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Intelligent Design revamps an old familiar tune

But do people really believe we’ll take it as science?

Bill Hanage 31 March 2005

Hanage, ready for all comers in his office at Imperial

Any hypothesis resorting to Intelligent Design is intellectually equivalent to saying that we were created thirty seconds ago by God, aliens or Simon Cowell...

For a while, in the dying embers of the 20th century, it seemed that the battles of the enlightenment had been won. Science could now get about the business of understanding the world unopposed by the myth, superstition and pseudoscience of human history. Except…people never stopped reading their horoscopes. Instead of the rational future we hoped for, the rising tide of pseudoscience stifles enquiry by privileging belief over evidence. In a related development, faith has returned with a vengeance, and has its advocates in both the White House and Downing Street. Think for a moment about how many times Tony Blair says he ‘truly believes’ something as justification for his actions. Meanwhile in the media, charlatans prescribe kidney rubs or crystal healing or a host of ‘alternative’ medicines for every conceivable complaint, newspapers run full-page spreads on how any random animate/inanimate object can cure/cause cancer, and uptake of the MMR vaccine falls due to an unsupported scare story promoted by those same papers. A common feature of much of this pseudoscientific nonsense is that it speaks the language of science itself, or at least uses the same vocabulary, even if it has the grammar badly wrong.

A good example of this is the battle, joined in the US at present, between educators and proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID). As many readers will know, ID is what creationists like to use to describe their beliefs when they wish to avoid offending the constitutional separation between church and state. This pesky stipulation gets in the way of teaching biblical creation in schools. Of course no such shackles limit evolution, which can be taught as science.

And how this offends the creationists! They have wheedled and lobbied and cajoled and prayed and recently they even got an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, the paper of record. It’s by Michael Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box, and it is a fine example of its type. In particular it repeats the IDites favourite line of attack. ‘Darwinian evolution is a theory, and a theory must be tested by what it can explain. Darwinism cannot explain the amazing complexity of life on Earth; therefore we have to accept an intelligent designer.’ Our insistence, as biologists, on continuing to cleave to Darwinism despite everything, is unscientific. Of course, it is a small step from this to teaching ID in schools as ‘science’.

Every working biologist (OK, not every, but much more than 99%) knows that Darwinian evolution is the only game in town. As another commentator has pointed out, calling biologists ‘Darwinists’ is like calling physicists ‘Newtonians’. But I am not sure that wearily repeating this in the face of the onslaught is the best way to win the argument or, more importantly, to explain why ID is nonsense. In debates across the US, apparently educated people make statements which are transparently ignorant of biology. Obviously science education at present is not working. These people often say that they only have the scientists’ word for it, so why should they believe it? They are in fact, sceptics about science.

Carl Sagan put his finger on this on a wonderful book (Demon-Haunted World) with the subtitle ‘Science as a Candle in the Dark’. For such a flame to be kept alight we have to teach science as a way of finding things out, rather than a list of facts. Scepticism itself is valuable, but with no way to discriminate between different explanations, it is merely confusing.

As research for this article, I visited the Access Research Network website, It’s an ID discussion forum. I have to admit I was impressed. The bias of the site is obvious from the front page which offers for sale, among other things, a book called From Darwin to Hitler. But delving deeper, some of the commentary is relatively thoughtful, and the website clearly wants to debate rather than harangue. Notably, the policy for posting on the discussion boards contains the words ‘We want to assume the best about people who disagree with us’. I think this is admirable, and therefore I will say that I think IDites are sadly ignorant, misled seekers of spiritual succour, rather than just a bunch of spiritual suckers.

Anyway, on the talkboards I encountered a discussion in which one participant claimed that "it is not rational to expect the truth from evolutionist (sic), as almost every claim they have ever made has been proven fraudulent", to which another responded "By ‘almost every’ I guess you mean over 90%, so that would mean for every claim I find that is not fraudulent, you can find 9 that were deliberate attempts to mislead the public or other scientists. Are you really up for that challenge?" You see? I told you that the Access Research Network attracts a better class of person.

I reckon that this is a good point. Why run scared from the IDites? It’s not as if they have a case. Instead, teach how to think scientifically by demolishing the vacuous house of cards which is ID. Start with what a theory is, and how you test it by falsification. Then talk about Darwin, follow up with DNA and finish up asking what sort of intelligent designer would come up with the recurrent laryngeal nerve (which, as Jim Holt recently pointed out in the New York Times magazine, is so poorly laid out that in a giraffe, a twenty-foot length of nerve is required where only one foot would do had the connection been planned by a "competent engineer"). Then point out that any hypothesis resorting to intelligent design is intellectually equivalent to saying that we were created thirty seconds ago by persons unknown (it could be God, aliens or Simon Cowell from Pop Idol) and we would have no way of knowing (although I have my suspicions about the Cowell bloke). This is impossible to disprove, but does anyone think it is a sensible way to look at the world?

If you like, you can then offer the olive branch that, even though some people think natural selection is incompatible with a God of any kind, natural selection itself is mute on this point. That is a human conclusion.

Time to stand up for Darwin. Bring ‘em on. They’ll be campaigning to take ID out of the classroom again before we know it.