RNCSE 20 (4)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Articles available online are listed below.

Intelligent Design in Pratt County, Kansas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Intelligent Design in Pratt County, Kansas
Author(s): 
Molleen Matsumura
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
4
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Immediately after the Kansas State Board of Education's August 1999 adoption of science content standards that opened the door to teaching creationism (RNCSE 1999; 19 [3]: 6, 19 [4]: 7-9), speculation began about which local schools would walk through that doorway. Within a few weeks, NCSE heard that in Pratt County, Kansas, local activists were pressing for adoption of the "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People (RNCSE 1999; 19 [4]: 5). Parents in the district contacted NCSE, and, with help from NCSE staff and Kansas Citizens for Science, provided teachers and administrators with extensive information about the flaws of the book. Even though some local school board members were sympathetic to teaching "intelligent design", Pandas was not adopted. But Pratt County's creationists were undaunted.

When the effort to adopt Pandas in Pratt County failed, local school board members began discussing whether to add discussions of "ID theory" to draft curriculum guidelines developed by local teachers. Opinion on the board was divided, and months passed as the document circulated back and forth among a curriculum committee, the board, and high-school science teachers. At one point, the teachers, determined to teach good science, responded to the board's concerns by suggesting that students could write ungraded research papers expressing their opinions of evolution. However, observers of Pratt's school board meetings told NCSE that some members said that the State Board of Education had given them a mandate to teach "intelligent design". The Superintendent of Education was instructed to continue a "dialog" with teachers, and activists pressed the issue in the local newspaper (see "Misquoted Scientists Speak Out"; archived articles at http://www.pratttribune.com contain interesting reading, including many letters to the editor from other parts of the state).

On November 7, three new, pro-evolution candidates were elected to the state Board of Education, making the majority of the board pro-evolution; the new members promised that evolution would be restored to state science standards (Kansas City Star, November 14, 2000). With a disappearing "mandate", ID supporters were under increased pressure to act. On November 27, the Pratt County school board voted 4-2 (with one member absent) to adopt standards requiring students to "know ... [t]here are different scientific perspectives regarding the prevailing textbook evidence used to support the theory of evolution" (Pratt Tribune, November 28, 2000). As rewritten by the board, the curriculum called for using resources frequently recommended by "intelligent design" proponents in the classroom.

Observers told NCSE that local board members who opposed the changes asked whether advice had been sought from the school district's attorney and the state regents (who administer statewide assessments), and were told that no such action had been taken. After the vote, board president Bruce Pinkall told the Kansas City Star, "I'm more concerned with the effect on the staff and the perception of their work and the lack of support from the board for their work."

District parents have contacted the Kansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union to explore the possibility of suing the district. Others have told NCSE that they hope to change the composition of the board in spring 2001, and then bring the district curriculum into harmony with revised state science standards. NCSE will keep its members informed of new developments.

[NCSE thanks Brad Williamson and Liz Craig for information used in this article.]

Baylor's Polanyi Center in Turmoil

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Baylor's Polanyi Center in Turmoil
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
9–11
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Baylor University's Michael Polanyi Center has been stripped of its name and subjected to intensive reorganization, after a lengthy debate over the existence of the "intelligent design" think tank on the Baptist school's campus.

The controversy began during the spring of 2000 when faculty members expressed their displeasure at the establishment of the Michael Polanyi Center (MPC) without faculty input (see RNCSE 20 [1-2]: 15-16). Particularly displeased were members of the science faculty, who considered the "intelligent design" (ID) focus of the center to be a thinly-veiled form of creation science. Because of faculty criticism, Baylor's President Robert B Sloan Jr agreed to appoint an outside investigating committee.

Committee members visited the campus and interviewed representatives of all sides on September 9 and 10, 2000, and the chair of the committee issued a report on October 17. Written in conciliatory language, the report nonetheless was decidedly lukewarm about the MPC. Although ID claims scientific standing, the committee's report placed the MPC's appropriate mission squarely within the realm of the philosophy of science, as considering "the relationship between the sciences and religion". The committee clearly stated that the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning (IFL), the institute in which the MPC was housed, should take the university's lead when it came to science and religion issues, and encouraged a broader range of scholarship in this area beyond just ID.
[Science and religion scholarship] ... can best be fostered by the University's Institute for Faith and Learning where it seems to be naturally at home. In pursuing this mission, room should be made for a variety of approaches and topics. It would clearly be too restrictive on the part of the Institute to focus attention in this area on a single theme only, such as the design inference.
In its recommendations, the committee continued its lukewarm assessment of the MPC and ID theory. It recognized
... research on the logical structure of mathematical arguments for intelligent design to have a legitimate claim to a place in current discussions of the relations of religion and the sciences. Although this work, involving as it does technical issues in the theory of probability, is relatively recent in origin and has thus only just begun to receive response in professional journals (see, for example, the essay by Elliot Sober in Philosophy of Science 1999; 66: 472-88), the Institute should be free, if it chooses, to include in its coverage this line of work, when carried out professionally.
Because the cited article by Sober (and coauthors) is strongly critical of ID, and because the IFL (rather than the MPC) is called upon to include, "if it chooses", only ID research that is carried out professionally, the implication is clear that the committee did not have much confidence in the current scholarly status of ID theory.

The committee recommended that an advisory committee of Baylor faculty be formed "to assist in planning and reviewing the science and religion component of the Institute". It also called for dropping the name "Michael Polanyi", as the center named for him did not reflect the fact that Polanyi rejected the idea of an agent as creator.

So the Michael Polanyi Center was stripped of its name, placed squarely under the jurisdiction of a philosophy and religion administrative unit, subjected to a faculty advisory committee, and not very subtly put on notice that ID lacked status as a scholarly enterprise.

Nonetheless, on October 17, Director Dembski issued a stirring press release declaring victory for ID and the MPC. Although the Center was placed firmly under the aegis of the IFL, and it was the IFL that was encouraged to go beyond ID in its consideration of science and religion issues, Dembski's press release announced that the MPC had been given a broader mission. The stripping of the name "Polanyi" from the Center was spun as "the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision". The admonition of the Center to conduct ID research only "when carried out professionally" juxtaposed with the citation of an article harshly critical of Dembski was transformed into "the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry" and an "unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design."

Although many reading the committee's report and Dembski's press release might question whether Dembski "got it", apparently another sentence in the press release got him in trouble. Baylor critics of the MPC would have preferred a more strongly-worded committee report, but in general were satisfied with the results as a compromise between sides with strong disagreements. It appeared that perhaps peace could be restored after the committee's report had been issued. But in his press release, Dembski thumbed his nose at critics, shattering any possibility of effective interaction with a large percentage of the faculty. He gloated, "Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo."

Through newspaper accounts and personal communications, NCSE learned that members of the science faculty and the Baylor Faculty Senate expressed outrage to President Sloan over Dembski's uncollegial behavior, and on October 19, the Director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, Michael Beaty, announced that "Dembski's actions after the release of the report compromised his ability to serve as director" and relieved him of his position. Dembski's associate, Bruce Gordon, described as holding "a PhD in the history and philosophy of physics from Northwestern University, as well as degrees in mathematics, philosophy, theology and piano performance", was appointed as interim director, although he has stated that he does not wish to be the permanent director.

On the same day, Dembski followed up with another press release responding to his dismissal. He claimed that the administration had called him on the carpet, asking that he withdraw his inflammatory press release. Dembski refused on the grounds that he meant what he had said "and that for me to retract it would be tantamount to giving in to the censorship and vilification against me that had been a constant feature since I arrived on campus. I could not and would not betray all that I have worked for in my professional career."

The inflammatory press release became for Dembski a matter of principle, and he accused the administration of "intellectual McCarthyism," a statement that is not likely to mend fences. Ironically, it was President Sloan who had established the MPC, defended it against a faculty outraged at the cavalier way in which it had been established, and supported Dembski all along. Now Dembski was accusing Sloan of "the utmost of bad faith", as if Sloan intended from the beginning to sack him: Dembski claimed that his refusal to withdraw an inflammatory press release "provided the fig leaf of justification for my removal". At the time of this writing, there was no reply from Sloan.

Dembski will continue at the rank at which he was hired, as an untenured "Associate Research Professor" in the Institute for Faith and Learning. The establishment of the MPC was seen as a major step toward achieving the 5-year objectives of the "Wedge" strategy outlined by the Discovery Institute and ID leader Phillip Johnson. This is a long-range plan to establish ID as both a scholarly and a public enterprise, including a hoped-for establishment of an ID institute on a university campus. Baylor's placement of the members of the former Michael Polanyi Center in a relative academic backwater as a subsidiary of a faith and learning institute, and its barely civil recognition of ID as an area that has not achieved much scholarly support, hardly provides the academic credibility for ID sought by Wedge strategists.

