Since the start of the new year there seems to have been concerted effort in several midwest US states, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Indiana, to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution by pushing creationist religious dogma in public schools (though not universities thankfully). It’s difficult to understand what the goals of this push might be, since nearly all legal precedent supports the fact that creation science, creationism, intelligent design or whatever new term that will be invented is religious doctrine and cannot be taught in public schools. Maybe Republican state legislators think the winds are at their back in making social change, or maybe they think the winds are shifting into their face, and so they should get moving before the electorate (which seems to be extraordinarily volatile these days) changes its mind again.
Creation science attempts to use science to validate the Genesis story of creation while simultaneously endeavoring to invalidate all the general scientific theories, facts, and paradigms that support the natural history of the universe including evolution, abiogenesis, cosmology, and astrophysics. Intelligent design (ID) is a slightly different flavor of creationism which states that features of the natural world, whether living things or physical processes, are best explained by an intelligent designer. In other words, the central mechanism of evolution is not explained by natural selection and genetic drift, but by a designer. ID also attempts to state that it is a scientific theory based on evidence, rather than a religious dogma based on no evidence.
Neither can be regarded as real science because they fail to meet even the most basic elements of science and the scientific method. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the scientific method is: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” It’s the “modification of the hypothesis” that separates real science from pseudosciences like creation science and ID. In other words, if we could falsify the central premise of either so-called theory, would the proponents modify their hypothesis? That would mean that there is no supernatural being that created or designed the universe, which they are mostly unwilling to do.
On the other hand, real science is open minded about the itself. It is willing to change its hypotheses and theories, to evolve (couldn’t resist) to new data points. That is precisely why science is not a religion, but is, in fact, an essential philosophy to understand the natural world. It is based on evidence, on analysis of that evidence, and, if necessary, modification of theories based on the evidence. Scientists consider evolution to be a fact based the wealth of evidence supporting it. The theory of evolution is one of the basic principles of biology (along with genetics, homeostasis, and cell theory), but if there were data that essentially disproved evolution, then science would modify the theory. There is an old joke that if someone found a rabbit fossil in precambrian rocks, science would probably have to reevaluate and rewrite the theory of evolution. However, most real scientists would be skeptical and wonder 1) if it really were a fossil, 2) if it were really a rabbit, 3) if it really was a precambrian rock layer, and 4) if it isn’t a hoax perpetrated by someone with an anti-science agenda.
But what is really problematic is that ID itself attempts to promote itself as a scientific theory where the designer is not the Judeo-Christian god. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle based think-tank, is the primary proponent of ID. They state that intelligent design is:
Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
Setting aside the fact that their so-called science doesn’t meet the basics of what constitutes real science (or the fact that they generally accept the age of life on earth), they go to great lengths to avoid naming the designer. However, it has been determined that, despite the best efforts of the intelligent design movement, the designer represents the Judeo-Christian god. Many have concluded that intelligent design is pseudoscience rather than just bad science.
Furthermore, the ID proponents use the so-called “wedge strategy”, a plan sponsored by the Discovery Institute, to further their political goals. The strategy was established in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which describes “a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” In other words, it’s just religious dogma couched in scientific words that have little meaning.
Intelligent design and creation science are not only dangerous to scientific teaching, which is critical to the future of our country. To continue to be leaders in medicine, research, new technologies, and whatever results from them, the country needs to have students with strong foundation in the sciences. These anti-science legislators are almost anti-American (to play the “who’s more patriotic” card). And if you take the long-term view (a rare skill indeed in our politicians), lack of science training could be a huge economic issue (still playing that patriotism card).
This current push for creationist teachings is still centered in one part of the country in just a few states. Even if its reach is limited, let’s hope it can be crushed out before it gets too much traction in other Republican dominated state legislatures.
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