Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bush to IDers: "intelligent design is not a scientific concept"

A recent article in the NY Times recounts President Bush's comments regarding intelligent design:
A sharp debate between scientists and religious conservatives escalated Tuesday over comments by President Bush that the theory of intelligent design should be taught with evolution in the nation's public schools.

In an interview at the White House on Monday with a group of Texas newspaper reporters, Mr. Bush appeared to endorse the push by many of his conservative Christian supporters to give intelligent design equal treatment with the theory of evolution.

Recalling his days as Texas governor, Mr. Bush said in the interview, according to a transcript, "I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught." Asked again by a reporter whether he believed that both sides in the debate between evolution and intelligent design should be taught in the schools, Mr. Bush replied that he did, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

Mr. Bush was pressed as to whether he accepted the view that intelligent design was an alternative to evolution, but he did not directly answer. "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," he said, adding that "you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

On Tuesday, the president's conservative Christian supporters and the leading institute advancing intelligent design embraced Mr. Bush's comments while scientists and advocates of the separation of church and state disparaged them. At the White House, where intelligent design has been discussed in a weekly Bible study group, Mr. Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger 3rd, sought to play down the president's remarks as common sense and old news.

Mr. Marburger said in a telephone interview that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." Mr. Marburger also said that Mr. Bush's remarks should be interpreted to mean that the president believes that intelligent design should be discussed as part of the "social context" in science classes.

Clearly Marburger is giving GWB way too much credit. There is enough space in his remarks to allow one to interpret them as "both ideas should be presented: evolution as the an example of scientific thinking, and ID as an example of religious, non-scientific thinking dressed up as science." THAT would be the way both of them could be "properly taught". It's POSSIBLE, but EXTREMELY unlikely that's what he meant.

Intelligent design, advanced by a group of academics and intellectuals and some biblical creationists, disputes the idea that natural selection - the force Charles Darwin suggested drove evolution - fully explains the complexity of life. Instead, intelligent design proponents say that life is so intricate that only a powerful guiding force, or intelligent designer, could have created it.

Intelligent design does not identify the designer, but critics say the theory is a thinly disguised argument for God and the divine creation of the universe. Invigorated by a recent push by conservatives, the theory has been gaining support in school districts in 20 states, with Kansas in the lead.

Mr. Marburger said it would be "over-interpreting" Mr. Bush's remarks to say that the president believed that intelligent design and evolution should be given equal treatment in schools.

But Mr. Bush's conservative supporters said the president had indicated exactly that in his remarks.

"It's what I've been pushing, it's what a lot of us have been pushing," said Richard Land, the president of the ethics and religious liberties commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Land, who has close ties to the White House, said that evolution "is too often taught as fact," and that "if you're going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists."

Land clearly didn't pay attention in science class. Actually, he probably did, and that's the problem. I remember being taught that there is some sort of heirarchy or promotion scheme in science. You start with a hypothesis, evidence promotes it to a theory, and if it stands up to a certain amount of scrutiny, it finally achieves its lofty status as a fact. This is wrong. A theory is more properly understood as a framework of scientific ideas that can incorporate and explain observed phenomena using natural explanations (no appeals to the supernatural, sorry ID). Even better, a theory should make testable predictions (sorry again, ID). By the way: "And then teach the theory that has the most support among scientists"? Well, if that happened we'd be teaching evolution; science isn't a democracy anyway.

But critics saw Mr. Bush's comment that "both sides" should be taught as the most troubling aspect of his remarks.

"It sounds like you're being fair, but creationism is a sectarian religious viewpoint, and intelligent design is a sectarian religious viewpoint," said Susan Spath, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Science Education, a group that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. "It's not fair to privilege one religious viewpoint by calling it the other side of evolution."

Ms. Spath added that intelligent design was viewed as more respectable and sophisticated than biblical creationism, but "if you look at their theological and scientific writings, you see that the movement is fundamentally anti-evolution."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the president's comments irresponsible, and said that "when it comes to evolution, there is only one school of scientific thought, and that is evolution occurred and is still occurring." Mr. Lynn added that "when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy, they can be discussed objectively in public schools, but not in biology class."

Hear hear.

The Discovery Institute in Seattle, a leader in developing intelligent design, applauded the president's words on Tuesday as a defense of scientists who have been ostracized for advancing the theory.

"We interpret this as the president using his bully pulpit to support freedom of inquiry and free speech about the issue of biological origins," said Stephen Meyer, the director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture. "It's extremely timely and welcome because so many scientists are experiencing recriminations for breaking with Darwinist orthodoxy."

It really rubs me the wrong way when this sort of language is used. It betrays a complete ignorance of how normal (not pathological or crackpot) science works. There are no Inquisitions. Most scientists would be delighted if rock-solid evidence overturning prevailing theories in anything were presented. In particle physics many make their careers designing and performing experiments to poke holes in and find what's beyond the orthodoxy: the Standard Model. That's where the interesting stuff is. Big upheavals just don't happen very often and require extraordinary evidence. If you're a crackpot or trying to dress up religion as science, maybe you deserve recriminations for wasting peoples' time.

At the White House, intelligent design was the subject of a weekly Bible study class several years ago when Charles W. Colson, the founder and chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, spoke to the group. Mr. Colson has also written a book, "The Good Life," in which a chapter on intelligent design features Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian who is an assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning.

"It's part of the buzz of the city among Christians," Mr. Colson said in a telephone interview on Tuesday about intelligent design. "It wouldn't surprise me that it got to George Bush. He reads, he picks stuff up, he talks to people. And he's pretty serious about his own Christian beliefs."



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