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FYI Number 131: September 12, 2005

Holt, Scientific Societies Oppose Teaching Intelligent Design as Science

"When the tenets of critical thinking and scientific investigation are weakened in our classrooms, we are weakening our nation." - Rep. Rush Holt

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), a physicist, spoke out this month against teaching intelligent design as science in the nation's classrooms. "A scientifically literate nation would not permit intelligent design to be presented and treated as a scientific theory," Holt wrote in an article appearing on the Internet. "Public school science classes are not the place to teach concepts that cannot be backed up by evidence and tested experimentally," he added.

Holt's article followed comments by President George Bush on August 1, in answer to a reporter's question about whether both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in public schools. "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said. Recalling his response as Texas governor to the question of teaching creationism, he said he "felt like both sides ought to be properly taught...so people can understand what the debate is about." John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, who has repeatedly stated that intelligent design is not a scientific concept, said in an interview with the New York Times that Bush meant intelligent design could be addressed as part of the "social context" of science.

Two Member Societies of the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU), issued responses to Bush's remarks. APS President Marvin Cohen stated that only scientifically validated theories, such as evolution, should be taught in the nation's science classes (see http://www.aps.org/media/pressreleases/080405.cfm for the complete APS response). AGU Executive Director Fred Spilhaus declared that "ideas that are based on faith, including 'intelligent design,' operate in a different sphere and should not be confused with science" (see http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/prrl/prrl0528.html for the complete AGU response).

Holt's article, entitled "Intelligent Design: It's Not Even Wrong," originally appeared in the September 8 "Talking Points Memo" Internet blog, and can be found at http://www.tpmcafe.com/story/2005/9/8/183216/1039/. Selected portions of the article follow:

"As a research scientist and a member of the House Education Committee, I was appalled when President Bush signaled his support for the teaching of ‘intelligent design' alongside evolution in public K-12 science classes. Though I respect and consistently protect the rights of persons of faith and the curricula of religious schools, public school science classes are not the place to teach concepts that cannot be backed up by evidence and tested experimentally.

"Science, by definition, is a method of learning about the physical universe by asking questions in a way that they can be answered empirically and verifiably. If a question cannot be framed so that the answer is testable by looking at physical evidence and by allowing other people to repeat and replicate one's test, then it is not science. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge that results from scientific study. Intelligent design offers no way to investigate design scientifically. Intelligent design explains complicated phenomena of the natural world by involving a designer. This way of thinking says things behave the way they do because God makes them behave that way. This treads not into science but into the realm of faith. A prominent physicist, W. Pauli, used to say about such a theory ‘It is not even wrong'. There is no testable hypothesis or prediction for intelligent design.

"It is irresponsible for President Bush to cast intelligent design - a repackaged version of creationism - as the ‘other side' of the evolution ‘debate.' Creationists and others who denigrate the concept of evolution call it a theory, with a dismissive tone. They say that, as a theory, it is up for debate. Sure, evolution is a theory, just as gravitation is a theory. The mechanisms of evolution are indeed up for debate, just as the details of gravitation and its mathematical relationship with other forces of nature are up for debate. Some people once believed that we are held on the ground by invisible angels above us beating their wings and pushing us against the earth. If angels always adjusted their beating wings to exert force that diminished as the square of the distance between attracting bodies, it would be just like our idea of gravitation. The existence of those angels, undetected by any measurements, would not be the subject of science. Such an idea of gravity is ‘not even wrong'. It is beyond the realm of science. So, too, is intelligent design.

"Colloquially, a theory is an idea. Scientifically, a theory is an accepted synthesis of a large body of knowledge, consisting of well-tested hypotheses, laws, and scientific facts, which concurrently describe and connect natural phenomena. There are actually very few theories in science, including atomic theory, the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution, and the theory of the standard model of particle physics. Without the ability to test the hypotheses of intelligent design, it cannot be considered a theory in the scientific sense.

"So who cares? What difference does it make if schools spend time on unscientific ideas? This raises the role of science education in the United States. A scientifically literate nation would not permit intelligent design to be presented and treated as a scientific theory. Science education is necessary for all students, especially for those who are not going to become professional scientists. We must not lose the important American characteristic - hard, practical thinking.

"Traditionally, Americans are a faithful people. Most say they are guided by their faith in their God. Also, Americans are an intellectually lively people. Our forbearers did not lapse into lazy thinking. Sometimes it has been called Yankee ingenuity or good old American know-how. Whatever you call it, it has been a source of our prosperity and quality of life. Throughout our history, every farmer, every business owner, every manufacturer, continuously has been thinking how things work and how to make them better. Americans have thought like scientists. Not just those in lab coats, but many Americans, even most Americans. We must not allow this American intellectual habit to be replaced with wishful thinking or lazy thinking. Intelligent design is lazy thinking."

"Our weakened state of science and mathematics education reverberates throughout national and even global issues, and this should be the focus of our school systems rather than a ‘debate' that only diverts attention away from the challenges at hand. The United States must prepare for the changing global economy through fundamental scientific research fueling technological innovation. When the tenets of critical thinking and scientific investigation are weakened in our classrooms, we are weakening our nation. That is why I think the President's off-hand comment about intelligent design as the other side of the debate over evolution is such a great disservice to Americans."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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