President Bush recently expressed support for the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. “Both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about,” he said, adding, “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes” — an apparent shift in his educational philosophy given his administration’s support for abstinence-only sex education.

Jesse Singal

Evolution is often bashed on a false premise. “If it’s just a theory,” certain people ask, “why can’t it be taught alongside intelligent design, which is also a theory?” This represents a lack of understanding with regard to the nomenclature of science. By the time an idea obtains the title of “theory” in the scientific community, its foundational facts, having been observed and tested in controlled settings, are well-established.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity isn’t called Einstein’s Fact of Relativity, but that doesn’t mean any respectable physicist would challenge its basic results and predictions, which have been tested in a number of famous (to physicists, at least) experiments. The same is true for evolution.

The use of the word “theory” is simply a reflection of the modestly that underlies all good science; no idea is invincible, and if a new theory arises that can account for an older theory’s results while doing a better job of adapting to newly discovered information, the new will subsume the old. It’s a bit like, well, evolution.

Intelligent design, which states that the sheer complexity of biology can only be explained by some sort of intelligent force, is not a scientific theory, primarily because it is not falsifiable. Unfalsifiability, a hallmark of almost all pseudoscientific “theories,” means that there is no way to set up an experiment that could show the idea to be wrong. How do you prove the absence of a supernatural force? You can’t. Because of this, intelligent design is as out of place in a science classroom as a salsa lesson would be in a cooking class.

There’s another controversial debate raging within certain public schools. The New York Times recently reported that “more than 175,000 students in 312 school districts in 37 states” now have access to Bible classes in their public schools. This is largely due to the efforts of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, an advocacy group whose agenda is pretty self-explanatory.

The national council claims that its classes are nonsectarian and do not infringe upon the constitutional separation of church and state that is a prerequisite for any public school curriculum. It also stated that it “is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students.”

It’s hard to take these claims seriously given that, among other clear examples of the courses being offered favoring religion over fact, some of the children in these “nonsectarian” courses are taught that “documented research through NASA” backs a scriptural passage asserting the earth once stood still. Further indicting the national council is the fact that its “efforts are endorsed by … Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council” — organizations that disseminate a Biblical agenda rather openly.

Much overlap certainly exists between the groups seeking to force intelligent design on science teachers and the groups backing or lauding the national council. Their goal isn’t particularly complicated: They want their version of Christianity to have its hands in everything. President Bush framing the current fracas over evolution as a “debate” is laughable. There is no debate, among respected scientists, about evolution. Intelligent design is a sweetened version of creationism that is designed to slip past the guards of the church-state divide. Or, as a Kansas professor once put it, it is “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” Who could possibly argue that an idea that has so little to do with actual, hard science has any place in a classroom?

It is a dangerous time for the educational system. Most of the evangelicals behind these efforts would be loath to describe themselves as relativists — the term is anathema to those who claim to understand absolutes like virtue, truth and goodness. But in their attempts to challenge scientific findings that don’t comport to their worldview, they are setting up a frightening, Orwellian system in which “truth” is malleable — not to be determined by the experts in a particular field, but rather by those with the political clout to convince the public that debate exists where there really is none.

 

Singal can be reached at jsingal@umich.edu.

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