Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why "Intelligent Design" Still Lives

Slate's Will Saletan asks "where to go from Dover"? He has some interesting answers about where the debate over so-called "intelligent design" goes from here. But he's left unanswered the bigger question of which scientific advance will provide the next challenge to historically unchallenged religious teaching. There are two answers. Both will redefine everything. But one will merely change the universe. The other, far more significantly, will change the world.

But first, Dover revisited. Saletan (whom I'm pretty sure was one of our guests when I was working on Jeff Greenfield's CNN program) seems to have cheated by reading Judge John Jones' entire opinion. These days, that practically counts as investigative journalism.

But Saletan (who is, as they say, A Smart Guy) stumbles a bit, I think, in his critique of Jones' opinion. He says:

The "contrived dualism" objection pretty much captures what's wrong with ID. But it also captures what's wrong with Jones' opinion. "Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion," he writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, "was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause." Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.
The "contrived dualism" to which Saletan refers is the implication by "ID" supporters that there are only two explanations for biological complexity -- evolution and "intelligent design" -- and that, therefore, where evolution fails, "intelligent design" must reign. But this alleged dualism (which we see in the "god of the gaps" fallacy) is NOT what's wrong with "ID."

What's wrong with "ID" is not some logical fallacy in its juxtaposition with evolution. What's wrong with "ID" is that it's wrong. It's both empirically wrong and a priori wrong -- any "theory" that complex stuff is so complex it must have been designed by something complex which can not be explained deserves to get laughed out of kindergarten, not dignified with a refutation as highfalutin as "contrived dualism."

And Jones doesn't assume "any" unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden. He marshals considerable evidence not just that "ID" is intrinsically, irreducibly unscientific, but that its genesis was overtly, intentionally, intrinsically, irreducibly religious.

Saletan goes on:
Jones acts like it's no big deal to declare ID unscientific, since science is just one kind of learning. "Supernatural explanations may be important and have merit," he says. "ID arguments may be true," could have "veracity," and possibly "should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed." But if unscientific theories are religious, and religion can't be taught, it's unclear how notions related to ID could be debated in schools, or how their truth or merit could be entertained. And that's bad news for science, because it offers people with creationist sympathies—roughly half the American public—no outlet in the public education system outside of the science classroom.
Boo fuckin' hoo. Is it bad news for racists that they're denied outlets in public-education discussions of slavery? Is it bad news for UFO enthusiasts that they're denied outlets in public-education discussions of the pyramids? Is it bad news for me that Petty Larseny isn't in curricula around the country? No one has ever argued or ruled that "intelligent design" ought not to be discussed in public schools. It should (as Saletan goes on to suggest) be discussed in Social Studies classes. It also would serve very well as a fitting example of how the scientific method renders some alleged theories unworkable on their face. Religion can be taught, and should, as a social force, not as theology or cosmology. And definitely not as biology.

More Saletan:
As Jones makes clear, the Dover case is lousy with evidence of explicit religious motivation on the part of local ID proponents. But is ID, by virtue of being unscientific, wholly and inherently religious—or is there, contrary to the judge's dualism, a third category?
There is, though, as I said, I think Saletan has misread Jones. Jones doesn't assume "ID" to be unscientific and THEREFORE religious. Jones has determined "ID" to be unscientific AND religious. Religion is a subset of unscientificness and nothing I've seen from Jones suggests that he's not open to the existence of a non-religious subset of unscientificness. Regardless, Saletan makes an important point about "ID"'s future:
Statements by ID leaders "reveal ID's religious, philosophical, and cultural content," [Jones] writes. A strategy document developed by the "Center for Renewal of Science and Culture" is full of "cultural and religious goals, as opposed to scientific ones." Proponents of ID fear "evolution's threat to culture and society," and the Dover board's collaborators have "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions." Cultural, cultural, cultural. Not scientific, not necessarily religious, but cultural.

Is the pseudo-science of creationism ultimately being driven by religion? Or is this brand of religion, in turn, being driven by cultural anxieties? Is it possible to open a conversation with these folks and their kids, not in biology class but in, say, social studies?
What's puzzling about Saletan's conclusion here is his use of the word "or." It feels as though he wants us to experience this choice as a profound insight into the nature of the "ID" conflict, but the reality is that virtually every significant religion is inextricably intertwined with its host culture. (Natural selection abets the survival of religions that evolve parasitic traits.) The Christian right is certainly both a religious and cultural movement. But I'm not sure what Saletan has bought us by suggesting we see it not as the former, but as the latter. I think he's suggesting that the issue can be defused, and approached from a scholarly viewpoint. In which case, it's a really naive argument to advance, given how consistently the Christian right wields its religion as the shield of its unchallengeable exceptionalism. Look at what happened to the class in Kansas that proposed discussing creationism as a cultural phenomenon. And that was a college-level course.

Saletan's next, concluding paragraph is particularly confusing. See if you have the same trouble I did:
According to Jones, the founder of the ID movement has written that evolution contradicts "every word in the Bible." Every word? You mean, including the part about not killing or stealing? No wonder so many people cling to creationism. And no wonder scientists and judges can't make it go away.
Saletan seems to undercut the argument he made in the previous paragraph. As he suggests, the proponents of "ID" have made damn sure to cast this discussion in religious, specifically Christian, specifically Biblical terms -- when they're talking to supporters. When they're talking to the outside world, they mask "ID" as something else. But the reality is that, to its supporters, "Intelligent Design" isn't a scientific issue. It isn't an empirical issue. It's a MORAL issue.

What Saletan -- and maybe Jones -- doesn't get is that the only way this country will succeed in killing off "ID" and other creationist mutations, is not by making logical, fact-based arguments. The "ID" proponents have revealed themselves not just immune to, but dismissive of, reason and fact-based reality. No, the only hope of killing "intelligent design" is to acknowledge that it really is a moral issue. But it's not just about the alleged morals of serving an alleged deity, it's about the morals of serving our real country and our real children. If we really want to kill creationism, it may be time, as I've written before, to confront this issue not based on the facts behind it, but based on the reality ahead of it; to portray it as a choice, with the lives of our children at stake. Because that's what it is.

(PS: I haven't forgotten my pledge to discuss the next scientific/religious battles; I just got a little more caught up in Saletan than I expected. Stay tuned!)

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