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intelligent comments on (un)intelligent design
American Geophysical Union 2 August 2005 AGU Release No. 05-28 For Immediate Release

AGU: President Confuses Science and Belief, Puts Schoolchildren at Risk

WASHINGTON - "President Bush, in advocating that the concept of 'intelligent design' be taught alongside the theory of evolution, puts America's schoolchildren at risk," says Fred Spilhaus, Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union. "Americans will need basic understanding of science in order to participate effectively in the 21st century world. It is essential that students on every level learn what science is and how scientific knowledge progresses."

In comments to journalists on August 1, the President said that "both sides ought to be properly taught." "If he meant that intelligent design should be given equal standing with the theory of evolution in the nation's science classrooms, then he is undermining efforts to increase the understanding of science," Spilhaus said in a statement. "'Intelligent design' is not a scientific theory." Advocates of intelligent design believe that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved on its own and must therefore be the work of a designer. That is an untestable belief and, therefore, cannot qualify as a scientific theory."

"Scientific theories, like evolution, relativity and plate tectonics, are based on hypotheses that have survived extensive testing and repeated verification," Spilhaus says. "The President has unfortunately confused the difference between science and belief. It is essential that students understand that a scientific theory is not a belief, hunch, or untested hypothesis."

"Ideas that are based on faith, including 'intelligent design,' operate in a different sphere and should not be confused with science. Outside the sphere of their laboratories and science classrooms, scientists and students alike may believe what they choose about the origins of life, but inside that sphere, they are bound by the scientific method," Spilhaus said.

AGU is a scientific society, comprising 43,000 Earth and space scientists. It publishes a dozen peer reviewed journal series and holds meetings at which current research is presented to the scientific community and the public.

The American Astronomical Society issued this statement:

August 5, 2005

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

As President of the American Astronomical Society, I was very disappointed by the comments attributed to you in an article in the August 2nd, 2005 Washington Post regarding intelligent design. While we agree that “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought”, intelligent design has neither scientific evidence to support it nor an educational basis for teaching it as science. Your science adviser, John H Marburger III correctly commented that “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

Scientific theories are coherent, are based on careful experiments and observations of nature that are repeatedly tested and verified. They aren’t just opinions or guesses. Gravity, relativity, plate tectonics and evolution are all theories that explain the physical universe in which we live. What makes scientific theories so powerful is that they account for the facts we know and make new predictions that we can test. The most exciting thing for a scientist is to find new evidence that shows old ideas are wrong. That’s how science progresses. It is the opposite of a dogma that can’t be shown wrong. “Intelligent design” is not so bold as to make predictions or subject itself to a test. There’s no way to find out if it is right or wrong. It isn’t part of science.

We agree with you that “scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum,” but intelligent design has no place in science classes because it is not a “scientific critique.” It is a philosophical statement that some things about the physical world are beyond scientific understanding. Most scientists are quite optimistic that our understanding will grow, and things that seem mysterious today will still be wonderful when they are within our understanding tomorrow. Scientists see gaps in our present knowledge as opportunities for research, not as a cause to give up searching for an answer by invoking the intervention of a God-like intelligent designer.

The schools of our nation have a tough job—and there is no part of their task that is more important than science education. It doesn’t help to mix in religious ideas like “intelligent design” with the job of understanding what the world is and how it works. It’s hard enough to keep straight how Newton’s Laws work in the Solar System or to understand the mechanisms of human heredity without adding in this confusing and non-scientific agenda. It would be a lot more helpful if you would advocate good science teaching and the importance of scientific understanding for a strong and thriving America. “Intelligent design” isn’t even part of science – it is a religious idea that doesn’t have a place in the science curriculum.


Robert P. Kirshner
President, American Astronomical Society
Harvard College Professor and Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University

Comments stimulated by an article in the University of Virginia Magazine Fall 2006



We were distressed by the article "Ultimate Questions," not because it raised questions about scientific theory and observations, but rather because it failed to properly characterize the religious basis for an increasingly vocal attack on science. The article failed to state that the purpose of the IDEA Club is not merely to debate evolution and religion, but (as stated in their charter) to "promote, as a scientific theory, the idea that life was designed by an intelligent designer." The argument that has been made is that gaps in scientific knowledge can be used to prove a supernatural and theological explanation for natural phenomenon. This is an attempt to disguise theology as science, and the simple conclusion would be that the less we know, the greater is the support for supernatural explanations. The great advance of the Enlightenment has been the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

While the article appears to represent a balanced view of the controversy, arguments from the proponents of intelligent design are presented without rebuttal. It might be assumed by a reader who is not an expert that valid flaws in evolutionary theory have been exposed. For example, a sidebar in the article presents the example of the bacterial flagellum, a seemingly complicated apparatus used for swimming that contains approximately 40 different proteins. According to the proponents of intelligent design, it "could not have started unless an intelligent agent put the right pieces in place, together at the same time. Proponents of intelligent design argue that the likelihood that such complexity, with so many dependent parts, arose randomly is virtually nil." What the article fails to discuss is that the flagellar assembly is known to be homologous, that is to share common origins, with the bacterial Type Three Secretion System, and thus evolution can explain how a secretory system evolved into one capable of both secretion and motility.

