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Being Stalked by Intelligent Design

Scientists must stop ignoring "Intelligent Design"—religious prejudice disguised as intellectual freedom

Pat Shipman

Of Questionable Intelligence

The main premise of ID is that the living organisms on Earth are so complex and so intricately constructed that they cannot plausibly have arisen through the unguided action of natural selection, so there must be an "intelligent designer." (This entity is usually identified as God, but in a deposition taken January 3, 2005, Dover Superintendent  Nilsen suggested that the "master intellect" described in an ID textbook might also be an alien.)

In rhetoric, the line of reasoning used by ID advocates is known as an argument by incredulity. Because what is entirely plausible to one person is ludicrously unlikely to another, arguments by incredulity are inherently weak. ID is not a scientific theory amenable to testing, but an opinion, a philosophical preference, a belief. That fact made it easy for me to dismiss the ID movement as scientifically unimportant.

I might have settled back into complacency had I not learned that students in the public high school in my town—a town dominated by a major university—can "opt out" of learning about evolution if their parents send a letter to the school. Allowing students to "opt out" of learning the basic facts and theories of biology is about as wise as allowing them to "opt out" of algebra or English: It constitutes malfeasance.

Do not mistake my objection. If my neighbors and their children wish to believe in Intelligent Design as a matter of faith that is fine with me. What I object to most strenuously is the presentation of a religious belief as a scientific theory in a science class.

Nearly everyone educated in science agrees that there is neither controversy nor debate over the fundamental premise of evolutionary theory: Species evolve over time through the mechanism of natural selection (differential survival and reproduction) acting on variability produced by genetic diversity and mutation. Evolutionary theory is the unifying theme of all of modern biology, witness statements from many groups, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Professors, the American Geophysical Union, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Physical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the National Science Teachers Association. As the late, great geneticist and evolutionary theorist Theodosius Dobzhansky, a devout Christian, explained in the title of his famous paper, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Others agree that evolutionary theory is compatible with a belief in God, such as the Bishop of Oxford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the late Pope John Paul II (despite one cardinal's recent reinterpretation of his writings).

The threat posed by ID became more real to me when colleagues at Ohio State University—professors Brian McEnnis (mathematics), Jeffrey McKee (anthropology) and Steve Rissing (evolution, ecology and organismal biology)—became involved in an extraordinary situation. A Ph.D. candidate in science education, high school teacher Bryan Leonard, wrote a dissertation on the following research questions: "When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?"

Leonard described his project and identified himself as a graduate student at OSU during his testimony at the evolution "hearing" put on by the Kansas Board of Education in May 2005. One of the Ohio State professors called the Graduate School to learn more and discovered that Leonard's thesis defense was scheduled for June 6, 2005. The trio wrote a letter to the dean of the school on June 3 requesting that Leonard's dissertation defense be postponed until several problems were investigated. First, they argued that Leonard's research questions contained a fundamental flaw: 

There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice that we regard as unethical.

Second, they asked if Leonard had received approval to experiment on human subjects and if he had followed the prescribed protocol; universities that fail to follow exacting procedures for human experimentation may lose federal funding. Finally, they questioned the composition of Leonard's dissertation committee, which lacked expertise in both science education and evolutionary biology, the subjects of his dissertation. Two members of the committee—professors Glen R. Needham from the Department of Entomology and Robert DiSilvestro from the Department of Human Nutrition—had publicly supported the teaching of ID and denied the validity of evolution.

At OSU, Ph.D. committees are required to have one member from outside the candidate's college to ensure that correct procedure is followed. The outsider on Leonard's committee was an assistant professor in French and Italian who resigned and was replaced by Joan Herbers, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. Immediately after the replacement, Leonard's adviser, an expert in teaching with computers who had "inherited" Leonard as the former student of a departed faculty member, requested that the defense be postponed.

These events prompted me to take ID seriously, and this movement scares me. Now I feel like a jogger in the park at night who realizes that she is far too isolated and that the shadows are far too deep. At first I ignored that faint rustling behind me, convincing myself it was just wind in the leaves. Louder noises made me jump and turn around, but I saw nothing. Now I know that I and my colleagues in science are being stalked with careful and deadly deliberation. I fear my days are numbered unless I act soon and effectively. If you are reading this, the chances are that you are in the same position.

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