First of all, it's pretty amazing that the Washington Post ran this article, by Rick Weiss and David Brown, about the ways in which so-called "Intelligent Design" (ID) simply fails to pass muster as science. Hats off to them.
Evolution/ID is an area of reporting in which the press has not distinguished itself lately, settling more often for tepid displays of what critic Pauline Kael used to call "saphead objectivity," the belief that any topic must by definition have two sides, and that once a report has presented "both" sides--no matter that one "side" is morally or intellectually without merit, in fact without even mentioning this--the reporter's duty to objectivity and the truth has been discharged.
As a result, much reporting on evolution/ID amounts to "one side says this, but another side says that," followed by a judicious washing of the journalistic hands in the evident hope that readers will now somehow sort truth from error on their own.
But not only does this article call an intellectual spade a spade, it takes the time to explain why those who insist it's not a spade but rather a handsaw are simply wrong. This involves, surprisingly enough, making the reader pay attention and think a little--another reason the Post article deserves praise:
When scientists announced last month they had determined the exact order of all 3 billion bits of genetic code that go into making a chimpanzee, it was no surprise that the sequence was more than 96 percent identical to the human genome. Charles Darwin had deduced more than a century ago that chimps were among humans' closest cousins.
But decoding chimpanzees' DNA allowed scientists to do more than just refine their estimates of how similar humans and chimps are. It let them put the very theory of evolution to some tough new tests.
If Darwin was right, for example, then scientists should be able to perform a neat trick. Using a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory, they should be able to predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species' DNA and the two animals' population sizes.
"That's a very specific prediction," said Eric Lander, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader in the chimp project.
Sure enough, when Lander and his colleagues tallied the harmful mutations in the chimp genome, the number fit perfectly into the range that evolutionary theory had predicted.
[ . . . ] "Evolution is a way of understanding the world that continues to hold up day after day to scientific tests," [Eric] Lander [one of the chimp project leaders] said.
By contrast, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Intelligent Design offers nothing in the way of testable predictions.
"Just because they call it a theory doesn't make it a scientific theory," Leshner said. "The concept of an intelligent designer is not a scientifically testable assertion."
Asked to provide examples of non-obvious, testable predictions made by the theory of Intelligent Design, John West, an associate director of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based ID think tank, offered one: In 1998, he said, an ID theorist, reckoning that an intelligent designer would not fill animals' genomes with DNA that had no use, predicted that much of the "junk" DNA in animals' genomes -- long seen as the detritus of evolutionary processes -- will someday be found to have a function.
(In fact, some "junk" DNA has indeed been found to be functional in recent years, though more than 90 percent of human DNA still appears to be the flotsam of biological history.) In any case, West said, it is up to Darwinists to prove ID wrong.
"Chance and necessity don't seem to be good candidates for explaining the appearance of higher-order complexity, so the best explanation is an intelligent cause," West said.
Ezra Klein, writing on TAPPED, is driven to apt sarcasm by West's remark:
That gets to the heart of it, doesn't it? It's not up to ID to prove itself, it's up to the scientists with the empirically successful theory to disprove the one that makes no claims. Tall order.
The rest of Weiss and Brown's article is a discussion of the ways in which a variety of fields, including molecular biology, are devising tests that generally confirm and occasionally fine-tune the basics of evolution theory. Good reading.
And it's an important article, not merely because it feeds your inner science geek. Although hurricane coverage has driven it off most radar screens, the intention of ID to parade itself in the classroom as the scientific equal of evolution is getting challenged in the courtoom. Last fall, the Dover (PA) Area School Board required its science teachers to maintain a "balanced curriculum" (there's that sapheaded idea again) by presenting approved materials portraying Intelligent Design as a legitimate alternative to evolution theory. By December, angry parents had contacted the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit claiming that the board was smuggling religious indoctrination into the classroom in the guise of (shoddy) science education. That case went to trial this week.
While Intelligent Design is spending its time and effort on ginning up intellectual bonafides and controlling curriculum, its older sibling creationism is taking a somewhat more . . . downmarket approach to the problem, as another Post article described yesterday.
In this case, the story is about a theme park devoted to "creation science" (which the reporters aptly describe as an "alternative reality") soon to open near Cincinnati (a beautiful town, but one where the term "alternative reality" is more than just a gentle euphemism for the local habits of thought):
"We're placing this [model of a velociraptor] in the hall that explains the post-Flood world," explains the guide. "When dinosaurs lived with man."
A reporter has a question or two about this dinosaur-man business, but Mark Looy -- the guide and a vice president at the museum -- already has walked over to the lifelike head of a T. rex, with its three-inch teeth and carnivore's grin.
"We call him our 'missionary lizard,' " Looy says. "When people realize the T. rex lived in Eden, it will lead us to a discussion of the gospel. The T. rex once was a vegetarian, too."
[ . . . ] Set amid a park and three-acre artificial lake, the 50,000-square-foot museum features animatronic dinosaurs, state-of-the-art models and graphics, and a half-dozen staff scientists. It holds that the world and the universe are but 6,000 years old and that baby dinosaurs rode in Noah's ark.
(The article goes on to note that ID's coyness about whether the intelligence they insist has guided the formation of life on earth is in fact God, has actually caused a break with some creationists:
[Kenneth] Ham [president of the organization that's building the creationist theme park] is ambivalent on the question of intelligent design. He admires the movement's founders and applauds their battles. But he is skeptical of creationists who see intelligent design as a battering ram that might smash down the constitutional doors and allow the Bible back into schools.
"They are not a Christian movement, they are not about the Bible," he says in his spacious corner office at the museum. "It's not even against evolution, not really, because they don't tell you what that intelligence is. It could open a door for Muslim belief, for Hindus, for New Age.
"We are telling you unashamedly that the word of the Bible is the way.")
So. How to wrap this story up? We could take the traditional route--like the Guardian, who offers a nice pair of offsetting quotes to "balance" out the end of their piece on the Dover case:
In Dover, Sheree Hied and her husband Michael strongly back the board. "I think we as Americans, regardless of our beliefs, should be able to freely access information, because people fought and died for our freedoms," she said.
But neighbour Steven Stough countered: "You can dress up intelligent design and make it look like science, but it just doesn't pass muster. In science class, you don't say to the students, 'Is there gravity, or do you think we have rubber bands on our feet?" '
But instead we'll give the final word to Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, who writes:
There is no principle on earth which says that my tax dollars must be spent to ensure that other people's kids come out like the proper form of dumbass.Taylor knows a spade from a handsaw. We like that.