A Trojan Turkey?


2005 has seen several worrying developments in the spread of Intelligent Design (ID). For one thing, it reached Australia and received the imprimatur of no less a personage than the Federal Minister for Science and Education, Brendan Nelson. What had previously been a quirky problem contained within the USA was now being exported around the world, making high-profile entries into the education system of Australia and several other countries.

What surprised scientists and science observers about the near miraculous spread of ID was how it had managed to completely subvert the usual path to scientific respectability. There were no peer-reviewed articles, no long and acrimonious discussions in the scientific literature and, most worrying of all, no published data that could be examined by other scientists to establish or demolish its scientific credibility.

Teach the Controversy. Artwork by Kenn Brown.

Notwithstanding the calls from several influential quarters for ID’s inclusion into high school curricula as an alternative theory to biological evolution, for most scientists, ID appeared fully-formed and completely untested.

Paradoxically, then, the concept of Intelligent Design showed all the hallmarks of an intelligently designed campaign that aimed to be recognised despite, rather than because of, its scientific credentials.

There are hundreds of scientific societies worldwide whose job it is to spread the word about the latest developments in science. These range from large organisations, such as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and The Royal Society, that have a diverse portfolio of disciplines and interests, through to small specialist groups dealing with matters as specific as the butterflies of Kansas. Not one of these societies has endorsed ID. In fact, if they mention ID at all, it is to expressly dismiss it as unscientific.

So, if there is no support for Intelligent Design among the scientific community, how has it gained such popular prominence as a supposed scientific theory?

Instead of the normal channels for the dispersal of scientific wisdom, ID has spread through some very slick DVDs and books distributed by religious groups.

The Discovery Institute in Seattle is an extremely well-funded, right-wing think tank that directly or indirectly pays for the production of ID propaganda. In Australia, the official importer and distributor of ID material from the Discovery Institute is a group called Focus On The Family Australia, the local affiliate of an international Christian organisation. Another organisation, the Campus Crusade for Christ Australia (CCCA) is also a Down Under off-shoot of an international Christian group with origins in the USA.

It was CCCA that proudly and publicly proclaimed earlier this year that they would be distributing free copies of the DVD Unlocking the Mystery of Life to all Australian schools. It was CCCA that gave a free copy of that DVD to Brendan Nelson. After watching that presentation, the Minister felt suitably informed on the issue to publicly announce his qualified support for ID. Suspiciously absent from this sophisticated and coordinated distribution campaign is the involvement, support or approval of any scientific organisation.

So does Intelligent Design have anything to offer by way of scientific credentials?

In a word, no.

It does have a group of high-profile scientists numbering less than a dozen who publicly extol the virtues of ID and claim to be doing scientific research on the subject. However, the scientific credentials and research track record of this fistfull of mavericks took a severe kicking in a recent court case in Pennsylvania, where ID had been put on trial for the first time.

A range of expert witnesses provided depositions showing ID was not science, had not been tested as science, and contained poor or faulty logic. They even showed that ID was bad theology that must be kept out of school curricula (read the full range of opinions here).

Under cross examination, leading ID proponent Professor Michael Behe not only admitted that in order to have Intelligent Design taught in science classes there would have to be a redefinition of the term ‘science’, he also agreed that, under such a redefinition, subjects like astrology would be able to be taught as scientifically valid.

In a devastating deposition to the Pennsylvania court (also available through the above link), Professor Jeffrey Shallit of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, stated that ‘by any reasonable standard’, the mathematical demigod of the ID movement, William Dembski, ‘is not a scientist,’ that he had not produced any peer “reviewed articles of any consequence, had little or no professional standing among other mathematicians and that his main contribution to ID, the hypothesis called ‘Specified Complexity’, was so full of mathematical holes and gobbledygook that it simply did not hold water.

Shallit’s 12-page demolition job concludes:

William Dembski has not made a significant contribution to a mathematical or scientific understanding of ‘design’. His work is not regarded as significant by information theorists, mathematicians, statisticians, or computer scientists. He does not present his work in the generally accepted fora for results in these fields. His mathematical work is riddled with errors and inconsistencies that he has not acknowledged; it is not mathematics, but pseudomathematics.

From the outside, however, the pushers of Intelligent Design have covered their tracks well. To a casual reader, their arguments seem plausible; and a slightly deeper pass through their literature appears to reveal enough scientific mumbo-jumbo to merit inclusion with all that other scientific mumbo-jumbo that we deem our kids ought to be conversant with.

But make no mistake, Intelligent Design is just the latest Trojan Turkey from the creationists, little more than a flaccid attempt by a religious minority to have their particular mythologies taught as science. The overwhelming assessment of those conversant with the methods and procedures of science is that Intelligent Design must not be confused with science.

This loopy brain candy will rot the minds of our children if we let this one get past the keeper.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.