I hadn’t planned to write about intelligent design this week, but I feel compelled by St. Sen. Mike Mazzei’s recent opining in Sunday’s Edmond Sun. The senator headed his article, “Students have a right to hear ID theory.” He went on to characterize the notion labeled “intelligent design” that came out of the conservative think-tank in Seattle called Discovery Institute as “an alternative scientific theory.” The notion makes the claim that nature is so complex that it must have been designed in its present form by an intelligence, an argument first put forth by a minister named Paley in the 19th century. The idea, according to its proponents, applies not just to the universe, but to everything in it, including biological entities, and is offered as an alternative explanation for biological diversity to the theory of evolution.

Intelligent design arose out of the discomfort of religious conservatives with repeated court findings that Biblical creationism including so-called scientific creationism cannot be taught in the public schools. Since it is religious in origin it violates the constitution’s establishment clause. However, the most recent case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987), was taken by the religious fundamentalists as an opening, since the opinion recognized that the public schools may teach legitimate theories, including alternatives to currently accepted theory. That opinion does not say that religious ideas may be taught if they are called theories, but that’s what the intelligent design promoters are trying to do. But intelligent design isn’t a theory. Let me explain why, and also why the senator is wrong in his other arguments as well. I’ll also explain how the concept can be legally discussed in the public schools.

The claim that intelligent design is a theory corrupts the meaning of theory. As a practicing scientist, I know a theory to be a body of knowledge that explains a natural phenomenon. A theory contains factual information, hypotheses and models. These collectively explain an observation. A well-known, though poorly understood example, is the theory of relativity, which explains the observed structure and function of the known universe. Another theory is Newtonian mechanics, which explains why the moon doesn’t fall on the earth, and why some heavenly objects do. It also makes it possible for an engineer to calculate how much steel is needed in a bridge, or how much fuel an airplane will require to make a given trip. Day in and day out, at the university where I teach, I help students to understand cell theory, which explains how cells work. Notice, by the way, that the theory and the object it explains (cell theory and the cell) have the same name.

All the examples I used in the previous paragraph have something that intelligent design lacks. That is, they are legitimate attempts to understand how a phenomenon observed in nature works. Beyond that, they make predictions, rather precise ones, about particular points in nature. The big bang became a theory and was accepted when it predicted that a particular kind of radiation would be found in the universe, and indeed, that was found to be true. The theory of plate tectonics was accepted as an explanation for the structure and behavior of the earth’s crust when it predicted particular measurements, which worked out. So now we understand earthquakes. Not being able to say exactly when the next one will occur is beside the point.

Despite the claims that intelligent design is a theory, it has made no predictions. But evolution has made all sorts of predictions, including that we would find the transitional fossils that link whales to the hippopotamus, that pesticide resistance would become common in crop pests and that transitional fossils between wolves and dogs would be found around late stone age village sites in the Middle East.

Like Newton, the renaissance physicist who developed the original theory of gravity, when he failed to explain certain orbital behaviors but instead said that some things are beyond our understanding and must be left to God, those who promote intelligent design as an alternative to evolution are making the claim that we are unable to understand, and therefore, we must give up. Well, maybe that applies to some of us.

Mazzei asks several questions that creationists have used in the past to confuse the public about the nature of science and the nature of explanations. One of his questions is “how the natural conditions on the Earth could be so perfectly suited to supporting human life.” Well, data from geology tell us that human life is a fairly recent phenomenon on earth, say less than 2 million years old, while the earth itself is some 4.6 billion years old. During much of that time, it was not at all well suited to human life, and all the best evidence is that it will not always be so in the future. Humans cannot breathe poisonous gases, for example, nor can they survive temperatures such as existed over much of the earth during some (not all) of the ice ages. The earth’s current climate fits us, mostly because we evolved under its influence.

If we want Oklahoma school children to be the best educated around we will not go down this road. Any law ultimately will be found unconstitutional, Oklahoma can ill afford to spend the money to carry on a court battle, and Oklahoma’s children will suffer by being taught false science.

Now, can intelligent design be brought up, examined, discussed in public schools, under the law? Is it constitutional for teachers to raise it? Sure. Science teachers can mention it, as I do in the college classes I teach, where I point out the public and political interest in it, and the attempts to force its teaching. But they must, if they are to maintain academic integrity, also do as I do, and point out the fallacy of the claim that it is science, and explain why it would be professional irresponsibility on their part to teach that it is a theory offering a legitimate scientific explanation for the diversity of life.

Other teachers, in social science, philosophy, literature, government can also bring up intelligent design, discuss and analyze the social phenomenon, or the writing supporting it as logical argument. In fact, a University of Kansas philosophy professor recently proposed to do just that in a new course.

I was asked today if we could suppress the examination of other ideas through a constitutional argument. I was hard pressed to think of anything other than religion that fit the model, and it is not suppression of religion that keeps intelligent design out of the science classroom. It is that we cannot under the constitution promote religion, and that science teachers can only teach and advocate science.

In fact, the question as to whether God exists is commonly used in science classes as an example of the sort of question that science cannot investigate, because of course, the question has no definitive answer in the natural world.

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