Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Jonathan Alter - Newsweek, 8/15/05

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Offering ID as an alternative to evolution is a cruel joke. It walks and talks like science but in the lab performs worse than medieval alchemy.


Aug. 15, 2005 issue - A teacher in Kansas, where war over Darwin in the schools is still raging, calls the theory of intelligent design "creationism in a cheap tuxedo." Great line, but unfair to the elegant tailoring of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that has almost singlehandedly put intelligent design on the map. Eighty years after the Scopes "monkey trial," the threat to science and reason comes less from fundamentalists who believe the earth was created in six days than from sophisticated branding experts and polemical Ph.D. s who are clever enough to refrain from referring to God or even the Creator, and have now found a willing tool in the president of the United States.

Lest you think this is merely of academic interest, consider the stakes: the Pentagon last week revealed that it is spending money to train certain scientists how to write screenplays for thrillers related to their specialties. Why? Because the status of science has sunk so low that the government needs these disciplines to become sexy again among students or the brain drain will threaten national security. One of the reasons we have fewer science majors is the pernicious right-wing notion that conventional biology is vaguely atheistic.

Now President Bush has given that view a boost. When Bush was asked about intelligent design last week, he answered, "Both sides ought to be properly taught... so people can understand what the debate is about." This sounds reasonable until you realize that, as the president's own science adviser, John H. Marburger III, admits, there is no real debate. "Intelligent design is not a scientific concept," Marburger told The New York Times, committing a bit of candor that will presumably earn him a trip to the White House woodshed.

Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute claims ID uses a scientifically valid "inference to the best explanation" to back up its theories. That might be good enough for a graduate course in the philosophy of science (and the ACLU should not prevent it from being discussed in high-school humanities and philosophy classes), but the idea of its being offered as an alternative to evolution in ninth-grade biology is a cruel joke. Its basic claim—that the human cell is too complex to be explained by natural selection—is unproven and probably unprovable. ID walks like science and talks like science but, so far, performs in the lab worse than medieval alchemy.

It's not God who's the problem but ID's assault on Darwin. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller (who attends mass every week) says the "unspoken message" peddled by the Discovery Institute is that evolution is the single shakiest theory in science. In fact, despite its flaws, it remains among the most durable theories in all of science.

Even as the president helps pit faith against science in the classroom, popes and other clerics have long known that religion and evolution are not truly at odds. Evolution does not, for instance, challenge the idea that the universe began with a spark of divinity. Darwin himself wrote movingly of God. Only the scientific process—not the scientist—must be agnostic. Long before Darwin, enlightened Christians understood that religion and science are best kept in separate realms. In the fifth century, for instance, Saint Augustine criticized other Christians who "talk nonsense" about the laws of nature.

The most clever thing about intelligent design is that it doesn't sound like nonsense. It conjures up Cambridge, not Kansas. The name evokes Apple software, the MoMA gift shop or a Frank Gehry chair. The scholarly articles are often well written and provocative. But the science within these papers has been demolished over and over by other scientists. As Miller explains, science is perhaps the last true marketplace of ideas. After a decade in circulation, intelligent design has failed the market test. So now its backers are seeking the equivalent of a government bailout, by going around their scientific peers to Red State politicians trying to slip religious dogma into the classroom.

While the Discovery Institute calls God the "designer," to appear less creationist, some of its biggest funders are serious fundamentalists. An internal fund-raising memo leaked in 1999 laid out its theological agenda and intention to use ID as a "wedge" to triumph in the culture wars.

Last week Fox News lent a hand. Bill O'Reilly says that the National Academy of Science is guilty of "fascism" for arguing that ID should not take up valuable class time in high-school biology. (Not to be outdone, Dr. James Dobson compared embryonic-stem-cell research to "Nazi experiments.") These are the same modest gents who decry relativism and curricular inclusiveness in the humanities, where it is far more justifiable than in the sciences.

Bush's policy of politicizing science—retreating from the field of facts and evidence on everything from evolution to global warming to the number of cell lines available to justify his 2001 stem-cell compromise—will eventually wreak havoc with his legacy. Until then, like his masquerade-ball friends, the president will get more clever at harming science while pretending to promote it. Monkey see, monkey do.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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