As this issue of RNCSE went to press, an article entitled "Intelligent Design Movement Struggles with Identity Crisis" by Bruce Gordon, the interim director of what is now called The Baylor Science and Religion Project, appeared in Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology (2001 January; 2 [1]: 9). Gordon writes:
Design theory has had considerable difficulty gaining a hearing in academic contexts, as evidenced most recently by the whole Polanyi Center affair at Baylor University. One of the principal reasons for this resistance and controversy is not far to seek: design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education, where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world.
Later, in what is perhaps a swipe at Dembski's affiliation with the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Gordon comments, "If design theory is to make a contribution in science, it must be worth pursuing on the basis of its own merits, not as an exercise in Christian 'cultural renewal,' the weight of which it cannot bear." In his final paragraph, he carefully delineates the nature of design theory's possible contribution to science: "[I]t is crucial to note that design theory is at best a supplementary consideration introduced alongside (or perhaps into, by way of modification) neo-Darwinian biology and self-organizational complexity theory. It does not mandate the replacement of these highly fruitful research paradigms, and to suggest that it does is just so much overblown, unwarranted, and ideologically driven rhetoric." Should Gordon's cautious attitude become more widely adopted by ID proponents, it might alleviate much of the controversy about the status of intelligent design.

The Michael Polanyi Center Peer Review Committee report is available on line at http://pr.baylor.edu/pdf/001017polanyi.pdf. The Baylor administration responds at http://pr.baylor.edu/feat.fcgi?2000.10.17.polanyi.

NCSE Begins Clergy Program

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
NCSE Begins Clergy Program
Author(s): 
Molleen Matsumura
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
16–17
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
A vital aspect of NCSE's work is cooperation with organizations sharing common concerns. The number and diversity of groups supporting evolution education is reflected by the nearly 100 position statements NCSE collected in Voices for Evolution - a number that has grown since the second edition was published in 1995 (see [centerfold page on which Voices will be offered for sale]).

NCSE has built close working relationships with a number of these organizations, which frequently rely on our expertise in evolution/creation issues, tell individuals needing help to call NCSE, and in turn provide us with needed assistance. However, while our ties with scientific, educational, and civil-liberties organizations are well-developed, our formal ties with religious organizations are less extensive. We also need to develop resources that will be useful to clergy, religious educators, and other people of faith who wish to be voices for evolution both publicly and within their faiths.

Our first steps in this direction have been significant. NCSE contributed to the development of evolution resources on the web site of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Since then, NCSE's Executive Director Eugenie C Scott has joined the DoSER Advisory Committee and participated in a panel discussion of "The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Philosophical Examination" at a Science and Religion Workshop held by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in June 2000.

Now we are taking further steps to build a grassroots network of religious leaders. NCSE will develop and distribute materials that congregational leaders and religious educators can use to inform themselves and their communities about evolution/creation issues. We will also inform interested individuals of opportunities to speak out for evolution education, since NCSE's experience has been that religious individuals speaking from their faith's perspective are most effective in pointing out that evolution is not inherently anti-religious.

In order to identify people who want to be involved and find out what they need, NCSE has sent a questionnaire to a pilot group of clergy in Kansas asking about conditions in their communities and their willingness to work on this issue. We received a very good response and are now working with other organizations to reach more interested individuals. We are also working with an increasing number of interfaith groups and social action agencies of some denominations.

Now you can help. Tell NCSE whether you or someone you know is interested in learning more about our clergy network - or in telling someone else about it; write to Molleen Matsumura at interfaith@ncseweb.org, or at NCSE, PO Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709-0477.

NCSE wishes to thank Caroline McKnight and the Rev. Bob Meneilly of the Kansas MAINstream Coalition for their assistance.

Creationism and Pseudomathematics

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Creationism and Pseudomathematics
Author(s): 
Thomas Robson
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
20–22
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
We are well aware of anti-evolutionists' fondness for presenting their audiences with numbers of dizzying magnitude that they use to represent incredibly low probabilities for such events as the chance formation of a protein molecule, the origin of life, and the like. Thus they argue that it is irrational to believe that the event in question could have happened naturally (they mean "by chance") without the aid of intelligent design. In some cases, such as the chance formation of habitable planets, one may avoid a technical discussion of the physical processes involved and respond simply by pointing out that the universe is a very big place, containing countless galaxies, stars, and planetary systems, thus providing so much opportunity for the natural occurrence of the event in question that the probability may be quite high that such an event would occur somewhere. Furthermore, if the universe is infinite, providing the event with infinitely many chances to occur, then the occurrence of the event is a virtual certainty. Thus creationist probability arguments can often be undermined by pointing out that any event with a probability greater than 0, no matter how low, will be likely to happen if given enough opportunity, and sure to happen if opportunity is unlimited.

This principle is sometimes illustrated with the following thought experiment (of which the reader has probably heard one version or another): Suppose that a monkey, trained to hit the keys of a typewriter one by one in a truly random fashion, types forever, producing infinitely many pages of text. No one doubts that the monkey would type page after page of gibberish, but it follows from the above principle that sooner or later the monkey would type all of the works of Shakespeare from beginning to end, without error, solely by accident.

Unfortunately, this result of the thought experiment, and thus the principle itself, is sometimes explicitly rejected by creationists. One way of trying to justify their denial of this principle is by an appeal to what creationists refer to as Borel's single law of chance - a claim made by the French probability theorist Emile Borel. According to creationists, Borel's single law of chance says that any event with a probability lower than 1 in 1050 is so improbable as to be impossible (Kennedy 1980: 57; Ankerberg and Weldon 1998: 183; Harber 1998: 33; Mastropaolo 1999: iii). The implication is that, since the origin of life, the evolution of humans, and many other events may have a probability below this limit, they could not possibly have happened by chance no matter how much opportunity there may have been for them to occur.

Thus creationists attempt to protect their probability arguments from our sufficient opportunity principle by invoking this single beloved mathematical law. Borel did in fact propose such a law. However, just as creationists have misrepresented the second law of thermodynamics, so have they misrepresented Borel's law of chance. So what did Borel really mean? Here is an illustration.

Lightning Strikes - Often!

Hardly any of us really worries about getting struck by lightning. The probability that any individual will ever be struck by lightning is extremely low. But with so many people in the world, there is ample opportunity for this rare event to happen from time to time. It would be amazing if it never happened; and indeed many of us do know of such an event. Thus there are some highly improbable events that may be rationally expected to happen occasionally.

On the other hand, we can imagine other events (such as a monkey's accidentally typing Shakespeare) that are so improbable that the entire observable universe cannot provide enough opportunity for us rationally to expect the event in question to occur. Any event of this sort that has any probability at all is still possible - it is just that it would be foolish to bet on its occurrence, not only at a particular place or time, but anywhere ever (within the spatial and temporal confines of the observable universe). Borel said that such events, having a probability of no more than roughly 1 in 1050, never occur (Borel 1965: 57). But this law of chance is not literally true, for, as we shall see, such events can and do happen. I think that a more accurate way to say what Borel had in mind is that in reality, no such event can be rationally predicted ever to occur.

Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the carelessness of creationists' research, they have failed to grasp Borel's law and instead have taken his claim at face value - as saying literally that events of such low probabilities cannot possibly occur! For example, according to Scott Huse, "[M]athematicians generally consider any event with a probability of less than 1 chance in 1050 as having a zero probability ([that is] it is impossible)" (Huse 1997: 123). So in effect we are told that according to Borel's single law of chance, even if the observable universe did provide unlimited opportunity for their occurrence, such events are just too improbable ever to occur (Ankerberg and Weldon 1998: 329-30). It is this claim with which I take issue (as would Borel), for though one need not be learned in mathematics to find the claim questionable, many laypeople, I fear, may find it all too easy to believe.

All Nonzero Probabilities Are Possible

The probability of an event is expressed as a real number from 0 to 1; the more probable the event, the higher the number. An event can have only one probability at any time, just as a person at any given time can have only one age. However, anti-evolutionists misconstrue Borel's law of chance to imply the absurdity that low-probability events are assigned 2 different probabilities - their true probability and a probability of 0.

By way of example, suppose that one were to program a computer to generate 100 random digits. There would be 10100 equally likely possible outcomes. The probability of any given outcome would thus be 10-100. Applying the creationist "law of chance", we would have to conclude that any conceivable outcome, because it has a probability less than 1 in 1050, is literally impossible, having no chance of occurring and thus having a probability of 0 (see the Huse quote above). But clearly no event can have a probability of 1 in 10100and a probability of 0 (unless we think that 1/10100 = 0, which is as false as the claim that 2 + 2 = 5). Moreover, since the conceivable outcomes are what mathematicians call mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive, the sum of all their individual probabilities must equal 1, which they cannot do if they are all 0.

Fortunately, one need only carry out this experiment to see the anti-evolutionists' version of this "law of chance" falsified. For surely some outcome must be realized when we instruct the computer to select 100 random digits, despite the fact that the calculated probability of each outcome that the computer could produce falls far below the supposed threshold of possibility. (Borel, on the other hand, would say that no preconceived outcome could be rationally expected to occur, because the probability of successfully guessing the outcome in advance is too low for it to be expected to happen in the real world.) Thus we see that the anti-evolutionist appeal to Borel's law of chance fails to refute the principle that any event with a positive probability, no matter how small, is bound to happen somewhere sometime if given infinitely many chances.

