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Aug 15 2005

Has the ID movement jumped the shark?

Some time ago, I wrote that I was not worried in the long term about the so-called intelligent design (ID) movement because it would ultimately lose, sharing the fate of all previous faith-based theories in their disputes with science.

The reason is that science has no place for useless ideas. Theories that do not have mechanisms or make predictions or which can be used for some purpose simply do not make it in science. And ID strikes out on all three of those requirements, thus fitting perfectly the description of a useless theory. All it does is provide a story that meets the needs of those who want to think that god intervenes in the world. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But what good are such stories for science? Science even prefers demonstrably false theories as long as they are useful. Excellent examples of such latter theories are Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation.

While the pre-Copernican adherents of the geocentric model also had religious reasons for their support of the theory, their theory did also make predictions and were used for making astronomical calculations and navigational charts. But when their precision was exceeded by the more accurate elliptical-orbit based Copernican model, all the religious support in the world could not keep that theory from eventually disappearing.

But I think the defeat of ID is going to occur sooner than I had anticipated and I think that it is their very “success” in becoming higher profile that will do them in. Garnering presidential support, rather than being a boost to their fortunes, may be the moment when they jumped the shark because it will have the effect of making people look more closely at what the ID movement really represents and wants.

This is because although the front men (and they do seem to be all men) financed by the Discovery Institute to spread the word of ID are sophisticated and use the vocabulary of science, the main body of people behind them are young Earth creationists who believe that the world was created about 6,000 years ago, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans, and that the Bible is literally true in all its details. Thus Adam and Eve were real people, Noah’s flood was a historical event, and god stopped the motion of the Sun. These people are not simply criticizing aspects of evolutionary theory. They are also turning their backs on the bulk of astronomy, physics, geology, and paleontology. They represent a return to a pre-scientific way of thinking.

This split between the visible face of ID and the thinking of the bulk of its supporters has been largely hidden from those members of the public who have not been closely engaged in this discussion. But it was immediately obvious to me when I attended the ID function in Kansas and spoke with many of the attendees. What the recent higher profile of the ID movement has done has revealed this fact to a much larger national audience, and some of those people who had previously looked on it benignly are becoming alarmed.

This alarm is occurring even among those intellectuals who up to now merely saw these Christian militants as ballot fodder, people who could be counted on to turn up in large numbers in “the heartland” to vote in political leaders who could then ignore them.

The realization that this anti-science movement is at the gates of their world has caused a split among the ID movement’s political allies. We saw that neoconservative Charles Krauthammer strongly denounced ID until Bush’s support for it made him go weak in the knees. Now Krauthammer takes refuge in thinking that sophisticates like him in the big cities are safe from ID-based education, which will remain entrenched among the yokels in the “heartlands.” Others are not so sure that the ID movement can be contained this way. Commenters Becky and Cathie pointed out that George Will has also come out against ID and the pandering to religious extremism.

What I expect to see in the future is an edging way from ID by many otherwise sympathetic intellectuals who up to now may have viewed it as a harmless fixation among the lowbrows. Can ID survive in the face of opposition from intellectuals in the influential think tanks who are their allies in other battles but up to now have been largely silent on the ID issue? I don’t think so, but it is going to be an interesting development to watch.

POST SCRIPT

Have you noticed something? As the tide of public opinion starts to turn significantly against the Iraq war, the people leading the charge to discredit this wrong and even criminal policy are not coming from the top of Democratic party but from lower-level party members and outsiders like Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead soldier, currently camped out in Crawford, Texas and fast becoming a political headache for the administration. (See also the comments by former Senator Gary Hart.)

Why is this? Ari Berman has an insightful analysis of the reasons for the spinelessness of the Democratic party leadership. He basically says that the leadership is riddled with “liberal hawks” on the make, people who carefully tailor their message to promote their own interests within the beltway, trying to reserve their seat on the gravy train.

He quotes someone who says “It’s pretty hard to go wrong right now taking a hard-line position [in support of the Iraq war]. There’s enough places or institutions that will take care of you. Outside of academia, if you take positions on the other side, there’s just nowhere near the level of institutional support.”

This is why I continue to emphasize the importance of keeping universities independent and free from outside political meddling. They remain the foundation of a “reality-based” world-view and the source of people who can say what they truly think because they do not have to curry favor with powerful people just in order to get and keep jobs.

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