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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Really intelligent design...

There is just one thing the current president has done we can all approve: nominating John E. Jones to the federal bench in Pennsylvania. Judge Jones yesterday issued a history-making decision in Kitzmiller et. al. v. Dover School Board--aka the "intelligent design" case--which genuinely exhibits intelligent design. By taking the time to write a 139p review of both the evidence presented at trial and the history of the arguments over science and religion, Jones has done the American public an enormous service. He recounts the history of the campaign to impose Christianity on the teaching of biology and exposes the mendacity of its architects. His job was made easier by the fact that the Dover board members who abdicated their duties as elected representatives in order to pursue sectarian aims--and to lie under oath about their intentions--proved to be stupid and uninformed. Jones even properly criticizes the waste of taxpayers' money they caused. The ruling is likely to end the career of the "intelligent design" scam; but it may achieve an even greater benefit by provoking a discussion of what science is and, better still, what a theory really does. Many people ignorantly suppose that a theory is just some sort of speculation. A theory proposes testable explanations of natural phenomena. Science is the enterprise of performing that testing. "Intelligent design" is NOT a theory, since it proposes nothting that can be tested. Three years ago the Discovery Institute--a right-wing project to foster the ID campaign--offered large cash awards to any lab or scientist who proposed a research project to support ID; none have been submitted because there's nothing to test. So this is the best news Americans have had in decades...jb    


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan Haack


The question before Judge Jones, of course, was not whether “Intelligent Design Theory” should be taught in Dover public schools, but whether the School Board’s proposed “evolution disclaimer” is constitutional. His arguments on this point were, for me, a lesson in the complexities of Establishment-Clause jurisprudence. His belt-and-braces approach results in a convincing argument that the proposed evolution disclaimer constitutes an improper state endorsement of religion, and that both its purpose and its effect would be improperly to advance religion.

But what I have most admired in my reading so far is Judge Jones’s unremittingly common-sense scrutiny of the relevant facts: his comparison (following the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert Dr. Forrest) of pre- and post-Edwards versions of the ID text to which students were to be referred, Of Pandas and People, revealing unmistakably that though there had been changes in wording, there were no real changes in content - so that what the current version of the book presents is nothing but a thinly-disguised form of creationism; his patient dissection of the irregularities and shenanigans at School Board meetings to get the disclaimer through; his shrewd comments about the effect on students of being told of the theory of evolution, but not of anything else they are taught in science classes, that it has “gaps and problems”; and his staunch resistance to that false dichotomy of evolution vs. ID, and to that misleading use of “theory” to suggest “mere opinion or hunch.”

But inevitably there are some points on which I have reservations.

Section 4 of the ruling is headed “Whether ID is Science.” I wished the “problem of demarcation” – which was, in my opinion, a pointless preoccupation of too much twentieth-century philosophy of science (and now, since Daubert, has been something of a preoccupation of U.S. courts) - was less prominent. From a constitutional point of view, after all, the issue is whether the evolution disclaimer represents an improper entanglement of the state with religion (YES); and from the educational point of view, the issue is whether - science or not - ID “theory” is sufficiently well-warranted to be taught to schoolchildren (NO).

It is the preoccupation with demarcation that tempts Judge Jones into describing naturalism as “a self-imposed convention” of science. Besides running the risk of using “science” purely honorifically – as if to classify a proposed explanation as “not scientific” is ipso facto to show that it’s no good – this seems to me to miss an important point. A supernatural “explanation” of some phenomenon (flagella, blood-clotting, or whatever) posits that it is the work of a Designer neither in space nor in time, but tells us nothing about how such a designer is supposed to execute his design in the physical world. But this is no explanation at all; it’s just “God spake; and it was done” in a new vocabulary - and equally mysterious.

Judge Jones is clear that talk of an Intelligent Designer is intended, and will be understood as, a reference to God I wished he had added how implausible it is to think that this world was designed by an omnipotent, benevolent, and omniscient deity. As shrewd old David Hume wrote long ago, if this world was designed, it looks much more like the work of a baby god just starting out in the creation business, or perhaps a squabbling committee of gods…

Judge Jones several times adverts to the fact that Intelligent Design Theory has not generated peer-reviewed scientific publications. That’s true, and not insignificant. But I think he over-stresses peer review as an indication of reliability. (Though it was one of the indicia of reliability suggested by the Supreme Court in Daubert, the Court was clear that peer-reviewed publication doesn’t guarantee reliability, nor lack of peer-reviewed publication unreliability. And only last month we learned that several deaths had been omitted from the data presented in a peer-reviewed article in The New England Journal of Medicine on cardiovascular risks of Vioxx; and the editor explained that it isn’t feasible for the journal to do more than a cursory check of the material submitted.)

Still, these reservations aside, my reaction is: what a splendidly thorough, searching, and reasonable ruling this was - well worth the effort of reading all 139 pages twice!

Susan Haack is Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami.

4:11 PM  

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