Typing Monkeys and the Classics

Another way that anti-evolutionists try to get around this principle is simply by a dubious appeal to common sense. As one apologist argues, "It does not matter how much time we give nature; the large numerical odds simply are irrelevant: we must simply admit that no matter how much time and how much luck, evolution could not have happened" (Lutzer 1998: 159). Unfortunately, common sense is not always, and certainly not in this case, a reliable guide to mathematical truth.

For example, Patrick Glynn, in God: The Evidence, criticizes our thought experiment about the endlessly typing monkey in this way:
[I]t does not matter if there is an infinity of days. ... It is a gross fallacy to suppose that the quantity of days or time available changes anything. (To put the proposition mathematically, the probability on any given day that the monkey will type the works of Shakespeare . . . is not one in some very, very large number; it is zero.) Randomness does not engender order on any appreciable scale, no matter how many billions of years or opportunities you give it (Glynn 1997: 46).
But instead of relying on gut instinct, let us see if a far more reliable appeal to probability theory cannot shed some light on the subject. (Borel's law of chance is of no use to us here, for it is applicable only to real world cases, not hypothetical cases like this where we have eternity at our disposal.)

Let us say that Shakespeare's Hamlet is x typed pages long, y is the number of characters that can fit on a page, and z is the number of characters on a typewriter. Thus a text x pages long contains xy characters, each of which could be any one of z possibilities. There are then zxy possible ways of randomly typing x pages of text, all of which are equally likely and exactly one of which is Hamlet. Now suppose that we divide the monkey's work into trials, the first trial consisting of the first x pages typed, the second trial consisting of the second x pages, and so on. Since the monkey will ultimately type infinitely many pages, he will ultimately type infinitely many trials. Each trial is an opportunity for the monkey to type Hamlet. (I am, of course, ignoring the possibility that the monkey might begin typing Hamlet midway through one trial and finish it midway through the next.)

On any given trial, the probability that the monkey will type Hamlet is 1/zxy, which we shall call p. And on any given trial, the probability that the monkey will fail to type Hamlet is 1-p, which we shall call q. Thus the probability of failure is q for the first trial, q for the second trial, q for the third trial, and so on. Consider now the probability of failure on the first 2 trials, which is q2, and the probability of failure on the first 3 trials, which is q3, and so on. We thus see that the probability of failure on all of the first n trials is qn. What then is the probability that the monkey will fail on all the trials, that he will never type Hamlet? Since there are infinitely many trials, the probability could be expressed as q raised to the power of infinity.

But what are we to make of this? Since zxy is a finite positive number, 1/zxy (the probability on any trial that the monkey will type Hamlet) must be greater than 0. And p = 1/zxy, so p > 0. Since p > 0, we know that 1-p is smaller than 1. And since 1-p = q, it follows that q must be smaller than 1. Thus we see that q, the probability on any given trial that the monkey will fail to type Hamlet, must be a real number greater than 0 and less than 1. Now if we pick any number on the number line greater than 0 and less than 1 (q is such a number) and multiply it by itself many times, thus raising it to higher and higher powers, the product will approach 0; the higher the power, the closer to 0 the product will be. If the power is infinite, the ultimate result, in the end, is 0. Therefore, q to the power of infinity is 0.

Now recall that q to the power of infinity is the probability that the monkey would never type Hamlet. And we have just seen that this probability is 0. This means that there is a probability of 1, or 100%, that the monkey will type Hamlet at least once over the course of eternity. It would be a miracle if he did not! The same goes for every other work of Shakespeare, as well as the Bible, War and Peace, this article, your personal diary, anything imaginable (of finite length) - you name it, the monkey will eventually type it.

In fact, this principle is not limited to this thought experiment about the monkey typing, but is applicable to any improbable event whatsoever. Provided it has a constant positive probability (to be represented by p), the event in question is certain to happen if given unlimited opportunity. Any attempt to deny this, whether based on Borel's law of chance, common horse sense, or anything else, is misguided.

The Heart of the Matter

Anti-evolutionists, of course, will continue to employ their probability arguments against the natural formation of proteins, cells, and the like, despite everything said in this article. There are two reasons for this. First, in all fairness, their probability arguments often cannot be adequately refuted without a highly technical scientific explanation of the physical processes involved in the "improbable" event in question, and no such discussion was attempted here for the same reason that none is often attempted in public discussions of the issues.

Second, and more importantly, even if all the scientific matters had been discussed, it would make no difference. The opponents of evolution are not interested in good science, and as I have attempted to show in this article, neither are they interested in good mathematics. Hence their arguments are not based on a complete and contemporary understanding of the scientific and mathematical principles that are relevant to the issue. This is yet another reason why creationist material has no business being taught in science classes - it threatens our students' education not only with bad science, but also bad mathematics.

References

Ankerberg J, Weldon J. Darwin's Leap of Faith. Eugene (OR): Harvest House Publishers, 1998.

Borel E. Elements of the Theory of Probability. Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.

Glynn P. God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. Rocklin (CA): Prima Publishing, 1997.

Harber F. Reasons for Believing: A Seeker's Guide to Christianity. Green Forest (AR): New Leaf Press, 1998.

Huse SM. The Collapse of Evolution. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids (MI): Baker Books, 1997.

Kennedy DJ. Why I Believe. Dallas (TX): Word Publishing, 1980.

Lutzer EW. Seven Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1998.

Mastropaolo J. Evolution is biologically impossible. Impact 1999 Nov; 317.

About the Author(s): 
Thomas Robson
Royal Orleans
3902 College View Drive #8D
Joplin MO 64801
twrobson@hotmail.com

Design and its Critics: Yet Another ID Conference

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Design and its Critics: Yet Another ID Conference
Author(s): 
Jeff Otto with Andrew Petto
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
35–39
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, was the site of another "Intelligent Design" conference held on June 22-24, 2000. Under the rubric "Design and Its Critics" (DAIC), the conference brought together the leading lights of the "Intelligent Design" (ID) movement with several critics from a variety of disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. There was a variety of plenary and concurrent sessions throughout the weekend, so we are able to present only the highlights of the conference.

Thursday, June 22, 2000

The opening debate was on Thursday night. Stephen Meyer and Michael Shermer shared the stage. Meyer's talk was entitled "What do good scientific theories do?" According to Meyer, they explain data in the natural world and make predictions about the natural world — particularly predictions that are useful for future scientific research. Because explanation is not equivalent to prediction, Meyer argued, historical theories can accomplish only the first task; they can retrodict but not predict. ID also accomplishes the first task: it has explanatory power. Meyer's example was the concept of irreproducible complexity introduced in Behe's discussion of the bacterial flagellum.

Meyer went on to claim that ID provides a better explanation than evolutionary theory in several instances. First, Meyer argued that ID provides a better explanation of the origin of "information", in particular the origin of DNA, than does evolution. Next he claimed that ID provides a better explanation of the Cambrian Explosion — the sudden appearance of new phyla in the fossil record 570 million years ago — because new organisms require a new information code. According to Meyer, this situation does not fit a "Darwinian" model, because the mere shuffling of genes is not sufficient to produce this variety (though he provided no support for this assertion). In Meyer's view, the shortcomings of evolutionary models confirm ID by default.

Meyer rehearsed the standard mistaken creationist critiques based on biochemical complexities and specificities of modern organisms, but added an interesting — if misconstrued — discussion of the origin of DNA. Since DNA provides the instruction set for proteins, Meyer asked, what is the causal explanation of the DNA code? Citing Stanley Miller's experiments as proof that the prebiotic atmosphere was unsuitable for sustaining life, Meyer concluded that there was no natural prebiotic source of the information encoded in DNA. Any precursor molecules would be subject to interfering cross-reactions, and the limited time and resources combined with the required sequence specificity (for a fully functioning 100-amino-acid protein) would have precluded de novo synthesis. Meyer tried to apply a version of Dembski's "explanatory filter", arguing that the low probability and the complex specification of the DNA molecule require us to conclude that it had been designed.

The main focus of the rest of Meyer's presentation was the supposed evidence for the design of DNA -- the information content of living things. Meyer argued that natural selection cannot explain the origin of information, because it presupposes a freely replicating system — one that operates on DNA and protein (of course, natural selection is not concerned with, nor does it try to explain, the origin of "information"). Furthermore, Meyer argued that there are no forces in evolutionary theory to explain the sequential order of DNA, apparently because he believes that, according to evolutionary biologists, nucleotide base organization should be random. Of course, in most organisms many repetitive sequences in DNA, noncoding introns ("nonsense" DNA), and "junk" DNA are not constrained by strict sequential relationships. These random elements constitute a very large fraction of the genome.

