June 03, 2005

What, me worry?

As we are all aware, efforts by intelligent design advocates to have their theory labeled as science have been getting a lot of media attention, since they have been somewhat successful at persuading some school boards around the country to either include some versions of it in their curricula or to insert language disparaging evolution. The most recent events occurred in Kansas as the elected school board seems to be on its way to changing their science curricula to accommodate the ID agenda.

At some level I am concerned about these developments because it seems to me to be a blatant effort to redefine science to serve a political and religious agenda and I think thata such attempts ought to be resisted.

In the long run, however, I am not too concerned because I am certain that this effort will fail. One of the advantages of looking at things with a historical perspective is that one sees how similar efforts have fared in the past. And on this score, things do not look at all good for ID supporters. There are many precedents to draw upon. The attempts in 1925 (highlighted by the Scopes trial) to forbid the teaching of evolution and the attempts in Louisiana and Arkansas in the 1980s to mandate the teaching of creation science were debacles for their proponents and similar to earlier attempts such as the Catholic Church’s attempt in 1616 to ban Copernican theory or the Soviet Central Committee’s attempt in 1948 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as a "bourgeois pseudo-science." All of these political attempts to influence the way science worked not only failed but are now widely viewed as embarrassments for the people who tried to thwart the progress of science.

One reason that political attempts to promote ID will fail is that science does not belong to one country and one cultural or religious tradition. It is true that modern science draws much of its heritage from the knowledge generated in the early Greek-Arab communities, but it now belongs to the world. Science is one of the truly transnational enterprises and it is amazing (and to me exhilarating) that scientists all over the world can agree on what is good science without paying much attention to where it originates.

Even at the time of Copernicus, science was not limited to one region, but with the rapid communications that we now have, science clearly cannot be controlled within one nation. So even if ID supporters were successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the entire US congress and the White House agreed that ID was the only theory that should be taught in US schools and universities and passed a constitutional amendment to that effect, the negative effect of such actions on science worldwide would be minimal. The rest of the world would just go ahead.

At the time of Galileo, the Catholic Church had arguably more global influence on the world of ideas and yet, despite the far reach of the Inquisition and its ability to torture scientists (recall that even Galileo was made to recant his Copernican beliefs under threat of torture from the church) and have books banned, the geocentric model of the universe was soundly rejected and the Catholic Church still has not lived down the ignominious role it played then.

I predict that the same thing will happen again with ID. In the age of the internet, it is hard to imagine that what constitutes science can be defined according to the religious persuasion of one country. I expect that in the future, people will marvel at the idea that ID ideas and their young-Earth creationist fellow-travelers were ever taken seriously. Could it really be, they will ask themselves, that people in the 21st century actually thought that the Earth was 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, or that God intervened to create something so mundane as the bacterial flagellum?

So on a world-wide scale and in the long term, the caravan of science will move on. But that does not mean that in the short term science in the US will not be hindered by the adoption of ID ideas in science curricula. One result of widespread actions along those lines might be a shift the center of gravity of science away from the US.

Such shifts have occurred in the past. In the early 20th century, Germany was the foremost country for physics, and the US was a backwater. When one looks at the names of those associated with the revolutions we now call modern physics, Germany's pre-eminence becomes apparent. Students went there to learn from the masters, and in turn contributed to the building of the scientific strength in that country. But Germany's attempts to stamp out 'Jewish science' resulted in the migration of many of their most creative scientists to other countries, including the US. Students followed them and in fairly short order Germany lost its position as the physics superpower. It has never recovered from that.

It is not hard to imagine that if science in the US comes under political control, scientists and future students will migrate to those countries where they can investigate freely. Scientific ideas are not bound by geographic boundaries. For example, it should come as no surprise that restrictions on embryonic stem cell work in the US was followed by the recent announcement that South Korean scientists have created new lines of embryonic stem cells for research. South Korea is emerging as the leader in this area of scientific investigations. I would not be surprised if researchers in that field start migrating out of the US if the restrictions here continue. The pattern of scientific migration that physics initiated prior to World War II might be repeated now with biotechnology.

So the efforts of ID, young-Earth, and creationist advocates will not do much harm to science itself, but could well, over time, result in the US losing its present position as the leader in scientific research.


There will be no posts for the next three weeks. Posting will resume on Monday, June 27, 2005.

For those who are interested in the topics that are discussed here but came to the blog late, you can check out the archives. All the posts that I have made (since I began posting every weekday in January 26, 2005) can be found there. Unfortunately they have not been sorted into categories but the search feature of this blog is a good way of finding topics that interest you.


