An unintended consequence of the coalition government’s decision to permit “free” schools to be set up in England and Wales is that the teaching of creationism and Intelligent Design (“ID”) is once again in the public eye. The Department of Education recently made clear that teaching ID in science class is prohibited on the grounds that it is unscientific. However this prohibition will not apply to free schools.
Why does the DoE believe that ID is unscientific? ID concludes that some biological systems (such as the blood-clotting and immune systems) are so complex that Darwinian evolution cannot explain them; instead an “intelligent designer” must have been responsible. For many scientists it is outside the role of science to rely on a supernatural intelligent designer.
Dr Michael Behe is the biologist whose theory of Irreducible Complexity forms the so-called scientific basis of ID. He told me that during the many years in which he has worked as a biologist, no one ever asked him about the definition of science.
He continued, “The only time the definition of science comes up is when you discuss matters like this. Philosophers have been trying to define science for a number of years and they’ve given up, so far as I understand. That’s because they can’t find a definition which excludes what they want to exclude and includes what they want to include.” Behe went on to claim that even Isaac Newton’s law of gravity was originally believed to be unscientific, as was the Big Bang theory when it was first proposed.
According to Behe, the definition of science should not restrain an investigation of nature, or it will not serve a useful purpose. He offers a definition of science sufficiently loose to embrace his theory of Irreducible Complexity: “. . . just using physical evidence and reasoning to come to a conclusion about nature.” Yet, as he was forced to admit under oath in the infamous Pennsylvanian court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Schools Board, even astrology would fall within his definition.
It is common to hear advocates of ID claim that the scientific community is biased against them, and that this bias prevents them getting a fair hearing. For instance, according to Behe, scientists who apply for funding to carry out research to test Darwinism, will always be refused – especially if they say that they would like to investigate whether ID offers a better explanation. “And if you send an article with the words Intelligent Design in it to a major scientific journal, it’ll arrive back to you in the next day’s mail rejected.”
Professor Steve Fuller is a sociologist in the field of science. His recent ID-supporting book Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinismwas – perhaps predictably – panned by atheist philosopher AC Grayling in the New Humanist as being “silly and irresponsible.”
Fuller told me, “I think the way to think about ‘discrimination’ [against ID] is as a form of bigotry, a bit like anti-Semitism or (in the US) anti-Communism.”
Fuller went on to tell me that he personally experienced a version of this.
During late 2010 a scientific magazine in America, which had previously reviewed one of his books positively, contacted him about writing an opinion piece on the impact of the mid-term congressional elections on the US science policy agenda. He explained, “The editor and I agreed most of the details of the assignment, and everything seemed fine – until he was told 30 minutes later that I could not be commissioned because of my ID support (even though we never even discussed ID as part of the piece’s contents).”
Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, London, accepts that it is difficult for someone advocating ID to get funding from a scientific establishment. “It’s like homeopathy – your average scientific funder will think that this is just a waste of money.” However he pointed out that charities will sometimes fund this kind of research.
But are ID proponents unjustly kept out of respected scientific journals? Michael Reiss, who serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Science Education, told me: “I’m quite confident that if anybody comes up with a well-argued scientifically rigorous article on ID, journal editors would be prepared to publish it.”
However, whether ID is able to find an outlet in scientific journals is perhaps missing the point. According to Behe, “Nobody in the ID movement has to publish anything. The evidence of intelligent design is in the mainstream biology literature already. It’s been published by biologists simply investigating how life works.”
The possible problem with that approach is that without the support of rigorous science (as opposed to pseudo-science), many scientists will surely continue to regard ID as, at best, wrong – and at worst, wrong and unscientific.
Even so, Fuller believes that ID will become more important in British schools as the state exercises less control over the funding of schools, allowing more independent schools to exist. He even added, “Schools teaching ID have good track records in students passing science exams and then majoring in science.”
Similarly Behe is heartened by the situation in Britain. Towards the end of 2010 he gave a lecture tour of Britain. He accepts that “people often use teaching ID in schools to children as some kind of bogeyman to scare people away, saying that somebody will be indoctrinating your child.” But he believes that there is more tolerance in discussing issues concerning religion in Britain than there is in even America.
What’s more, Behe believes that although the scientific community is presently “allergic” to ID, this will change. That’s because: “As scientists retire, the ones who are very antagonistic to ID will be replaced by those other scientists who have grown up hearing and wondering about it.”
Michael Reiss’s response was abrupt. “I think that’s very unlikely to happen and it would not be a good thing.”
But that’s not so much a debate about Origins, as a debate about the future.