The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Monday, August 29, 2005

Let's not get all 'scientific' here or anything...

I've been posting recently on Intelligent Design, and why-- as a 'closet scientist' who's followed the debate over the 20th century-- it's a load of crap. And why, so many decades after the 'Scopes Monkey Trial' this issue still garners even a modicum of attention in the United States today. And why the issue still manages to find supporters among journalists, in spite of the fact that they've supposedly researched the issue before weighing in.

After reading this risible column in the WaPo today, I'm coming to the conclusion that it's an unfortunate byproduct of today's he-said/she-said style of writing (granted, this is a column and not a piece of journalism, but it is in one of the best-known US papers).

First, let's get rid of the idea that ID (intelligent design) is a form of sly creationism. It isn't. ID is unfairly confused with the movement to teach creationism in public schools. The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world. Creationists are attracted to ID, and one of its founding fathers, University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, is a devout Presbyterian. But you don't have to be a creationist to think there might be something to it, or to agree with Johnson when he says, "The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can't account for that."

That's the extent of the "scientific" argumentation in the column. But to paraphrase that "Let's get rid of the idea that ID is a form of sly creationism," I'd argue that it's actually a "sly form of creationism," and that the editors were asleep on the job for allowing even that to slip through, but I won't belabor the point.

The only evidence offered-- which just so happens to be the only evidence that ID fans can offer-- boils down to the following: "It's beyond our ability to fully comprehend at this point. Ergo, it's supernatural." This is nothing more than a modernization of an argument as old as religion itself. Don't know what caused a drought? The sun god flew too close to the earth. Any other explanations are a threat to religion. This point I don't mind belaboring. Say you were to go back in time and demonstrate the astounding destructive power of TNT. Those unfamiliar with the concept would take it to be magic. But you'd know better. The fundamentalists in America are fighting tooth and nail to return us to a day when the only explanation for any previously-unexplained phenomena was "Skyman did it! All hail Skyman!"

Believers in the supernatural love to compare themselves to Copernicus, who was sentenced to death by the church for suggesting that the sun was the center of the solar system. We now regard him as a bold pioneer unjustly villified by the dogmatic and superstitious. He simply observed, and reported his observations. The thing is, Copernicus was not only revolutionary, but correct. There is ample evidence, both in the fossil record and thanks to the observations by scientists over the last few decades, that Darwin is correct. Nevertheless, today we find ourselves fighting a battle between an observable, verifiable phenomenon and those who insist that-- because they perceive a threat to their own belief system-- the heretic must be destroyed.

Recent related posts are here, here, here, and (the most in-depth) here.