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Essay:Letter to Florida School Boards

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by AmesG.
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Ed. note - I intend to send this, or an edited copy, to the Florida school boards planning to adopt intelligent design curricula. Commentary is GREATLY appreciated.


Ames
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To whom it may concern:

I write today as a concerned citizen, to urge the school board against adopting the teaching of intelligent design as a new educational standard. While I have no connection with Florida – I am a law student in New York – the use of a partisan agenda to undermine science education necessarily concerns all of America. After all, it is not only Florida, but the nation and the world that would feel the effects wrought by such an unwise policy choice; namely, the generation of undereducated students that the policy would produce.

For the reasons below, I urge you not to teach intelligent design as science, for the reasons that it (1) is unscientific, (2) undermines a student’s understanding of the scientific method, (3) is unlawful, and (4) is unnecessarily divisive.


Science Education Should Pursue Science, Not Ideology

Despite 150 years of wrestling with the issue, the American electorate as a whole has failed to come to grips with the scientific theory of evolution. Today, even mainstream Republican candidates (such as Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback) disavow a “belief” in the scientific construct, and urge America to abandon its fleeting flirtation with science, to return to a Biblical explanation of human origins. In light of this genuine political controversy, some school districts – apparently yours – assume the existence of a scientific controversy, and seek to “teach the controversy,” in the hopes of informing students of the continued debate.

This motivation mistakes the role of the public schools in American society. Science classes are funded by the state to teach science – not politics – to America’s future engineers, physicians, and scientists. While none can deny the existence of a political controversy regarding evolution, there is no genuine scientific controversy about the issue. Therefore, insofar as “the science is in,” in favor of evolution, “teaching the controversy” about evolution in science class steps clearly outside the role of the public school, and becomes partisan advocacy.


Unlike Intelligent Design, the Study of Evolution Follow Scientific Principles

No “scientific controversy” exists, precisely because intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design and evolution both emerge from a common question – is natural selection, as a non-random guide for random mutation, capable of creating the biodiversity and speciation now observed? Sometimes the possibility of natural selection guiding the formation of such complex mechanisms as flagella, or the blood cascade flow, seem truly improbable, and remarkable to the point of being awe-inspiring. As Charles Darwin himself noted, this is a problem faced by evolutionary theory, one he hoped would be solved. It is in their approach to examining this improbability problem that intelligent design, and real science, split.

Traditional science, as every sixth-grader should know, proceeds through the scientific method. The seeming implausibility of evolution accounting, alone, for complex organelles is not in itself an answer: awe and improbability are not impossibility. The visceral emotional reaction – “wow, that’s incredible!” – does not substitute for actual facts. Taking the improbable results of evolution as a problem, then, the scientific method treats the problem by engaging in a wide-ranging examination of the processes of natural selection, retrospection on fossil forms, and biochemical interaction of requisite parts, to see if science can infer, or observe, by replicating chemical processes, the type of natural selection that would be required to produce complex biological process and organelles. One hundred and fifty years after Darwin’s writing, the scientific process has vindicated his hopes. Using such complicated high sciences, science has proven, through scientific analysis, that all the “improbability problems” presented by Darwin’s theory are surmountable. Even complicated biological equipment, such as the flagella, can be pointed at as having clearly evolved through lower forms. The complexity is reducible, and evolution explains how. Thus, in the process of problem-generating and problem-solving which characterize true science, biologists have time and time again proved the completeness, versatility, and accuracy of evolutionary theory, through the crucible of painstaking research.

In contrast, intelligent design approaches the problem posed by evolutionary improbability by, in effect, surrendering to awe, giving up, and abandoning the scientific process entirely. After assuming a lacuna in the scientific foundations of evolutionary theory (one which the foregoing paragraph notes is positively filled), intelligent design partisans take the assumed gap as an invitation to indulge themselves in theology: namely, if science is incapable of proving evolution, a designer (and no design proponent seriously suggests that the designer is anyone but God) must be responsible. This theory makes two critical mistakes. First, it assumes a gap in the scientific record which does not exist. Second, and more crucially, it uses the assumed gap as an excuse to throw out the scientific method, in a naked attempt to reach a preferred, partisan, religious, unproven, and un-provable result.

