November 21, 2005

Intelligent design creationism losing ground?

Some time ago, I speculated that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement might have jumped the shark and was on a downward slide. Some recent developments might suggest that I was premature is seeing the demise of IDC. After all, just last week, the state of Kansas formally adopted language in their science standards that sought to undermine natural selection. But that particular act was foregone conclusion once the elections in Kansas had produced a pro-IDC majority.

Up to that point, IDC had managed to gain some ground purely because it was based on a stealth strategy. IDC strategists realized that the courts would not allow any overtly religious doctrine to be taught in science classes. And it is not clear that most people would have liked that idea either, whatever their religious persuasion. People tend to see the function of science classes as being to teach science and instinctively sense the potential danger in mixing science with religion.

As a result of this, the IDC people had to go to great lengths to deny any religious underpinnings for their theory. Yet, since IDC advocates needed the support of their religious base in order to make any headway in their attempts to garner political support at the local and state levels to have IDC ideas included in science curricula, they had to perform this delicate balancing act of publicly disavowing any religious intent while privately letting their supporters know their true motivation.

But that balancing act has collapsed. It is pretty clear to everyone by now that the intelligent designer is a pseudonym for god, and alarm bells are going off all over as people start to become aware of the consequences of this stealth attack on science education. Interestingly, some of the most vocal critics of IDC have been people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, people from the same ideological camp as many of the IDC proponents.

Krauthammer says:

Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge - in this case, evolution - they are to be filled by God. … In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase "natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus unmistakably implying - by fiat of definition, no less - that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an "unguided process" with no "discernible direction or goal." This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an "unguided process" by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an "unguided process" of molecular interactions without "purpose"? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

Strong words, especially from someone who earlier had downplayed the importance of the Kansas developments implying that, in the grand scheme of things, it did not really matter what the yokels in Kansas did. He seems to have belatedly realized that IDC is a profoundly retrograde development.

George Will on Nightline contrasts the openness of science to the approach of IDC:

It's openness to discussion of testable hypotheses, falsifiable hypotheses, hypotheses for which you can conceive of contradicting evidence. And I do not believe that the adherents to the doctrine of Intelligent Design are open to that kind of evidence. I think what they say is that random, unguided evolution, without the purposefulness of God, is inconceivable. Now that is - may be true, but it's not falsifiable, and therefore has no place in a science curriculum.

In another article, Will says:

Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas's Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena." "It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The IDC people needed people like Will and Krauthammer as allies and supporters if they were to make any headway on the national stage. They are influential opinion makers, appealing to that part of the political spectrum from which IDC draws much of its support. Losing them is not a good sign.

What is worse for IDC, people like Will and Krauthammer, whatever their private religious beliefs, generally view the public sphere as secular and write about politics from a secular perspective. Their disavowal of the IDC argument leaves the IDC camp being supported exclusively by people like Cal Thomas and Pat Robertson, people who openly want to see their particular version of Christianity dominate public life, who clearly see IDC as part of Christianity, and who are generally seen (Robertson in particular) as just plain nuts. Having such people on the IDC side does not really help their cause.

At some point, the official IDC stance that their designer is not god and that IDC has no religious intent is going to be so obviously at odds with the public perception of it that they will have to either confess to its true nature or be increasingly seen as treating the people as gullible fools.

Already there are signs that some of the tentative support the IDC camp has had in the past has started to peel away. Tomorrow we will look at some former supporters who are having second thoughts.


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