In case you are unaware, Intelligent Design (ID) – the pseudoscientific faith-based counter to evolution – is not confined to the USA. A UK Christian organisation, absurdly-named ‘Truth in Science’, is also advocating ID inclusion in science lessons, having distributed glossy paraphernalia to the science departments of UK secondary schools and sixth form colleges. To date, this marketing ploy has apparently proven effective in persuading a number of its scientific worthiness. Scientists and free-thinkers ought to be aware of this strategy and its potential ramifications.
First of all, don’t be under the illusion that ID is a new idea; rather, it is merely the latest offshoot of creationist ideology. In the US, where the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution, the last statute to ban teaching contrary to the Biblical account of creation was defeated in the Supreme Court in 1987. That decision apparently ended the legislative suppression of evolution in US schools, and the controversy perpetuated since the infamous 1925 ‘Monkey Trial’ of a free-thinking young schoolteacher, John Scopes. Americans, however, are a pious lot; polls reveal that the majority of US citizens believe in creation over evolution, that their country is uniquely blessed, and that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This is the wave of ignorance upon which opportunism surfs. ID proponents might eschew its literalist associations, but are happy to appeal to a mindset that gathers creationists of all hues under a new, technology-friendly moniker. However, its true colours have been exposed in states where its unconstitutional adoption by schools has been successfully challenged in court.
Surely we shouldn’t be too worried about this in the good old secular UK, should we? Beware, however. Creationist ideals are being propagated in some of the increasing number of faith schools, which already make up a third of our education system, a perfectly legal consequence of the non-separation of church and state here. Moreover, the decline in the actual proportion of graduates with science and maths degrees is happening at a time when religious politics are increasingly in the public consciousness. And now Truth in Science positions itself as arbiter of what UK schoolchildren should be taught in all science classes.
Controversy? What controversy?
Truth in Science’s tactics accord with the declared ‘wedge strategy’ of the politically and media-savvy ID movement: the objective of equal time in school classrooms as the basis for attacking scientific materialism. Fully aware that a lack of an actual research program and peer-reviewed literature prevents competition in the scientific domain, they adopt the tactic of publicly promoting doubt, establishing a veneer of ‘scientific’ controversy. This is ripe media fodder, perpetuated by an enclave of pro-ID scientists who, first and foremost, happen to be committed theists. The generated publicity consequently affords ID undue credibility as an alternative scientific explanation in a supposedly balanced debate on evolution. This might seem a noble enough venture and it is good to be sceptical; after all, evolution cannot answer all questions on the history of life, can it? ID proposes that evolution is deficient in its account of gaps in the fossil record, and what it considers the ‘irreducible complexity’ of certain natural structures (the eye and the bacterial flagellum being pet examples). However, whether or not you accept this charge, leaping to an unexplained ‘designer’ (by implication, ‘God’) as a default does not constitute a scientific alternative because it fails on one fundamental requirement – evidence! You don’t have to believe evolution; but if you refute it you need evidence for a plausible alternative argument. Scepticism, then, should consider why the religious ID scientists have none to proffer – and wonder at the hypocrisy of guising anti-science as science.
Any attempt to dislodge a scientific paradigm like evolution has first to demonstrate the same explanatory power. If your sensitivities render you sympathetic towards the ID cause, then consider whether it accounts for the extinction of over 95% of species that have ever inhabited the earth; and the numerous imperfections that afflict extant living organisms (and yes that includes humans). Any intelligent designer would presumably not engineer bodies that carry built-in flaws – it would indicate a deficient, imperfect intelligence. This is where ID backfires: an attempt to blend evolution with occasional supernatural intervention to give the process a bit of a shunt now and again is a resort to discredited ‘God of the Gaps’-style theology, rejected by the majority of thinking religious people who comfortably reconcile evolution with their beliefs. Don’t be misled by supposed distinctions: ID is merely creationism in its latest guise. It is, therefore, not only pseudoscience, but also shallow religion (and consequently has no legitimate place in religious education classrooms either).
Be aware of marketing
2009 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his ‘On the Origin of Species’, which refuted the already long espoused argument from design (again, this is not even an original fallacy). Darwin raised human consciousness to a level where we can question perceived dogmas. Fittingly, a campaign is underway to mark his birthday in due acknowledgement of one of our greatest ever thinkers (Darwin Day). Darwin’s insight bequeathed us the fabric connecting all biological diversity, from bacteria to the nature of human consciousness. There is no other valid scientific explanation for how species emerge. Read that again – no other scientific explanation. The assertion that ID is science that can identify features of the natural world attributable to a supernatural cause is oxymoronic.
Truth in Science and the ID movement are exploiting both the lay public’s susceptibility to marketing ruses, and the assumption that it is cognitively incapable of recognising pseudoscience. The preservation and promotion of a worldview has become just as amenable to marketing, and it should not be assumed that religious groups who convey themselves as bastions of moral integrity would never resort to such strategising. Be wary of the pontificating of those who yearn for a return to what they paint as a more pastoral world. On the contrary, promoting ignorance fosters medieval barbarity, as is increasingly evident today. Creationism and ID are not just Christian ideals, but appeal to fundamentalists of other religions. There is currently the plausible danger that, virtue of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, the teaching of evolution is under potential threat from zealots who may be able to claim their beliefs are being illegally offended. Now, more than ever, increasing scientific awareness is essential, and scientists have a responsibility to come down from their ivory towers and make the point. Truth in Science and the Intelligent Design movement, while posturing as science, are underhandedly marketing a faith position.
An edited version of this piece, by Lee Turnpenny and Michael Carroll, appeared in the June 2007 edition of ‘Science & Public Affairs’, a publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science