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August 15, 2005

Has the ID movement jumped the shark?

Some time ago, I wrote that I was not worried in the long term about the so-called intelligent design (ID) movement because it would ultimately lose, sharing the fate of all previous faith-based theories in their disputes with science.

The reason is that science has no place for useless ideas. Theories that do not have mechanisms or make predictions or which can be used for some purpose simply do not make it in science. And ID strikes out on all three of those requirements, thus fitting perfectly the description of a useless theory. All it does is provide a story that meets the needs of those who want to think that god intervenes in the world. And that's fine as far as it goes. But what good are such stories for science? Science even prefers demonstrably false theories as long as they are useful. Excellent examples of such latter theories are Newton's laws of motion and gravitation.

While the pre-Copernican adherents of the geocentric model also had religious reasons for their support of the theory, their theory did also make predictions and were used for making astronomical calculations and navigational charts. But when their precision was exceeded by the more accurate elliptical-orbit based Copernican model, all the religious support in the world could not keep that theory from eventually disappearing.

But I think the defeat of ID is going to occur sooner than I had anticipated and I think that it is their very "success" in becoming higher profile that will do them in. Garnering presidential support, rather than being a boost to their fortunes, may be the moment when they jumped the shark because it will have the effect of making people look more closely at what the ID movement really represents and wants.

This is because although the front men (and they do seem to be all men) financed by the Discovery Institute to spread the word of ID are sophisticated and use the vocabulary of science, the main body of people behind them are young Earth creationists who believe that the world was created about 6,000 years ago, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans, and that the Bible is literally true in all its details. Thus Adam and Eve were real people, Noah's flood was a historical event, and god stopped the motion of the Sun. These people are not simply criticizing aspects of evolutionary theory. They are also turning their backs on the bulk of astronomy, physics, geology, and paleontology. They represent a return to a pre-scientific way of thinking.

This split between the visible face of ID and the thinking of the bulk of its supporters has been largely hidden from those members of the public who have not been closely engaged in this discussion. But it was immediately obvious to me when I attended the ID function in Kansas and spoke with many of the attendees. What the recent higher profile of the ID movement has done has revealed this fact to a much larger national audience, and some of those people who had previously looked on it benignly are becoming alarmed.

This alarm is occurring even among those intellectuals who up to now merely saw these Christian militants as ballot fodder, people who could be counted on to turn up in large numbers in "the heartland" to vote in political leaders who could then ignore them.

The realization that this anti-science movement is at the gates of their world has caused a split among the ID movement's political allies. We saw that neoconservative Charles Krauthammer strongly denounced ID until Bush's support for it made him go weak in the knees. Now Krauthammer takes refuge in thinking that sophisticates like him in the big cities are safe from ID-based education, which will remain entrenched among the yokels in the "heartlands." Others are not so sure that the ID movement can be contained this way. Commenters Becky and Cathie pointed out that George Will has also come out against ID and the pandering to religious extremism.

What I expect to see in the future is an edging way from ID by many otherwise sympathetic intellectuals who up to now may have viewed it as a harmless fixation among the lowbrows. Can ID survive in the face of opposition from intellectuals in the influential think tanks who are their allies in other battles but up to now have been largely silent on the ID issue? I don't think so, but it is going to be an interesting development to watch.

POST SCRIPT

Have you noticed something? As the tide of public opinion starts to turn significantly against the Iraq war, the people leading the charge to discredit this wrong and even criminal policy are not coming from the top of Democratic party but from lower-level party members and outsiders like Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead soldier, currently camped out in Crawford, Texas and fast becoming a political headache for the administration. (See also the comments by former Senator Gary Hart.)

Why is this? Ari Berman has an insightful analysis of the reasons for the spinelessness of the Democratic party leadership. He basically says that the leadership is riddled with "liberal hawks" on the make, people who carefully tailor their message to promote their own interests within the beltway, trying to reserve their seat on the gravy train.

He quotes someone who says "It's pretty hard to go wrong right now taking a hard-line position [in support of the Iraq war]. There's enough places or institutions that will take care of you. Outside of academia, if you take positions on the other side, there's just nowhere near the level of institutional support."

This is why I continue to emphasize the importance of keeping universities independent and free from outside political meddling. They remain the foundation of a "reality-based" world-view and the source of people who can say what they truly think because they do not have to curry favor with powerful people just in order to get and keep jobs.

