Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Intelligent Design Debate Tonight 

When I first heard the words "intelligent design" I was hoping someone had made a big breakthrough in houseware utility. I'm a complete sucker for well designed appliances and cookware. I own a fancy coffee maker and an ergonomic tea kettle. But I still believe that there is a lot of important work to be done in this field.

Unfortunately, Intelligent Design refers to something else entirely. It refers to the claim that the certain irreducibly complex elements found in living organisms imply design rather than randomness. To put it simply, we're made up of stuff so complex that we have reason to suspect someone set us up this way and that we're not just the product of random biological mutations interacting with a changing environment.

Is this true? Frankly, it seems plausible but the evidence and counter-evidence for it involves mathematics and biology that are beyond my understanding. On so many matters in life we have to trust what the experts say because ordinary citizens cannot be practically become informed enough to make sound judgments. The public is, I guess, irreducibly ignorant.

But over the years we've learned that the experts can be tragically wrong. We need to be particularly cautious when experts start making claims that go beyond assertions of their own particular field and enter into the realm of policy. A bit more skepticism about expertise would have saved many neighborhoods from destruction at the hands of urban planners, for instance.

On Intelligent Design, the experts are telling us that it is not science and cannot be taught in our public schools. They have persuaded at least one federal judge to enforce this argument. I'm not sure, however, that an expert in evolutionary biology is necessarily qualified to know what should be taught in school. It seems to me we should be particularly cautious when experts attempt to expunge a newly formulated field of inquiry from the earliest stages of education. Would we have wanted medieval scientists to ban the teaching of Newtonian physics?

Furthermore, I am sure that federal judges are in no better place than local school boards to make critical judgments about what is and isn't good science. Just to be clear, I'm not sure the local school boards are very good at this either. I'm even confident that what motivates many of them to include Intelligent Design is an attachment to a kind of Christian fundamentalism for which I am less than an enthusiast. But none of the usual arguments for centralized decision making even apply here, so I don't see why we should abandon school boards as the venue for these decisions.

The debate over evolution strikes me as completely askew. Secular liberals suspect ID is really a plot by fundamentalist Christians to smuggle their beliefs into the public schools. (That they are largely correct, however, is entirely besides the point--in a free society, people wouldn't have to "smuggle" their beliefs into the public schools at all, they could lay them right out in the open.) These same liberals, however, deny with a religious fervor any of the quite probable implications for evolution's continued influence on human behavior and intelligence. Meanwhile, many Christians suspect that Darwinian evolution is being taught to their children in an attempt to make their children more secular and less religious. (This is probably true too!). It seems to me that the way to decide issues that have become this divisive is to devolve the decision making down to the most local level.

Anyway, these are just some quick notes I've jotted down in anticipation of tonight's event. At eight o'clock I'll be debating in favor of the right of school boards to include Intelligent Design in their curriculum. It's at Lolita Bar on the corner of Allen and Broome. Jinx magazine is the sponsor. Please come by.