Meyer constructed a straw man by focusing on DNA and fully functioning proteins. No working evolutionary scientist believes that life originally appeared fully equipped with the present complex DNA and protein repertoire. One leading theory of early life is the RNA world hypothesis, about which, in the question period, Meyer showed that he is absolutely misinformed, falsely claiming that RNA could neither replicate nor make peptide bonds. The question period ended before he could be fully questioned on this topic, but there are several published papers that show that Meyer was attacking strawman arguments about DNA, RNA, and information origin (Zhang and Cech 1997, Wright and Joyce 1997).

Michael Shermer took the stage next. His presentation was more theatrical (complete with a laser pointer that projected the shape of a UFO). He made some very good points, but I do not think that most of the audience was sufficiently engaged by his presentation. Natural selection, Shermer said, preserves gains and eliminates mistakes; "Intelligent Design" assumes that the current function of structures in living things is the same as the original function. He argued that ID is not useful scientifically because it leads to an investigative dead end — the actions of an intelligent designer.

Friday, June 23, 2000

The first plenary session was entitled "Design in the Biological Sciences". Michael Behe spoke first. He read from a prepared text, saying that he has learned that he must be particularly careful in what he says. His main point was that there are irreducibly complex (IC) structures — structures that could not have been produced by numerous successive small changes without loss of function. Natural selection, which Behe restricts to such small, successive changes, would be unable to explain the existence of such structures. His examples of IC structures were the mousetrap — a 5-piece machine that is rendered nonfunctional by the removal of any piece — and the bacterial flagellum — a complicated, molecular "machine" that may be the biochemical equivalent of the mousetrap.

Behe next responded to Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God. He focused on the lac operon — a genetic sequence in E coli bacteria that regulates the production of 3 enzymes necessary for the digestion of lactose. If any component of this multipart system is eliminated, argued Behe, the system becomes nonfunctional Although Kenneth Miller had cited experiments showing that when the one of the lac operon genes — the (-galactosidase gene — is knocked out, bacteria can re-acquire this function, Behe disputed this conclusion, because, he said, it was necessary to generate an artificial system using "intelligent intervention" that added other components to the system before the function could be restored.

Behe's next example of IC was the blood-clotting cascade. Behe illustrated the complexity of this system and claimed that removal of any of the components is highly deleterious and causes the whole process to collapse. Citing research with transgenic organisms, Behe argued that these systems are irreducibly complex, because they contain many parts that must be well coordinated with one another to function — therefore, they could not have arisen by natural selection working through gradual, Darwinian mechanisms.

Next up was Scott Minnich, whose talk focused on the research on the bacterial flagellum. He gave a very nice, purely scientific talk on research in the field, which did not seem to fit in here because it seemed that a substantial part of his talk contradicted the assertion of irreproducible complexity. For example, he discussed the virulence plasmid found in the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, which, as it turns out, contains several genes that are highly homologous to those that code for flagellar proteins. In the plasmid, these genes code for proteins that make up structures that drill holes into host cells and inject them with poison. Here we have an example where one set of genes codes for flagellar proteins, however a homologous subset of those genes codes for an entirely different structure (hole drilling apparatus). In an IC structure, if a single component is removed, the structure loses its specific function. But complex structures need not lose all physiological function when one component is changed. The exaptation of an existing structure — such as occurs in the protein products of the virulence plasmid — to a structure performing a new function — such as the flagellum — is precisely the sort of change evolution would predict. Minnich's example endangers only the straw man position that these cellular structures must preserve their existing functions as their protein composition or sequence is modified.

Ken Miller spoke next, presenting a step-by-step, systematic critique of Behe's argument. First he pointed out, in contrast to the assumptions of IC, that no scientist proposes that complex macromolecular systems spontaneously arose in their currently functioning state. Instead, individual components of the larger system probably had other functions, and, through gene duplication or other mechanisms, they took on new functions. These processes permitted the acquisition of new functions and opportunities to interact with other molecules to provide intermediaries with novel functions.

Miller spent a great deal of time describing how the flagellum might have evolved, providing numerous examples of organisms that illustrate the mechanisms and processes that he proposed. He also gave examples of flagella that have some components missing but still function. The example that made the best impression on the audience was that of eel sperm. The missing components make the flagellum appear nonfunctional, said Miller, but, he reminded the audience, since these sperm are very good at making baby eels, the flagellum clearly must function — despite its having "missing" parts.

Next Miller discussed the Krebs cycle — a series of chemical reactions common to living things that extracts energy from carbohydrate molecules — showing how a variety of organisms use different parts of the cycle for different functions. All the while Miller reminded the audience that according to IC, the loss or alteration of one component from an IC system makes the system nonfunctional. At the same time, he reminded the audience that complex systems evolve by co-opting pre-existing, functioning components to serve new functions in new ways.

Miller also presented a bibliographic search (on Medline) showing that there have been only 2 articles on IC in the peer-reviewed literature since 1966, neither one of which appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific research journal. Finally, he took on the central "commonsense" analogy of IC — the irreducibly complex mousetrap. He demonstrated fully functional 5-part, 4-part, 3-part, 2-part and even 1-part mousetraps, concluding by pointing out how, as in biology, the mousetrap that serves one function can be adapted for others (He cited the mousetrap key chain and the mousetrap tie-tack).

A question-and-answer period followed the presentations. As might be expected, Behe took exception to many of Miller's criticisms, denying that he had ever said the things for which Miller took him to task. This is a dangerous tactic in the digital age when your opponent is armed with a laptop computer. Miller was able to provide precise quotations and citations from Behe's work to support his claims. Behe was backpedaling throughout the entire session, and not many questions were asked of the speakers.

During this session, I (JO) introduced myself as a population geneticist from Rush Medical Center in Chicago and said that I had 3 related observations that led to a practical question. First, my research focuses on the identification of genes responsible for complex autoimmune diseases. Evolutionary theory provides the basis for the genetic algorithms that I use in my research. Second, 2 weeks earlier I had visited a pharmaceutical company that also uses evolutionary algorithms to aid in the identification of different alleles affecting drug-metabolizing enzymes. Third, I recently met a researcher at Marquette University who uses evolutionary algorithms to aid in identification of amino-acid residues critical for function of a very complex protein. My question — an open question to both of the ID proponents — was: As practical people, looking for the fastest, most efficient method to reach our goals., how would Intelligent Design help us in our endeavors? What would ID predict in these different systems?

Behe answered the question by commenting that ID would tell us where to look, and perhaps which systems would be irreducibly complex. I replied that his answer really did not answer my question. In the real world of scientific research, I reiterated, evolutionary theory provides algorithms that suggest how to go about finding what we are looking for; these algorithms are used successfully in many fields — including by pharmaceutical companies that are primarily interested in making money. How would ID provide a superior model for accomplishing these goals? Behe answered by mumbling something about needing to see what algorithms I am using. Then the session was closed.

My question sparked discussion afterwards, and I had opportunity to talk with quite a few different people. The general consensus of these people (with the exception of one oddball who basically contended that we are all de-evolving into the blackness of Hell) was that my question really went to the crux of the issue of whether ID has anything useful to present to the scientific community. Scientific theories not only explain and make sense of our observations, but also provide questions and predictions that support useful and productive research.

The claim that ID only has power to retrodict is an evasive maneuver that may sound nice in a sound bite. But the fact is that a theory that only retrodicts is a scientifically worthless idea that does not merit the title of theory. ID is based entirely on the assumption that when science reaches a stumbling block, the appropriate response is to throw up one's hands, say "I don't understand how this could be put together naturally" and to claim that it was intelligently designed. In this way ID is actually more scientifically bankrupt than young-earth creationism, which at least makes testable predictions. ID is invoked only when regular science gets stuck (for the moment).

Saturday, June 24, 2000

The main event of the final day of the conference was the talk of ID's undisputed star, William Dembski. Much of the presentation was devoted to an exposition of Dembski's method for detecting design — "The Design Inference" (TDI). Dembski had prepared enough material for several presentations, so he was unable to give more than a fleeting description of the details of TDI. Because there was too much material for the format and time allowed, Dembski skipped over numerous details and omitted connections among important ideas. The result was a presentation that appeared disorganized and disjointed — the lasting impression is of a series of symbolic statements that were meant to show the steps in the explanatory filter that Dembski proposes as the basis for TDI. However, Dembski's presentation was so abridged that these formulas were neither well explained nor clearly related to his TDI. RNCSE readers interested in Dembski's method for detecting design should consult Wesley Elsberry's recent review-essay in RNCSE (Elsberry 1999).

The second major event on Saturday was a panel discussion entitled "Prospects for Design". The participants were Paul Nelson, Edward Davis, Kelly Smith, and Lenny Moss. Nelson told the audience that the real issue is to provide an argument against methodological naturalism (MN), which he called one of the worst philosophies of science. Nelson characterized MN as absolute rubbish and characterized himself as someone interested in getting at the truth about the world. He said that his purpose was to show the limits of MN, not to set out the future direction of ID.

Nelson provided a definition of MN based on the characterization by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS): "The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes" (NAS 1998: 42). Nelson's question to the audience was, "Should this be so? Should we separate the natural from the supernatural?" Nelson argued that we should discard the supernatural-natural distinction in favor of the intelligent-natural distinction. We should, Nelson said, institute a research program for intelligent causation — but true to his promise, Nelson did not suggest what such a program would entail.