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Comments

I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of liberal hawks as "spineless." There was a good liberal reason, I think, to want Hussein gone: he was a monster who tortured his people and kept them poor on purpose. I think some hawks were sincere in hoping that a democratic revolution in Iraq would inspire citizens of neighboring nations to seek democracy for themselves. I personally opposed the war regardless because, whatever I might think of the proper use of US military force (a subject for which I have no clear answer), I was sanguine neither about the President's interest in diminishing human suffering nor about his ability to handle an unavoidably messy post-war scenario. I admit I'm shocked that in this I appear to have had more insight than the good-hearted hawks I've read (Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan). But being wrong doesn't make a person spineless.

Posted by Erin on August 15, 2005 10:21 AM

"Now Krauthammer takes refuge in thinking that sophisticates like him in the big cities are safe from ID-based education, which will remain entrenched among the yokels in the 'heartlands.'"
Do you have a link to Krauthammer's statement? I'm very interested in reading it, for a couple of reasons. First, it seems to be one of the neocons who are leading the backlash against intellectualism, so it's surprising to hear one changing his tune (and sounding like one of us darned self-righteous liberals). Second, I hate it when anyone characterizes people from the Midwest as being a bunch of yokels. This is, of course, because I grew up there, and I know plenty of smart people who, despite an education that was meant to prepare us for farm and factory work, have managed to find things to do with our lives that actually involve our brains.

Now that I live on the West Coast, it has become kind of a perverse source of pride; I hear people talking about 'those morons in flyover country', and I am forced to remind them that for 24 years, I WAS one of those morons.

Posted by melinda on August 15, 2005 11:35 AM

Melinda,

Krauthammer's statement can be found here.

That link was given in my previous posting where I elaborated on Krauthammer's flip-flopping on this issue. You can see that here.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 15, 2005 01:39 PM

Erin,

I should have been more precise. It is not individual liberal hawks that I criticize for being spineless. They are, as you point out, entitled to their view. It is that the Democratic party seems to be afraid to take a stand on the war, more content to talk tactics than principles. Gary Hart's comments illustrate the point I was trying to make.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 15, 2005 01:51 PM

Mano, I've been sitting on this link for awhile now, but your discussion of ID today reminded me of it. The Museum of Earth History, a "phenomenal venture" that offers "a world-class museum that presents the biblical account of early history", is, I'm ashamed to say, less than an hour from where I grew up.

Some of their real gems are available if you hit the buttons along the top that say things like "learn", "explore", and "discover". Today, for example, I was educated on how Noah had dinosaurs on the ark and how they were most likely juvenile dinosaurs due to size restraints and the need for healthy reproductive systems once the flood ended. The arguments for this and many of their other statements are the sort that might sound perfectly straightforward and reasonable to the layman, but they're far from the "scientific" approach that the museum supposedly offers. (Just how does a museum expect to reconcile a biblical account of history with science?! As you said, there's no real theory here.)

In any case, I thought you might appreciate it. For a laugh, if nothing else.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on August 15, 2005 02:44 PM

Did anyone else read late last week that Kerry and Kennedy were stating that they supported Cindy Sheehan's actions. I've not heard anything more about it. My response when I first heard it was unrepeatable; I wanted to beat them with sticks. They should be leading this charge, not following along behind a sorrowing mother.

Posted by catherine on August 15, 2005 02:46 PM

Nicole,

That museum site is interesting but seems awfully bare.

What these sites and exhibits reveal is the ability of its sponsors to pick and choose what science they like and what to exclude. For example, they clearly have to deal with the dinosaur question because every child (and adult) is fascinated by dinosaurs and believe they existed. So you need a story for them.

But what about the problems of space in the Ark to include all the species that currently exist? After all, since they could not have evolved into existence, they must have all existed in the Ark.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 15, 2005 04:31 PM

“If you look at this purely as a cynical political move, it will help in the heartlands and people of my ilk care a lot more about Iraq than about textbooks in Kansas.”

Wow, I somehow missed that from the other post. I love how Krauthammer manages to insult everyone with that sentence.

Melinda, I also gleefully tell everyone that my parents are liberal Catholic Democrats in small-town Ohio.

Mano, I really hope that you're right about ID jumping the shark. But I remember the outcry in 1999, when Kansas removed evolution from the curriculum -- I thought that was the death of creationism, with the national (and world) attention on Kansas, and subsequent mockery. Instead, creationism was simply replaced by ID.

Posted by Becky on August 15, 2005 05:07 PM

Becky,

If you look at that earlier Kansas creationism debacle, that was a good thing. The bright light shining on the creationists forced them to rethink their strategy and become reborn as ID, which required them to hide god as much as possible

I think a similar bright light now will have a similar effect except that the ID people have very little room left for maneuvering. How much more can they dilute their religious message?

Posted by Mano Singham on August 17, 2005 08:35 AM