Saturday, May 07, 2005

Talking with Intelligent Designers

Last month the American Association for the Advancement of Science declined to meet in hearings with the predominantly conservative Kansas Board of Education that were to take place this week. The topic? Inclusion of "Intelligent Design" as an alternative explanation to the theory of evolution in Kansas science curricula.

Intelligent design (ID) is the idea that one can infer from the complexity of the universe the existance of an intelligent designer. It's the old 'watch on the beach' theory: if you find a watch on the beach, you don't assume that the quartz and metal all just fell together like that.

The there are several relevant issues where ID meets education. One is that the theory of evolution allows us to understand phenomena (the mutation of HIV viruses in a single patient, the breeding of dogs, the ecology of a forest) that we can manipulate. In short, understanding evolution provides a useful tool, whether you agree with it or not, while understanding ID is not useful whether it is true or not. Granted, these statements are grounded in secular values, but if public schools are to have a primary purpose of teaching useful knowledge so that cultural values can be taught mainly at home and in church, that is how curricula should be judged.

Another way of stating the problem with ID in schools is that it represents only half of the scientific process. In science we make observations, induce principles from them (laws or theories), then test those theories by making controlled observations. ID represents an induction without any possible deductions. That doesn't make ID untrue, but it makes it an argument for philosophy or theology rather than science. Finally, it's not correct to present ID as an alternative to evolution, since they can be simultaneously true--evolution itself could feasibly be a product of intelligent design.

But now that I've gotten my own position into the open, let me make my main point: I am deeply disappointed in the AAAS for declining the Kansas Board of Education's invitation.

The cultural divide between secularists and evangelicals is deep, and it is fueled not only by prejudice and misunderstanding but by dismissal of other viewpoints as irrelevant. That sort of disengagement can only serve to highten polarization on this and other issues. Political polarization is not bad in and of itself; if the factions compete for adherents through rhetoric (in the Trivium sense), wise policies may result. But if they compete mainly through hyperbole and insinuation, disorder will result.

A wise man once said that the most important question in the English language is "That's interesting, why do you think that?" If AAAS had attended these hearings, the Kansas Board may have changed course, or it may have proceeded having seen people with a secularist viewpoint as wrong yet reasonable. Either way, I suspect that a policy of dialogue would have been more productive over the long run.

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