Intelligent design on trial

It’s unfortunate that intelligent design is standing trial in Pennsylvania. Scientific theories require decades, sometimes centuries, to develop, to withstand scrutiny before they are accepted as legitimate. Trying to force acceptance – or denial – quickly is an end-run around the scientific method and the spirit of free inquiry. Whatever the lower courts decide about whether intelligent design can be mentioned in public schools, the controversy will probably reach the Supreme Court, which will be asked to determine what is scientific and what is not.
Clearly, the Dover Area School District, by forcing the issue with its requirement that teachers read a four-paragraph “statement” identifying intelligent design as an alternative theory to Darwinian evolution, has done neither science nor students any favors. Intelligent design is a proposition in a state of infancy, and has not earned a place in public school curriculums. A wide range of alternative propositions are never taught precisely because there is no structure to challenge prevailing opinion. That doesn’t mean the alternatives are wrong; but students should learn first the best explanation, given what is known. Despite its many flaws, Darwinian evolution remains the standard.

It’s no surprise that 11 Dover parents, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is ever eager to advance atheism as secular theology, sued the school district on the grounds that intelligent design is “a 21st century version of creationism.” In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violates the Constitution’s establishment clause, separating church and state. Both critics and proponents with no advanced scientific degree, who have so eagerly judged the supernatural premises of intelligent design, only demonstrate their political or religious biases. We note, however, that the leading intelligent design think tank, the Discovery Institute, opposes efforts to include the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. “Misguided policies like the one adopted by the Dover School District are likely to be politically divisive and hinder a fair and open discussion of the merits of intelligent design among scholars and within the scientific community,” the institute says.

A ruling against the school board now, or by the Supreme Court later on, would effectively cast all intelligent design theorists as enemies of science – the worst possible outcome. “What we recommend,” the institute says, “is that teachers and students study more about Darwinian evolution, not only the evidence that supports the theory, but also scientific criticisms of the theory.” Any open mind would find this entirely reasonable.

Criticizing Charles Darwin does not make one a creationist, despite the allegations of many Darwinists, whose arguments often are reduced to petty ad hominem attacks. But instead of allowing for straight criticism, the Dover school district has promoted a single, countervailing proposition, opening it up to a premature dismissal by a federal judge. This is not how science works.