Intelligent design and its not-so-intelligent proponents

In another setback for science in the United States, the Kansas School Board has effectively allowed for the teaching of creationism in classrooms. This has followed much debate in the U.S. over the teaching of the so-called ‘theory of intelligent design’ which has been advocated by many Republicans, including the President.

Of course, the Kansas School Board didn’t explicitly incorporate the words ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ into the curriculum. Instead they use the typical roundabout and cryptic language used by the religious right when promoting such policies. Specifically, according to the Sydney Morning Herald the board “redefined science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena”.

While I agree completely that science needs to be completely open-minded, and not be restrictive in what sort of explanations it considers, any scientific theory, whether it be a natural theory or otherwise, still needs to adhere to basic scientific principles, otherwise it is, by definition, not scientific. In my mind these principles can be summarized by the following pseudo-code algorithm for how a scientific idea develops:

  • 1. Consider a particular phenomenon.
  • 2. Propose a postulate to explain that phenomena.
  • 3. Present evidence to support the postulate.
  • 4. Allow others the opportunity to present evidence to either support or contradict the postulate.
  • 5. If after a reasonable amount of time and evidence the postulate still stands up strong, it may be promoted to the rank of theory.
  • 6. If it is disproven, goto 1.
  • 7. If, after a much longer time, the theory is very strong and essentially unchallenged, it may be promoted to the rank of law.

Most scientific ideas have more or less followed a progression of this nature. The specifics of my list are highly debateable and rather irrelevant, with exception to points (3) and (4), which are absolutely fundamental. My criticism of the ‘theory of intelligent design’ is that, based on these criteria, it is not a scientific theory at all. The reason for this is that it completely sidesteps the all-important points (3) and (4). The argument for intelligent design in every account I have read is something along the lines of “the universe is incredibly complex, therefore it must have been created by a higher power”. Let’s be very clear about one thing. This is not a theory. It’s a postulate (and one which it not logically defensible at that). Most proponents of ID, on the other hand, seem to immediately promote their idea to the status or theory, or in some Bible bashing circles, directly to law. While these people are quite entitled to their views on creationism, and I wouldn’t want to argue against them for fear of completely undermining their sense of purpose in life, it’s farcical to promote ID as a scientific theory. While I don’t believe that creationism should be taught in school at all, if it is it should at least go by the title of “unsubstantiated postulate that immaterial and supernatural phenomena are responsible for human life”, which would be far more scientifically accurate than “intelligent design” which gives the false impression that in some way the idea is in fact intelligent.

The economic and military strength of the United States can be attributed in large part to its scientific dominance throughout the second half of the last century. If science in the U.S. continues to be undermined at the most fundamental level (i.e. in the education of the next generation), this will have very significant consequences on future U.S. power, something which I’m surprised the neo-cons haven’t caught on to yet. Already countless American scientists are becoming disgruntled and are expressing their dismay or writing petitions against the perversion and falsification of science in the United States. I sincerely hope that this trend doesn’t continue (the perversion that is, not the dismay). However I have a suspicion that it will.

Update: According to this article from the Sydney Morning Herald, the creationists are spreading their assault on science to Australian schools as well.

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