We think that the attention given to ID is due to the lack of understanding about evolution. It is safe to assume that if the IDEA Club was constituted to promote as a scientific theory the notion that earthquakes are caused by God, and not by plate tectonics, it would receive less favorable coverage. Unfortunately, earthquakes are accepted by more people as a natural phenomenon than is biological evolution. According to the Pew Survey, approximately 50 percent of adults in the United States believe that humans first appeared on the earth in their present form within the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. The notion that humans actually evolved from more primitive life forms, supported by vast amounts of data from fields as diverse as paleontology and molecular genetics, is antithetical to those who do not accept evolution. If humans are the product of an intelligent design, should we also conclude that pathogens, such as Salmonella and HIV, responsible for killing millions of children every year, are also intelligently designed?

Why is the concept of evolution so troubling to proponents of ID? Not only does evolution clash with religious dogma, but it undermines the significance that some would like to give to the place of humans in the universe. Most people are unaware of the resistance 400 years ago to the notion that the earth revolves around the sun, a climate that led to Galileo’s public recantation of this notion under the threat of torture. The opposition to a heliocentric theory of the solar system was due to the conflict with religion, and was sustained by the desire to imagine that we occupy a special place in existence. It appeared more comforting to those who opposed Galileo to believe that we were the center of the universe, rather than that the earth is one of many planets that revolves around the sun, which is but one of many stars. It is quite disappointing that 22 percent of U.S. adults recently surveyed by the Washington Post (reported in the March 30 issue) thought that the sun revolves around the earth, rather than vice versa, so while progress has been made since the time of Galileo, it is not as rapid as one might have hoped.

The current conflict between the science of evolution and attempts to teach creationism or ID disguised as science can be seen in the same light as the resistance to a heliocentric theory of the solar system. It may be more comforting to some to imagine that we were created in our present form than that we share common origins with chimpanzees, mice and even bacteria. The article did a disservice to the extensive body of data in support of evolution by placing the religiously motivated remarks of a few on a seemingly equal footing with real observations and experiments. It was stated that "Few peer-reviewed scientific studies [in support of ID] have been published in the major scientific journals," but a more accurate statement would be that no peer-reviewed scientific studies in support of ID have ever been published in any major scientific journal.

Jefferson recognized that reasoned debate and the free exchange of ideas constituted the very core of democracy in America. However, theories such as ID, that invoke religious themes due to a purported lack of scientific facts, have no credibility or standing in the teaching of science in the United States.

Adler, Paul N. – Department of Biology
Auble, David T. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Bauerle, Ronald H. – Department of Biology
Beyer, Ann L. – Department of Microbiology
Bradbeer, Clive – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Brautigan, David L. – Department of Microbiology
Brown, Jay C. – Department of Microbiology
Bullock, Timothy N. – Department of Microbiology
Burke, Daniel J. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
DeSimone, Douglas W. – Department of Cell Biology
Dutta, Anindya – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Egelman, Edward H. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Fox, Jay W. – Department of Microbiology
Grigera, Pablo R. – Department of Microbiology
Hamlin, Joyce L. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Hammarskjold, Marie-Louise. – Department of Microbiology
Horwitz, A. Rick – Department of Cell Biology
Kedes, Dean H. – Department of Microbiology
Khorasanizadeh, Sepideh – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Kupfer, Gary M. – Department of Microbiology
Lannigan, Joanne A. – Department of Microbiology
Ley, Klaus – Department of Biomedical Engineering
Li, Chien – Department of Pharmacology
Li, Rong – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Lindorfer, Margaret – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Lynch, Kevin – Department of Pharmacology
Macara, Ian G. – Department of Microbiology
Macdonald, Timothy L. – Department of Chemistry
McDuffie, Marcia J. – Department of Microbiology
Menaker, Michael – Department of Biology
Minor, Wladek – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Moskaluk, Christopher A. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Nakamoto, Robert – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Noramly, Selina – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Osheim, Yvonne – Department of Microbiology
Rissman, Emilie – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Rivera-Nieves, Jesus – Department of Internal Medicine
Roberts, Margo R. – Department of Microbiology
Ross, William G. – Department of Internal Medicine
Schwartz, Martin A. – Department of Microbiology
Smith, Michael F. – Department of Microbiology
Stukenberg, P. Todd – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Tamm, Lukas K. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Taylor, Ronald P. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Thompson, Thomas E. – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
Wertz, Gail W. – Department of Pathology
White, Judith M. – Department of Cell Biology
Wiener, Michael C. – Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Wotton, David – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics


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