Most of Nelson's presentation was an exploration of how MN supposedly limits our ability to find out what is true. In Nelson's example, a homicide detective faced with a dead body must consider 4 possible explanations in order to determine the real cause of death. Two of these require no intelligent agent — natural causes and accidents — but the other 2 are caused by the actions of just such an agent — suicide and homicide. According to Nelson, MN would limit the homicide detective's investigation to death by natural causes or accident and would leave out suicide and homicide — both actions of an intelligent agent. In the real world, Nelson argued, even if death were never to occur by suicide and homicide, they would remain causal probabilities — that is, they could occur — and, according to Nelson, if we do not consider homicide and suicide to determine that they do not explain the death we are investigating, then we cannot know for sure that our explanations are true. Unless he considers and rules out the possibility of murder and suicide, the detective cannot be justifiably confident that he has solved the case. Likewise, Nelson argued, we should not exclude intelligent design from the scientific "toolkit".

According to MN, Nelson told the audience, the tools in the scientific toolkit are natural laws (Nelson called them "physical" laws) and chance. Nelson argued that a third tool, intelligent design, belongs in the toolkit of science too. Even if we never need to invoke ID, Nelson told the audience, a naturalistic interpretation of evidence can never be completely justified unless ID is considered and ruled out. Even Darwin lived and worked in an environment with all 3 tools, said Nelson, and it did no harm to his science. Likewise, Nelson assured us, it will do no harm for us to consider ID when the evidence warrants it.

In summary, Nelson argued that science cannot discover what it excludes a priori. If science is a truth-seeking endeavor (as he assumes), then MN belongs on the rubbish heap of history because it limits scientists to a flawed investigative process that fails to include all the explanatory possibilities.

Edward Davis spoke next. He said that he accepts that there is purpose in the universe, although he has concerns about how the issues are framed in the current models of ID. He chose to explore how we understand the meaning of apparent design in Nature through recent research that he has been conducting on the works of Robert Boyle — a 17th-century chemist and natural philosopher best known for his laws about the behavior of gases and his use of controlled experiments.

Although Boyle argued for "design" in the natural world, Davis pointed out that this design represented neither ongoing tinkering by an intelligent agent nor what passed for the contemporary version of the anthropic principle -a philosophy of science that assumed that Nature was constructed benevolently to promote human well-being. Instead, although Boyle was convinced that experimental science would demonstrate the existence of God, he felt that the route to this demonstration was through an understanding of the mechanics of the way things really worked in the natural world. In Boyle's view, God works through the "mechanisms" that show His presence and actions. Boyle felt that the scientific process is short-circuited by teleological explanations, even if there is an ultimate purpose to the universe. He thus insisted on naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena first and foremost whenever possible.

Although he told the audience that he agreed that evidence of purpose is found in the natural world, Davis argued that it is neither appropriate nor productive to look for it in the same ways and places that one looks for evidence of natural processes. Davis told the audience that he believes "in a God who is sovereign over the laws of Nature". However, he noted, the world is not full of items stamped "Made by God"; God is more subtle than that. So the evidence for God's purposes may not be the same physical evidence that we find in natural phenomena that scientists study, say, in the behaviors of gases under pressure or mutation rates.

The most serious problem with ID, Davis told the conference, is that it appears to make the existence of God (the unnamed "intelligent designer") an additional hypothesis to be tested scientifically. However, this runs counter to the central understanding of God in Christian and Jewish traditions. Davis told the audience that the central claim of Christianity, for example, is that we have actually seen God directly, and when we did not like what we saw, we killed him — then he surprised us. Davis said that we need to incorporate the interaction between God and the world into our discourse in this way, not as specific scientific hypotheses about individual events and structures.

The next speaker was Kelley Smith. He presented a "blueprint for respectability" — an outline for how ID could earn itself a place at the scientific table. Smith's remarks are included elsewhere in this issue. In summary, he outlined a program that would turn ID from a fringe idea to a respectable theory in the sciences, along with all the benefits that respectability offers — respect, funds, access to classrooms, and a place in mainstream textbooks and journals. This was the route taken by all successful challengers to the scientific status quo. But he doubted that ID proponents would take his advice.

The last speaker in the panel was Lenny Moss, who argued that the key issue under discussion was the nature of Nature. According to Moss, ID assumed a very narrow notion of Nature, defining its position by its opposition to the viewpoints of a few prominent proponents of philosophical naturalism, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Moss argued that ID, if it is to be successful, needs to define itself in its own terms, not merely in opposition to what are extreme positions even among natural scientists.

Taking Dawkins and Dennett to task is a good tactical approach, Moss told the conference, for it allows the proponents of ID to press the naturalistic explanation and show where it is in trouble — a debunking strategy. However good a tactical approach it may be to oppose what he called the strict neo-Darwinism of Dawkins and Dennett, Moss said, it is nonetheless a bad strategic approach. That is, to accept that naturalism is restricted to the premises of neo-Darwinism "sells Nature down the river" by restricting naturalism to a particular, limited version of naturalism espoused by Dawkins and Dennett. The most fruitful answer to a dogmatic metaphysics (like that of Dawkins or Dennett), said Moss, is not another dogmatism, but a pluralistic approach. Reacting against a strict neo-Darwinism with a dogmatic approach — whether it is ID or some other dogmatism — leads to bad biology. Instead, Moss argued for a broader perspective for both ID and for naturalism.

In considering the future prospects for ID, there is, Moss said, good news and bad news. As for the good news, Moss argued that science is at a historic juncture — at a new "crisis" in the struggle to resolve our "intuition for life". He traced our understanding of Nature from the 17th century, when science changed its understanding of natural events and organisms as ends unto themselves to a view of these phenomena as the outcome of other natural processes and interactions. This change culminated in the 20th century when, Moss argued we now understand natural events and organisms as only the outcome of natural processes and their interactions. One aspect of this important historic juncture is the Human Genome Project.

Moss told the conference that there are promissory notes that need to be called in — things that biology has promised and not yet delivered. It is time to move beyond the 17th-century view of matter and the physical world to a new scientific understanding that can do justice to the agency of life. This "new naturalism" is one that would allow a pluralistic view of agency in the emergence and direction of life, and one that may make substantial contributions to our understanding of Nature. In reviving a sort of preformationist, vitalistic approach, ID may figure into Moss's "new naturalism".

The bad news for ID is that it seems to be mired in its opposition to a view of the nature of Nature — espoused by Dawkins and Dennett especially — that is more restrictive than the view held by most scientists. Focusing on refuting this more restricted view threatens to push ID onto a path where it will remain tangential and irrelevant to the questions that active scientists pursue and find meaningful.

Moss's example of the new way for science to proceed is taken from the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant allowed us to have it both ways; Moss said — we can take it as a given that there is an organization in life while at the same time resisting the temptation to try to explain the purpose or first principle of everything. In this way, the "new naturalism" that Moss proposes does not require, presuppose, or even benefit from atheism. In contrast, many in the ID movement seem to be opposed to evolution because Dawkins and Dennett portray it as essential to supporting atheism.

The Big Tent

Throughout the conference there were numerous roundtable discussions, presented papers, and informal discussions over meals and snacks. It was impossible to cover all of these events, and most were not included in the official record of the conference. The sessions we attended resembled the plenary sessions: Some were thoughtful and well-researched presentations of important questions and theoretical perspectives. Others were little more than standard anti-evolutionary fare, concluding that if evolution could not immediately explain some unusual finding or new discover, then ID had to be true by default. But it was also clear that there were a number of very different ideas about what precisely intelligent design entailed.

The unspoken position of the IDCs at the conference seemed to be to accept all criticisms of evolutionary theory as evidence that an intelligent agent of some sort was involved in the history of life and in the patterns of similarity and difference that biologists attribute to evolution. However, one of the hallmarks of most scientific meetings was absent — the disagreement among proponents of different explanatory models. There were young-earth creationists presenting papers in breakout sessions who never addressed the discrepancies between their models of recent creation of organisms in their present forms and theistic evolution that Behe has claimed to accept, which would allow descent with modification from common ancestors over long time periods — at least for structures that were not "irreducibly complex", which was how Behe pronounced most of the examples that the ID critics used to rebut his model.

DAIC showed the "big tent" strategy in operation. This approach makes IDC more inclusive in order to increase the impact of the assault on evolutionary theory from a broad base of support. This may also be why details were so often missing from the presentations at the plenary sessions. All the anti-evolutionists in attendance may agree that evolution is bad and that apparent design in the universe is caused by an intelligent agent, but they do not agree on the specifics of time, place, frequency, duration, or intensity of this extranatural intervention. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

References

Elsberry WR. Book review of The Design Inference by William A Dembski. RNCSE 1999 Mar/Apr; 19(2): 32-5.

National Academy of Sciences Working Group on Teaching Evolution [NAS]. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington (DC): National Academy Press, 1998.

