23 August 2005

Intelligent Design

The New York Times recently featured a beefy two-part article about the debate between scientists and proponents of "intelligent design". The spooky thing about this most recent attempt to insert religion into science is the way they paint their perspective as a scientific alternative. By publishing popular books and an occasional paper in a scientific journal (the reviewers must've been asleep at the wheel) they have created the illusion that there is actual scientific debate concerning the validity of the theory of evolution.

The proponents of intelligent design try to fool the public into believing that this is a scientific debate by presenting a series of scientific-sounding arguments against evolution. All of their points are straw men couched in mixed metaphors, but they seem convincing to non-scientists. This mendacity is illustrated by their use of the term "neo-Darwinists" to describe their opponents (who comprise essentially all of mainstream biology), as if Darwinism is a cast-off relic of an earlier time recently resurrected by crop of crazed atheists.

These quacks become insidious when they try to push their agenda on the American education system. They encourage school systems to "teach the controversy" and let students make up their own minds. This position is dangerously agreeable to lots of American parents: It has a certain free-speech air of reasonable discourse about it, which makes it seem very American; furthermore most Americans do believe in God so they're relieved to have some compromise which apparently reconciles science and religion.

If this attitude becomes widespread it represents a deadly threat to science education. The academic window-dressing of intelligent design is immediately transparent to a scientist, but not so to a 7th grader curious about biology. Presenting intelligent design as a scientifically viable alternative to evolution is a criminal deception of the young. This is made worse by the fact that many scientists dismiss intelligent design in crass terms that offend faithful people who don't really care that much about evolution anyway. Discussion of the nature of the Creator belongs in churches, mosques and synagogues, not in biology labs.

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