Saturday, 5 December 2009

View From the Pulpit - Denis Alexander

Intelligent design is not science

The science classroom in schools is for the teaching of the science curriculum, not for the teaching of non-scientific ideas. Science should not be loaded with ideological excess baggage. Scientific theories are limited in their explanatory scope to the task in hand: to provide conceptual "maps" that render specific data-sets coherent. And this is how they should be taught.

Darwinian evolution is the best explanation that we have to explain the origins of all biological diversity, both past and present. There is currently no serious rival theory, although there is plenty of debate about the details.

Unfortunately evolution since Darwin has often been used in support of a wide range of social, political and religious agendas, many of them mutually exclusive, including capitalism, communism, eugenics, racism, theism, atheism, feminism and militarism. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked: Darwin "had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind". It is therefore important that evolution should be taught as a scientific theory and not with any 'ism attached.

Alastair Noble has recently suggested that "intelligent design" should be taught in the science classroom as an alternative to evolution since it represents science rather than religion. Intelligent design is the idea that some biological entities (like the bacterial flagellum) are so complex that they could not have come into being by a gradual evolutionary process. They are therefore deemed to be "irreducibly complex" and so display "design", thereby pointing to a "designer".

Since intelligent design is a US export to the UK, it is salutary to study attempts to bring the teaching of intelligent design into the US school classroom. This led to the infamous Dover trial (2005) presided over by Judge Jones, a practicing Lutheran appointed by President Bush. After exhaustive investigation, the judge ruled that intelligent design could not be taught in the classroom because it was "not science" and failed to "meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations".

I think Judge Jones was correct in his ruling. It is a simple matter of fact that intelligent design forms no part of contemporary science. Scientific ideas gain acceptance not through public vote but via the hard road of publishing peer-reviewed papers in science journals. Since intelligent design does not lead to testable ideas (how would you test the idea that the flagellum is "designed'"?), not surprisingly it has generated no fruitful research programme.

So teaching intelligent design in the science classroom as if it were considered within the scientific community as a rival theory to evolution would be misleading. A primary concern of Christians is to tell the truth about God's creation. In fact Christians who are scientists see that as part of their worship. Of course we all know that scientific theories do not provide us with the "final story" – theories themselves develop as our understanding grows. But science education practiced with integrity will convey actual current science, not some private fad of the teacher.

There is another reason why Christians are against the teaching of intelligent design: because it promotes a non-Christian understanding of God as creator. In the Christian understanding, God is seen as the composer and conductor of the whole "music of life" in all its completeness. Intelligent design instead promotes a "designer-of-the-gaps" in which the "designer" is used to plug the current gaps in scientific knowledge, a "designer" that will inevitably fade away as the gaps close.

By all means discuss such religious and philosophical ideas in the RE or philosophy class. But let's keep the science classroom for science.

From the Guardian.

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