Saturday, November 12, 2005

Intelligent Voters in Dover

The scientific content of so-called "Intelligent Design" could be easily set forth in a two-page mimeographed insert. The alarmed response of many credible scientists to simple mention of a controversy, however silly, has undermined the objectivity of scientific theory. Pat Robertson has stabbed the Discovery Institute in the back, by announcing that rejection of "Intelligent Design" curriculum is rejection of God. Articles issued by Associated Press and Knight-Ridder News Services show they have no clue what is really going on.

But the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania showed genuine intelligence. By all reports, the dominant mood that defeated eight incumbents for re-election to the local school board was "Don't we have much more important and pressing business to deal with? Please get this nonsense out of our face."

The pending federal court decision, on which so many have wasted so much time and money, about so little, may be moot before it is decided. Several incoming school board members have announced that they oppose spending taxpayers' money on any appeal, no matter how the court rules. Science classes will continue to teach sound science. And it appears that the existence of competing theories will not be hidden from students either.

The controversy exposed the usual collection of misconceptions. A local barber is quoted in the New York Times as saying "I just don't think we got here by some big bang." The so-called "Big Bang" is a well-established theory of astronomy, having nothing to do with whether life on earth emerged from a long process of evolution, or a rapid process of creation, with or without an intelligent designer motivating either process. For those who uphold the authority of Holy Scripture, it is entirely consistent with Genesis 1:3. The emergence, or creation, or accidental beginning, of life on earth, happened long after the explosion of light that began the universe we know.

Television tycoon Pat Robertson has considerably less authority to speak for God than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has to speak for George W. Bush, but Robertson runs his mouth on behalf of the Creator several times a week anyway. Never before has anyone subordinated an omnipotent deity to the will of a few thousand humans. Robertson assured "the good people of Dover" that they had just "voted God out of your city." God may be surprised to learn that He is less omnipresent than most of us learned in Sunday School.

The more significant result of Robertson's remarks is to undermine the Discovery Institute's claim that "Intelligent Design" is not a religious teaching at all, but a valid scientific theory. No doubt the institute will disassociate itself from Robertson's remarks. "Intelligent Design" does not even name the designer, merely teaching that there must have been one. So whatever the good people of Dover rejected, it was not God. There may be an intelligent designer, who may in fact be God, as millions of scientists who are practicing Christians (but not necessarily Christian Scientists) have always believed. And don't forget the millions of scientists who are Muslims and Jews. The odd thing about intelligent design is: not one commonly accepted scientific theory needs to be set aside in order to accept that simple, but unprovable, premise.

Which is what makes the entire "Intelligent Design" movement so silly. If it is science, it doesn't add anything new. It just adds some speculative commentary on the existing data. If it is a Trojan horse for Young Earth Creation mythology, then it is not science. The truth seems to be so muddled that everyone who opens their mouth on the subject gives the Design a new meaning. That in turn makes it impossible to teach it coherently in the science classroom.

This does not mean that voters endorsed evolution, as the initial AP/Knight Ridder coverage would have it. This election was not a "victory for Darwin's theory." Voters appear to have been more concerned with letting science teachers do their jobs than with lining up for or against any theory. Truth doesn't change because of a vote, no matter who wins the election. What is true is true. What can be verified by experiment can be verified by experiment. What cannot be proven by scientific method cannot be proven by scientific method. Darwin may be correct, or he may be way off base, but that didn't change because of a school board election.

The common sense of the voters and new school board members in Dover is a breath of fresh air in an old and stale debate. Most of the incoming board members support teaching Intelligent Design in elective classes on philosophy, humanities, comparative religion or history, to help students develop critical thinking skills. They simply don't intend to mandate reference to it in science classes. Different members refer to ID as "a matter of the heart and soul," as a "faith based concept," and point out that it cannot be tested, proved, or disproved by existing scientific methods. The lawsuit on the subject "has already taken too much time from the district's primary business of educating students."

Not only has reason prevailed, but reason has prevailed with due respect for the spiritual needs and values of the community and the people who live in it. It has prevailed through the democratic process, without waiting for a mandate from a federal judge. The voters of Dover have broken the myths of "red" and "blue" states, of science "vs." faith, of any political party having a monopoly on either one.

Science classes will teach science, not wishful thinking. Science includes knowledge that can be tested by experiment and verified by measurable results, about how the world works. And to God be the glory – of course science cannot prove that, but to those who believe, no proof is needed. To this outcome a patriotic American, respectful of the values that emerged from the American Revolution, can only say: Amen, brothers and sisters, Amen.

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