The answer reached by intelligent design is the scientific equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in despair, and turning to God. This approach is sound as either theology or philosophy (then again, what isn’t?), but it is poor science indeed. Recall that Western society adopted the scientific method as a means of coming to objective conclusions about the natural world, capable of generating useful predictions, which could also be applied to alter the physical world. To ensure the achievement of these goals, science requires the elimination of baseline assumptions: thus, scientific inquiry is properly confined to the natural world, and requires that one draw conclusions only from observation or logical inferences based on the same. In short, in order to unlock the predictive power of science, to allow objective understanding of the natural world, fact must be separated from belief: “the solutions that satisfy [a scientist] may not be merely personal, but must instead be accepted as solutions by many.” Empiricism is a commitment, “without which no man is a scientist.” By digressing beyond inference and observation, into the realm of the supernatural and belief, intelligent design violates this fundamental principle of science. To teach schoolchildren the belief of intelligent design – while at the same time teaching them the scientific method, and explaining Galileo’s struggles against the Catholic Church – would be the basest contradiction, and have the effect of vitiating the entire subject of science. It would utterly drain science of meaning. As Thomas Kuhn said, “one of the strongest, is still unwritten, rules of scientific life is the prohibition of appeals to heads of state… in matters scientific.” To pursue the teaching of intelligent design for a partisan agenda is shameless; to teach that partisan bias is a prerequisite of science, though, is unforgivable.


Further, Teaching Intelligent Design as Science is Presumptively Unconstitutional

The foregoing suggests that, by forcing the teaching of a half-baked philosophical (theological?) argument as “science,” anyone supporter of intelligent design cripples a student’s understanding of science, and abandons the educator’s imperative, to prepare students for the larger intellectual world. But it gets worse. Given the state of modern federal law – law which is not likely to change – anyone who pushes intelligent design upon an unwitting schoolchild or school board almost certainly opens herself to a federal lawsuit, and a losing one at that.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the teaching of creationism as “science” in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Pursuant to federal law, the court ordered that the school board which had abridged the constitutional rights of its schoolchildren (by teaching them religion in the guise of science) pay its students’ attorneys’ fees. In 2005, a Pennsylvania school board attempted to teach intelligent design, only to be (successfully) charged with the same violation of the First Amendment, and ordered to pay the same attorneys’ fees – amounting to an award of well over $1 million – of the victorious plaintiffs.

And this is the grim reality of teaching intelligent design. Whatever your opinion of the actual scientific merit behind it – whether or not you believe it to be credible science – it is not, and the teaching of it in public schools is an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment. Given the controversy surrounding the issue, were another school board to make Dover’s mistake, and attempt to teach intelligent design, a lawsuit would inevitably surface, and the school board would inevitably lose, to the tune of multiple millions of dollars. Starkly put, teaching intelligent design to public schoolchildren is a dangerous and costly mistake. Any attorney’s advice to the contrary is a lie.

Finally, should teaching intelligent design still somehow seem attractive, keep in mind that, should the school board vote to teach intelligent design, the price of your error of judgment would be borne not by its members personally, but by the school board, the local government and, in the end, the taxpayers – the very students whom you would purport to educate. This is the inevitable result, in unbroken chain of consequences, of attempting to appropriate the apparatus of state schools for slapdash science.

Please keep in mind these consequences – both actual and financial, metaphysical and intellectual – before adopting a resolution in favor of “teaching the (nonexistent) controversy,” or acting on the same resolution. If the Kitzmiller case is any lesson, history will judge your actions most harshly, should you misstep.


Yours in concern, and hope,


Ames