USA Today just ran a story about the release of a major report by the National Academy of Sciences lamenting the poor state of science education in America. Given how serious the problems referenced in the report are, it's encouraging that the newspaper devoted significant space to the issue.
However, USA Today seems completely oblivious to the fact that some of its own reporting has exacerbated the very problem the report discusses. Indeed, one of the problems with science literacy today is that far too many people find it all but impossible to differentiate between science and pseudoscience. Unfortunately, it appears that USA Today falls into the group unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between the two.
About two months ago, the paper ran a story about Rachel Held Evans' new memoir, Evolving in Monkey Town. Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, the home of the Scopes Trial in 1925, and her book discusses her personal transformation from someone who was taught that she had to choose between religion and science to a person who recognized that there was no need to make such a choice. "I learned you don't have to choose between loving and following Jesus and believing in evolution."
The article noted that "Evans is part of a movement of mostly Protestant writers and scientists trying to reconcile faith and science, 85 years after the trial ended." So far so good! But the article went on to claim, "Instead of choosing sides, some prefer the middle ground of intelligent design ... "
It is a huge error to offer intelligent design as a middle ground between religion and science since intelligent design has absolutely nothing to do with science. As many scientists, religious leaders, theologians and teachers have noted, intelligent design is nothing more than creationism dressed up to look like science. And, as they've noted, the costume is so ill-fitting that it isn't fooling anybody, except perhaps some at USA Today.
The hallmark of a scientific idea is the ability to express its essence in a manner that makes it falsifiable. If it is impossible to conceive of data that could prove an idea to be false, that idea falls outside the bounds of science. Intelligent design fails this simple test and thus while it might stimulate some interesting religious discussions, it has no place within any science classroom or laboratory.
The National Academy of Sciences has stated in no uncertain terms what it thinks of intelligent design: "Intelligent design is not a scientific concept because it cannot be empirically tested."
The United Methodist Church is equally unequivocal in its rejection of intelligent design. At their 2008 General Conference, United Methodists overwhelmingly passed a resolution "opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools."
Even intelligent design's main proponent, Michael Behe, was forced to testify under oath at the 2005 Dover "intelligent design" trial that its scientific underpinnings were nonexistent. Consider the answer Behe provided to this question about the scientific allies of intelligent design posed by ACLU attorney Eric Rothschild: "But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?" Behe's answer? "Yes, that's correct." Intelligent design and astrology are seen to have similar scientific stature by its foremost supporter.
The U.S. legal system has also weighed in on the issue. Federal District Judge John E. Jones III, after noting the inability of Behe and others to defend the scientific merits of intelligent design in the Dover case, came to as clear a decision as is possible in any legal case: "We find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science."
It's particularly ironic that USA Today opted to confuse religion with science in this manner in this article since the position they've staked out, that intelligent design is a "middle ground" between the two, runs counter to the beliefs of Rachel Held Evans, the person whose book prompted the article in the first place. As she explained to me, "I certainly do not advocate an intelligent design position."
Bob Smietana, the author of the article, acknowledged to me that he believed that it would be illegal to teach intelligent design as science in public schools but he justified the article's wording by asserting that "there's more science in it than in 6 day creationism." Actually, Smietana has it backwards! Six-day creationism makes an explicit, falsifiable prediction, that the universe was created in six days, and scientific data have conclusively demonstrated that this is a false proposition. Intelligent design, on the other hand, makes absolutely no predictions -- which is what removes it from the realm of science.
The import of this issue goes far beyond the evolution/creation controversy. The point that should not be missed is that there are grave consequences for society when we conflate and confuse science with pseudoscience. When we do that we cannot possibly produce a scientifically literate citizenry. And, as the National Academy of Sciences report demonstrated, we are already paying a stiff price for our scientific ignorance.
According to the report, K-12 math and science education in the United States ranks 48th internationally and China has now replaced the U.S. as the world's leading exporter of high-end technology. The report demonstrated how these facts can have huge effects on the nation's economy. For example, if U.S. students matched the scientific acumen of students in Finland, the report estimated that our economy would grow by between 9 and 16 percent.
Over the years, I've liked to point to the continuum that ranges from science through nonscience to nonsense. It's critical to educate people about the best way to place ideas in their appropriate place on this continuum, and it's essential that media outlets do so in their news reports. USA Today failed to do this in its coverage of Evans' book, and thus it failed its readers. Intelligent design is a purely religious concept and passing it off as anything else is confusing at best and intentionally misleading at worst.