Friday, October 18, 2002
Ohio has opened the door to the teaching of "intelligent design" theory in science classes. This is a very bad decision on Ohio's part, and conservative organs like The National Review should not be applauding.
The scientists quoted in the article - saying things like "science is not a democracy" and "science is not a viewpoint" - are 100% right. Science is a discipline. It has rules. We "believe" in science because of the objective results of the discipline - specifically, it has a successful track record of predicting the future. There is absolutely no justification for diluting or confusing the nature of the discipline, as nothing good can come of it, for science or religion.
There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Darwinism. Many scientists and philosophers of science have articulated them, among them the late Stephen Jay Gould, scourge of the creationists. And some evolutionists cross the line from science to scientism. Sociobiology is notorious for this defect (so notorious that I hesitate to call it a branch of science) but it also shows up in the writing of mainstream evolutionists like Richard Dawkins. Moreover, some evolutionists - I'm again thinking of Dawkins - evidence their positions with thought experiments that actually are better proof of their contrary. Thus, for example, when Dawkins tries to build computer models that simulate the evolution of the eye, he builds in a factor that selects for designs that are closer to a functioning eye. But this isn't evolution at all; it's design, because the selection process operates with an end goal in mind. That doesn't mean his thought experiment "proves" intelligent design; it doesn't prove anything at all. But it provides no proof for evolution and confuses the discussion about what evolution is.
So it's not a bad idea to teach that evolution is a theory, not a law, and to teach some of the problems the theory has manifested. But intelligent design is not an alternative scientific theory; it is not a scientific theory at all. The designer in intelligent design theory, by its very nature, cannot pass Occam's Razor, because the intelligent designer is necessarily a more complex entity than the entire edifice of physical law. Intelligent design begins with a teleology, the assertion that the universe has a purpose. Absent that assertion, the theory falls to pieces. That assertion is not scientific; it cannot be evidenced or refuted by its very nature. Admitting such discussion into the science classroom destroys the integrity of scientific education.
One could argue, I suppose, that a version of intelligent design theory - a theory, say, that posited a natural direction for evolution, pulling life upward towards greater complexity and awareness of the universe, a kind of vitalist theory - could be scientific. But two points are relevant in this regard. First, a vitalist theory, if it presumes to be scientific, should enter the lists in the tournament of science, not politics. We should be presented with evidence and arguments for how vitalism should and must work. Such theories have been presented before, and have attracted some worthy adherents - I count Erwin Schroedinger as one, and I suspect that Roger Penrose is another. But they have not been generally accepted, and they have not proven to have greater explanatory power than Darwinian evolution. But second, and equally important, a vitalist theory would have to acknowledge that life evolved from one form to another over time. It would have to acknowledge macro-evolution, in other words; its dissent would be in denying that this process was random rather than directed. Intelligent design as usually presented is not a vitalist theory, but a "theory" of miracles: life was created in all of its diversity by a force operating from outside the universe. If you don't believe in macro-evolution, and you accept the fossil record, then you believe that new forms of life come from . . . where? It should be obvious that what we're talking about is religion, and radically supernatural religion at that, and not science, and that it has no place in the science classroom.
The defenders of policies like Ohio's like to say that all they are calling for is "balance." But science should not be balanced. Theories that are not scientific should get exactly zero representation in a science classroom. An argument can be made that science should be more humble - that teachers should be articulate about the limits of science; about how scientists sometimes change theories in response to new evidence; about how science does not presume to level value judgements but only to explain the world in a way that enables us to predict the future with reasonable confidence in certain narrow ways. But it should never be balanced with non-science or anti-science.