Columns » Warwick Sabin

Science is hard!

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last weekend reported that both major-party candidates for governor would support allowing “intelligent design” to be taught alongside evolution theory in public schools.

“I don't think intelligent design and evolution are mutually exclusive,” said the Democratic nominee, Mike Beebe.

That’s true, of course, especially when you consider that evolution is just a clumsy human attempt to use biological research, natural history and other available evidence to chart the development of living things. There is still a lot left to learn, however, because the scientists haven’t been able to explain everything yet.

Fortunately, the theory of intelligent design tells us not to worry about what we haven’t been able to figure out.

“[Intelligent design advocates] say even simple living organisms involve structures so complex as to be unlikely or impossible to develop in a random process,” the Democrat-Gazette explained, “and that an intelligent designer … must have played a role in their development.”

In other words, put down that microscope! Don’t sweat the small stuff.

That sounds reasonable enough. If you believe in God, you have to believe that He (or She) is responsible for creating the universe and everything that has happened since.

But in that case, why stop with biology? Intelligent design offers many possible applications in the school curriculum.

For instance, history includes a lot of unexplained occurrences. Why did both Napoleon and Hitler invade Russia during the winter, leading to their predictable defeats? Scholars have been struggling with that question for years, but a simple nod to the intelligent designer would settle it for good.

Then there’s math. In 1937, Lothar Collatz discovered this famous unsolved problem: “Pick any whole number you wish and subject it to the following rule: If the number is even, cut it in half, but if it is odd, multiply it by 3 and add 1. Whatever number results from this, apply the rule to it as well. If you do this over and over again ... you get to 1, and then 4, 2, 1 will repeat itself indefinitely. Every number that has been tried does eventually return to 1, but it's never been mathematically proved that every number does.”

With intelligent design, we could simply say, “Chill out, Lothar.”

In fact, an understanding of “complexity” and a healthy skepticism of “random” development would be helpful outside of the classroom as well. Let’s say you’re the victim of a crime. Sure, there was evidence at the scene, and one theory of criminal investigation might lead the police toward a particular suspect based on that evidence. But that can be complicated, and it might take a while. So why not just accept the alternative theory that the crime was part of an intelligent design, and leave it at that?

Intelligent design is applicable to so many situations that you have to wonder why it only comes up with regard to teaching evolution. Maybe it’s because some people are uncomfortable with the idea of being descended from primates.

Or possibly it’s because the Old Testament deals directly with the creation of life but never got around to other perplexing subjects like quantum physics or home electronics repair.

But not everyone subscribes to the Judeo-Christian account of creation. The intelligent design advocates recognize this, which is why they don’t talk about God specifically. After all, the public schools won’t adopt their theory if it looks like they are trying to push a particular religion. So they leave it open-ended, even if that means students are left to believe all kinds of different things. There are even polytheistic religions out there, raising the possibility of more than one intelligent designer. Can there be too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak? That might explain all of the conflict in the world, at least.

Now we’re getting complicated again, so let’s stop thinking so hard. The point is that students should be taught that there is a cleaner explanation for the origins of life than what biological research has been able to come up with so far. Evolution theory is imperfect, so everyone should be able to believe what they want to believe, and ignore what they want to ignore.

Furthermore, since intellectual inquiry and investigation is pointless, we should encourage young people to curb any inclination to wrestle with difficult problems via the scientific method.

So it’s a good thing the gubernatorial candidates understand that uncomfortable facts should be avoided. And after November, when the governor’s race is decided, one of the candidates will be asked why he lost.

Among the possible explanations, intelligent design certainly would not be mutually exclusive.

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