Sunday, September 25, 2005

Editorial: The false choices of intelligent design

The false choices of intelligent design:
Proponents of intelligent design have suggested that its exclusion from classrooms is simply another assault on victimized Christians. This is an excellent example of the intelligent design strategy: Use false dichotomies and misinformation to obscure the real issue. Whether it should be taught in public school science curricula should not be about politics or religion. The real issue is this: Is intelligent design a legitimate scientific theory?

The answer is “no.” Scientific theories are explanatory models of how the physical universe works, validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment.

Scientific experiments can only test natural phenomena. Gods, demons, fairies and other supernatural agents may exist, but they can neither be proven nor disproven by experiment. The premise of intelligent design is that there are natural phenomena that are too complex to explain as a consequence of natural processes. Therefore, a supernatural designer must be invoked to explain these phenomena. True or not, this is not a testable scientific concept, and so deserves no consideration in science class.


So proponents of intelligent design resort to the following tactics to obscure the real issue:

They frame the issue as a choice between “Darwinism” or Design. They suggest that by disproving Darwinism, design must be accepted as scientifically true. Then, they denounce evolution as a “theory in crisis.”

This argument is a false dichotomy. Even if evolution were disproven by experiment, (find a human fossil in Cambrian rock and you’ve done it), this would not mean that intelligent design was therefore true, or science. If science disproves evolution, then science must search for another natural explanation for the formation of species. That’s all science can do — it is limited to proposing, testing and describing natural causality.

Falsifying one natural explanation does not require science to accept a supernatural explanation — it requires science to consider a different natural hypothesis. In addition, the idea that evolution is a theory in crisis is false. The 400 scientists supporting intelligent design represent less than 0.1 percent of the more than 500,000 scientists in the country. Every legitimate scientific organization has repudiated intelligent design as science.

There is no debate within the scientific community; that’s why intelligent design proponents seek to legislate their truth in the political arena.

They frame the issue as a choice between godless, “random” evolution and purposeful creation by God.

This misrepresents evolution and the relationship between science and religion. Evolution can occur randomly (genetic drift), but it can also proceed by the non-random process of natural selection. Also, like all scientific theories, evolution is not atheistic; it neither affirms nor denies the existence of God.

So, again, this argument is a false dichotomy. Couldn’t God make a new species through the natural process of evolution? (Well, of course She could.) In fact, many of the 500,000 scientists who accept evolution today are believers. Intelligent design proponents frame this false dichotomy so they can claim that science and evolution oppose religion.

They confuse evolutionary theory with origin-of-life hypotheses. They claim that “evolution can’t explain how life arose, so this theory is based on faith.”

Evolution explains how species change over time and produce new species. The origin of life is a different question, and scientific explanations for how life first arose are unanswered hypotheses at this point. However, intelligent design proponents purposefully sow this confusion to achieve their real aim — feed the perception that evolution is a weak theory.

Science has not described how life arose on this planet. However, science and intelligent design address this unknown in dramatically different ways. Science addresses the unknown by making new predictions and conducting new experiments. Scientists will only reach an explanatory conclusion when they understand how something works.

Intelligent design takes the opposite approach. When confronted by an unknown or an apparent contradiction, intelligent design reaches for the most extreme conclusion possible: “I can’t explain this now — therefore it must be caused by an unknown designer using unknown powers.” They reach an explanatory conclusion precisely when they do not understand something.

There are two paths we can take when we are confronted by the unknown. We can throw up our hands and claim that we will never know, and attribute these phenomena to aliens, gods or other unspecified “intelligent designers.” Or we can test physical hypotheses by experiment. Only this latter process is called science.

Dr. Worthen is a professor of biology at Furman University.


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