What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Intelligent Design Theory

Posted: September 19, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Many scientific theories are controversial when they are first brought to the table. However, perhaps none has been quite as controversial as the question of the development of life on Earth. The debate between creationism and evolution has been going on for many years. Recently, a theory called Intelligent Design (ID) has been making headlines in the news media—and making waves in the science and education world.

What Is Intelligent Design?

According to James Trefil, Robinson professor of physics, ID was born out of a fundamentalist opposition to evolution.

James Trefil
James Trefil

“It is a more sophisticated version of creationism,” he says. “It argues basically that life is too complex to have evolved and must have been designed by an intelligent agent. One of the major components involves something called ‘irreducible complexity’—the idea that organisms possess many complicated structures that are essential to the organism’s survival but are useless unless all the parts are together. The chance of all those parts coming together is so small, the theory states, that an intelligent designer must have produced them.”

Harold Morowitz
Harold Morowitz

Trefil, along with Robinson Professors Harold Morowitz and Robert Hazen, recently wrote an article, “Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum,” for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which they argued that the theory is bad science.

Robert Hazen
Robert Hazen

“Scientists who teach evolution sometimes feel as if they are trapped in an old horror film—the kind where the monster is killed repeatedly, only to come to life in a nastier form each time. Since the Scopes trial in 1925, the battle between scientists who want to teach mainstream biology in American public schools, and creationists who want to promulgate a more religious view, has gone through several cycles,” they wrote.

Poking at the Gaps of Scientific Theory

“Intelligent design focuses on the gaps in the theory of evolution,” says Trefil. “And there are gaps in the theory, of course, gaps which are being solved and explained every day. That’s what makes it fun. There are supposed to be uncertainties in science; otherwise, why would anyone want to be a scientist?”

Ernest Barreto, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, agrees. “There is an overwhelming and comprehensive amount of scientific data that supports evolution. In fact, it is one of the most successful scientific theories that humans have ever devised. ID is not scientific because there is no way to test it. It doesn’t make any predictions at all, let alone predictions that can be evaluated based on real data. It effectively terminates the scientific discussion. The argument of ID is essentially this: ‘These things are far too complicated to understand scientifically so let’s just give up, go home, and say that a supernatural being did it.’”

However, John G. West of the Discovery Institute, an organization promoting ID theory, feels that scientists are too readily dismissing it. In an editorial published in the “Dallas Morning News”, West writes, “The validity of intelligent design—and, for that matter, of Darwin’s theory—should be decided through fair and open debate, not through legislation enacted by its friends or witch hunts conducted by its foes.”

He also believes that it is a common misunderstanding that the theory is based on religion rather than science. “While intelligent design may have religious implications (just like Darwin’s theory), it does not start from religious premises.”

ID in the News

Some scientists at Mason believe the issue has become more prominent lately because of politics and ‘marketing.’

“Organizations such as the Discovery Institute have been very successful at convincing many nonscientists that evolution is a controversial idea within science, even though it is not,” says Barreto.

“Capitalizing on this, these same organizations have also been successful in getting parents, school boards, etc., to think and argue about how or even whether evolution should be taught in the schools. Their arguments are very appealing to fair-minded people, who tend to agree with the idea that both sides of any ‘controversy’ should be taught.”

Trefil believes the strong push for ID has a lot to do with politics. ID “is supported by a minority of evangelical Protestants, a very vocal minority.”

The Debate Continues

But should it be taught in schools? In their article, Trefil, Morowitz and Hazen say no.

“American students, from kindergarten to university, spend far too little time as it is studying science. We shouldn’t teach them about Intelligent Design for the same reason that we don’t teach them that Earth is flat, or that flies are produced by spontaneous generation from rotting meat. It’s bad science, and the curriculum has no room for bad science.”

However, philosophy professor Emmett Holman, who has taught courses in the philosophy of science, sees a place for the theory in such courses.

“Evolution and creationism—which is right? It’s ultimately an empirical question. It’s not going to go away, so we have to address it somehow. One way to teach a theory in science courses might be to use a discredited theory as a foil. In that spirit, Intelligent Design theory might be taught. Doing this right would be the best way to disabuse people of their belief that ID theory has any credibility. However, maybe this wouldn’t be feasible since so much has to be taught in science courses, and one couldn’t spend time doing this.”

One of the ways Mason will address the debate is by bringing to campus a prominent speaker on the issue. In December, Barreto, with the help of the Krasnow Institute, the Office of the Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences, will host Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Scott has been both researcher and activist in the creationism-evolution controversy for more than 20 years. She earned a PhD from the University of Missouri, and has received national recognition from the National Science Board, the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Geological Society of America, and the American Humanist Association.

Also, in the spring, Holman will teach a philosophy course titled “Reason, Science and Faith in the Modern Age.” Although ID is not the primary focus of the course, he will discuss it.

“The course covers more than 500 years of debate and discussion on the broader issue of the rise of science and its impact on religious faith,” he says. “These questions have been asked for hundreds of years, and the debate continues.”

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