While out there on vacation, I caught the Nova special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which as I mentioned previously is about the 2005 Dover trial in which parents sued the school board to prevent Intelligent Design (ID) from being taught in schools.
It’s a remarkable show. Inspiring, even. Watching it one really sees what the scientific community can do when it brings both barrels to bear on a pseudo-scientific idea like ID: Not only were the expert witnesses able to demonstrate the extent to which evolution has been repeatedly tested and found to be reliable (and thereby demonstrate the scientific method at work), but they neatly dissected ID and showed how useless it is as a scientific theory. The principle of irreducible complexity – a key tenet of ID – was shown to be reducibly weak through the demolishing of examples of it (supposedly) in action, and without that there just wasn’t a leg for ID to stand on. One commentator observed that ID is essentially a negative argument, summing it up by saying “Evolution doesn’t work, therefore we win by default.” But of course evolution does work – it’s passed test after test – and even if it didn’t, that doesn’t make ID a theory, it just makes it an idea: It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t provide a testable hypothesis, it has no practical benefits. It’s really just a pipe dream.
The plaintiffs managed to win an even loftier goal than that, though: Through savvy investigative research, they demonstrated a concrete link between the supposedly neutral Intelligent Design and the religious doctrine of Creationism, by tracing the history of Of Pandas and People, the ID book at the center of the trial. The smoking gun in the investigation is a beautiful moment, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it made my jaw drop. (There are several jaw-dropping moments on the science end of their arguments, too.)
The judge in the trial, John E. Jones III, came across as quite intelligent and perceptive, and his ruling against the ID proponents was sweeping, and his own commentary in the show made the wise point that in an era when we need good science and competitive educational systems as much as ever, teaching bad science to high school students seemed counterproductive.
Apparently only a few ID proponents were willing to be interviewed for the show. Two of the school board members who tried to introduce ID into the schools were an interesting contrast to each other: William Buckingham seemed utterly inflexible in his beliefs, unable to see where science and religion might be able to coincide, and thinking the judge to be a “jackass”. Alan Bonsell was more measured in his statements, saying that he only wanted to make the school district the best one it could be. Which is a fair enough goal, but it leaves open the question of what practical benefits teaching bad science – or, at the most, a simpleminded idea with negligible evidence to support it – would benefit students or society.
The other memorable ID proponent was Philip E. Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a member of the Discovery Institute, an ID-favoring think tank. He says that he’d hoped the case would be a breakthrough in restructuring the nation’s educational system in his lifetime, but now he suspects it will be a lot longer. It’s baffling to me that he would have had such high hopes, since their case was based on nearly nothing – certainly nothing demonstrable or testable – so their hopes seemed mainly to lie in the Bush-appointed judge and the support the case received from the Bush administration. This just seems to underscore that the ID crowd are mainly pushing a political and social agenda without any rational basis underlying it. There’s nothing wrong with having irrational beliefs – the world would be a pretty colorless place if logic dominated every field of human endeavor – but such things are antithetical to science, and should not be presented as such.
Another take-home point to this show is how specious the argument that the fact that “many reputable scientists” believe or disbelieve in a theory is not a basis for arguing for or against that theory. “Many reputable scientists” may believe in ID or disbelieve in global warming, but how many of them there are, or what their reputations are, is irrelevant. Science is not a popularity contest, science is a quest to understand how the world works, and to validate or disprove theories through observation and testing. It’s those scientists’ results, not their numbers, which we should pay attention to.
And whether or not ID is long on numbers, it’s certainly short on results.
Naturally, Judgment Day is available on DVD.