Intelligent Debate

The most unnerving part about the furor over whether Intelligent Design (ID), a self-described alternative to Darwin’s theory of Evolution, should be taught in public schools and whether teachers should first have to read a statement that calls a theory “only a theory” is the utter misrepresentation of science and the ignorance of the basic tenets of the scientific method. Aside from the obvious questions about the suitability of teaching a faith-based concept in a public school, the real question is have we strayed so far from the “science of science” as to be swayed by meaningless arguments?

It is a complete misunderstanding of the foundation of science that makes people believe they have to caveat a theory by stating it is only as such. In 2003, the Cobb County school district of Georgia voted to place this disclaimer in texts that instructed Darwin’s Evolution:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.[i]

It occurs to me that if our science teachers and students do not know that no theory is a fact or that all academic material should be approached with open minds capable of studying and critically considering its merits, there is really not much that can be done to save education in this country short of canning all the teachers, conscripting the students to dig ditches, and just starting all over again.

The essence of science is an unbiased and faithless pursuit of knowledge through observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and continuous evaluation of results. I realize that “faithless” may be a put off to a few of the 94%[ii] of Americans who claim some belief in a higher power, but in this instance it should not be feared; it should be respected. In relation to science it means that a belief in one idea or another makes no difference in whether a theory lives or dies. As such it is a meaningless concept in the realm of science. It must be so or knowledge could not progress.

A woman on the sidewalk in San Francisco once told John Dobson, master telescope maker and inventor of the Dobsonian mount, to stop being so negative by saying the sun has spots. She believed the sun to be perfect, without blemish, regardless of what she could have seen had she just taken the time to observe our nearest star for a few seconds. Science does not allow this blind faith or the human penchant for sticking with what is comfortable. Unfortunately for this poor woman, the sun has spots, and obviously unbeknownst to her, their presence directly impacts her life. Science, with its unbiased and faithless approach, renders knowledge—and knowledge progresses through falsified theories.

If its essence is a lack of bias, science’s cornerstone lies in the supposition that its theories must be falsifiable. If they are not, they cannot be considered valid. History is littered with cast off theories that failed to marry with observation or predict repeatable results. The world was once the center of the universe. No longer. The sun traced its orbit about the earth. No longer. The galaxies were once thought to be nebulae of our own galaxy. A respected astronomer theorized a dying civilization on Mars. We now recognize these theories failed to describe the cosmos as we know it today, and the theories we presently use to explain it will likely be overcome with something far more grand. In our instant world we tend to forget that these things take time.

Sir Isaac Newton published The Principia in 1687. In that work he laid out a theory of gravitational laws, laws of motion, and invented the mathematics that explained them. Those theories were called “laws of nature” and held for over two hundred years. They still reasonably approximate motions at earth-bound speeds. Then in 1905 one man changed the nature of physics by explaining the cause of gravity while at the same time calling into question its very nature. Einstein’s theories were as radical as Copernicus’ ideas about the earth’s place in the solar system and Hubble’s proof of Kant’s “island universes,” the innumerable galaxies that lie far beyond our own. Ptolemy’s system of geometric shapes is now recognized as a failed theory. Lowell’s canals do not exist, and even Einstein’s self-labeled greatest mistake is gaining new traction with the surprise discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. These are all evidence of science’s continuous quest for improvement and its respect for its practitioners. Even when they are found to be wrong they did a small part in advancing human knowledge.

A friend and supporter of allowing Intelligent Design into the science class argues that science has never been right. He cites examples like the above. I have to admit he is correct, but that’s the elegance of it all. Science has never been completely right…and yet ships float. Planes fly. Electricity powers the laptop computer I write this piece on. The internal combustion engine turns old dinosaurs into air-conditioned motion. Man-made satellites orbit the globe and allow me to talk to anyone on earth at near the speed of light. Rockets have gone to the moon and flown past the last planet in our solar system. And I own a ballpoint pen that writes upside down. Not bad for the kind of half-baked stuff I think belongs in that classroom.

My friend believes ID is only a means to open the debate and introduce students to “all” of the facts so that a better conclusion may be drawn and answers to the lingering questions we have faced since we began recording the passing of time may be found. It is absurd and hypocritical to think that “all” facts, concepts, or theories could be taught during high school curricula and that Intelligent Design could possibly represent such an endeavor. Ask your school board to teach the !Kung bushmen’s view of the creation, perhaps present as theory that the earth flowed from the falls at Havasu in modern day Arizona. I doubt you will meet with much success or half the media fanfare that ID has gained. Though beautiful metaphors and fantastic myth, they simply do not qualify as scientific theories. None of these can explain known or predict future phenomena. They rely on the presence of something that cannot be falsified. There is no way to prove the absence of something. This is the essence of faith, and what good would it be if its object were proven to exist or not. This is something the ID crowd has really not considered well enough. Regardless, it is not science. This should be all that is required to disqualify it from my future students’ school work. But then there is this other nagging problem.

These debates show that the study of science has already been weakened to a critical point. A society well-versed in the discussions above would not submit to such meaningless discourse. The advancements of the Industrial Revolution fade to black, and the Information Revolution diffuses the novelty of fantastic innovation and discovery. Spaceflight is almost routine; it rarely makes the headlines. What could fossils in old rock possibly tell us? Do they even exist? The frenzy over ID literally screams for us to cast it aside and return to a time when hard science took center stage.

And one final observation. Sciences such as physics, cosmology, and perhaps evolution most of all are full of uniting theories. They attempt to explain our commonality. They are written in a communication medium that transcends culture, language, belief, geographic placement, gender, age, sexuality, economic status, and every other discriminator known to and devised by mankind. If we want to get metaphysical about it, there is something inherently good about that. But then in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “I feign no hypotheses.”[iii] Which if translated by the Cobb County School Board would read, “it’s only a theory.” I guess the creator of the calculus beat them to it…I’m sure in time they’ll catch up to the 17th century.

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[i] “Recent Actions Taken by School Boards and Districts to Foster Objective Origins Science,” Intelligent Design Network, Inc., 10 March 2004, n.p., on-line, Internet, available from http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org/CCacts.PDF.

[ii] “Gallup: Poll Finds Americans’ Belief in God Remains Strong,” Editor and Publisher, 13 December 2004, VNU eMedia, Inc., on-line, Internet, available from  http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001659292.

[iii] “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Jan 2006, Wikimedia, on-line, Internet, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia.