Friday, August 12, 2005

Why can't we have a rational debate

Tony Snow wrote in Townhall Only an optimist could apply the term, "debate," to the raging controversy over the relative merits of evolutionary theory and the concept of intelligent design, or ID. Few issues in America today stir passions as wildly as this one; few have as much power to turn otherwise sane adults into drool-flecked screamers. Evolutionists regularly depict their ideological foes as "idiots," "cretins," "Bible-thumpers" and, to quote a philosophy professor at DePauw University, "morons." The ID crowd, meanwhile, deploys its own batch of epithets, including such charmers as "bigots" and "unbelievers."

Yet, the whole dispute dissolves if one applies a dollop of humility to each side. One just needs to ask two questions: Does science reveal truth? And, does God exist? Consider the contending theories. Evolution posits that terrestrial life arose through a series of random genetic mutations, and that some species, adapting gradually to environmental conditions, transformed themselves into "higher" species. Hence, the well-known drawings that depict the march of primate life, from chimps to homo sapiens.

Intelligent Design claims the chances of random evolution are virtually nil. Hard science shows us a world of dazzling order, complexity and interdependence. To take one tiny example, a single gene seems to control vision in all animals. Could this be a matter of dumb luck? Physicist Steven Weinberg estimates life wouldn't even exist if, at the instant of creation, the energy unleashed in the Big Bang had varied by one part in 10 to the 120th power. Such odds lead ID advocates to suggest that the universe didn't get orderly by chance, but at the hand of a Designer. These matters have been thrust into public view because some schools have begun incorporating intelligent design into science classes. Critics protest that ID is not science, but a form of philosophy or even scientistic theology. They want the idea purged from curricula, calling it an illegal introduction of religion.

So is evolution, at least the Secular Humanist version of Evolution that is being taught.
This brings us back to the two threshold questions. Most people believe science unravels deep, eternal truths -- that it is "perfect." But the history of science teaches that today's cocksure theory is tomorrow's crackpot superstition. A century ago, physicists boasted of having solved all the major problems involved in studying the universe. The following year, their smugness collapsed when a patent clerk named Einstein published his paper on general relativity.

Today, evolutionary theorists find themselves at wits' end because the fossil record provides no evidence of any species ever turning into another. We know species adjust to environmental conditions -- ever notice how tall kids are these days? -- and that natural selection does occur. But there's nothing to vindicate the notion of an evolutionary leap. That said, ID does not qualify as science because it gives us nothing to test or measure. Science requires replicable tests involving measurable variables.
But by the same token, the evolutionary leaps leave nothing to test or measure either. It has to be accepted on faith. But is it to be a godless faith in random chance, or faith in an Intelligent Designer
But you can't shake a beaker and find God. If God exists, He reveals himself through faith, not science. These little insights give us the basis for admitting both views into the educational system. Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community. Its limits help illuminate the fact that hypotheses are only as durable as the evidence that supports them.

ID is useful largely because it punctures the myth of scientific invincibility, while providing a basis for promoting the cause of "hard" science. Sure, science involves trial and error. Scientists refine theories each day. But as they do, they help us grasp more clearly the wonders of the world and the universe. Scientific inquiry and ID provide useful angles of approach to ultimate questions. Here's how to make both sides happy: Let science teachers tell kids that science is a matter of inspired guesswork, not of invincible decree. Eventually, new theories will arise to wipe away weaknesses and inconsistencies in today's scientific orthodoxy. Also, let students know that a sizeable number of scientists believe in a Designer, since science involves a quest to discover and decode universal design. (A sizeable number of scientists also don't believe in God.) Meanwhile, issue similar warnings against silly abuses of holy writ, since scripture has little or nothing to say about matters of "hard" science. Such cautionary notes ought to increase students' interest in science, not to mention philosophy. A tiny touch of common sense and humility fire ambitions and imaginations by reminding students that science is a form of exploration that never runs out of frontiers and challenges -- and that ever points to questions too big even for folks in lab coats to answer.

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