A question of evidence

This is my last post on intelligent design (ID) for a while.  But I want to examine the evidentiary claims surrounding the debate.  I’m not talking about the evidence for or against evolution.  It’s clear that the science overwhelmingly supports the theory.

Consider typical arguments against ID:  Teaching ID risks future generations of scientists; students who learn the theory will be unprepared to wrestle with science-related public policy; economic growth will be harmed if citizens have poor scientific literacy.  There are at least four statements here amenable to empirical testing:

  1. If students learn ID, then their scientific literacy (SL) will be harmed.
  2. If SL is harmed at any point in students’ education, then they will be less capable of becoming scientists.
  3. If SL is harmed, then citizens will be unable to reflect on public policy.
  4. If SL is harmed, then economic growth in an increasingly technological society will be affected.

You can phrase this differently or even make additional claims.  But I think I’ve accurately summarized how scientists usually argue against ID.

For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that number 3 is self-evidently true [1].  Poor scientific literacy negatively affects deliberation on science issues, thereby undermining democratic governance on some level.  But the remaining claims are not so obvious.  It’s not at all clear that learning ID will affect overall levels of scientific literacy.  It’s especially unclear how public SL relates to economic growth.  And as I discussed previously, many scientists believe in ID.

In proper scientific fashion let me offer some testable predictions and a way to test said predictions.  I predict that learning ID only affects SL with respect to the theory of evolution [2].  In all other areas of science, learning ID has no impact.  I also predict that in college ID-learning students study natural science and engineering at the statistically same rate as non-ID students.  As a test, I propose studying children who were home-schooled for religious reasons.  Of course, we’d have to try control for household income and wealth, parents’ level of education, etc.  It wouldn’t be easy, but social scientists do these types of studies all the time.  Finally, I predict that mainstream scientists (including me!) would still oppose ID regardless of any data.

Despite my constant harping on this matter, it’s our tone and attitude I dislike, not the existence of our opposition.  I do think it’s important for scientists to draw boundaries [3].  We almost have an obligation to exclude ID from the realm of science.  But disagreement, however fierce, should not corrode public discourse with threats and sloppy arguments.  It’s important to note that we effectively bully people who support ID:  your children’s future will be ruined if they learn intelligent design!  In addition to being distasteful, this threat isn’t even very believable.  We not only act like jerks, we act like jerks that make bad arguments.  The fact that scientists make these unsubstantiated claims is even worse.

[1] This claim isn’t as straightforward as it appears.  Social scientists have shown that even those who appear to be scientifically illiterate can be surprisingly reflective and engaged in some settings.  See, for example, Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee, Scientific literacy as collective praxis, Public Understanding of Science, 11, 2002, pp. 33-56.
[2] Of course I’d have to define what I mean by scientific literacy.  Considering that no one has ever been able to do that, I’m going to cheat by ignoring that problem.  See George Deboer, Scientific literacy: another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36 (2), 2000, pp. 582-601.
[3] Check out Thomas Gieryn, Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science, American Sociological Review, 48, December 1983, pp. 781– 795.

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