Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The Big Tent and the Camel's Nose

Reprinted with changes in RNCSE 21:2, originally from
Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science
[In January 2001, "intelligent design" creationist William Dembski, author of The Design Inference, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, and the forthcoming No Free Lunch, posted an essay entitled “Is intelligent design testable?” on the Meta discussion board, an on-line forum devoted to discussion of science and religion (Dembski 2001a). In his essay, Dembski attributed to me the view that intelligent design is untestable, and then proceeded to argue — unconvincingly, to my mind — to the contrary. My response follows.]
William Dembski has responded to my January 18 Tom Jukes Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley. Others are responding on Meta and elsewhere to the focus of his essay, whether natural selection is testable, and I shall not do so here. I should, however, comment on views attributed to me.

I was not really dealing with the testability of “intelligent design” (ID), though that is the impression one might get from Dembski’s essay. In this public lecture, I discussed both traditional “creation science” and neocreationism, and compared them. I talked about Behe’s irreducible complexity idea, and Dembski’s Design Inference, and illustrated the religious motivation for fighting evolution. I am not especially concerned with whether ID is testable. I look at the testability of ID the same way I look at the testability of traditional young-earth creationism (YEC): YEC can make empirically or logically or statistically testable statements (the earth was covered by a body of water, all living things are descended from creatures that came off a boat) but its foundational claim that everything came into being suddenly in its present form through the efforts of a supernatural creator is not a scientifically testable claim. I shall let theologians argue over whether special creationism is good theology, but invoking omnipotent supernatural causes puts one smack out of the realm of science, protestations of the validity of “theistic science” notwithstanding. One cannot use natural processes to hold constant the actions of supernatural forces; hence it is impossible to test (by naturalistic methodology) supernatural explanations (Scott 1998). Whether a supernatural force does or does not act is thus outside of what science can tell us.

Similarly, ID can make empirically or logically or statistically testable claims (certain structures are irreducibly complex; by using probability arguments like the “design filter” one can detect design) but the foundational claim that a supernatural “intelligence” is behind it all is not a scientifically testable statement. (And please, let us be grownups here: we are not talking about a disembodied, vague “intelligence” that might be material, we are talking about God, an intelligent agent who can do things that, according to ID, mortals and natural processes like natural selection cannot. Not for nothing does Dembski say that ID is the bridge between science and theology.)

In my talk, I was not deploring the untestability of ID per se but the fact that its proponents do not present testable models. I was referring to the fact that ID proponents do not present a model at all in the sense of saying what happened when. At least YEC presents a view of “what happens”: the universe appeared a few thousands of years ago, at one time, in its present form; living things are descended from specially created “kinds” from which they have not varied except in trivial ways; there was a universal flood that produced the modern geological features; and humans are specially created apart from all other forms. So what happened in the ID model?

I said (and have said repeatedly) that the message of ID is “evolution is bad science”, without providing an alternative view of the history of the universe. This is not trivial: in books by Phillip Johnson, as well as in Jonathan Wells’s new Icons of Evolution (2000), teachers are told that they should be teaching students about how evolution is a weak, unsubstantiated “theory in crisis”, to quote former anti-evolutionist Michael Denton.

The theories of astronomical, geological, and biological evolution attempt to explain evidence demonstrating that the universe has been around for a long time and has gradually unfolded from a different form to its present form. There are lots of details in there, about when and how things happened: when our galaxy formed, when other galaxies formed, when earth formed and out of what matter, when warthogs or whortleberries or liverworts came to resemble their present forms, and so on. Something happened, and we are trying to figure out what and trying to figure out the mechanisms that brought it about. ID tells us that evolution did not happen (what else is one supposed to take away from Icons of Evolution?) but it does not tell us what did.

Unless ID proponents can come up with an actual model of “what happened”, all they have is a sterile anti-evolutionism that adds little to YEC beyond the specific ideas of irreducible complexity and the design filter.

The reason ID proponents are so vague about an actual picture of what happened is that they strive to include YECs, progressive creationists (PCs), and theistic evolutionists (TEs) among their theorists and supporters (though the TE gang must feel rather uncomfortable, Dembski himself having proclaimed that “ID is no friend of theistic evolution” [Dembski 1995]). This is not just a big tent; it is one bulging with people who must be eyeing one another warily. Phil Johnson may want everyone just to be nice for the time being until evolution is vanquished, and then they can work out their disagreements, but if you think evolutionists squabble, wait until you see what happens when the ID folks have to sort out their differences.

