Creationism after Dover.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 21 2005 2:01 AM

Is Creationism Destructible?

Where to go from Dover.

In his 139-page ruling  on the Dover, Pa., "intelligent design" case, federal district Judge John E. Jones sets out to kill ID's scientific pretensions once and for all. "After a six-week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentations, the Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area," he writes. Jones proceeds to tear ID limb from limb "in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial" on the same question.

Scientifically, Jones settles the issue. Culturally, he fails. And until we learn the difference, the fight over creationism in schools and courts will go on.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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The decisive assumption in Jones' opinion is the definitions of science proposed by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. First, scientific explanations must be natural, not supernatural. Second, they must be testable. These criteria instantly kill ID as science. Its explicit aspiration was to defeat "methodological naturalism." Once you accept naturalism, as Jones does, you guarantee his conclusion that supernatural theories are a "science stopper."

To get around this problem, some folks have argued that ID is testable. Michael Behe, the chief scientific witness for ID in the Dover trial, says you could watch a bunch of bacteria in a lab to see whether, through evolution, they produced a flagellum. If they did, it would show that natural causes can account for the flagellum. If they didn't, it would show that natural causes can't account for it, so the cause must be supernatural.

Three months ago, when the trial was getting started, I said this testability claim was a ruse. Here's my argument: The theory that's being tested in the flagellum experiment is evolution. If it fails, ID would be vindicated only to the extent that ID consists of saying evolution would fail. That doesn't make ID an explanatory theory.

Jones makes the same point. "ID is at bottom premised upon a false dichotomy, namely, that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed," he writes. He cites a 1982 court ruling that shredded this "contrived dualism"—the bogus assumption that "all scientific evidence which fails to support the theory of evolution is necessarily scientific evidence in support of creationism." He notes that another scientist who testified for ID in the Dover case admitted this: Irreducible complexity, the problem posed by the flagellum, "is not a test of intelligent design; it's a test of evolution."

The "contrived dualism" objection pretty much captures what's wrong with ID. But it also captures what's wrong with Jones' opinion. "Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion," he writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, "was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause." Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.

Jones acts like it's no big deal to declare ID unscientific, since science is just one kind of learning. "Supernatural explanations may be important and have merit," he says. "ID arguments may be true," could have "veracity," and possibly "should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed." But if unscientific theories are religious, and religion can't be taught, it's unclear how notions related to ID could be debated in schools, or how their truth or merit could be entertained. And that's bad news for science, because it offers people with creationist sympathies—roughly half the American public—no outlet in the public education system outside of the science classroom.

As Jones makes clear, the Dover case is lousy with evidence of explicit religious motivation on the part of local ID proponents. But is ID, by virtue of being unscientific, wholly and inherently religious—or is there, contrary to the judge's dualism, a third category? The answer is inadvertently sprinkled throughout his opinion. Statements by ID leaders "reveal ID's religious, philosophical, and cultural content," he writes. A strategy document developed by the "Center for Renewal of Science and Culture" is full of "cultural and religious goals, as opposed to scientific ones." Proponents of ID fear "evolution's threat to culture and society," and the Dover board's collaborators have "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions." Cultural, cultural, cultural. Not scientific, not necessarily religious, but cultural.

Is the pseudo-science of creationism ultimately being driven by religion? Or is this brand of religion, in turn, being driven by cultural anxieties? Is it possible to open a conversation with these folks and their kids, not in biology class but in, say, social studies?