Saturday, December 1, 2007

The war on science

Nova had an excellent documentary recently, "Intelligent Design on Trial." You can still view it online.

The push to teach "Intelligent Design" on an equal footing with the theory of evolution is part and parcel of a determined assault on the standards of intellectual inquiry that underpin democracy itself.

The foundation of democracy is liberalism, and the foundation of liberalism is the premise that truth is discovered by free inquiry -- and is always in the process of discovery. Anyone and everyone can make a claim, anyone and everyone can challenge a claim, and all debate is public and based on publicly available evidence.

In the worldview of a certain kind of conservative, there has to be an Authority over everything. When scholars say that truth is not subject to the authority of Scripture, scriptural conservatives think that they are trying to replace that authority with something else. In the worldview of those scholars, however, truth IS the authority, and the only authority.

This is intellectual humility. Enlightenment inquiry acknowledges the limitations of human reason, and therefore requires that all claims be subject to independent test, and always open to question and revision. The more tests a claim stands up to, the more credible it is -- but nothing is absolutely certain, because we aren't absolutely perfect.

To claim that "revealed truth" IS absolutely certain is not "humility" -- it is the ultimate in egotism. The claim that you know God and you know what God said and you understand it beyond question, the refusal to subject your own worldview to any test, are the hallmarks of religious fundamentalism, and they are hallmarks of arrogance. It is no coincidence that the same people who make these claims call democracy "demoncracy" and believe it should be severely restricted. Democracy depends on open dialogue more than it depends on the vote; an open dialogue in which all claims can be tested independently, and there is no special authority over truth.

"Intelligent Design" is not a scientific theory, because it is not testable; it provides no structure on which testable predictions can be made. This is not simply because the proponents of ID do not understand science. It is because they do not want to understand science. The concept of a truth that is independent of authority and always subject to question is inconceivable to them. It frightens them. And until they can confront this fear and accept the reality that the truth IS beyond perfect understanding, they will never understand the scientific debate.

The debate must continue, but it must continue by the rules of scientific reasoning; Enlightenment intellectual ethics. Do not allow those rules to be subverted by "Intelligent Design" proponents trying to run onto the football field with a baseball bat to slam the frizbie into the basket.