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Intelligent design is back again

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted October 3, 2005

As reported in the CBC News Website, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania is effectively using intelligent design to ram home a point about the theory of evolution by means of natural selection: Darwin and his successors' model of the morphology of life forms is not a fact, it is a theory, by which facts are explained, predicted and (at least possibly) missed or misinterpreted.

Rather than being the thin edge of the creationist wedge, this use of ID sounds more like an introduction of a New-Math-style pedagogy into the study of biology at the high school level.

Perhaps the reason why the oppositionalists to ID are so up in arms is that the introduction of a more evaluative mindset with respect to Darwin's theory brings up the possibility that creationism will follow in its wake. There is certainly nothing on the surface which indicates any stealthy creep towards a theistic pedagogy.

Imagine seeing or hearing this when in a high-school physics class:

"[The standards set by the school board] require students to learn about [Newtonian physics] and eventually to take a standardized test of which [physics at this level] is a part.

"Because [Newton's] theory is a theory, it [has been] tested as new evidence [has been] discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is [contrary] evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

"[More advanced physics has] an explanation of the [workings of the universe] that differs from [Newton]'s view. The reference book, [{any popular book explaining relativity and/or quantum mechanics will fit here}] is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what [post-Newtonian physics] actually involves.

"With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of [physics beyond what's in the syllabus] to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments."

Does this strike you as the kind of notification which would confuse students in the class now, or would it aid in eliminating later confusion in university? Would it spread confusion into the popular culture through the vector of students who never learned advanced physics in university?

In the case of Einstein's Theories of Relativity, it wouldn't; both are too well-known in the general public. In the case of Quantum Mechanics, though, it might, believe it or not.

I have entered into a debate with a person who seriously believes that the fundamental observation of the quantization of the universe implies that a belief in thought transmission (telepathy) is common-sensical. Lest you think that this kind of metaphysical leap is confined to this belief, there are others who insist that time is quantized and that this opens up a theoretical possibility for time travel. All of the people who believe in these possibilities tend to have very high I.Q.s.

And yet, this does not seem to place a serious barrier between the efficacy of such a notice in relation to QM and high-school students. Beliefs of this sort are considered harmless - unlike the belief in creationism, or a theistic variant of Intelligent Design. The above caution is a paraphrase of the one used by the Dover Area School District, with Newtonian physics substituted for the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. (The original text can be found at the bottom of this story)

Why? Part of the answer is, undoubtedly, the embarrassment suffered by American scientists back in the days when some states could (and did) either forbid the teaching of Darwin's theory entirely or mandate the inculcation of skepticism towards it. What a policy for the European to crow over, and to serve as the base for an assertion of ineradicable American mediocrity! What a comedown!

It was, I am sure, even worse in countries where aristocracy still existed. "'The Republic has no need of scientists' indeed, hm-hm?" What an embarrassment.

There is another reason behind the Darwinists' fear of Bible-wielding mobs, which is the aftereffect of previous political campaigns: the initial clampdown on evolution was part and parcel of a Christianization of politics back in the nineteenth century. Starting in the 1830s, the dictum that the United States was intended to be a believers' republic was taken very seriously indeed, and showed up in politics on a recurring basis. Control of pedagogy was only one element of the entire package, which also included: control of immigration; illegalization of alcohol (and some forays made against cigarettes); a statutory clampdown on illicit mind-altering drugs which is still with us today; many and varied blue laws; and even attempted shutdowns of parochial Roman Catholic schools in at least one state.

Those of you who are eager to lump in the Ku Klux Klan with "the right" should be well aware that William F. Buckley, Jr., as he is, is a member of one of their prohibited groups. Yes, the KKK is explicitly anti-Roman Catholic; one of its last successful overt political actions, in the State of Oregon in 1922, resulted in a state bill, aimed at Roman Catholic schools, which mandated all students to go to a public school, which was later struck down in federal court. [You may be interested to know that the Governor of Oregon issued a proclamation clamping down on the KKK that same year, in language which, except for a certain anachronicity in the style, looks current.] Given this, the lumping-together of two antagonistic groups as ‘really' being under the same colors can justly be described as...crudity.

What exists of the believer faction nowadays is much more tame than it was. A lot of the outcries against the Moral Majority and its likesake had as their basis little more than memories of the nineteenth century's much more aggressive variant. Details on what it was like can be found here.

If you see the battle against aggressive religionists simply as a fight against overweening religiosity, then you will suspect that the introduction of ID into the high-school classroom is the thin edge of a Methodist/Baptist wedge and be satisfied with such a characterization of it. If, however, you see that old battle as a fight against a continually erupting self-righteousness which coalesces into factions and leaves in its wake absurd laws, then you should ask yourself if the current outcry against Intelligent Design is becoming similar to the fighting and re-fighting of a culture war which ended almost a century ago.

Other criticisms of Intelligent Design can be come up with, such as: "Unlike doing this with Newton, there's no Einstein to straighten the kids out when they hit university; they're left with nothing which would make their curiosity go away. Do you really want a bunch of kids to graduate with ‘wide-open' minds? Haven't you people heard that New Math sort-of failed in its goals? If you have, and if you agree that the reason why was its introduction of concepts which were beyond their age to schoolkids, don't you think that there's a risk of Intelligent Design being precisely the same thing? I'm as much a booster of
American scholarship as anyone, but..."

Daniel Ryan can be reached at danielmacryan@yahoo.com. (c) 2005 Daniel Ryan

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