Two nights ago Jim and I watched Nova's (that's on PBS) program "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," a show about the court case in Dover, Pennsylvania that followed the 2004 decision of Dover's school board to require mention of ID as a possible alternative to the theory of evolution.
It's quite frightening to me to see religious fundamentalist attempts to discredit science and to argue that their religious myths should be treated as scientific theory. It has often been noted that without evolution, the biological sciences simply don't make sense. I don't know a lot about evolutionary theory, but I know enough to think it an elegant, beautiful framework for understanding the differentiation of species and the unfolding of all the diversity of life on this planet. So many people who say "I don't believe in evolution" really have no clue about Darwin's work--or about science, or even the basis of scientific thought and the scientific method.
Anyway, the crux of the Dover issue can be briefly summed up this way:
Dover's lawyers tried to argue that ID is science and, therefore, that teaching it does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state in the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the trial, Judge John Jones issued a 139-page verdict supporting the teaching of evolution and characterizing intelligent design as a religious idea with no place in the science classroom. It was a landmark decision, all the more so because Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush and nominated by Republican Senator Rick Santorum.
What was fascinating to me was the argument in court of just what constitutes science. What it comes down to is that scientific inquiry requires a testable hypothesis. Those who argue that life on earth was designed by an intelligent agent simply do not have a testable hypothesis: how can you test such a claim? Evolution is a theory that poses testable hypotheses, and over and over again evolutionary theory has met these tests.
Another aspect of arguments involving evolution is the misunderstanding of the word "theory" as used in scientific fields. People behave as if "theory" means "wild-assed guess" (WAG) or a hunch on the part of a scientist or some other such thing more approaching a whim than what scientists mean by the word. Thus people say, "Well, it's only a theory, it's not a fact." True, but "theory" doesn't mean "guess." From Wikipedia:
In science, a theory is a mathematical or logical explanation, or a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation. It follows from this that for scientists "theory" and "fact" do not necessarily stand in opposition.
Obviously, this is much more rigorous than "conjecture" or "speculation." But usually when people say dismissively "it's just a theory," they're assuming that a theory is nothing more than a conjecture, of which one is as good as another.
Intelligent Design does not actually provide a rival theory for the origin of species and the changes that take place over time within species. There is no coherent framework. Rather, when faced with challenges (such as its favorite bugaboo, "irreducible complexity"), it simply throws up its hands and says there is no explanation other than an intelligent designer. This is akin to, if not actually the same as, superstition. It is certainly not conducive to exploration, to the whys and hows a scientist will typically probe when confronted by a puzzle.
And what, really, is an Intelligent Designer if not God? There's just no getting around the idea that Intelligent Design is creationism by another name. The convolutions and contortions the ID-ers go through to try to look scientific would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous. Yes, dangerous, because the ID-ers are out to subvert science and science education. They've received lots of help from the notoriously anti-science Bush administration and the religious fundamentalists who read the Bible literally and argue that their view of how life began is every bit as valid as evolutionary theory.
What happens when people take the Bible literally is that they end up with ridiculous claims about how the earth is only 10,000 years old or that kangaroos originated in the Middle East. One has to reject all of what science has shown about geology and biology in order to believe such nonsense.
Millions of people have no trouble being both religious and scientific. To teach religious belief as if it were science is where the trouble begins. The scientists were so compelling in the Dover case that even a judge appointed by George W. Bush could not see his way clear to ruling other than as he did, in favor of evolution and against the idea that ID is science. (For his trouble he received death threats against himself and his family, and federal protection had to be called in. Sadly, this doesn't surprise me.)
Unfortunately, we probably haven't seen the last of such court cases. Those who want to force their religious beliefs on the rest of us will no doubt continue to press on. Bizarre though it is to those of us who consider ourselves rationalists, such people will continue to insist that their belief in Biblical inerrancy ranks right up there with rigorous, testable scientific hypotheses and theories. That's fine and dandy--as long as they don't seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us while arguing that Bible stories are science.