The Truth, Mainly - 08/29/2005

The president and "intelligent design"
by Leon Satterfield

What a goofy idea President Bush had earlier this month when he said that public schools should teach both "intelligent design" and evolution, as if they were academically equal.

The president apparently doesn't know—or more likely doesn't care because he can sniff out votes from halfway across the country—that evolution is a scientific notion and that intelligent design is a religious belief and therefore has no place in our secular public schools. He also apparently doesn't know—or more likely doesn't care—that we were founded as a secular nation. No national church, no religious creeds we had to pretend to subscribe to.

So he proposes giving our public school kids the choice of evolution or intelligent design.

(Some have asked why we should stop at only two alternatives. A guy in Kansas named "Bobby Henderson, concerned citizen," has set up a web site touting the notion that "the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.")

Of course, that's hilariously goofy. But not much goofier than the goofiness the president advocates.

The really goofy thing is that he seems to see evolution and intelligent design as equally plausible—you pay your school taxes, you take your choice.

Would public school kids like to believe that babies come from God? It's probably easier than understanding that confusing notion about sperm and eggs wickedly getting together to produce embryos that turn into little people that come into this world by a process too bizarre to be believed.

Would they prefer to believe that football games are won by the team that prays more fervently for victory? Or by the team with the strongest, fastest, meanest players?

Would they rather think their houses are lit at night because God said "Let there be light" or because their parents paid their electricity bill last month?

Should we give our public school student the choice between (1)believing that the universe came into being 6000 years ago, created by a playful God who buried fossils in the ground at the time of creation as a way of testing our faith? Or (2)believing what we saw and heard on the Nova program on PBS last week: that while "we should never fall in love with our theories," the best scientific evidence suggests that our universe is around 14 billion years old, that humans have been on the earth for several million years, that the Lucy bones are 3.2 million years old?

Churches don't teach science. Public schools ought not teach religion. Even when the president suggests it.

The president apparently sees no difference between science and religion. But there's a vast difference. Science is tentative: if today's truth gets trumped by tomorrow's discovery, the trumper is a hero. Religion is certain: if today's truth gets trumped by tomorrow's discovery, the trumper may be excommunicated.

And somehow, in a very unscientific way, I'm reminded of a James Thurber piece called "University Days," a partial account of his time as a student at Ohio State. He couldn't pass botany because he couldn't see plant cells through a microscope, and he was supposed to draw a picture of the cells.

"Well try it," his prof said, "with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. As God is my witness, I'll arrange this glass so that you see cells through it or Ill give up teaching."

And finally Thurber sees something through the microscope—"a variegated constellation of flecks, specks, and dots."

The prof takes one look at Thurber's drawing of what he saw. "That's your eye!" he yells. "You've fixed the lens so that it reflects. You've drawn your eye!"

And something like that, I'm afraid, will happen if we give our students the idea that evolution and "intelligent design" are equal in teaching us how things got to be the way they are. I'm afraid many of them will confuse their religious truths with their scientific truths—and Thurber-like, they'll look into their microscopes and see the reflection of their own religious beliefs and think they're doing science.

You can't substitute religion for science any more than you can substitute science for religion. Religion is a church thing based on knowing the supernatural. Science is a public school thing based on knowing the natural.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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