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At Risk: Intellectual Freedom and Objective Science Education - August 2, 2002

A Response by a School Board Member to Eugenie Scott

The following article was written by Franklin, Wisconson Board of Education member Nancy Thompson in response to "Guest Viewpoint: 'Intelligent design' not accepted by most scientists" by NCSE directors Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch.

At Risk: Objective Science Education
"The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society. "

Congress adopted this statement, supporting an even-handed approach to science education, as part of the Conference Report of the No Child Left Behind Act. Federal education policy clearly favors teaching the scientific controversy regarding biological evolution. Senator Rick Santorum, who originally proposed the amendment, cited a recent Zogby poll that showed "Americans overwhelmingly desire to have students learn the scientific arguments against, as well as for, Darwin's theory." He concluded, "The goal is academic excellence, not dogmatism."

This objective approach is being considered in Ohio, as the science standards subcommittee discusses a proposal that requires students to learn both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution. The proposal would also allow, but not require, the teaching of scientific evidence for the theory of intelligent design (ID).

Unfortunately, Darwin-only advocacy groups are firm in their attempt to discredit scientific evidence that may question some of the basic tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Eugenie Scott, executive director of one such group, the National Center for Science Education, was the lead author for a "Guest Viewpoint" in the July 2nd issue of School Board News. Her apparent objective was to convince school board members that it would make good policy to censor evidence that supports ID because it isnít genuine science. However, censorship of legitimate scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution is a threat to objective science education in our public schools. The question then becomes, is intelligent design a legitimate scientific theory? The following are four important clarifications regarding intelligent design:

Intelligent Design is not stealth creationism: Contrary to Ms. Scottís portrayal of ID as a new way to get the book of Genesis into the public schools, ID makes no claim about a young earth, a world-wide flood or any other religious text or account about the origin of life. Intelligent Design simply states that undirected, natural causes are not sufficient, and intelligent causes are necessary, to explain the complex, information-rich structures of living systems. In addition, these intelligent causes are detectable using scientific methods and observation. Although any theory of origins has religious implications (including Darwinian evolution), ID is based on following the evidence wherever it may lead - not on a predetermined religious doctrine.

Intelligent Design is science: There are entire fields of science that are based on the ability to detect intelligent causes (design). Forensic science uses evidence to infer whether the hole in someoneís head was by design (murder) or was from a natural cause. Archeologists use specific criteria to separate the design of an arrowhead from the blind, natural forces that produce a chunk of rock. These and countless other applications illustrate that inferring design is a common and accepted human activity, based on information and logic. Why is there such controversy when these accepted design principles are applied to origins science?

At the heart of the controversy is the idea that science must incorporate the philosophy of naturalism. This "rule" of requiring naturalistic explanations means that a philosophy is driving our conclusions rather than the evidence. Of course Ms. Scott can define science any way that she likes, but she cannot, at the same time, guarantee that the truth will lie within that subjective definition. Michael Behe, biochemist and author of "Darwinís Black Box" raises concern about using naturalism as a prerequisite for doing science: "Science is not a game in which arbitrary rules are used to decide what explanations are to be permitted. Rather, it is an effort to make true statements about physical reality".

So you see, if the "rule" of naturalism is used to play the game of "Where Did I Come From?" the winner of the game will always be the team who has the best naturalistic explanation. Notice that this isnít necessarily the team with the true explanation because some of the players didnít accept the "rule" and were disqualified from participating in the game. The value of competing scientific theories should be decided on the basis of empirical evidence, not on abstract philosophical rules.

Intelligent Design is not an "argument from ignorance": Darwin-only advocates often use the "God-of-the-gaps" argument to trivialize design theory. They argue that design theorists introduce a divine being to explain what currently has no naturalistic explanation. This is a misleading characterization, as Michael Behe points out: "It is important to realize that we are not inferring design from what we do not know, but from what we do know. We are not inferring design to account for a black box, but to account for an open box". That is, design is inferred not because we know almost nothing about the structure, for example, of the cell (as was the case in Darwinís time), but because modern science has opened the "black box" of the cell and we see an incredibly complex biochemical machine inside. We know from experience that intelligence is required to arrange information in a specifically complex manner (such as a roadmap), which makes this "specified irreducible complexity" found in the cell an unmistakable characteristic testifying to its design. ID is clearly an argument from the evidence rather than an "argument from ignorance."

Teaching the evidence for design in public schools is constitutional and supported by Congress: Ms. Scott leaves us with the threat of legal action: "Introducing ID into the curriculum is likely to lead to strong opposition - up to and including lawsuits." Where do the courts stand? The Supreme Court has explicitly stated that it is lawful for teachers and school boards to expose students to the scientific problems with current Darwinian theory as well as to any scientific alternatives. In "Teaching Origins Science in Public Schools", John Calvert argues that not only is it legal to teach about the evidence for design, but that to censor this evidence so as to permit only naturalistic explanations of origins in the public school classroom, would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. For a further discussion of the legal issues surrounding ID, see the Utah Law Review article by David DeWolf et al.

So what is the best path for a school board to take? Letís practice what Charles Darwin advocated in The Origin Of Species: "A fair result can only be obtained by balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question." Teach the controversy. Teach more science, not less. Teach origins science objectively and without religious, philosophic or naturalistic bias. Follow Congressí recent legislation and "help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist".

Note: Ms. Scott makes several other points and I will simply direct you to other sources so that you can draw your own conclusions: To read a critique of her "Viewpoint" by William Dembski, author of The Design Inference, go to http://www.designinference.com/documents/2002.07.Scott_and_Branch.htm. Before you decide that Jonathon Wellsí book Icons of Evolution really is "dishonest and devoid of any scientific or educational value", read his response to critics. To familiarize yourself with the situation in Ohio, go to http://arn.org/ohiostandards.htm and http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org/ohioboardtalk.htm.