Wright MC, Joyce GF. Continuous in vitro evolution of catalytic function. Science 1997; 276: 614-7.

Zhang B, Cech TR. Peptide bond formation by in vitro selected ribozymes. Nature 1997; 390: 96-100.

About the Author(s): 
Jeff Otto is a researcher at Genaissance Pharmaceuticals. Andrew Petto is the editor of RNCSE.

Can Intelligent Design Become Respectable?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Can Intelligent Design Become Respectable?
Author(s): 
Kelly C Smith, Clemson University
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
40–43
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
[At the Design and its Critics conference held at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, June 22–24, 2000, Kelly C Smith participated in the panel discussion on Prospects for Design. Professor Smith's paper is printed here with his permission; much of what he says here is covered in more detail in his article "Appealing to ignorance behind the cloak of ambiguity" in Robert T Pennock's anthology, Intelligent Design and its Critics (Cambridge [MA]: The MIT Press, 2001).]

I want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me here today, although I do rather suspect their motives. This is the very definition of hell for a philosopher — to be invited to a conference, to sit through 2 and a half days of really interesting presentations taking voluminous notes, a lot of which have marginalia attached to them like "no no no!" and "???", and at the very end to be told, "Okay, right! 15 minutes: vent your spleen all you want." Well, there is only so much I can vent. But I am going to try to get together a few basic thoughts I have had and offer them in some kind of coherent form.

What I want to try to do is give you a basic blueprint for respectability. If we make the assumption (and there are lots of people who would question this assumption, but I will make it for the purposes of this talk) that ID theory seriously wishes to become a respectable scientific theory, then I will tell you how to do it. If you follow my 4 simple steps to scientific respectability, you will get what you want: scientific respect, research funds, access to science classrooms, and so on, and so forth. It is actually fairly simple — all you have to do is follow the 4 steps. So what are they?

Step 1: Intelligibility

Well, the first step is a little complicated, but it involves intelligibility. I prefer not to talk about naturalism, but rather intelligibility. I think the one thing that scientists cannot compromise on — one of their most fundamental philosophical principles — is a commitment to intelligible causal factors. That is to say, they will not accept, in principle, explanations that make reference to causal factors that cannot be explained by human reason. Why does this matter? Well, it matters because it makes a big difference as to whether or not ID theory can be done within the context of science. I should add, by the way, that I fully grant that this is, in some sense, a philosophical assumption. It may be wrong. If you guys would like an admission that any of your favorite versions of creationism or ID theory could perhaps be correct, you have it from me. As a representative of the scientific orthodoxy, I will admit that they could, perhaps, be correct — but that is not a sufficient reason to believe them.

So can we practice ID theory as a science if we buy this notion of intelligibility? The answer is that it depends on what you mean when you talk about the designer. I have heard speakers here at this conference point out how it is necessary to specify the nature of the designer, and then some people in the audience say that it seems a bit unfair to require ID theorists to come up with a clear notion of what the designer is like. Well, this is not a tangential issue; it is a fundamental issue. An unwillingness to talk about this is going to cripple at the outset any attempt to make ID theory a scientific theory. And here is why. (Although I am not a theologian and I am aware of the fact that this is a horrendously complicated theological dispute, I am going to simplify egregiously.)

There is a large continuum of theories about God's nature, and on this continuum there are 2 basic endpoints. On one endpoint, you have a view of God as an intrinsically mysterious agent. Human reason is simply incapable of penetrating into the mysterious God's motives, mechanisms, and the like. On the other end of the continuum, there is God as a rational God, a God whose motives and mechanisms are analogous to those of human intelligence (a phrase that came up in an earlier talk). In other words, a rational God is a God that we can understand in some important sense of that word.

If we are talking about a rational God, I think that it is perfectly okay, in principle, to include theological hypotheses as part of a scientific theory. Now, for my evolutionist colleagues who are getting uncomfortable at this point, I would like to point out that there are going to be a lot of people out there who are not willing to accept what goes along with making God rational in this sense. But if you do, it is possible to include some kind of theology in scientific theory — Spinoza, for example, had a theological account that is not inconsistent with the sorts of claims scientists would normally want to make. But if you cite a mysterious God, you are inserting a factor in your explanation that is in principle inexplicable.

Paul Nelson just gave you the example of a professor's suddenly getting up and walking around a conference table as something that is not explained. Here is a good example of a fundamental confusion. Intelligibility is not a question of whether or not we have explained something, it is a question of whether or not it is explainable — is it, in principle, subject to explanation? I think someone's getting up and walking around the table is perfectly explainable. There are epistemic problems to be sure — it is not a trivial exercise to explain it. However, it is hardly inexplicable, and that is what makes it fair game for a scientific explanation. (As an aside, I should say that some of the confusion about whether ID theory is testable but false or untestable has to do with equivocal notions about the nature of the designer.)

A rational God has clear, practical consequences for a scientific theory. Suppose you posit a rational God and then assume that God designed the traits of organisms to maximize ________ (you are going to have to fill in the blank because I do not know what your particular rational God would want to maximize; I personally would tend to say something like "adaptiveness within a particular selective environment", but that is just me). Whatever goes in this blank, it seems we can then formulate a null hypothesis and say, "We expect God to be at least as good as a human engineer would be in designing traits to maximize ________." Any trait that seems poorly designed from a human perspective would then represent a prima facie problem for an ID theorist. What you certainly cannot do in this kind of situation is to argue that it is simply a mystery why God created this trait in this particular way, because then all you are doing is reverting to a mysterious God.

I cannot really convince you right now why it is a good idea to buy into intelligibility. I would quickly say something like this, though: the consequences of not buying into this are far worse than you might think. To take what Winston Churchill said about democracy and apply it to neo- Darwinism, "Neo-Darwinism seems like a really bad theory — until you consider the alternatives".

Step 2: Internal Critique

The second step has to do with internal critique. You really can learn a lot about somebody by the people with whom they choose to associate. ID theory wants to be a "big tent" movement, but to fail to critique highly divergent arguments of colleagues who happen to share the same conclusion is tacitly to accept them. ID theory is not going to be a scientific discipline until it takes a clear stand on some major methodological issues. You simply cannot have a scientific discipline that talks about evolution but does not take a clear stand on the age of the earth or on common descent with modification! A scientific discipline shares, at least to some large extent, a certain common core of questions and methodologies. ID theory has no core methodology or theoretical commitments, and thus it is not yet a discipline (scientific or otherwise). Perhaps this can be remedied, but not as long some of your adherents persist in making the ambiguity of your own positions a defensive virtue, as when a critique is deflected with, "Well, you know, we don't all say that." If ID theorists themselves do not take a consistent stand, they are certainly not entitled to complain about the imprecision of their critics over the very same points!

So it seems as though there are 2 alternatives here: either you can institute a thorough, rigorous system of internal critique and try to develop a consensus along some of these issues, or you can fragment into separate groups, each group having a relatively unified approach to these kinds of things. Either will accomplish what I have called "internal critique".

Step 3: External Critique

The third step has to do with external critique — with stepping away from over-reliance on critiquing your opponents. When I teach basic philosophy classes, I have my students write argumentative papers. I want them to understand that critical ability is extremely important — it is something that they hone in a philosophy class, if nothing else. But I also want them to understand that there is a fundamental difference between critiquing your opponent and demonstrating your own position. This is a fundamental distinction that ID theorists need to take more seriously.

There are lots of reasons to keep the two activities clearly separate. First, it is always easier to be negative than positive. Given that any complicated theory is going to have anomalous data, anybody can find interesting cases to harp on. This does not really prove a whole lot. Second, it is just too tempting to engage in distortions of what your opponent says (straw man arguments). This is particularly true if you believe deeply in what you're saying — this makes it extremely difficult to be fair to your opponent, who you "know" is completely wrong. I do not see a whole lot of evidence, to be perfectly honest with you, that there has been a change in some of these practices since the bad old creationist times. Third, it may very well be that you are implying a false dichotomy. The underlying assumption when you substitute critique for demonstration is that, if my opponent is wrong, then I must be right. But there may well be a third alternative. Suppose it turns out that neo-Darwinism, whatever that means (people define this term in lots of different ways for different purposes), is wrong. It does not necessarily follow that ID theory is right, unless those are the only 2 alternatives, and believe me, there are more. Finally, it draws attention away from a basic practical fact (that it is practical makes it no less important). Nobody is going to abandon an extremely fruitful scientific theory until there is a viable alternative that does as much or more. It is just not going to happen. I have been in a position of espousing a theory on the outside of orthodoxy, and I understand that it can be frustrating, but at some point you have to shift away from whipping up the crowd by complaining about your lot versus the orthodoxy to coming up with a theory that works.

Step 4: Novel, Testable Hypotheses

And that gives me a segue into my last and probably most important step, that ID theory really has to start generating novel, testable hypotheses (and then testing them). Now, I'm a philosopher, so I am perfectly aware of all the dilemmas that arise if you try to make testability some sort of touchstone for science. I am not saying that. I am not a logical positivist. But I think it is clearly true, however you want to characterize it, that testability is a critically important element of successful scientific theories. Therefore, if ID theory is going to be a successful scientific theory, it must generate testable hypothesis — and note here I am also saying testable hypotheses (I am not talking about the theory's being testable itself. That is a can of worms I would rather not open right now).

