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The descent of Kansas

By John W. Nelson
web posted June 6, 2005 

Shortly before his death three years ago, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould had agreed to co-author an open letter to the New York Review of Books with his more disputatious colleague, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. The subject of the letter was to be the reason why both men refused to engage in public debates with creationists of any stripe. Their concern of course wasn't who would best the other in such a contest. For these Darwinian heavyweights (to extend Dawkins' own characterization of Gould), the foremost consideration was to deny creationists "the recognition of being allowed to share a platform with a real scientist in the first place" so as not to "suggest to innocent bystanders that there must be material here that is genuinely worth debating on something like equal terms."

To the casual observer, this may sound like any other skirmish in the familiar turf war between science and religion – a war which Dawkins has waged with equal amounts of vigor and relish. But the enlistment of Gould, a scientist who saw no conflict between his own field and the arena of religion, reveals that the motivation behind this joint effort was less about delineating the boundaries of science and religion and more about preserving the integrity of science itself.

Though bursting with scientific pretensions, the vanguard of the creationist movement, "intelligent design theory" (ID), presents nothing subject to empirical verification beyond its own adeptness at pouring old Palean wine into flimsy new skins. Why shore up the feeble defenses of pseudoscience by indirectly lending the patina of intellectual credibility to its practitioners?

Such considerations were no doubt behind the decision of scientists to boycott the Kansas Board of Education hearings convened last month to reevaluate the state's science standards and decide how the theory of evolution should be taught in public schools. In a farcical tribute to the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial, a subcommittee of the board listened to proponents of ID provide scripted answers to questions posed by John Calvert, a retired lawyer and operator of the Intelligent Design Network, who presented the creationists' objections to evolution.

Reporting for Baltimore's Evening Sun eighty years ago, H. L. Mencken could temper his derision long enough to praise the "gorgeous oratory" in that Dayton, Tennessee courtroom. Today in Topeka, rhetorical flair has given way to prosaic expressions of personal incredulity ornamented with the shop-worn slogans of ID like "irreducible complexity" and "Darwinian materialism" (read: atheism).

And just in case the expectations of the scientific community weren't low enough to begin with, the testimony of ID's representatives came replete with cultural admonishments as well. In what amounted to more of an unwitting indictment than a perceptive answer to the still-burning question (in some quarters anyway) "Why do they hate us?," Turkish newspaper columnist Mustafa Akyol assured the board members that the naturalistic bias in Kansas' science standards is "one of the major sources of widespread distrust of the West among pious Muslims" and "one of the factors that create a breeding ground for radical Islam."

Amusing as it is to imagine Osama bin Laden insisting in the same breath on the restoration of the Caliphate and mandated disclaimer stickers on high-school science textbooks in the U.S. , it's no less risible to hear a supposed advocate for scientific objectivity expressing consternation over a naturalistic approach in the natural sciences.

The refusal of scientists to appear before the Board of Education and stand shoulder to shoulder with creationists did not mean, however, that their voices went unheard. In addition to the aggressive advocacy of Pedro Irigonegaray, the lawyer who ( à la Darrow) defended evolution before the board without any witnesses on his behalf, a number of scientists from local universities spoke out at news conferences held at the end of each day's testimony – much to the dismay of board member Connie Morris, who declared her profound disappointment at their decision to "present their case in the shadows."

But if those committed to the scientific method and honest inquiry were looking for another reason to avoid a formal association with the hearings, they need only have noted the presumptions of board member Kathy Martin, who unabashedly stated before the hearings began that not only is ID "science-based and strong in facts," but evolution itself "has been proven false." Indeed? Talk about events transpiring in the shadows!

Adding insult to injury, it emerged during the hearings that some of the proponents of ID testifying before the board hadn't even read the very science standards that they were seeking to change, calling to mind the self-disparaging condemnation leveled by the 17th-century Sorbonne priest Antoine Arnauld against the arch-enemy of teleological thinking: "I have not read Spinoza's books at all. But I know they are very nasty books."

Messr Arnauld would certainly have found a spiritual confrere in Mme Martin, who tried to reassure the negligent witnesses by admitting that she hadn't read the standards in their entirety herself. (After the hearings, Martin clarified her remarks with an alchemist's touch by explaining that what she had meant to say was that she hadn't read the second draft of the science standards that had been presented to the board because she had already read the first draft.)

The hearings ended on a note as phantastic as that on which they began: not content with just changing the state's science standards, the board decided to consider changing the definition of science itself. Rather than restricting science to natural explanations of the physical world, board members will decide by August whether to adopt the suggestion of intelligent design theorists to define science more generally as "a systematic method of continuing investigation." The vagueness of such a description opens the door to theistic, i.e., supernatural, explanations of the natural world which form the foundation of ID. Despite protestations to the contrary and the affectation of disinterested inquiry, intelligent design theorists presume the designer; instead of offering a more parsimonious theory than the standard Darwinian model of evolution by natural selection, ID offers unverifiable arguments for a conclusion known in advance. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell: That's not science, but special pleading.

The effectiveness of public hearings like that in Kansas – and those that have been proposed in twenty other states – remains to be seen. Even some intelligent design theorists such as Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (an ID research center whose website bears the motto "Following the evidence where it leads"), thinks the controversy will ultimately be settled outside of courtrooms and high-school auditoriums. "I think it will be resolved in the scientific community, " said Wells. "I think (intelligent design), in 10 years, will be a very respectable science program."

Only if you change the definition of science. Oh, right.

John W. Nelson can be reached at jwnelson2@hotmail.com.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Evolution vs. Creationism by Steve Farrell (January 31, 2005)
    The two sides are gearing up for another fight, writes Steve Farrell, and you shouldn't be quick to declare a certain victory for those promoting evolution as the only educational path


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