Creationism special: Survival of the slickest
09 July 2005
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SCIENCE only functions with the presumption of honesty. It flounders when confronted by those who knowingly and willingly distort the truth. But this is exactly what faces scientists as we attempt to defend science in high-school classrooms against intelligent design (ID).
When I first took up the defence of science in my home state of Ohio, I presumed that those attacking evolution were well-meaning, but scientifically misguided. But my experience in March 2002 at a "debate" on evolution versus ID, sponsored by the state's school board in Columbus, changed all that. During the debate it became clear that I was competing with a well-organised marketing machine. These intelligent individuals were willing to tailor their message, even if it meant hiding their true motivations.
In the interests of fair play, they say, public schools should "teach the controversy" over Darwinian evolution. This phrase has become the mantra of the ID movement. It is a brilliant manoeuvre, because it implies that there is a scientific controversy. In this sense the ID movement has already won the PR battle. Most Americans believe that Darwinian evolution is controversial - more so than relativity or quantum mechanics, say. By contrast, ID is neither well-defined nor debated in the scientific literature.
Who could disagree with fairness and open-mindedness? These qualities are vital to education and science. But this is not really the ID movement's aim. One of my debating opponents was Jonathan Wells, a fellow of the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank in Seattle, who has a PhD in biology. He claimed his attacks on evolution follow from his years of studying biology. But in an essay entitled "Darwinism: Why I went for my second PhD", he says that as a follower of the Unification Church's founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, he was given a mission to undermine Darwinism. Only then did he decide a degree in biology would boost his credentials.
At a recent debate, Stephen Meyer, also at the Discovery Institute and my other debating opponent in Ohio, indicated that one of the reasons why humans and chimpanzees cannot share a common ancestor is that humans have immortal souls and chimps do not. Comments such as these underscore the theological rather than scientific nature of the Discovery Institute's attacks on evolution. They also suggest that these attacks are based on a priori religious beliefs, and not on an unbiased analysis of the data.
In fact, the "fairness" argument is itself disingenuous. Scientific ideas that have become sufficiently mainstream to be taught in high school have survived a gauntlet of stringent tests. The first takes place when proposals are published in peer-reviewed journals, often resulting in severe criticisms that must be addressed. After publication, the proposals must be compelling enough to prompt exploration by other researchers. If they survive perhaps 20 years of testing against evidence, they may make it into high-school texts. ID proponents wish to bypass these messy steps and go directly into classrooms. Key aspects of other theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics remain hotly debated in the literature, yet there is no call to "teach the controversy".
So having lost the PR battle, how can scientists hope to win the war over educating young people? Scientists must learn that fighting lobbyists is not the same as debating scientific ideas in journals. In science, incorrect ideas will ultimately be weeded out. But in a society in which marketing is king, the scientific community will have to learn to use the weapons of sound bites and emotional arguments. In short, we must deploy all the tools that are used to sell cars, diet drugs and intelligent design.
From issue 2507 of New Scientist magazine, 09 July 2005, page 12