What Do You Know?

The quarrel over intelligent design is about this: whether we should discount the scientific method on which modern society rests.

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 3:00 AM EDT
The conflict over the role of divine creation (creationism, or, in its new clothes, intelligent design) in school curricula reveals a fundamental failure of American education. The issue is not simply one of science curriculum; it is about how we know anything.

Today's world is built on a foundation of scientific exploration. Our wealth, our health, and much of our work and our leisure are based on advances in technology, which in turn result from the practice of the scientific method.

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The scientific method is not democratic, based on majority consensus, nor is it based on peer review by fellow scientists. In science, the validity of an idea or hypothesis is not determined thorough an election, or by polling the peers of the scientist who made the particular claim; those methods are best reserved for answering questions such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Scientific method is based on the comparison of predictions to data. It is fundamentally skeptical of any claim until the implications of that claim have been borne out by observed phenomena.

When Einstein first advanced his theory of relativity in 1905, he announced that his own commitment to those ideas would depend on three sets of observations that he predicted based on his theory. For the next fourteen years, the ideas were hotly debated, but only when the solar eclipse of 1919 provided an opportunity to confirm two of Einstein's predictions did his ideas take deeper hold. (His third prediction was confirmed in 1923.)

Plenty of scientific ideas have been greeted by ridicule from the claimants' peers, only later to be widely adopted after data have accumulated consistent with those ideas. For example, in the past half-century, the theory of continental drift and the theory that birds are descendants of dinosaurs both have gained support as data have confirmed their detailed predictions.

So what about intelligent design, the idea that God created everything as it is? How does that stack up to the theory of evolution? The first observation one might make is that God could just as well have designed dynamic processes as a fixed set of creatures. God could have created evolution, as He presumably created a weather system that produces ice ages and tropical interludes. But creationists are hostile to evolution, and do not discuss whether or not evolution itself could have been created by God.

Very well, what data can we look at to compare the ideas of evolution and intelligent design? Here is a smattering of the evidence:

    1. The world is remarkably complex and harmonious, with humans the most self-aware creatures.
    2. The fossil record suggests that over the eons, various creatures have existed that today are not present.
    3. The development of drug-resistant strains of pathogens as well as new viruses and plagues suggests that new creatures are arising all the time.
    4. Similarly, changes in larger species (such as darkening of some moths' coloring in England during the industrial revolution) suggest that existing creatures are changing over time.
    5. As Darwin predicted, and subsequent observation has confirmed, there are nocturnal creatures (moths) that are counterparts to diurnal creatures (hummingbirds), feeding similarly.
    6. Human selection has managed to create hundreds of varieties of domesticated animals and plants that are profoundly different from their wild ancestors, and this in a time frame one millionth or less of the time that natural selection is theorized to take.
    7. The bible tells us how the world was created.

The first of these phenomena is consistent both with the theory of evolution and intelligent design. For many people, it is hard to believe that the richness and complexity of the natural world and human intelligence could have arisen from an unguided process of natural selection, so, for them, divine creation is certainly a plausible explanation for the complexity of the world.

The trouble begins when we introduce observations 2 through 6, all of which deal with the overwhelming evidence that the set of living things is continually in flux. How does creationism explain the change in the mix of living things, as well as the fact that there is no evidence of creatures on land, to say nothing of evidence of modern man, for billions of years of the earth's history?

Which brings us to the last "phenomenon," the teachings of the bible. This evidence is inherently unscientific in that it has nothing to do with phenomena. There are no data or empirical observations that could in principle come into conflict with the claim of biblical truth.

And this is the scary part of the evolution-creationism debate. It is not about a particular set of ideas, with each one being tested for validity; it is about whether we should discount the scientific method on which modern society rests. It is about whether we should abandon skepticism, use of evidence, and the willingness to modify one's ideas in light of evidence.

It seems that our education system has produced a citizenry that would be as comfortable if their children debated how many angels could dance on the head of pin in science class rather than whether continental drift is a plausible theory.

The foundation of modern civilization in the United States appears to under attack, with a majority out of touch not simply with contemporary science but with the method of knowing that undergirds science. If a social earthquake were to knock down the intellectual peaks from which the advances that propel our civilization originate, would the remaining society, including the political establishment, regress to the pre-scientific era, where belief is based on stacks of words, unchecked against phenomena?

Originally published by The Century Foundation at www.tcf.org.

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