A Theory By Any Other Name Is Not the Same: Robert Weitzel

By Robert Weitzel

In the spirit of the third horseman of the Apocalypse who rode to Armageddon wielding a pair of balances, Christian fundamentalists are battling for balanced treatment” in public schools for the politically correct version of their creation story–intelligent design creationism.

This PC version maintains that life on earth is too complex to have developed naturally by evolutionary mechanisms. Instead, it was designed and created by a supernatural intelligence. All reference to God as the “designer” has been strategically expunged, a radical departure from old-time, gospel-hour creationism.

While this millenarian struggle between fundamentalist faith and rational science has ebbed and flowed for decades in America, antievolution activists recently secured several hinterland footholds from which to broaden their attack.

In Cobb County, Ga., warning stickers were placed on science textbooks cautioning students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact.” In Grantsburg, Wis., the science curriculum must now include “other theories” regarding the origins of life. And the Dover, Penn., school district is first in the nation to mandate the teaching of intelligent design creationism.

Admittedly, these backwater skirmishes between faith and reason may have little practical effect on the communities involved. But they are symptomatic of a larger intellectual malaise in our country that perpetuates a misunderstanding of the nature of science, which is having an insidious effect on both science education and public policy.

According to a 2004 article in the journal, Public Understanding of Science, four out of five Americans lack basic scientific knowledge and an understanding of the scientific method. The United States ranks 14th out of 20 industrialized nations in scientific literacy. The decisions made by the elected school board members in Cobb County, Grantsburg, and Dover are emblematic of our national scientific illiteracy.

The Cobb County folks were almost right when they said evolution is just a theory. But they let their scientific illiteracy shine when they said it was not a scientific fact.

Evolution is indeed a theory in the scientific sense, in that it is a “complex and well-substantiated explanatory model.” It is not a “theory” in the diminutive and pejorative sense that it is only a guess. Cobb County’s error was in failing to appreciate the profound difference between the scientific and the vernacular meaning of a theory.

As the late biologist Steven Jay Gould pointed out, “In science, facts can only be confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional agreement.” Considering the overwhelming amount of scientific data supporting evolution, the perversity of the Cobb County decision is tantamount to denying the reality of gravity or germs or atoms.

The town of Grantsburg would like its students to study with an open mind other “scientific models/theories of origins and identify the scientific data supporting them.” A scientifically literate school board would know there are no other general theories regarding the origins of life, much less supporting data.

Both evolution and intelligent design predate Charles Darwin by several generations. Darwin’s grandfather wrote about evolution in his poetry at about the same time that William Paley introduced the idea of intelligent design in his 1802 book, Natural Theology. However, what each scheme needed to make it a legitimate scientific theory was a mechanism by which life originated and evolved.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection supplied evolution with just such a mechanism. The heuristic and predictive power of natural selection turned a 19th-century poetic notion into one of the most robust scientific theories of the 21st century.

Intelligent design creationism, on the other hand, still lacks a mechanism on a par with natural selection that would make it a legitimate scientific theory. Consequently, it is unable to explain either the nature of the supernatural designer or the process by which it designs and creates life. Until a mechanism is available that allows scientists to study the supernatural realm, data supporting creationism’s designer will not exist for Grantsburg students to consider with an open mind.

What all students can study and critically assess are the lively controversies and competing hypotheses within the field of evolutionary science. Contrary to what creationists would like an uninformed public to believe, controversy is not a weakness of science–it is one of its strengths. Science advances when controversy is embraced and resolved.

The danger for a scientifically illiterate society lies not just in the struggle between faith and reason. It lies most apocalyptically in its susceptibility to all forms of superstition and pseudoscience.

It was not so long ago we thought it quaint that a sitting president consulted an astrologer in setting his daily schedule. We now have an evangelical president who believes the jury is still out on creationism setting national policies that affect scientific research, medicine, education, and the environment. Quaint is not the appropriate adjective to describe this reality.

Robert Weitzel is a school counselor who lives in Middleton, Wis. He is a regular contributor to the Lifestyle and Op-Ed sections of Madison’s afternoon newspaper, The Capital Times. His essays have also appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Freedom From Religion Foundation