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Thu., Oct. 13, 2005, midnight

Theory must withstand testing

The resurrected controversy over teaching evolution has hit the region with the recent announcement by University of Idaho President Timothy White that intelligent design, or ID, will be barred from the school’s scientific curriculum.

White’s proclamation was a pre-emptive strike against the growing political movement around the country to discuss ID as an alternative to evolution. One of White’s biology instructors was scheduled to testify this week in support of a Dover, Pa., school district edict that calls for a statement to be read to students before they embark on the study of evolution. This disclaimer states that there are gaps in the theory of evolution (true), and that they should be examined. So far, so good.

It then states that there are other theories, including intelligent design, which students should be aware of. The statement refers them to the book “Of Pandas and People,” which supports intelligent design by criticizing evolution.

Not so fast. The argument over introducing intelligent design in science classes should begin with the definition of “theory” in the context of science. Critics of evolution often downplay it by saying, “it’s just a theory.” But even that description elevates evolution far above any other explanation for how organisms acquire and pass on traits. In the realm of science, a theory is much more than a hunch or a guess. To gain the status of scientific theory, an idea has to withstand testing.

This is where intelligent design falls flat and why it should not be taught in science classes. Even William Dembski, one of the chief proponents of ID, concedes: “There are good and bad reasons to be skeptical of intelligent design. Perhaps the best reason is that intelligent design has yet to establish itself as a thriving scientific research program.”

That’s because ID proponents haven’t tried to conduct traditional scientific research to affirm their central thesis, which is that the mechanisms of life are too complex to be explained by mere mortals. Therefore, an intelligent superbeing must’ve designed it all.

Of course, working from such a premise makes testing dicey. The scientific method begins with an observation. From there, a hypothesis is formed, which is then rigorously tested. When the tests sufficiently confirm the hypothesis, it becomes a theory. Tellingly, the “just a theory” critics of evolution don’t have a problem with gravity or plate tectonics or other scientific theories, which gives rise to the suspicion that this debate is really about religion.

Contrary to criticism, UI’s White isn’t saying that intelligent design is barred from campus discussions. He is saying that only those theories that have passed scientific muster will be taught in science classes.

In promoting intelligent design, Dembski writes, “Give us more time, and we’ll deliver on the program.”

Fair enough. But in the meantime, educators are right to resist the pressure to introduce intelligent design in a scientific setting.

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