I’ll close the week with an open letter to President Bush just released by the American Astronomical Society’s president, Prof. Robert Kirschner, to express disappointment with his comments on bringing intelligent design into the classroom. Astronomers may not deal with natural selection or fossils, but as a general principle, they don’t like seeing non-science and science getting confused.
Washington, DC. The American Astronomical Society is releasing the text of a letter concerning “intelligent design” and education that was sent earlier today to President George W. Bush by the President of the Society, Dr. Robert P. Kirshner.
August 5, 2005
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
As President of the American Astronomical Society, I was very disappointed by the comments attributed to you in an article in the August 2nd, 2005 Washington Post regarding intelligent design. While we agree that “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought”, intelligent design has neither scientific evidence to support it nor an educational basis for teaching it as science. Your science adviser, John H Marburger III correctly commented that “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”
Scientific theories are coherent, are based on careful experiments and observations of nature that are repeatedly tested and verified. They aren’t just opinions or guesses. Gravity, relativity, plate tectonics and evolution are all theories that explain the physical universe in which we live. What makes scientific theories so powerful is that they account for the facts we know and make new predictions that we can test. The most exciting thing for a scientist is to find new evidence that shows old ideas are wrong. That’s how science progresses. It is the opposite of a dogma that can’t be shown wrong. “Intelligent design” is not so bold as to make predictions or subject itself to a test. There’s no way to find out if it is right or wrong. It isn’t part of science.
We agree with you that “scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum,” but intelligent design has no place in science classes because it is not a “scientific critique.” It is a philosophical statement that some things about the physical world are beyond scientific understanding. Most scientists are quite optimistic that our understanding will grow, and things that seem mysterious today will still be wonderful when they are within our understanding tomorrow. Scientists see gaps in our present knowledge as opportunities for research, not as a cause to give up searching for an answer by invoking the intervention of a God-like intelligent designer.
The schools of our nation have a tough job—and there is no part of their task that is more important than science education. It doesn’t help to mix in religious ideas like “intelligent design” with the job of understanding what the world is and how it works. It’s hard enough to keep straight how Newton’s Laws work in the Solar System or to understand the mechanisms of human heredity without adding in this confusing and non-scientific agenda. It would be a lot more helpful if you would advocate good science teaching and the importance of scientific understanding for a strong and thriving America. “Intelligent design” isn’t even part of science – it is a religious idea that doesn’t have a place in the science curriculum.
Robert P. Kirshner
President, American Astronomical Society
Harvard College Professor and Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University