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Intelligent Design: It's Not Even Wrong

by The Honorable Rush Holt (D-NJ), U.S. House of Representatives
September 8, 2005

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As a research scientist and a member of the House Education Committee, I was appalled when President Bush signaled his support for the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside evolution in public K-12 science classes. Though I respect and consistently protect the rights of persons of faith and the curricula of religious schools, public school science classes are not the place to teach concepts that cannot be backed up by evidence and tested experimentally.

Science, by definition, is a method of learning about the physical universe by asking questions in a way that they can be answered empirically and verifiably. If a question cannot be framed so that the answer is testable by looking at physical evidence and by allowing other people to repeat and replicate one's test, then it is not science. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge that results from scientific study. Intelligent design offers no way to investigate design scientifically. Intelligent design explains complicated phenomena of the natural world by involving a designer. This way of thinking says things behave the way they do because God makes them behave that way. This treads not into science but into the realm of faith. A prominent physicist, W. Pauli, used to say about such a theory "It is not even wrong". There is no testable hypothesis or prediction for Intelligent Design.

It is irresponsible for President Bush to cast intelligent design - a repackaged version of creationism - as the "other side" of the evolution "debate." Creationists and others who denigrate the concept of evolution call it a theory, with a dismissive tone. They say that, as a theory, it is up for debate. Sure, evolution is a theory, just as gravitation is a theory. The mechanisms of evolution are indeed up for debate, just as the details of gravitation and its mathematical relationship with other forces of nature are up for debate. Some people once believed that we are held on the ground by invisible angels above us beating their wings and pushing us against the earth. If angels always adjusted their beating wings to exert force that diminished as the square of the distance between attracting bodies, it would be just like our idea of gravitation. The existence of those angels, undetected by any measurements, would not be the subject of science. Such an idea of gravity is "not even wrong". It is beyond the realm of science. So, too, is intelligent design.

Colloquially, a theory is an idea. Scientifically, a theory is an accepted synthesis of a large body of knowledge, consisting of well-tested hypotheses, laws, and scientific facts, which concurrently describe and connect natural phenomena. There are actually very few theories in science, including atomic theory, the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution, and the theory of the standard model of particle physics. Without the ability to test the hypotheses of Intelligent Design, it cannot be considered a theory in the scientific sense.

So who cares? What difference does it make if schools spend time on unscientific ideas? This raises the role of science education in the United States. A scientifically literate nation would not permit Intelligent Design to be presented and treated as a scientific theory. Science education is necessary for all students, especially for those who are not going to become professional scientists. We must not lose the important American characteristic - hard, practical thinking.

Traditionally, Americans are a faithful people. Most say they are guided by their faith in their God. Also, Americans are an intellectually lively people. Our forbearers did not lapse into lazy thinking. Sometimes it has been called Yankee ingenuity or good old American know-how. Whatever you call it, it has been a source of our prosperity and quality of life. Throughout our history, every farmer, every business owner, every manufacturer, continuously has been thinking how things work and how to make them better. Americans have thought like scientists. Not just those in lab coats, but many Americans, even most Americans. We must not allow this American intellectual habit to be replaced with wishful thinking or lazy thinking. Intelligent design is lazy thinking.

The push for improving public competence in science and mathematics is justifiable not solely on the grounds of economics, national security, and an informed citizenry. There is no question that these are vitally important reasons, but we should not forget the reason of personal well-being. Understanding sciences brings order, harmony, and balance to our lives. The sciences teach us that the world is intelligible and not capricious. They give us the skills for lifelong learning, for creating progress itself.

By the way, I am proud to have served on the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching, established to improve the presence and quality of math and science education. Over the next ten years, we will have to hire 2.2 million teachers just to keep pace with attrition in the workforce. Most of these teachers will be called on to teach science at some point, and many will feel unprepared to teach it. To promote the teaching of math and science, I successfully passed legislation to speed up student loan forgiveness to math, science, and special education teachers in high-need areas.

Congress and the President enacted the most important education reform legislation in 30 years - the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. I was able to ensure that a math and science partnership program was included, which link school districts with university science, math, and engineering departments to provide high quality, sustained professional development activities for K-12 teachers. Unfortunately, the Act is being poorly implemented and woefully under funded today.

In the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, I worked with several colleagues to improve a federal scholarship program for students pursuing degrees related to science, math, and engineering; pay off a portion of teachers' student loans; and award grants to states to establish Mathematics and Science Education Coordinating Councils composed of education, business, and community leaders. We must do much more.

Our weakened state of science and mathematics education reverberates throughout national and even global issues, and this should be the focus of our school systems rather than a 'debate' that only diverts attention away from the challenges at hand. The United States must prepare for the changing global economy through fundamental scientific research fueling technological innovation. When the tenets of critical thinking and scientific investigation are weakened in our classrooms, we are weakening our nation. That is why I think the President's off-hand comment about intelligent design as the other side of the debate over evolution is such a great disservice to Americans.

This article originally appeared in the September 8, 2005 "Talking Points Memo" Internet blog.

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Last updated on September 20, 2005