By Design

There has been a recent flurry of messages on the Bad Science Forum and elsewhere regarding the “educational packs” sent out by Intelligent Design lobby group, Truth in Science. It’s worth a look – the FAQs are hilarious – Richard Sternberg, btw, is a director of the Discovery Institute (see below). The consensus in the scientific community seems to be that ID has no place in the classroom, and that it should be ignored.

In an ideal world, this would be exactly the right thing to do. I am loath to agree with anti-science loons when they say that ID should be taught in schools, they have a point… but it’s not the point they think they’re making.

ID is a fairly sinister operation to undermine science. It exploits the general public’s general ignorance about science in general and evolution in particular. It claims that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot be falsified, and presents the argument of “irreducible complexity” to discredit it. As a gross simplification, natural selection states that all organisms originated from very simple structures that gradually became more complex over an extremely long period of time. ID, in a version of the ontological argument, contends that organisms contain structures that cannot be broken down into simpler parts. Ironically, Darwin used this very argument to falsify his own theory (decades before Popper) introduced the concept of falsification into philosophy of science).

Dark Melanie doesn’t really understand why ID is not a scientific theory but a religious dogma in disguise, used to try and shoehorn religion into US and now UK schools. The Discovery Institute, a US-based think tank, had their notorious Wedge Strategy document leaked in 1999, and since then have been on a damage limitation exercise (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain). Considering the length of time that this has been in the public domain, I was surprised that it’s not more widely known. To summarise, Intelligent Design is a strategy – the thin end of the wedge – deployed in order to create mistrust of science and the scientific method, and therefore create a gap into which evangelical Christianity should slot quite nicely.

Here’s why I think ID *should* be taught in biology lessons. It’s not about “teaching the controversy” or religious freedom. After all, the only controversy is in the media and that created by the ID’ers themselves. The proponents of ID have published no peer-reviewed papers and much of their funding (from the Discovery Institute) goes on PR and grants to sympathetic bodies rather than original research. They have no real evidence apart from pointing at complicated things and saying “look! Isn’t it complicated!” They are, however, quite good at attacking dissenters, as can be seen from the “reviews” of pro-evolution books on Amazon. In any case, Young Earth Creationists reject ID because it acknowledges that Earth is many, many millions of years old. Indeed, plate tectonics is a far more crushing blow to Creationists than evolution ever was. ID is a compromise that has pleased nobody.

It is true that scientists have had theories disproved and have got things wrong. Indeed, it happens frequently. We once believed in aether, humours and bad air. They were hypotheses to explain phenomena that were otherwise inexplicable. However, we were able to disprove these hypotheses using science. If scientists are unwilling to ditch a theory when it has been disproven, they are poor scientists. An example used on the Truth in Science site, the peppered moth, shows just that. The truth, as usual, is far more interesting than the ID interpretation.

ID shows how science is quite different from religion or belief – science is a method for understanding things and testing theories, not a dogma. ID has no evidence to support its claims: it does not even have a testable hypothesis. It is not falsifiable. It is not challenging a closed-minded scientific establishment. It is not even a protoscience, but a pseudoscience.

In its attempt to shoehorn religion into science lessons, ID has already failed – the insanely devout have voted with their feet and are withdrawing their children from US schools in droves, and educating them at home. True believers of any faith (and recently, the idea of Young Earth creationism and its ilk has spread from evangelical Christians to ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims) should either be able to accommodate evolution and Earth science into their worldview, or reject it utterly. Either way, ID is unacceptable to them.

Any reasonably competent biology teacher will be able to demolish ID in a lesson or so. Doing this would ruin any attempt to drive a wedge into UK schools, as well as teaching a valuable lesson to pupils about burdens of proof, testability, forming hypotheses, falsifiability and other nuggets of the scientific method. The most usual examples used are the eye, blood clotting and bacterial flagellum. All of these have been dealt with very effectively, with the evidence showing very clearly that these structures and phenomena did indeed evolve from simpler forms. In the case of the eye, it’s evolved spontaneously several times in different forms. Evolutionary biologists have been able to predict exactly where a specific “missing link” fish fossil should be found – and have been proven to be correct. Evolution can also be observed in one’s lifetime by looking at mitochondrial DNA.

From these examples, teachers could then go on to look at other complex structures like the ear (developed from the jawbone) and the panda’s thumb. Currently, scientists ignore ID because, quite reasonably, it’s nonsense. This has been exploited both by ID’ers and ignoramuses in the media: the one because it plays into their hands, and the other because they have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course scientists won’t debate with ID’ers. They have nothing in common and nothing to discuss. It would be like a particle physicist discussing vibrations in crystal healing with an alternative therapist.

In fact, Truth in Science is a bit of a gift – although it can be argued that the last thing this group wants is for ID to be taught in schools, (since to do so would be its death knell) and what it in fact wants is to sow doubt in the mind of moderately religious parents. The Truth In Science material allows teachers a way to introduce the complicated subject of evolution as well as a useful resource to teach about what science is, and what it isn’t. The only people that need to be concerned about this are the ID’ers themselves. Ugh. I find myself agreeing with Peter Hitchens. Although he is generally vile and pallid, he is right in saying that the elephant of scientific knowledge should not be afraid to crush the ailing mouse of ID.

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