Political science: unintelligent debate over intelligent design

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Just when I thought the fight over evolution couldn’t get any more political, the president of the United States weighs in with an apparent endorsement of teaching “intelligent design” in public schools.

“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President Bush told a reporter on Aug. 2, “so people can understand what the debate is all about.”

With one offhand remark, the president managed to give intelligent design (the view that the complexity of life can be explained only by the existence of an intelligent designer) a new level of political clout and respectability that no amount of PR can buy.

Politicizing science, of course, is nothing new in America. Beginning with the Scopes trial of 1925, politics and religion — not science — have driven the fight over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

That’s why some textbooks still skim over evolution — and teachers in certain parts of the country look over their shoulders whenever they mention the “e” word. And we wonder why American high school students don’t fare well in science when compared to their international peers.

The day after Bush’s statement, presidential science adviser John Marburger tried to reassure science groups, telling The New York Times that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

But conservative Christian groups were already off and running. “Bush Wants Intelligent Design Taught in Public Schools” declares the headline on Focus on the Family’s Web site. New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett urged local schools to act: “I would hope that first and foremost that the school boards would step up to the plate now and say, ‘Look, our President has said this … this is what we should be teaching in our local schools.’”

The president’s comments come at a heady time for the intelligent-design movement. Some 20 states are now considering changing their science standards to ensure that “alternative theories” be taught in science classes. Just last week, the Kansas Board of Education voted to include greater criticism of evolution in the state’s science courses.

But just as the conviction of John Scopes turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for creationists (thanks to the withering wit of attorney Clarence Darrow), so this growing political support for ID may well doom the ID movement. Here’s why.

Start with the fact that ID isn’t ready for prime time in the science curriculum. To count as “science” in the public school setting, a theory must be adequately supported by scientific research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. ID has no such support, although ID advocates contend that’s because the mainstream scientific community has frozen them out.

Many of the ground troops pushing ID in local communities don’t know if ID is good science — and they don’t seem to care. They are part of the anything-but-evolution movement that has jumped on ID as the latest Trojan horse to ride into the science classroom. ID isn’t all they want (since it isn’t full-blown creationism), but it does point to God. Best of all, to them, ID isn’t evolution.

These are the folks who helped persuade the Dover, Pa., school board to mandate that kids hear a statement about ID and learn where to find out more. Since the board members who voted for this policy appear to be largely motivated by religious convictions, it’s likely that courts will strike down this practice as a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. When that happens, the effort to get ID into the curriculum will suffer a serious setback.

At first blush, Bush’s advice to teach “both sides” may strike people as reasonable and fair. But if he’s talking about the science curriculum, are there really two scientific sides in this debate? Evolution is the prevailing scientific theory long accepted by the vast majority of scientists. ID, the proposed “scientific alternative,” is a concept with no substantial research base and no testable hypotheses. No matter how much religious supporters of ID wish it were so, ID isn’t ready to be placed on equal scientific footing with evolutionary theory.

That’s why the Kansas strategy is far more worrisome to science groups. Rather than pushing for ID, conservative members of the state board want schools to “teach the controversy” by including more criticism of evolution. This translates into teaching ID, since the ID attack on evolution is the “scientific critique” board members have in mind. But since there is little debate among biologists about core evolutionary principles, any attempt to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom will face strong resistance from the science community.

It may be less heavy-handed, but the actions of the Kansas board are just as political — and no more based in science — than the tactics of the Dover school board. With all due respect to our elected officials, including the president, decisions about what counts as good science in public schools must be made by scientists, not politicians.

In science, as in a democracy, conflict and debate are healthy and should be welcome. Intelligent-design advocates, some of whom are scientists, have every right to make the case against evolution and for an alternative theory. But that case should be made in research universities and scientific journals.

Public schools aren’t a proving ground for untested theories. And students shouldn’t become guinea pigs (or monkeys, for that matter) in the culture-war debate over evolution. That’s bad for science education — and for the nation.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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