I'm not sure I fully understand what exactly intelligent design means," explained Ohio's hapless governor, Bob Taft, recently. At least he was honest.
A lack of knowledge about intelligent design hasn't stopped many politicians and pundits from condemning it. Howard Dean, for example, has asserted that "there's no factual evidence for intelligent design," although it's doubtful he knows anything about the concept.
It's not just politicians and pundits who have dismissed intelligent design based on ignorance; so have some scientists. The most notable example is the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which passed a resolution declaring intelligent design unscientific in 2002.
After the resolution was issued, I surveyed association board members about what articles and books they had read by proponents of intelligent design. Of the four who responded, none could identify even a single article or book.
While one board member said she had perused unspecified sources on the Internet, Alan Leshner, the head of the association, couldn't even make that claim. He responded that the issue had been looked at by the group's "science policy staff."
Now there's a novel way to determine the validity of a new scientific theory: Don't investigate the evidence for yourself.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the discussion over intelligent design is that it is hampered not just by ignorance, but also by serious misunderstandings about what the theory proposes and what its supporters want.
The first misunderstanding is the belief that intelligent design is based on religion rather than science. Intelligent design is a scientific inference based on empirical evidence, not on religious texts. The theory proposes that many of the most intricate features of the natural world (like the amazing molecular machines within the cell) are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process like natural selection.
Although controversial, design theory is supported by a growing number of scientists in academic and scientific journals, scientific conference proceedings and academic and scientific books. While intelligent design may have religious implications (just like Darwin's theory), it does not start from religious premises.
A second misunderstanding is that proponents of intelligent design are crusading to have it required in public schools. In fact, they are doing the opposite. Discovery Institute, the nation's leading research organization supporting intelligent design scholars, strongly opposes efforts to mandate the theory. Intelligent design is relatively new, and it is important to allow scientific discussion to proceed unhampered by political or legal disputes. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and hinder fair and open discussion of its merits among scholars and within the scientific community.
A third misunderstanding is that there are widespread efforts to mandate the teaching of intelligent design by legislators and school board members. What most states are actually considering is not teaching design, but teaching the weaknesses as well as the strengths of modern Darwinian theory. This is the approach adopted in the science standards of Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico. It's also the approach under consideration by the Kansas State Board of Education, which earlier this year heard testimony critical of Darwin's theory from professors of biology, genetics and biochemistry at mainstream academic institutions such as the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin.
Ironically, while scholars supporting intelligent design are not seeking to impose their views, opponents are increasingly trying to silence critics of Darwin's theory using coercion and intimidation.
At George Mason University in Virginia, biology professor Caroline Crocker was banned earlier this year from teaching about intelligent design in her classes.
At the Smithsonian Institution, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, the editor of a respected biology journal, faced retaliation by Smithsonian executives after accepting for publication a peer-reviewed article favoring intelligent design. Federal investigators concluded last month that "it is ... clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Dr. Sternberg]... out of the [Smithsonian]."
When asked about Mr. Sternberg's plight by The Washington Post, Eugenie Scott of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education seemed to suggest that Mr. Sternberg was lucky more wasn't done to get rid of him: "If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?"
The same burn-them-at-the-stake approach is being applied to scientists who criticize Darwin without raising the issue of intelligent design. At the Mississippi University for Women, chemistry professor Nancy Bryson was removed as head of the division of natural sciences in 2003 after merely presenting scientific criticisms of biological and chemical evolution to a seminar of honors students.
Biology professor P.Z. Myers at the University of Minnesota has even demanded "the public firing and humiliation of some teachers" who express doubts about Darwin.
Defenders of Darwin's theory typically justify their efforts to silence dissenting scientists by equating any criticism of Darwin's theory to believing in a flat Earth or denying that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yet such comparisons are specious.
Last time I checked, hundreds of reputable scientists weren't expressing skepticism that the Earth is round. Yet there are now more than 400 scientists with doctorates who openly express skepticism that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random mutation is sufficient to account for the complexity of life. Many are science professors at major research universities like Princeton, Ohio State and MIT.
National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell points out that "scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory," but he adds that "some of my scientific colleagues are very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of problems with evolutionary theory to the general public. They display an almost religious zeal for a strictly Darwinian view."
Supporters of intelligent design are willing to disavow misguided efforts to impose it by government fiat. Defenders of Darwinism likewise need to reject efforts to enforce their views by trampling on academic freedom and free speech.
The validity of intelligent design – and, for that matter, of Darwin's theory – should be decided through fair and open debate, not through legislation enacted by its friends or witch hunts conducted by its foes.
John G. West is associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute and an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.