The basic reason for this is pretty simple. We are clever and creative explainers. It is very easy for us to sit in a dark room and convince ourselves, based on a priori principles and data that are already in front of us, that we have the correct explanation. The only way we can really know whether or not our explanation is right is if we make novel predictions and then go out and see if they are met. That is the function of testability. As far as I can tell, ID theory just does not do this. There might be, maybe, some very minimal claims you can make about the heuristic value of ID theory — one of the talks, for example, postulated that perhaps the design heuristic is akin to notions such as beauty in evaluating scientific theories. Even if I were to grant that, this claim does not put ID anywhere close to the status of a developed scientific theory. We do not teach beauty in elementary science classes as a way of talking about scientific theories, and for very good reason. It is, at best, an interesting subtlety you get into when you talk about the philosophical aspects of science. It is not a fundamental theory in itself.

I think that nothing shows the difference between ID theory and its orthodox opponents better than a comparison of professional conferences. If I go to the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and I bring a bunch of graduate students who want to do research in evolution, I can point them in any direction and they can go and find hundreds of seminars going on, each of which has all kinds of evolutionary ideas, testable hypotheses, new methodologies based on evolutionary reasoning. They can go out there, they can find research projects, they can go back to the lab, and they can go to work. This ID conference, on the other hand, really does not have a single session presenting testable hypotheses. There was one that, in a way, sort of, kind of, made allusions to testable consequences, but I can say firsthand that there was nothing discussed in this session that neo-Darwinism had not already predicted. So there is really no practical import to ID theory that I can see.

Now, in case people are tempted to say, "Ah, well, give us some time, we'll figure this out," let me suggest that there clearly are testable consequences right now. Any relatively bright graduate student should be able to sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper and come up with some for you pretty quickly, and then you have got a research project. In case you cannot find anybody like that, allow me to offer your first testable hypothesis. A lot of ID theorists (and again we run into the ambiguity problem) have absolutely no problem accepting the theory of population genetics as a microevolutionary theory. But they do not like to accept macroevolution. They believe that there are certain natural kinds, or species, or whatever, and there are boundaries in between the kinds that cannot be overcome. In other words, population genetics works, but it cannot push allele change past these postulated boundaries between kinds. The existence of such boundaries is not a prediction of population genetics, and there is nothing in population genetic theory that would even lead one to suspect such bounded change. So, if this ID view is correct, there should be populations left and right that meet all the population-genetic criteria predicting evolution, but that are in fact not undergoing evolution. It should be a relatively straightforward job to go out and confirm experimentally the existence of these populations.

Now, let me just insert a caveat here because I worry about having my words taken out of context. The populations you find have to meet all the population genetic criteria. There are cases one could point to that might seem on superficial examination to meet all the criteria, but really do not. I have in mind something like sickle cell trait. When people first discovered sickle cell trait and did population genetics on it, it was a bit of a mystery why the sickle cell allele was so common in the population. People knew that in its homozygous form it was highly deleterious, so they calculated the selection coefficients based on this and said, "This is very strange — there are a lot more of these alleles floating around in the population than we would expect." This puzzle led to an investigation to see what other factors were at work in the population. As it turns out, the sickle cell allele confers an advantage in the heterozygous condition, so people who have only one copy of the sickle cell allele are more resistant to malaria, and in certain parts of the world that is a very good thing. After discovering this, the geneticists adjusted their selection coefficients and re-did the calculations, and it works perfectly. So I am not talking about superficially analyzed populations that appear not to undergo evolutionary change. I am talking about a situation in which you have excellent data on the population genetic variables and they simply do not add up.

The Road Ahead

In conclusion: Personally, I find it highly unlikely that my advice is actually going to be put into effect. The fact that I am here means that I am an optimist about these kinds of things. But I strongly suspect, despite what some speakers have said, that there are a priori but unspoken commitments that people here are just not willing to violate. In particular, I think that there are a lot of people here who are unwilling to accept the fundamental philosophical commitment science must make to intelligible causal factors (theological or otherwise). To do so would open a big can of theological worms that a lot of people do not want to get into, and I understand why not. And lastly, I do not have a lot of faith, to use a loaded word, that people who take ID theory seriously are actually going to be able to generate novel, testable hypotheses based on their beliefs. However, I am struggling to remain open-minded, and I welcome any efforts anyone wants to produce along these lines.

Intelligent Design in the Classroom?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Intelligent Design in the Classroom?
Author(s): 
Kenneth R Miller
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
42–43
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
[At the Design and its Critics conference held at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, June 22-24, 2000, Kenneth Miller (Brown University) was the commentator at the plenary session on Design in the Public School Science Classroom. The speakers were David DeWolf (Gonzaga University Law School) and Stephen Meyer (Whitworth College and the Discovery Institute), Warren A Nord (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Ronald Numbers (University of Wisconsin at Madison). The following excerpt from Professor Miller's extemporaneous comments is printed here with his permission.]

I was surprised to hear Professor DeWolf fundamentally confuse two legal issues. He talked about the acceptance of scientific evidence by the Supreme Court. And he said that the Court's acceptance of scientific evidence has changed from requiring that the scientific evidence be the prevailing scientific view to simply allowing any method that sort of follows the methods and procedures of science. The interesting thing about this assertion is that it has nothing to do with the suitability of scientific teaching in the classroom; it simply has to do with the taking of testimony in tort cases, in lawsuits. And it was designed to allow the broadest possible interpretation to come in, so that a jury could judge the evidence in a court case. And it seems to me that what is admissible as authentic science in education is quite a bit different from what testimony is allowable in a tort case, and I do not understand how someone as experienced in the law as Professor DeWolf could confuse the two of those.

It was pointed out that there is another Supreme Court decision related to viewpoint discrimination, so called, and I clearly heard the first pair of speakers [DeWolf and Meyer] implying that the exclusion of intelligent design from the science classroom was an example of viewpoint discrimination, thus once again confusing important legal issues. The "viewpoint discrimination" in question had to do with viewpoints allowed by school-funded groups, not viewpoints in the classroom curriculum. As a scientist, I would argue that the entire scientific enterprise is, in fact, an enterprise of viewpoint discrimination. And what I mean by that is that there are indeed viewpoints we discriminate against in science — meaning that we rule them out — including things like the notion of a flat earth, the notion of a geocentric or earth-centered universe, and purely spiritual theories of disease that suggest that the black plague, cancer, and tuberculosis were due to spiritual defects. Koch, Pasteur, and others advocated a germ theory of disease that explained those quite nicely. Viewpoints to the contrary we do indeed discriminate against, because we regard them as being unscientific and in many cases disproved.

One of the tests put forward by Dr Meyer of whether or not intelligent design theory was appropriate for the classroom, and I think I have this right, was how many scientists take the theory seriously. And clearly, he felt that if a sufficient number do take it seriously, then intelligent design theory should be put in the classroom. Now the interesting thing about that is, as Professor Numbers pointed out, is that when you do systematic searches for the number of papers on intelligent design theory or irreducible complexity that have appeared in the scientific literature, the number that usually comes up is 0. And what this suggests is that these points of view have not made any sort of case in the scientific community.

Meyer then said, well, even if not many scientists take it seriously, the important thing is that these are "controversial" issues. These are issues that are sufficiently controversial that they have drawn 300 of us here; and if there is legitimate controversy, and this is a legitimate controversy, you therefore ought to teach the controversy. Now, I point out that if we had a conference somewhere else, on astrology, we could likely draw many more than 300 people to it. Nonetheless, we would not propose that, therefore, we should teach astrology as an alternative to astronomy. We also do not propose that our medical schools should include the inclusion of Christian Science faith healing as an alternative to scientific medicine.

Incidentally, I heartily endorse Warren Nord's call for courses in comparative religion at the high school level. Religious studies are very important at the university level; I think that they are a fundamental part of the liberal education. He and I stand foursquare together on that one, and I think that it would be very important to do exactly the same thing at the high school level. But again, we would not say that because some people are witches and practice witchcraft, we should promote an artificial equivalence of witchcraft to established religions. And for that matter, we should not — merely because there is controversy in the minds of some — equate Holocaust denial to the authentic history of the Holocaust in the World War II era. And I do not think that anybody here would advocate that. The very existence of a controversy is not sufficient reason to teach it, when we think that controversy has no standing.

Finally, and this is really my last comment, how does new science actually find its way into the scientific classroom? Science changes over time. Scientific textbooks are constantly rewritten. New discoveries get in them time after time after time. In fact, today, as many of you know, the end of the initial phase of the Human Genome Project has just been announced by Celera and by the National Institutes of Health. That announcement, I assure you, is going right into every textbook that every author is in the process of writing or imagining.