Trackback URL for this entry is: Has the ID movement jumped the shark?
Excerpt: Some time ago, I wrote that I was not worried in the long term about the so-called intelligent design (ID)...
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Tracked: August 15, 2005 08:17 AM Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating - 2
Excerpt: In an earlier posting on this topic, I argued that one reason that scientists fare poorly in public political-type debates...
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Tracked: September 8, 2005 08:06 AM


I like your hopeful vision of the future, Mano. I hope that your version of a future in which ID is viewed with confusion and wonder proves true. This is how I have always felt about a seemingly unrelated issue, gay marriage. I hope that one day my grandchildren will marvel that there was ever a time when only people of opposite genders could get married. Then we will have gotten somewhere. We'll miss your blog while you're gone!

Posted by Katie on June 3, 2005 10:54 AM

I was under the impression that ID theory was somewhat global - true, "Creationism" falls under that same umbrella, but I would wager that most Christians, Muslims, Hindus, even Buddhists, would consider themselves supporters of ID.

And people who dont really have an opinion when it comes to religion are likely to not really have an opinion when it comes to the origin of the species, either.

I think the only people who are really concerned about the progress ID is making are those who are actively opposed to any suggestion of a greater power out there - the atheists.

Posted by Citizen Grim on June 15, 2005 12:47 PM

FYI, I included this post in History Carnival #10.

Posted by Marc on June 15, 2005 01:36 PM

You're way off with your Catholic Church/Galilean history there. The Church did not threaten to torture him, and it did not ban the teaching of the sun-centered solar system (witness the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the Church, wrote about it himself).

Posted by Jamie on June 15, 2005 02:09 PM

I think you'd like these:

Posted by coturnix on June 16, 2005 01:21 PM

I think you'd like this and this.

Posted by coturnix on June 16, 2005 01:37 PM

I certainly agree with your prediction that the US will lose it's role as a scientific leader if the government restricts research and ideas. However, I also find this fact somewhat odd. If a country considered to be a leader in scientific research made such a bold statement about the way science should be conducted and what sort of limits should be put on research, it would seem like other countries would take notice and perhaps follow suit. That sort of thing often happens in politics. Yet, the scientific community seems to plug along with their work, ignoring these potential influences.
In the particular case of ID, this may highlight the differences between the very Christian dominated US and other parts of the world where Christianity is not as prevalent. In your book (Quest for Truth), you note that evolutionary ideas conflict more so with Christianity than any other religion.
But, the fact that science rolls on as it does, essentially ignoring the influences of politics seems awfully curious to me.

Posted by Amy on June 22, 2005 10:11 AM

Some responses to all of the comments:

To Citizen Grim: I agree that most religions are ID-related. I examine why the conflict seems to occur in the context of Christianity in my book Quest for Truth. I may get back to that in a posting later but it is a little too long for the moment.

To Marc and Coturnix: Thanks for the links. They were interesting.

To Jamie: The issue of Galileo and the Catholic Church is complex and was dealt with in more detail in a series of previous posts that I wrote that may(?) meet your concerns. A search for Galileo will give you the links.

To Amy: Science does not ignore politics. It is influenced by it. Science does, however, tend to transcend national boundaries. Even though the US is the dominant scientific power, it can easily lose that title if it produces shoddy science because of non-scientific constraints.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 27, 2005 12:40 PM

I have 1 Question about INTELLIGENT DESIGN, and that is, what if god designed everything, but is not intelligent. I mean what if God is dumb?

I mean, certain things are not too smart, like, inefficient. How come animals generate so much poop? And it smells bad. If somebody was really smart, they would know of a way to creat things without feces. vegetables dont do that. so it is possible so why make animals and humans so they are forced to take a shit every day and all the time? And why do men have nipples? They dont do anything or produce milk for suckling. isn't that kind of stupid?

And if conception of a baby is God's work and the miracle of life and the birth of a soul, how come some babies are born retarded? and with birth defects? does that mean that "Soul" is retarded too? If the creator had his hand in creating the process for the miracle of life, and it gets all these Flaws in it, then isnt that creator not the sharpest tool in the shed if it produces Retards and all kinds of fat people with cancer and people with ugly faces and deformed feet and defective hearts and stunted brains and stuff? For a God, that's not too smart.

Maybe I.D. stands for IDIOT DESIGN instead? Because God seems kind of dumb.

Posted by Citizen Grim on July 10, 2007 08:36 AM