About three years ago, President George W. Bush had the apparent audacity to suggest that students should be exposed to differing ideas, and it stirred up a firestorm in the editorial pages and on the Internet. Of course, the idea that we should expose children to new ideas would normally not receive a second thought from most people (especially those who are forever crying "censorship" upon the slightest suggestion that some books or other reading material may be inappropriate for children), but Bush had the gall to make such an open-minded suggestion about teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools.
Based on the reaction, I suspect that some people would prefer to have grade school children handed back-issues of Penthouse Magazine than allow a hint of dissent from the reigning Darwinian paradigm. I can almost hear it now, "What? Infringe on the Darwinian monopoly in the schools? Allow people to think for even a moment that there is a possibility that we didn't evolve from the first single-celled organism? Why, that would be 'anti-scientific!'"
One site that can be depended on to scream "fire" in the crowded theatre at the merest suggestion that children be exposed to Intelligent Design is the website of the National Center for Science Education. True to form, they published an attack on the suggestion entitled "President Bush Endorses Intelligent Design" which stated:
Scientists quickly reacted to the news. The American Geophysical Union, a scientific society of 43,000 members in the earth and space sciences, released a statement making it clear that "intelligent design" is not a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary biology.In comments to journalists on August 1, the President said that "both sides ought to be properly taught." "If he meant that intelligent design should be given equal standing with the theory of evolution in the nation's science classrooms, then he is undermining efforts to increase the understanding of science," Spilhaus said in a statement. "'Intelligent design' is not a scientific theory. Advocates of intelligent design believe that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved on its own and must therefore be the work of a designer. That is an untestable belief and, therefore, cannot qualify as a scientific theory."
Of course, as is apparent from the fact that not every member of the union agrees when the leaders of the AFL-CIO make a pronouncement on some political issue, the mere fact that the nominal leaders of a group of scientists make a statement on behalf of the community doesn't mean that the community is of one mind on the issue. But the wording of the statement raises a question: Why are these people so opposed to exposing children to the idea that Darwinian evolution may not be the end-all, be-all of thought in this area? Do the reasons given by the spokesperson for the American Geophysical Union really pan out?
The underlying statement from the American Geophysical Union which is quoted by the NCSE article (entitled, revealingly, "President Confuses Science and Belief, Puts Schoolchildren at Risk") is only quoted in part. The statement continues:
"Scientific theories, like evolution, relativity and plate tectonics, are based on hypotheses that have survived extensive testing and repeated verification," Spilhaus says. "The President has unfortunately confused the difference between science and belief. It is essential that students understand that a scientific theory is not a belief, hunch, or untested hypothesis."
"Ideas that are based on faith, including 'intelligent design,' operate in a different sphere and should not be confused with science. Outside the sphere of their laboratories and science classrooms, scientists and students alike may believe what they choose about the origins of life, but inside that sphere, they are bound by the scientific method," Spilhaus said.
With all due respect to Mr. Spilhaus, he has made a few errors in his analysis. I would like to spend a couple of posts explaining where I think he has fallen into error.
First, implicit in Mr. Spilhaus' objection is the belief that President Bush meant that ID should be given equal standing with evolution in the schools. Does one really think that he would object if Bush proposed that Intelligent Design be ridiculed or shown to be a hoax in the schools? I certainly don't think so. In fact, I would suspect that he would advocate that if a teacher is asked about Intelligent Design, he should explain that Intelligent Design isn't science because it is based on faith (it's not, but we'll get to that later).
However, the idea that Intelligent Design should be given equal standing in the schools is not what President Bush proposed. What President Bush said was that "both sides ought to be properly taught" so that "people can understand what the debate is about." At the moment, evolution is the reigning paradigm for understanding how life came to exist with the diversity that we observe in nature, and I don't think that President Bush (or any other ID advocate that I have ever read) is suggesting that we don't teach it. I don't think that President Bush was even remotely suggesting that it be given equal standing with Darwinian Evolution. While some people may suggest that Intelligent Design be given equal time with Darwinian evolution as the basis for studying the diversity of life, I don't believe many make that argument. Jonathan Wells was on the Michael Medved program yesterday and said as much. Contending simply that Intelligent Design be "properly taught" is not somehow suggesting a complete revamping of the science classrooms across America. It seems to me that this language merely notes that teachers should identify that there are some who disagree with the reigning paradigm and do so respectfully.
I personally have some experience which I think illustrates what President Bush is suggesting. When I was in first year Biology in college, I went to a lab class that was taught by a graduate student whose name I don't recall. In discussing evolution, he felt obliged to teach "creation science" as an alternative to evolution, but he didn't really try to teach "creation science" but ridiculed it. I think that Bush is suggesting that we at least introduce the idea of Intelligent Design to students (which is not "quackery" as suggested by the Washington Post's Editorial Page) in a respectful manner which teaches, fairly and accurately, its claims -- not some frivolous "let's make fun of ID" approach such as I experienced with my grad student/lab instructor's exposure of our class to "creation science."
So, initially, I reject the idea that President Bush was suggesting that Intelligent Design be taught equally with Darwinian Evolution. He only said that it should be presented in a way so that students understand the controversy. And teaching the controversy doesn't mean that Intelligent Design has be treated as if no one disagrees with its arguments -- it seems to mean that Mr. Spilhaus' argument that Intelligent Design is based on faith would be part of the teaching of the controversy.
Wouldn't that be great? It would allow students to understand the difference between science and non-science using a modern day, relevant example that students can follow in the paper and be able to see clearly how it is that Intelligent Design is non-science.
But then again, maybe the students would see that Intelligent Design has merit and the idea that it is not science is the real smokescreen.
Next time: I will examine the statement that "Scientific theories, like evolution, relativity and plate tectonics, are based on hypotheses that have survived extensive testing and repeated verification."