The Right Coast

September 24, 2005
ID update
By Tom Smith

Here's a story about a lawsuit in PA regarding intelligent design.

I probably know more about complexity theory that most corporate law professors who live in Southern California, and the idea that anyone knows enough to claim that they know natural selection as a process is incapable of producing complex organisms, strikes me as pretty insupportable. It may be fair to say there are things we can't explain yet about how natural selection works, and whether there are other important mechanisms at work in evolution, but that is something else again.

It's wrong to say ID is "not science." In a sense it is. It is the claim that a central neo-Darwinist claim, that evolution occurs largely or even entirely by means of natural selection, is wrong, is inconsistent with the evidence. That is certainly a scientific claim. Science consists partly of falsification (though not entirely -- I think Popper is wrong about that). The problem is that ID is not anything like established science, or even slightly well supported science. It is just one of many counter claims floating around. It is rather like the claim that life on earth is the result of colonization by extra-terrestials. It might be true, it might answer some questions if it were true, but the evidence for thinking it is true is, last I checked, pretty slim and dubious.

Some religions have doctrines that commit them to factual theses inconsistent with consensus views of modern science. You can imagine that if various ancient Greek religions had survived, they might view the atomic theory of matter as heresy, for example. Young earth creationists, I gather, insist the Big Bang theory is false, because it involves a creation that occurred 17.5 billion years ago or so, not several thousand, as some people read the Bible to reveal.

There could be some points I'm missing here, but I don't see why or even how science is supposed to be taught in public schools so as to steer clear of contradicting various religious doctrines, where it is just a fact that some of them do conflict with core scientific truth, to the extent such a thing exists. I certainly believe that as a matter of policy, religious belief should be accommodated in public schools. Maybe this means creationist students should be able to graduate high school without taking the usual biology class, or check a box on their exams that indicates they are answering all questions as a matter of what biologists believe, not what the Truth is, so they can answer "Species emerge through a process of natural selection, true or false?" correctly without betraying their religious beliefs. But that is a different thing from putting stuff very far indeed from the scientific mainstream on an equal footing with established, mainstream biological science, in the science classroom itself.

Two other quick points. There is no good reason for including in text books the anti-religious rantings some biologists are prone to. So parents of any religious stripe might reasonably object if some of the writings of Richard Dawkins were assigned in a biology class. Though much of his exposition of biological theory is just that, sometimes he indulges in purely ideological posturing; science classes should not be used to propagandize against religion. But this is hardly the big problem. The grade school science textbooks I have looked at, and I doubt high school texts are much better, are just dreadful, quite apart from any religious objections one might have. Horribly written, bone dry, bafflingly organized and apparently committed to the proposition that science is about arbitrary distinctions and pointless definitions -- that about sums them up. What a disservice to our children, not to mention to science! The kerfuffle over evolution in schools seems like a symptom of the pathology in our schools more generally. Whether we agree about natural selection or not, economic selection occurs, and if science education does not get better, our children will be learning about its harsh laws the hard way.