December 5, 2007

Didn't We Have This Conversation Already?

Last week, it was reported that Chris Comer, the state director of science curriculum for public schools in Texas, was forced to resign. Ms. Comer, who had held her position for nine years, was pushed out because she forwarded an eMail announcing a presentation titled, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," by Barbara Forrest. Ms. Forrest co-authored a book of the same title detailing the manner in which creationists are working to have so called "Intelligent Design Theory" (I.D) taught in public schools as science. From the Austin American-Statesman:
Agency officials cited the eMail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the eMail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, "it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science."

The memo adds, "Ms. Comer's eMail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."
Let's be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to be "neutral" with regard to whether or not I.D. should be taught as science, and there is no question at all that those behind the propagation of "Intelligent Design" are motivated by religious fervor rather than a spirit of scientific inquiry. As the excellent Glenn Greenwald notes in a recent post regarding last week's Washington Post hatchet job on Barack Obama that uncritically reported demonstrably false "rumors" about the Illinois Democrat:
Here again we see an explicit statement of the corrupt view that so many establishment journalists now have of their role: "We pass on factual falsehoods from one side, note that the other side denies them, and call it a day. Then we've done our job."
With the problem of this esatz neutrality so endemic to reportage in the mainstream media, perhaps it should be no surprise that it has infected other aspects of our lives in general, and socially-charged issues like religion in public schools in particular.

But isn't the debate about the role of evolution and Intelligent Design a legitimate one? Isn't Darwin's Theory of Evolution "just a theory*"? And with the support of several credentialed scientists like Michael Behe, isn't I.D. a scientifically rigorous approach to explaining the origins of life?

In a word, the answer to all three questions is emphatically: NO.

Those of you who have only followed discussions about "Intelligent Design" and Darwinian evolution peripherally may be surprised by the unequivocal nature of that response. The fact of the matter however, is that there is simply no debate at all within the scientific community that the Theory of Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life and speciation. Evolution has withstood repeated and extensive challenges and new evidence supporting it continues to be unearthed all the time. The only reason that I.D. isn't laughed out of polite conversation is because of the hold maintained by religion on this country through the well-funded public relations efforts of groups like the Discovery Institute. As author (and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin) Matthew Chapman says,
There is something outrageous about such a huge body of evidence being put together, then being confirmed in all kinds of other scientific disciplines, particularly genetics, and having other people just sort of deny it for reasons that have nothing to do with truth.
For those of you interested in the details of this argument, I recommend in the strongest possible terms that you watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial over at the NOVA portion of PBS's website. Divided into twelve chapters that make good lunchtime viewing (I know everybody is pressed for time!), Judgment Day chronicles the 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania that represented the first direct challenge to the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in public schools. The producers of NOVA do their usual terrific job, presenting a factual and balanced examination of the case, albeit one that is not uncritically stenographic in the style of the Post.

Judgment Day works extensively from transcripts of the trial, which saw Intelligent Design utterly dismissed as a valid scientific theory and its mandated exclusion from science curricula in Pennsylvania public schools. It is never mean-spirited, but the program is unflinching in its critical examination of the subject matter, and by the end, it is clear why the judge - himself an appointee of George W. Bush - ruled so one-sidedly against the advocates of I.D. Simply put, not only was "Intelligent Design" roundly proven to be scientifically invalid, there was also ample evidence that its advocates, who steadfastly maintain that they are not pushing a religious agenda, have been wholly dishonest in that claim.

Those who believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, or that the earth is 6,000 years old are likely to be made very uncomfortable by the clearly presented evidence in Judgment Day, but I urge you to watch it anyway. Denying facts in order to remain safely ensconced in one's preconceptions can only lead to grief - just ask President Bush - and nobody should end up like this:

* In scientific parlance, the term "theory" does not represent a best guess. Rather, a theory denotes a body of evidence, interpolation and extrapolation that fits known facts and which can be used predictively. Gravitation, for instance, is also a theory, but no one ever claims that Newton's Theory of Gravitation is "just a theory."

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