Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Unintelligent design

It’s hard to believe, but here we are in the 21st century and there are still those among us who question the teaching of evolution in our schools. Oh, they’ve actually moved beyond trying to ban evolution from the curriculum – we’ve progressed that far from the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Now they’re trying to return the teaching of creationism to our schools, under its modern guise of "intelligent design." There’s nothing intelligent about intelligent design, and they’re not fooling anyone by trying to position it as a rival scientific theory. Intelligent design is creationism, pure and simple – a new way to preach fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs in our public schools.

The intelligent design battle is raging in dozens of states and hundreds of school boards across the U.S. It’s just now reared its ugly head in my home state of Indiana, where a group is threatening to sue the Hamilton Southeastern School district unless they provide a "balanced and nonpartisan" view of the origins of life. Which means, of course, teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes.

I’ve written before about the problems with "balanced and nonpartisan" coverage of issues that are essentially fact-based. The facts are the facts. There’s no opposing viewpoint; facts are not partisan. If you try to "balance" the facts you end up legitimizing non-facts, which really isn’t the smart thing to do. So back off on the "balanced and nonpartisan" argument; it’s a non-starter.

What the creationists want to do is present intelligent design as a scientific theory, just like evolution. In other words, they're hiding their religious arguments behind a facade of pseudo-science. As Alex P. Oren, the Hoosier advocate says, "This is not science versus religion. This is science versus science."

The problem is that intelligent design isn’t science. Science involves facts and logic. It involves provability and predictability. It doesn’t depend on faith. Scientific facts exist whether you believe them or not. They’re not debatable.

Not that people don’t want to have the debate. One ID-friendly parent at Hamilton Southeastern High School made this statement: "You have to know both sides. It is better to know, and then the kids will have to decide which they think is the right one."

But when you’re dealing with facts, there is no debate. There aren’t two sides to a factual story. Something either is true or it isn’t; the other side of a truth isn’t an alternative truth, it’s a falsehood. Since evolution is the fact, debating “both sides” in this case would involve arguing a truth versus a non-truth. Letting our kids decide which is "the right one" would allow them to make up their mind in regards to pre-existing facts – and there’s no mind-making to be done. Just because little Suzy Sophomore decides for herself that evolution is false doesn’t make it any less true; the facts are the facts, no matter what anyone thinks.

Would we spend time debating other known truths, just to present a "balanced and nonpartisan" argument? Should we waste taxpayer dollars debating whether 2+2=4 or whether it equals 5? And what if Suzy Sophomore decides that she thinks 2+2=5 is true? Allowing for individual beliefs is one thing, but allowing individuals to believe things that provably aren’t true is quite another. If we let kids make up their own minds in opposition to known truths, we’ll end up teaching nothing – and our already undereducated youth will become even more ignorant than they already are. Nope, we should be teaching facts and logic in our schools, not unproven theories and speculation. And evolution, despite what the creationists might like to think, is a proven scientific fact. It exists, it’s true, and we should teach it.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, fails the science test on all fronts. First, there are no facts backing it up. None. If there is in fact an intelligent creator behind the creation of life, true science requires some form of scientific proof. But there isn’t any. There are no ancient blueprints, no stamp in our DNA that says "Copyright God." Unlike evolution, which has proof coming out its ass, intelligent design is proofless.

This leaves the logic argument, which also doesn’t exist – although the IDers would like you to think otherwise. Their logic goes something like this. Because the likelihood of things evolving exactly so as to create complex organisms is so low, miniscule really, then there has to be a guiding hand behind the evolution. In other words, a low probability dictates an intelligent guide.

But this is faulty logic. If this logic were sound, then any event that is highly improbable is proof that God exists. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are several million to one, yet someone just won the lottery last week; since the likelihood of that exact person winning the lottery was so small, then God must have made it happen.

You see the fault with this logic. You could take any improbable event as proof that God exists. I reached into my sock drawer this morning, with my eyes closed, and somehow pulled out a matching pair of socks. Does this mean that God exists? Last night I was out walking and saw three frogs lined up in a row under a streetlight, small to medium to large. Did God make them line up like that?

Of course not. Just because something unlikely happens doesn’t mean that some higher power made it happen. Sometimes unlikely things happen. Sometimes highly improbable things happen. Sometimes coincidences occur. That’s just the way things work. God isn’t required to allow the possibility of me picking out a matching pair of socks, or seeing an ascending frog lineup, or winning the lottery. Nor is God required for this event to lead to that event to lead to the creation of complex organisms. The existence of complex organisms is not proof that God exists. It can just happen, simply following the laws that dictate evolutionary change.

Creationists will then respond that evolution isn’t a fact, it’s a theory. Why, that’s what the scientists call it – the theory of evolution. So if you’re going to teach that theory in the schools, you should teach alternative theories, as well. The problem here, of course, is that the scientific use of the word "theory" differs from the common usage that the creationists are relying on. Hey, Einstein’s theory of relativity may be called a theory, but E pretty much equals mc squared. Nothing theoretical about it.

The same thing with the so-called theory of evolution. We know that evolution exists. We’ve seen the evidence, we understand the logic, it makes sense. There may be more details to be discovered, but science is all about discovery, and as we learn more we refine the "theories" that we use to describe the world around us. We don’t have to invent some supernatural being to explain things we don’t understand. Science does a fairly good job of explaining things, all by itself.

Just why supposedly intelligent people in this day and age actually believe in creationism escapes me. Or, more precisely, why these people refuse to believe scientific facts. It’s not that they believe in a higher power that is disturbing; the bigger issue is that they choose to ignore facts and logic. It’s just like those folks who refuse to admit that global warming exists – how can anyone with half a brain in their head ignore the facts? Believing in a God and accepting the science of evolution don’t have to be mutually exclusive, unless you’re an extreme literalist who believes that the world was created just 12,000 years ago, fossil evidence to the contrary be damned. How blind do you have to be to refuse to acknowledge scientific fact? You can wish things were otherwise, but calling the sky pink doesn’t make it any less blue.

So the creationists need to pack up and go home. It’s okay to believe in a creator or intelligent designer or grand poobah or whatever you want to believe in the sanctity of your own home or church, but you can’t preach that kind of nonsense as a scientific fact in our public schools – not unless you can prove it, that is. Schools are home to facts and knowledge (and a few basic skills, such as the "three Rs"). There is no place in our schools’ science curriculum for speculation. Save the speculation and debate for philosophy and religious studies courses; science courses are reserved for the teaching of proven scientific facts.

And here’s my advice to any creationists reading this column. Get your head out of the pew and go read a good science book. (I can particularly recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.) There’s a whole wonderful world out there, all quite scientifically sound and all very well documented, just waiting for you to discover it.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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