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Is Intelligent Design Science?

Its proponents claim it has scientific merit; its detractors say it is grounded in religious doctrine. But the truly salient characteristic the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in the first three decades is the amount of time it has spent embroiled in court battles.

Perhaps this should be no surprise; after all, ID was first conceived in the late 1980s by a law professor in response to a Supreme Court case. Phillip E. Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, was dismayed by an amicus brief submitted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the Edwards v. Aguillard case that struck down Louisiana's law which had mandated creationism be taught alongside evolution in high school classrooms.

The NAS declared in its brief that the movement then known as creation science was not in fact science, because "proponents of 'creation-science' hold that the creation of the universe, the earth, living things, and man was accomplished through supernatural means inaccessible to human understanding."

From the perspective of the NAS, the key phrase in this sentence is "inaccessible to human understanding." Science is a method for understanding the workings of the universe and everything in it, so a hypothesis cannot be considered scientific if it invokes an explanation that cannot be tested.

But to Johnson, the key phrase is "supernatural means," which he sees as code language intended to exclude religious talk from the public square. In his 1991 book Darwin on Trial, Johnson writes:

When the National Academy of Sciences tells us that reliance upon naturalistic explanations is the most basic characteristic of science, is it implying that scientists somehow know that a Creator played no part in the creation of the world and its forms of life? Can something be non-science but true, or does non-science mean nonsense? [Darwin on Trial, p. 14]

On the surface it appears that, had the NAS been more careful in crafting its statement, the Intelligent Design movement perhaps would never have begun.

However, that’s not Johnson’s only objection to the NAS briefs. He also took issue with this NAS logic, criticizing creationists' lack of a testable alternative hypothesis:

"Creation-science" is thus manifestly a device designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. The dualistic mode of analysis and the negative argumentation employed to accomplish this dilution is, moreover, antithetical to the scientific method.

To Johnson's legal mind, that is the equivalent of demanding that a criminal defendant not only demonstrate his innocence, but also produce a more likely suspect.

But the science lab does not work like a criminal court. The scientific method works by forming testable hypotheses; it is an ongoing process with the goal of finding the explanation best supported by observation and experiment. It is impossible to advance science simply by casting doubt on what we think we know; in order to discard an accepted scientific theory, we must formulate a hypothesis that can better accommodate the observed evidence.

But that’s probably a moot point. Johnson reveals in Darwin on Trial that he is less interested in testing the science than in testing the boundaries of the legal code. He writes:

Equal time for creation-science in biology class, the Darwinists like to say, is like equal time for the theory that it is the stork that brings babies. But the consensus view of the scientific establishment is not enshrined in the Constitution. Lawmakers are entitled to act on different assumptions, at least to the extent that the courts will let them. [Darwin on Trial, p. 6]

In three sentences Johnson has laid bare the underpinnings of Intelligent Design. This movement is not about testable hyptheses; it is about finding legal loopholes and using the power of the legislature to put pressure on science teachers. Whatever else it might be, ID is not science.

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