Sean Parr
The non-objection that intelligent design is non-science
By Sean Parr
July 19, 2017

On July 13th, the Palm Beach Post published a "Point of View" contribution by author (and Miami-Dade County public school science teacher) Bertha Vasquez on the topic of a new Florida law (CS/HB 989) which extends the rights of citizens to "challenge what's taught in their local schools." The main thrust of Ms. Vasquez's effort was twofold:
    (1) CS/HB 989, though seemingly noble, is nothing more than a beard for ushering "a non-scientific agenda" into public school curriculum.

    (2) Intelligent Design (ID) is non-science.
Before these points are addressed, however, some terminology needs to be defined. Proponents of ID theory define it as an attempt "to answer the question: what justifies us in inferring that design is the best explanation of some phenomenon?" How ID theorists answer this question is interesting, but beside the present point. What's significant is that these theorists insist, convincingly, that ID (which cannot allow for qualities such as the designer's moral character or eternality to be inferred) is not identical to creationism (which posits the God of the Bible as the designer). This, importantly, leaves the door open to the possibility of other sorts of intelligent agents being responsible for biological life and diversity (a form of ID to which even Richard Dawkins isn't averse).

Now, what can be said against the above two points? Well, it seems, four things.

1. It makes little difference if either (or both) of the objections are true.

Let's grant that the purpose of CS/HB 989 is really to sneak in disciplines that are wholly separate from science. Now we're in position to ask the truly important question:


So what?

Where did this rigid "science only" requirement come from? Is there no place in the public-school system for history? How about music? Language Arts? Do these insidious, non-scientific agendas draw any ire from our author? Of course not. It's an objection that's as flatly silly as it is presumptuous.

Suppose, again, the truth of the second point; namely, that ID is non-science.

Does it therefore follow that there is no place for it in the public-school system? Well, obviously, not (lest we insist that science is the only thing worth learning). Some ID proponents have even argued that the design inference is not a scientific, but a philosophical one and, as such, ID ought to be taught not in science, but in philosophy classrooms. (For some reason, I get the sneaking suspicion that even this principled and reasonable alternative would be met with hostility from the secular crowd.)

The point that needs to be underscored here is this: what's significant is not whether ID is science, but whether ID is true.

2. Ms. Vazquez doesn't give us any good reasons in her essay for thinking that ID is not science.

She simply asserts that ID is "incorrect" and "does not hold up to scientific rigor," but, of course, merely averring something is not tantamount to making a case for it. In fact, rather than offering anything to commend her claim, she opts instead to condescendingly define "science" and "theory" for her readers as if we were all of us seventh-graders. Alas, this tedium was not extended to include the definitions of "ID" and "creationism," and so Ms. Vasquez often conflated these very distinct terms leaving her ill-prepared to navigate around two massive icebergs of error.

What are these errors?

To begin with, it's implied that ID has not been put through the rigors of peer-review and, as such, has no place being taught to science students. Without going into the dubious merit that recognition in peer-reviewed literature bestows upon scientific ideas, we can simply and matter-of-factly state that this is false; ID has a healthy track record in the journal literature (for whatever that's worth). Interestingly, Darwin's On the Origin of Species was not subjected to the peer-review process prior to its publication.

The second error is revealed when ID is characterized as being "against evolution" or "an alternative to evolution." Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has brought attention to the accordion-like nature of the term evolution (e.g., it can be expanded or contracted to mean different things in different contexts) and listed a few of its discrete meanings. If we consider just the widely-recognized, innocuous definition – namely, that "present day organisms are descended from organisms that lived earlier with modifications" – then there simply is no dispute between ID and evolution. In fact, the Discovery Institute believes that evolution coverage in textbooks ought to be increased and that "evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues."

For ID proponents and opponents alike, the most glaring of these unresolved issues, what the science is not settled around, occurs when the term evolution is defined much more narrowly and taken to entail Neo-Darwinism. The claim that the dual-mechanism of natural selection and random mutation alone account for the biological complexity witnessed in nature is a live and contested issue in the literature, even among naturalists (and even this Neo-Darwinistic definition of evolution is logically compatible with theism if "random" is defined so as not to preclude a designer-intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process).

In her failure to defeat ID on the basis of these two erroneous charges, Ms. Vasquez has demonstrated that the concern of J.S. Mill is most certainly applicable to her: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."

3. The tables can be turned a bit in order to make the case that Neo-Darwinism, when argued for in a certain manner, is itself not science.

If proponents of the explanatory mechanism of natural selection and random mutation define the term random so as to mean "undirected" or "purposeless," then they are, quite blatantly, arriving at conclusions which are not accessible by the scientific method. How could they know that such mutations occur wholly by chance? Science can't establish that. Don't get me wrong, a scientist could argue that there is absolutely no way that the whole evolutionary scheme was "set up by a provident God to arrive at homo sapiens on planet Earth." But she would not be arguing as a scientist or on the basis of scientific evidence. She would then be engaged in philosophy.

4. A case can be made that there is a place for ID in science classrooms.

What good reasons do we have for thinking, contrary to Ms. Vasquez, that ID is in fact science? Well, for starters, researchers maintain that ID, as a scientific theory, "employs the methods commonly used by other historical sciences to conclude that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause." Scientist and attorney Casey Luskin has even deigned (with much exasperation, I'm sure) to demonstrate, step-by-step, the manner in which ID conforms to and follows the scientific method.

William Dembski – ID theorist, mathematician, and author of The Design Inference – has argued that "biological organisms exhibit just that combination of high improbability and conformity to an independently given pattern" that scientifically justifies an inference to intelligent design.

Also, and interestingly, Richard Dawkins (the only authority on the subject of biological evolution that Ms. Vasquez bothers to reference in her essay) acknowledges that ID is "a scientific hypothesis which should be assessed as such."

Whether an inference to design in biology is scientific or philosophical is really a distraction, and attempts to obstruct ID's inclusion into school curricula on this basis seem desperate and ring hollow. Let's instead focus our efforts on discerning which explanation of biological complexity best conforms to reality. My guess is that the best way of doing this, of getting closer to the Truth, is to actually wrestle with the opposition view.

And allow our students to do the same.

© Sean Parr


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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