Mar 15 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 6)

Implications of Faith-Based Science

Intelligent Design Exemplifies the Misguided Hijacking of Science Education

Pressure is mounting to install faith-based beliefs into science classrooms. This movement subverts the very foundation of science—a search for the truthand turns science curricula into religious education. In schools and courts, religious crusaders equate faith-based beliefs with scientific theories, arguing, for example, that because the theory of evolution is unproved, alternative faith-based theories are equally valid and should be taught in science classes.

The current controversy over intelligent design, or ID, exemplifies the misguided hijacking of science education. According to ID supporters, life is so complex that it could not have just happened or, even, have evolved through incremental changes over geologic eons (i.e., via evolution).

Instead, an intelligent designera.k.a Godmust have created it, because we humans simply lack the intellectual wherewithal to comprehend biological complexity. The idea of intelligent design seems viscerally, if not intellectually, satisfying as it provides an easy answerAn intelligent designer created it, thats all the explanation needed

Why bother collecting and critiquing evidence, especially when it may show you wrong, when you can simply invoke faith and leave it at that? But some of us prefer to know or at least seek the truth, even when the truth turns out contrary to our preferences and inclinations and forces us to rethink the validity of our beliefs.

Such people are called scientists, and we vigorously resist attempts to distort science education to serve alternative agendas.

Hallmarks of Science

The hallmarks of true science, among them hard evidence, testable hypotheses, critical analyses, and the ability to predict future events with reasonable accuracy, are absent from faith-based beliefs. A legitimate theory requires the concept of falsifiability, a situation in which the theory is proven false.

A fundamental failure of the faith-based belief as theory is that those advancing the idea of an intelligent designer are unable to consider, let alone accept, the possibility that their belief is false. It is the unshakeable faith in beliefs that distinguishes the proponents of intelligent design from scientists, who tenaciously seek falsifiable evidence as a matter of course.

Scientists support a theorywhen they do support a theorybased on accumulated evidence, falsifiable tenets, and the history of formulating predictions. A theory is scientifically sound only when it is supported by empirical evidence.

Faith-based beliefs are, by definition, based on faith even in the absence of supporting evidence, as well as in the presence of disproving evidence. The basic distinction is that a scientific theory begins with evidence, then a hypothesis to explain the evidence is constructed, followed by experiments or more observations directed to either falsify or support the explanation. The hypothesis is constantly revised and reworked to accommodate new evidence until eventually a sound theory emerges, one that stands the tests of falsifiability and makes accurate predictions.

In contrast, a faith-based belief system starts with the conclusion, then (perhaps) seeks evidence to support the predetermined conclusion. The evidence gathering itself is fundamentally different from science. In science, the pursuit of evidence is to seek truth. In faith, the pursuit of evidence is to support the belief. In science, all valid evidence, whether pro or con, is accommodated. In faith, any evidence not supporting the belief is categorically rejected as being tainted, heretical, or otherwise invalid.

Evolution as a theory generated many predictions and has been tested through many experiments and observations. The details certainly are debated, argued, and tested, with specific details rejected or adjusted to account for new test results and observations. But the overall evolutionary concept, that life changes over time as an adaptation to better fit an environment, continues to build credibility and respect.

For example, DNA uses the same code in all organisms, allowing the human insulin gene to be transferred to a bacterium, and have the bacterium synthesize insulin from that gene. Darwin knew nothing about DNA, yet his theory predicts a common genetic background for both humans and bacteria.

The common DNA code supports and buttresses the theory of evolution. But why would we predict one genetic code common to all species from an intelligent designer, who presumably could assign a different code to each species? What testable predictions arise from the belief that an intelligent designer created everything holus-bolus? This inability of intelligent design to predict and be tested precludes and rejects intelligent design as a scientific theory.

Attempts to manipulate science education by defining religious beliefs as scientific theories are not new. Understandably, those of strong faith desire to convince the agnostic, the nonbelievers, and other infidels by using any weapon available, among them appropriating the objective, non-denominational credibility of science.

Such efforts are redoubled when science is perceived to challenge the faith-based beliefswitness the persecution of Galileo for observing moons circling Jupiter, refuting the geocentric-universe belief held by the faithful of the day.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster Argument

Advocates of intelligent design seem to think (or rather believe) that if they can successfully discredit the theory of evolution, then the remaining explanation for life on Earth is the theory of intelligent design. This is wrong on two counts.

First, even if evolutionary theory is wrong in its entirety, there may be any number of other explanations for how the Universe came to be. Certainly intelligent design is one possibility, but another possible explanation is, in the words of some pundits, an all powerful Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM).

Indeed, there is just as much testable evidence supporting the FSM as there is for the ID, so both are equally valid and equally invalid. If supporters of ID win their court cases and ID is taught in public schools as an alternative to evolution, then the supporters of the FSM will have an identical case for teaching their beliefs as well.

Second, just because they dont understand it doesnt mean everyone doesnt understand it. Invoking the I dont understand it, so it must be due to a superior being is a lazy contrivance to avoid intellectual pursuit. Pursuing truth following a scientific approach is what makes humans, well, human.

Believers in intelligent design will say flight or the eye are so complicated they could not have evolved through a series of random changes and incremental improvements. They cry, Where are the intermediates?

With an intelligent designer, wings and eyes may have been designed once, fully functional, and distributed to those species enjoying them today.

But keen observers (a.k.a scientists) note several proto-eyes, primordial sight organs in primitive species. And flight, far from being a singular event, evolved independently on at least five different occasions to diverse animals. Without real science, we might never notice, admire, and understand these natural wonders.

In spite of the distinctions, many legitimate and capable scientists maintain a strong religious faith. This is no contradiction or paradox. Such scientists segregate their science as a means to explain the natural world and their faith to explain the supernatural world.

One is objective, physical, measurable, and amenable to scientific testing. The other is subjective, ethereal, and immeasurable, not amenable to scientific prodding and probing. One is evidence-based, the other is faith-based. And never the twain shall meetespecially not in a science classroom.

Alan McHughen, D.Phil., is professor of genetics at University of California, Riverside. Phone: (951) 827- 7532. E-mail: