Edward Kennedy — Expert on Science?

Edward Kennedy — Expert on Science?

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In the March 21st, 2002, edition of The Washington Times [www.washingtontimes.com/op-ed/20020321-76780268.htm], Sen. Edward Kennedy takes exception to Sen. Rick Santorum’s March 14 Commentary piece, “Illiberal Education in Ohio Schools” [http://asp.washtimes.com/printarticle.asp?action=print&ArticleID=20020314-5].  Santorum, who supports intelligent design, argues that Ohio public schools should be open to teaching it. Kennedy, who has publicly supported the teaching of alternate scientific theories when there is diversity of opinion among scientists, nevertheless rejects Santorum’s argument. Yes, alternate scientific theories should be taught. But, as Kennedy puts it, “intelligent design is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation’s public school science classes.”

Kennedy is no scientist or philosopher of science, so presumably he has spoken to the experts, who assure him that intelligent design is not science. Indeed, Kennedy himself offers no argument for why intelligent design fails to be a scientific theory. So, is that how the public debate over intelligent design’s role in public school sciences classes will end? Experts on one side will say that it is a genuine science and experts on the other will say it isn’t? And politicians will then take their cues from their preferred experts?

Actually, it is possible for the average woman or man on the street to see that intelligent design is a genuine scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology, as it is currently taught in public school science classes, teaches that all of biological complexity is the result of material mechanisms. These include the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random variation, but now include many other mechanisms (symbiosis, gene transfer, genetic drift, the action or regulator genes in development, self-organizational processes, etc.). The point is that all these mechanisms are just that: they are mechanisms — mindless material processes that do what they do irrespective of intelligence.

The only alternative to mechanism is intelligence. As a consequence, the only alternative to evolutionary biology is intelligent design. Intelligent design studies the effects of intelligence in the world. Many special sciences already fall under intelligent design, including archeology, cryptography, forensics, and SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Intelligent design is thus already part of science. Moreover, it employs well-defined methods for detecting intelligence. These methods together with their application constitute the theory of intelligent design.

The question, therefore, is not whether intelligent design constitutes a genuine scientific theory but whether, as a scientific theory, it properly applies to biology. Indeed, the only place where intelligent design is controversial is biology (even physicists are now comfortable talking about the design of the universe). Evolutionary biologists claim to have demonstrated that design is superfluous for understanding biological complexity. But note: even such a claim demonstrates the genuine scientific status of intelligent design, for it implies that the question whether design is superfluous in biology is a legitimate scientific question and one whose outcome can be decided by scientific investigation. In science, no outcome is a foregone conclusion.

The mark of a pseudoscience is not that it is false but, in the words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, that it is “not even false.” In other words, with a pseudoscience there’s no way to decide whether it is true or false. Evolutionary biologists argue that material mechanisms suffice to account for biological complexity. Intelligent design theorists argue that material mechanisms are inadequate to account for biological complexity and that furthermore intelligence is required. Both sides are trying to determine the truth of some definite matter of fact — whether life is the result of mindless material mechanisms or whether it demonstrably points to a designing intelligence. This is a genuine scientific debate, and one scientists have taken up in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Does that mean intelligent design should be taught in public school science classrooms? Intelligent design is a young theory and one that requires considerable development. Whether it has progressed far enough to effectively enter the biology curriculum of public schools is best left to the discretion of school boards and biology teachers. But whether it may legitimately be raised as a topic for discussion in public school science classes and whether the sufficiency of material mechanisms to generate biological complexity may legitimately be debated should never have been in question.

To dismiss intelligent design as “not a genuine scientific theory” is to insulate evolutionary biology from criticism and turn it into a monopoly. Sen. Kennedy, who has been so effective at unmasking monopolies in the business world, seems not to realize that they can be just as virulent and oppressive in the scientific world. The problem with intelligent design is not that it fails as a science. The problem is that evolutionary biology holds a monopoly that it is reluctant to relinquish. All monopolies are bad, for they render inviolable things that were never meant to be inviolable, and in so doing coerce submission and undermine freedom. The controversy inOhioregarding intelligent design is not about whether intelligent design is science. It is about whether evolutionary biology’s monopoly in science education can be overcome and freedom made to prevail.