As Ronald Numbers and Kelly Smith independently urged at last summer’s “Design and Its Critics” conference, if ID is going to attain any level of scholarly respectability, its proponents are going to have to distinguish their model from the discredited, unscientific YEC model, even if that means losing the support of biblical-literalist Christians (see RNCSE 2000 Jul/Aug; 20 [4]: 40–43 for Kelly Smith’s comments.) For aspiring scholarly movements, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.

Given my odd line of work, I am concerned with practical issues such as what teachers are being told to do and what effect this will have on American education. As near as I can tell, teachers are being encouraged to teach students that evolution did not happen and, if it did, that natural selection is not the cause of it, and that in any event we have to leave room for the direct actions of a Creator, and all this is still called science. But to keep all the ID factions quiet, an actual picture of what happened, which is what evolution is trying to explain and what ID has to explain, is never mentioned.

What should teachers teach? Apparently, judging from Icons of Evolution, they should teach the familiar old YEC saws about the weaknesses of evolution. Evolution is bad science, they say. So to my way of thinking, ID does not rise above familiar anti-evolutionism, though it may be served up in probability theory and information theory with a side order of biochemistry. There is no coherent ID model of what happened for teachers actually to teach.

This invites the question of what, according to the proponents of ID, should teachers teach about the following issues?

1) Is the universe a few thousand years old or billions? Most ID proponents will, if forced, uncomfortably confess that they accept an ancient age of the earth, but they are quick to dismiss the question as unimportant, presumably to keep the YECs in their anti-evolution tent. But should a teacher teach that the earth is millions or thousands of years old? You cannot have it both ways if you are proposing a K–12 curriculum. What is the ID model? What happened?

2) Is the geological column, which shows a succession of species through time, “real” or an artifact? At least the YECs present a model of what happened: the arrangement of species in the geological column is a result of sorting by Noah’s flood, rather than their appearance at different times. Does ID accept the geological column as “real”? This is a simple thing to agree to: it is still possible to argue (as Jonathan Wells does) that the arrangement of species through time does not represent descent with modification, but Dembski and his colleagues are going to have to come clean as to what this means. Minimally, it means the special creationists are wrong, but it also requires the progressive creationists and the theistic evolutionists to fight it out as to whether the succession of species through time represents separate creations or a genealogical pattern of related species.

3) Did living things descend with modification from common ancestors? This is what biological evolution is all about — and where the ID big tent starts showing the strain of trying to stretch over incompatible views. How is ID going to accommodate both theistic-evolutionist Michael Behe and special-creationist Paul Nelson? More important, what do proponents of ID expect teachers to teach? What happened?

I think that I know the answer. Teachers are supposed to teach that evolution did not happen. Of course, if they did, they would be teaching a view that is well outside the scientific mainstream, and be doing their students no favors. I like to remind people that evolution is taught matter-of-factly at every solid university in the nation, including Brigham Young, Notre Dame, and Baylor. But more importantly for our purposes here, ID does not present a coherent model of “what happened”, making it impossible for teachers to present ID as an alternative to evolution, as its proponents seek.

Now, maybe Dembski or other ID proponents will tell me that they are not trying to influence the K–12 curriculum, that they are merely trying to build a scholarly movement at the university or intellectual level, trusting that eventually ID will be validated and, like other intellectual movements, will trickle down to the K–12 level. If Dembski had attended my talk, he would have heard me advocate exactly this strategy. I do not think that ID will enter the academic mainstream, but if it does, then obviously it will eventually be taught in high school.

But I do not think that ID proponents are willing to wait until they get this validation: Jonathan Wells, whose book provides disclaimers to be copied and placed in K–12 textbooks, is obviously concerned primarily with the K–12 curriculum; Phillip Johnson’s Defeating Darwinism (1997) is explicitly aimed at high school students; and the CRSC’s Steven Meyer is an author of a substantial “Afterword” to teachers in the ID high-school textbook, Of Pandas and People (Davis and Kenyon 1989). Bruce Gordon, currently interim director of The Baylor Science and Religion Project, has correctly noted that ID “has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education, where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world” (Gordon 2001).

So, what happened, Bill? Will you go beyond “evolution is bad science” to give us an actual model of what happened?

[Dembski responded to my article on Meta (Dembski 2001b). Despite lavishing 2500-odd words on his response, he carefully avoided committing ID to any position on the age of the earth, the geological column, and common descent. The big tent continues to strain at the seams.]


I thank Glenn Branch for useful comments and William Grassie for the title.

By Eugenie C. Scott, NCSE Executive Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.