November 13, 2005

Intelligent Design and School Curricula

A problem with the Intelligent Design paradigm in a teaching context is that ID potentially eliminates the need to explain anything at all. ID is not limited to biology, it is equally applicable to physics, chemistry and astronomy, among others. This is not really conducive to cumulative learning, since the simplest solution to all problems is to invoke a designer.

Most IDers accept all but a very few of the facts and principles of mainstream biology. The major concept they add is that of ‘irreducible complexity’ (IC). There are two things they have not established. Firstly, to establish that an IC is, in fact, irreducible, which is necessary to have any scientific relevance. The scientific value of providing a strong evidential case for irreducibility would be very high. There is not even a weak evidential case at present, although there are claims. The present scientific value is thus very very low, too low to compete for time against stronger cases for alternatives in the already limited time available in science classes.

Secondly, to establish that even if an IC is irreducible, we require a designer. ID has no theory relating to why a designer is needed in this circumstance, nor is any way to increase the confidence in a designer proposed. There is only a mystery. Appealing to a designer to solve the mystery is not a theory, scientific or otherwise. It is a conjecture that arises from an act of faith with absolutely no chain of evidence leading from IC to ID.

This is also a considerable deviation from the normal practice of science. Even if, some day, someone can prove that an IC is indeed ‘irreducible’, necessarily this would simply mean that the proof demonstrated that accepted principles of biology, physics and chemistry were flawed and did not operate as we expected. This happens with fair regularity in science, and the scientific response is not to say “Well, that’s that. Must be a designer”, however tempting. Instead it leads to more science, attempting to work out the revised nature of the flawed principles. Recourse to a designer, for whatever reason, is simply giving up in a scientific sense.

The whole underlying premise of ID is flawed as a scientific approach; it is a fundamentally unscientific approach that only designates points at which science stops. It is not clear that ID promotes the creationist camp especially well either.

The science associated with ID does not contradict any fundamental point of Darwin that has survived scientific scrutiny. In particular, it does not present an IC that would challenge the view that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. So it is not, in balance, ‘anti-Darwinist’. ID does not, in general, overturn notions of the antiquity of the Earth, so it does not serve the Biblical ‘literalists’. It does not even provide any additional opportunity to draw on one’s faith in whatever deities one chooses, whether it be the god shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians, or the many deities of Hinduism, or the more recent Flying Spagetti Monstor. It is only through misunderstanding what modern evolutionary theory is about, and indeed what ID is about, that creationists could draw any comfort at all. Fundamentally they should be equally against ID and scientific evolutionary theory, excepting, perhaps, the conjecture that leads to the designer.

If ID is to influence the scientific curriculum of schools, the most ID has to bring is the concept of an IC as a problem to solve. IDers offer no scientific approach to solving these problems and that is where the influence should stop. There is no basis to introduce the concept of a designer into curriculum, as they offer no evidence for this conjecture, scientific or otherwise.

Posted by mdfischer at 06:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack