it gets to the heart of what ID really is, which is a purely negative argument. It is a classic God of the Gaps argument, whereby they point to places where there is not yet (at least in their opinion) a fully satisfactory natural explanation for a set of data and they say, “A ha! You can’t prove how that happened, therefore God must have done it.” The problems with such an argument are quite obvious. This argument can be made, and has been made, about any scientific theory whatsoever, and it has always proven to be false. The mere fact that we cannot explain something today does not mean it won’t be explained tomorrow, and the entire history of science shows that such proclamations are foolhardy. It was once believed that God sent disease and natural disasters. We now know that disease is caused by microorganisms (among other things, of course), that earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates shifting against each other, and that hurricanes are the result of mundane and natural weather patterns.
One could easily imagine an ID argument in any of those areas, of course. They would point to specific instances where meteorologists predicted that a hurricane would go in one direction only to have it go in another, or to instances where seismologists failed to predict an earthquake despite a pretty good understanding of their natural causes, and they would argue that this shows that meteorologists or seismologists are “blinded by their commitment to materialism” and refuse to consider the possibility of intelligent causes. They would point to genuine scientists who believe the bible to be true, including those verses that say that God sends natural disasters to punish His enemies or those who fail to follow His word, and they would say, “What is wrong with teaching our children about the weaknesses in meteorological or seismological theories? Why not teach the controversy?” I doubt their argument would seem so compelling in that context, but the analogy is as precise as it needs to be to illustrate the point that one can always make a God of the Gaps type of argument in any science. One could just as easily point to the lack of a solid Quantum Mechanical theory of gravity and propose an “angels pushing the planets around in their orbits” alternative to gravitational theory. But these alternatives don’t offer anything positive, only the negative argument “Not fully explained yet, therefore God did it”.
Such an argument is considered unscientific not merely because it includes God, but because it’s scientifically sterile. There is no model there, no theory from which one could derive hypotheses that would allow us to test and see if it is true or not. It can never be falsified because in a complex theory involving volumes of data spread over a dozen fields of science, there will always be areas in which our understanding is incomplete; explain the examples they use today and tomorrow they will merely move on to another. It can never be shown to be true and history has always shown it to be false where it has been invoked before. Thus, it has no explanatory power and serves merely as an excuse not to go any further in our research. In examining biochemical systems such as the bacterial flagellum, the favorite example of the ID crowd, the conventional scientific perspective allows for innumerable avenues for new research to find an explanation. By contrast, can you even conceive of a means to provide a positive test for ID as an explanation? Well neither can the advocates of ID. There is none, which means it will always remain a purely negative argument. And while it is true that dissatisfaction with existing explanations has often spurred the development of new and better explanations throughout history, those new and better explanations could only be accepted when they could be tested against the data and shown to have more explanatory power. With a purely negative theory of the form “not x, therefore y”, there is no way of doing this, even hypothetically. That’s why they can’t point to or perform any research that confirms the validity of ID; at best, they can only show that there is not yet a compelling evolutionary explanation and then leap to “and therefore, God must have made it that way.”
Let me give a little more background on the Wedge strategy because it really is important to answering the question of why ID should not be in science classrooms. Phase 1 of the strategy was intended to be “Research, Writing and Publication”, and according to them, this was “the essential component of everything that comes afterward”:
Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade. A lesson we have learned from the history of science is that it is unnecessary to outnumber the opposing establishment. Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge.
Yet they cannot point to any original research that establishes a positive case for ID, or even to an actual model of ID that might spawn such research. In all these years since this strategy was devised, the first phase has gone nowhere. They’ve done lots of writing, the vast majority of which only seeks to poke holes in evolution to set up the negative argument detailed above. Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, was a purely negative argument detailing why he felt that his fellow scientists had failed to provide an adequate explanation for a few complex biochemical systems. His fellow biochemists pointed to dozens of articles suggesting possible pathways by which those systems might have evolved, articles that Behe either ignored entirely or dismissed out of hand. They also pointed to the types of research that is ongoing that might provide more detailed explanations for the evolution of those systems, and pointed out that Behe did not even attempt to provide any explanation himself for those systems.
Jonathan Wells’ book, Icons of Evolution, again contained only negative arguments pointing to supposed weaknesses in evolution. His book was literally full of falsehoods and misrepresentations and used all the traditional creationist techniques: out-of-context quotations, oversimplifications, false predictions, evidence distorting, and of course vague insinuations of dark conspiracies among the Darwinian Priesthood to destroy those who dared question them. This is what passes for serious scholarship for these folks, and it illustrates a very good reason why they skipped over the research phase and went right to the public relations phase (Phase 2: Publicity and opinion-making). This kind of work would never get published in a journal reviewed by his fellow scientists, not because of an orthodoxy that refuses to consider alternatives but because it’s shoddy and dishonest. The gaping flaws would be spotted in a moment by someone who knows the field, but by publishing for the public directly they avoid being called on it.