So how does new science get into the textbook? The answer is, it gets in by winning the scientific consensus. When you decide what should be presented in the classroom, what you want to present in terms of astronomy or earth science or chemistry, is the scientific consensus on a point of view. That consensus should never be taught dogmatically; it should always be taught as tentative and subject to revision, because all science, including evolution, is tentative and subject to revision. But the fact of the matter is the way these new things get in is not by an act of Congress, not by an act of the state legislature, not even by an act of the state board of education. Rather, they get into the classroom, into the curriculum, and into textbooks by winning the battle for the scientific consensus.

And it is in the culture of science — the American Astronomical Society, the Geophysical Union, the American Society for Biochemistry, the American Society for Cell Biology (to which I belong) — that new ideas have to stand or fall. Bad science is routinely filtered out. Science that wins is not always correct, but it certainly has the scientific consensus behind it. And therefore, what I would urge the advocates of intelligent design to do is the sorts of things that real scientists do, and that is to forswear political action. Do not petition legislatures or state school boards, but simply to show up at scientific meetings, present papers, and argue the case in front of other scientists. Science is an open community, an open society, and if you win the scientific consensus, or even if you get a strong minority view, you will have papers, you will have peer-reviewed publications, you will have reasonable grounds, and you will begin to convince people.

As it turns out, however, the strategies that have been taken just in the last year against evolution have been in an entirely different direction: they have sought the protection of government. What I mean by that is that by acting through the government, the intelligent design movement has achieved temporary success in Louisiana, and limited success in Oklahoma, in putting disclaimers about evolution inside textbooks. Other movements have succeeded in getting state boards of education to remove evolution from the science curriculum in Kansas and also in Illinois. Illinois nobody noticed, but it certainly happened there, and similar moves are under way in a variety of other states. And what bothers me as an educator is to see people basically forswearing the scientific community as a venue in which to advocate what they claim are scientific ideas and instead choosing the agencies of government, sort of jumping around building a nonscientific consensus to get these ideas in the classroom.

Thomas Jefferson once observed that "Error alone requires the assistance of government. The truth can stand on its own." I think that is a good way to put my point.

Evolution: How Does It Fare in State K–12 Science Standards?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Evolution: How Does It Fare in State K–12 Science Standards?
Author(s): 
Lawrence S Lerner
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
44–46
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
"Accountability" has been the buzzword in public education for a decade or more. As a consequence, there has been much activity in writing curriculum standards — documents that list what students are expected to know at various grade levels from kindergarten through high school. In late 1997, I was asked by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation to assess the quality of the 36 state science standards then in existence. My report was published in March 1998 (Lerner 1998a) and summarized in this journal shortly thereafter (Lerner 1998b)

Things moved fast after that. By late 1999, so many state standards had been published, revised, or rewritten that a new standards review was prepared for publication in January 2000. By that time, 49 states had science standards. The 50th state, Iowa, does not publish any of its curriculum standards.

In the course of these studies of science standards, it became clear that evolution was a touchy topic, as evidenced by the treatment to which it was subjected in not a few states. It also became clear, moreover, that I had been quite wrong in what I had written in RNCSE in 1998:
Moreover, except for the issues surrounding the teaching of evolution that arise in a relatively small number of states, the sciences do not seem to be plagued with the political-ideological infighting concerning content that characterizes some of the other areas, notably history and English literature.
Indeed, politics had impinged on instruction in most if not all subjects taught in the schools, science not excepted. This was made explicit in two recent publications which reviewed such political pressures throughout the curriculum (Gross 2000; Levitt 1999). We therefore resolved to make a special study focused on the treatment of evolution and the consequences thereof for science instruction in general. This study (Lerner 2000) was published in September 2000.

It is perhaps repeating the obvious to note that proper teaching of evolution is crucial to decent instruction in the life sciences, for which it is the central organizing principle. Readers of this journal will understand why proper teaching of evolution is so important to science instruction in general as well as to the historical sciences — biology, geology, and cosmology — in particular. With this in mind, I constructed a list of things students ought to learn about evolution as they move from the primary grades (for example, offspring are similar to but not exactly like their parents) through the middle grades (for example, variability among individuals of a species leads to differential survivability in a given environment) to the high-school grades, where a comprehensive, explicit treatment of evolution across all aspects of the biological sciences is appropriate (Gross 2000).

In responding to creationist pressures to obscure or eliminate evolution from their standards, some states have used one or more ploys. The most common are these:
  • The standards include many of the central principles of evolution — usually briefly — but the word evolution is carefully avoided. Inaccurate and misleading euphemisms such as "change over time" are used instead of the "E-word."
  • Biological evolution is simply ignored. Geological evolution, the history of the solar system, and cosmology may well be treated, often even employing the word evolution. Fossils are sometimes mentioned, but only in the context of geology, not biology.
  • Evolution of plants and animals is treated to some degree but human evolution is ignored.
  • All scientific discussions that imply an old earth or universe are deleted. Kansas is the only state to do this completely, but Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia come close.
  • Creationist jargon is used. In Alabama, all textbooks are required to carry a disclaimer that calls evolution "controversial" and labels it "a theory, not a fact." The disclaimer also cites a number of other standard creationist ploys. The details of this approach are discussed below.
  • Some or all of the historical sciences are treated lightly but no attempt is made to elucidate the connections among them.
With both the requirements of good instruction and the strategies above in mind, I assembled a list of criteria that could be evaluated on a point scale. The criteria were:
  • Is the "E-word used where appropriate? (0–20 points)
  • Is biological evolution treated properly? (0–40 points)
  • Is human evolution treated? (0–10 points)
  • Is geological evolution treated? 0–20 points)
  • Is cosmology treated? (0–10 points)
  • Are the connections among the historical sciences treated? (0–10 points)
  • Is creationist jargon used? (-20–0 points)
  • Is a textbook disclaimer mandated? (-25–0 points)
Each of the 49 states (and the District of Columbia) that have science standards was thus rated and assigned a point score, which was translated into the traditional letter grades A through F. (Kansas, the only state to achieve a negative score, was awarded a disgraceful F-minus.) Table I shows the distribution of letter grades. In each category, the states are listed in the order of their scores.

Table I: Distribution of Grades For Treatment of Evolution

GradeABCDFF-minus
Number of States91576121
StatesCA, CT, IN, NJ, NC, RI, SC, DE, HICO, MN, VT, WA, MI, AZ, ID, MA, MO, MT, PA, OR, SD, UT, DCMD, NM, NV, NY, NE, LA, TXAR, KY, WI, VA, AK, ILWY, ME, OH, OK, NH, FL, AL, ND, GA, MS, TN, WVKS
In the absence of such an evaluation, it would be easy — and wrong — to guess that the states treating evolution poorly are mainly in the Bible Belt. There is indeed a concentration of poor performance in those states, but the reality is more complex. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Indiana, on the one hand, have standards that treat evolution excellently, and Louisiana and Texas squeak by with very mediocre but acceptable treatments. Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Illinois, on the other hand, have poor-to-bad standards. Good science education is not simply a geographical issue. This is important, because it is a snobbish as well as damaging misconception to shrug one's shoulders and write off the inhabitants of this or that region as incorrigible or ineducable.

The good news is that 31 states — just under one-third — achieved passing grades. But we should not be too sanguine about this. Given the abundance of educational models and the wide variety of approaches to excellence that they offer, there is no reason for any state to do less well than the 6 that achieved perfect scores and the 3 others that came close.

Fortunately, the activity in standards writing and revision has not flagged; many states are busy with improvements. Arizona and New Mexico have only recently fought off creationist attempts to remove evolution from their state standards. As is well known, the voters of Kansas have unceremoniously dumped enough creationists from their state board of education to give strong expectations that Dorothy will soon return from Oz. And there are signs of constructive activity in other poorly rated states as well. On the other hand, the most recent changes in Pennsylvania's proposed science education standards weakened the presence of evolution by introducing inappropriate qualifiers and "hedges" in several sections.

This is not to say unbridled optimism is warranted. Creationism has repeatedly waxed and waned over the United States ever since the notorious Scopes trial of 1925, and will doubtless continue to do so. In particular, the "intelligent-design" creationists are making a vigorous and well-funded effort to influence public-school science teaching at every level. To date their successes have been limited, but they seem to be gradually shouldering out the more traditional but less sophisticated young-earth creationists who, up to the present, have had much more influence. Nevertheless, most young people in the United States have a fair chance to learn biology, and by extension, the other sciences as well.

[Fordham Foundation publications cited below are available on the Internet at http://www.edexcellence.net; single free copies may be obtained by calling the toll-free number 888-823-7474.]

References

Gross P. Politicizing Science Education. Washington (DC): The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2000.

Lerner LR. State Science Standards: An Appraisal of Science Standards In 36 States. Washington (DC): The Thomas B Fordham Foundation, 1998a.

Lerner LR. K-12 science standards, state by state, Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998b Jan/Feb; 18(1): 25-6.

Lerner LR. The State of State Standards 2000. Washington (DC): The Thomas B Fordham Foundation, 2000.

Levitt N. Prometheus Bedeviled, New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 1999.