Say What? A Bizarre and Potentially Harmful Exchange on Science Friday, Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I recounted how in the middle of a moment of domestic bliss (doing dishes) I was brought up short by an exchange on Science Friday. Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein was chatting with host Ira Flatow about his new book, Failure: Why Science is So Successful. After discussing the merits of exploring the failed 19th-century field of phrenology with his neuroscientist students, Flatow asked, “Could we teach ’intelligent design’ as a failure?”

I explained that we can’t be sure of how exactly Flatow was using the term “intelligent design” and that it’s possible he was using it as shorthand for any kind of theistic worldview (what I’m calling IDG) and not to mean the debunked stand-in for creationism popularized by the Discovery Institute (which I’m calling IDC). It’s also possible that Flatow did mean IDC, but was asking so that Firestein could have an opportunity to point out the difference between a failure worthy of consideration (such as Lamarckian ideas about evolution) and a failure unworthy of any classroom airtime (IDC).

And not only do we not know Flatow’s intention, we have no way of knowing how the question was taken by Firestein. All we know is how he responded, which was to say: “Yes, I think, I happen to believe that we should teach ‛intelligent design’ in classrooms. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to teach.” This doesn’t help to understand what he was talking about, IDG or IDC, so let’s continue. He added, “Let’s remember that Newton, Faraday, many great scientists clearly would have believed in ‛intelligent design.’”

Now I’m getting super confused. Firestein used the subjunctive here—why? If he were talking about IDG, then he could have said that Newton and Faraday not merely would have believed but in fact did believe in a creator God. Both physicists were Christians. But if Firestein were talking about IDC, then it’s just bizarre to ask what a 17th- or a 19th-century physicist would have thought about a late-20th-and-early-21st-century campaign to impugn the scientific bona fides of a central principle of biology. You might as well ask whether Lavoisier would have favored the Red Sox or the Yankees.

Firestein continued, “So I think we should teach it, and understand it as—in my opinion of course—a failure along the way...” This suggests that he was not talking about IDC, which—starting in the mid-1980s as it did—had very little opportunity to affect the course of science and squandered what opportunities it may have had anyhow.

But after “a failure along the way" he added “...but not entirely. There are even things in it that are probably acceptable to evolutionary theory and that could be wedded into it. We should understand how we get from that to evolution." The last sentence confirms that he is not talking about IDC, because whatever he’s talking about predates evolution, so presumably is pre-Darwinian. But what’s with “things in ["intelligent design"] that are probably acceptable”? There are two possibilities:

(1) Empirically testable or theoretically fruitful speculations in the pre-Darwinian literature that have been ignored but deserve inspection and evaluation by modern biologists. Or:

(2) Philosophical or theological interpretations of or reactions to pre-Darwinian biology that are not supposed to be empirically testable or theoretically fruitful but that may still merit consideration even today.

Option (2) seems a shade more plausible. For one thing, while they might conceivably exist, in the absence of any concrete cases of neglected pre-Darwinian “intelligent design” concepts, it’s hard to see any reason to take the suggestion of (1) seriously. Option (2) simply holds the door open to there being non-failed forms of IDG that don’t clash with science—broadly, theistic evolution. That’s scientifically unobjectionable (although it would have been more natural to talk about evolution being accommodated within a theistic worldview than evolution accommodating a theistic worldview).

On balance, then, it seems as though Firestein was not calling for “intelligent design” in the sense of IDC to be taught in the public school classroom: a disappointment for the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, no doubt, but a relief for those of us in radioland who are actually concerned about the integrity of science education. This is confirmed by the fact that in his book Firestone describes contemporary arguments over presenting “intelligent design” in science class as “silly...politically and culturally motivated, and full of disingenuous claims.” Since the only such arguments are over Of Pandas and People and the like, he presumably has IDC in mind here.

But I’m still pretty upset. It took a whole lot of brainpower—not just mine, but that of our history-and-philosophy guru Glenn Branch—to come to the shaky conclusion that what Firestein was trying to say is that not all worldviews that involve a godlike presence are incompatible with biological evolution. We cannot expect upwards of a million Science Friday listeners to have done the same just to sort out a single 30-second exchange. And a lot of them—including teachers—may have come away with the impression that a respected journalist/radio host and his scientist/author guest just endorsed doing something misleading, counterproductive, and unconstitutional in the science classroom.

Not cool, Flatow and Firestein, not cool.

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Stephanie Keep
Short Bio

Stephanie Keep is the former Editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education