So not only have the avoided doing the research and publishing it in the science journals, the popular books they’ve written as part of their PR campaign to persuade the public have been riddled with errors both of fact and reasoning. All of these writings, along with Dembski’s, have been pretty much universally dismissed by their fellow scholars. Is this because there’s a hardened orthodoxy that is resistant to criticism, or is it because they haven’t bothered to do any of the actual scientific work necessary to establish that ID is a credible explanation? I’ll let Bruce Gordon, a former DI fellow and Dembski’s assistant director for the Polanyi Center at Baylor, answer that:
Design theory has had considerable difficulty gaining a hearing in academic contexts, as evidenced most recently by the the Polanyi Center affair at Baylor University. One of the principle reasons for this resistance and controversy is not far to seek: design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world.
A small but significant step forward was made when design research was recognized as a legitimate form of academic inquiry, with a rightful place on the university campus, by the external review committee’s report on the Polanyi Center. But inclusion of design theory as part of the standard discourse of the scientific community, if it ever happens, will be the result of a long and difficult process of quality research and publication. It also will be the result of overcoming the stigma that has become attached to design research because of the anti-evolutionary diatribes of some of its proponents on the one hand and its appropriation for the purpose of Christian apologetics on the other…
If design theory is to make a contribution to science, it must be worth pursuing on the basis of its own merits, not as an exercise in Christian ‘cultural renewal,’ the weight of which it cannot bear.
This is, to me, a major reason why ID has no place in public school science classrooms, because putting it there would give students a very bad example of how to distort the scientific process. Science has served mankind very well. The often difficult and laborious process of proposing models, devising ways to test them and putting your work out for your peers to criticize it, then going back and reworking it until you’ve got a really good theory, has allowed us to explain a virtually infinite number of things we once thought impossible. It has given us a clearer and clearer understanding of the processes at work on Earth and in the larger universe and produced an enormous boon to human standards of living. Contrary to popular misconception, the designation of “theory” in science denotes a high level of certainty about its legitimacy and represents the painstaking work of scientists to get it right. The fact that most people don’t know what theory means is proof positive of the lousy job we already do of teaching philosophy of science to our students. To reward the shoddy scholarship and public relations mongering of the ID crowd and put it into science classrooms on equal footing with one of the best established and most comprehensive scientific theories can only serve to worsen the students’ understanding of how science operates.
I would also make the argument that once we allow non-scientific alternatives into science classrooms, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to draw a line to keep other such alternatives out. ID is not the only religiously-motivated alternative to evolution, of course, not even the only one popular among Christians. If we’re going to give equal time to ID, don’t we also have to give equal time to the Raelians, or the Hindu creationists like Cremo and Thompson? And if we’re going to do this for evolution, do we also have to give equal time to geocentrism? After all, there is a genuine PhD astronomer who advocates it (Gerardus Buow). I’m sure there are a few real scientists who belong to the Christian Science Church, so must we then also give equal time in health class to their ideas that ill health is purely spiritual in nature and can be prayed away? I’m not saying all these things necessarily would get in there, but the fact is that we’d have no principled way to keep them out once ID is allowed in.
I should also make the point that I am not advocating that no student should be allowed to critically question evolution, nor would I want a teacher to gloss over those areas where evidence is currently lacking or pretend we know more than we do. Critical thinking should be encouraged at all times, and where a question is asked that betrays a misunderstanding of the evidence or of how science operates, this should be viewed as an opportunity for learning. Sadly, many of our science teachers are not equipped to deal with such questions effectively and aren’t prepared for the introduction of religious questions into the discussion. And let’s not pretend that ID is anything but a religious idea. Despite their efforts to mask the religious nature of it, the inescapable fact is that religion not only provides their only motivation for proposing it, but also provides the motivation for so many people to accept it without bothering to examine the validity of the claims being made.
Bruce Gordon was right when he said that ID has been hijacked for a role in Christian cultural renewal, without any attempt to establish it on firm grounds to begin with. That’s why the slippery slope argument is, in this case, not a fallacious one. Sometimes slippery slope arguments are fallacious. But when you have the very same people advocating step A saying bluntly that it’s a step on the way to results B and C, it is not only a reasonable conclusion it is an inescapable one. ID is only one of several ongoing projects whose goal is essentially to repeal the Enlightenment. There are similar projects going on in legal theory (look at any of Robert Bork’s popular books if you don’t believe me) and in many other areas. Before we let them take that first step, we should at least demand that they put up or shut up when it comes to the research and theoretical work necessary to ground their ideology in reality. Because Gordon is also right when he says that until that hard work is done to establish the validity of ID, it has no place in a public school science class.