Intelligent Design Marches North
by Allen B. Downey
Every few months I see a news story about another school board that has added Intelligent Design to the high school curriculum. A few years ago, these stories were limited to states in the Deep South, like Kansas, but lately I have been hearing from states in the Near South, like Pennsylvania. Like killer bees, the frontier of Intelligent Design is creeping north a few hundred miles per year.
A lot of scientists, and other Yankees, think this is a disaster for education in America -- yet another step backward as the rest of the world overtakes us in math and science. I think they're wrong. I think Intelligent Design is the best thing to happen to high school education since corporal punishment (later abolished by some of the same groups that are fighting Intelligent Design).
Adding Intelligent Design to a high school Biology class has one drawback and several advantages. The drawback is that the class spends time studying an idea that is useless as a scientific explanation of the world. But the advantages show that this is time well spent.
The first advantage is that teachers will be forced to explain, and students might come to understand, what science is. Most high school science classes spend too much time on the products of science -- a litany of so-called facts -- and not enough time on the process -- the mechanisms that create knowledge and the idea that we are usually better off believing things that are true.
If students' experience in "science class" is reading a big book and believing what it says because the authority figure at the front of the room says so, it shouldn't be surprising if they think science is just another religion. In that format, it is.
In my dream curriculum, Biology students will start the semester with a viewing of Simpsons episode BABF01, "Treehouse Of Horror X," in which Lucy Lawless (as herself) appears at a comic book convention. A recurring character, Professor Frink, asks a question about Lawless's show, Xena:
Frink: Yes, over here, m-hay, m-haven... in episode BF12, you were battling Barbarians while riding a winged Appaloosa, yet in the very next scene, my dear, you're clearly atop a winged Arabian! Please do explain it!
Lucy Lawless: Uh, yeah, well, whenever you notice something like that...a wizard did it!
Frink: Yes, alright, yes, in episode AG04...
Lucy Lawless: Wizard!
Frink: Oh for glaven out loud...
In the fictional universe of "Xena, Warrior Princess," the demonstrable existence of wizards makes it conveniently easy to explain any kind of anomaly. But as Professor Frink would point out, this kind of theory is not only frustrating but useless, because it provides no predictive power.
Actually, it's not completely useless. If we know the wizards, the limitations of their powers, and their motivations, we might be able to predict their actions and behave accordingly. So the only way to make the Wizard Hypothesis more useless is to postulate a wizard that is omniscient, omnipotent, and whose will is unknowable. And, to make it worse, there should be no good evidence that the wizard exists.
And that brings us back to Intelligent Design (which friends like me call "ID" for short). The problem with ID is not that it's false. The problem is that by the criteria used to evaluate scientific hypotheses it is, roughly, pessimal. To understand that claim, you have to know something about the criteria; in other words, you have to study the philosophy of science. Intimate familiarity with the Krebs cycle wouldn't help, and science education that consists of dogmatic instruction and rote memorization would probably hurt.
So if the ID movement forces high schools to include philosophy of science in the curriculum, I think it will be a net win for rational thought.
The other advantage of ID in high school is that it helps prepare students for college. Here's how it works...as more junk gets packed into the high school curriculum, and as it becomes more and more obvious that the curriculum is a hodgepodge of concessions to assorted pressure groups (at both ends of the political spectrum), students are more likely to notice that they are being lied to, or at least manipulated. And that's the first step of a process that goes something like this:
I think that the most important goal of a college education is to get students to Step 5 before they graduate. People start at different times and progress at different speeds, but many people take more than four years to get there, so the sooner they get started, the better. If students coming to college have been pre-lied-to, they are off to a good start.
For the same reason, I am in favor of warning stickers on books that teach evolution. In fact, I want to put a warning sticker on all science books. Here's what it should say:
The information in this book represents our best scientific understanding of the world at the time of publication, and is subject to revision as more evidence and alternative theories become available. To varying degrees, the facts and theories presented here have been evaluated and endorsed by the scientific community, using empirical evidence that is available to the public to the extent that is practical. In some cases, a theory that has withstood testing and produced useful and accurate predictions comes to be regarded as fact. Nevertheless, all scientific ideas are subject to scrutiny and possible improvement; the diligent reader is encouraged to consider other explanations that either explain the available data better or make more useful or accurate predictions.
Scientists who stamp their feet and insist that evolution is a fact do more harm than good because, if pressed, they have to admit that all knowledge is uncertain. The suite of theories called "evolution" is the best explanation (by far) of the history of life on earth, but it is not a fact in the way many people interpret that word. Debating the difference between "fact" and "theory" is meaningless, and it tempts too many scientists to dig into a position they can't defend.
On the other side, the people supporting ID in the high schools are probably not acting in their own interest, at least in the long run. If they succeed, and if high schools respond by changing the way they teach science, the next generation of students will understand, better than the current generation, why ID is bad science and only moderately clever philosophy. Exposed to the scrutiny of a scientifically-literate audience, ID will be driven back to the wilderness of bad ideas (which is near Worcester, I think).