Intelligent Design in the Classroom?

[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.
Intelligent Design in the Classroom?
Kenneth R Miller
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