11 November 2005

The Washington Post misses the point

An editorial in today's Washington Post discusses the school board election in Dover, Pennsylvania. The editorial makes a number of excellent points about the nature of the Intelligent Design controversy. They point out that getting thrown out of office is one of the risks you take when you play politics, and that the Intelligent Design movement relies entirely on politics to get their material into schools. They also point out that while the Discovery Institute claims to lack religious motivation, many of the people pushing Intelligent Design at the local level are clearly religiously motivated.

Those are all very good points, and it is definitely nice to see a newspaper like the Washington Post take an editorial position that favors teaching real science. Unfortunately, this editorial also makes a fundamental mistake when it discusses an issue related to the history of Intelligent Design, and this mistake leads to a conclusion that ends up just a bit wide of the mark.

The Post's mistake in relating the facts of the ID movement comes in the second paragraph of the editorial, when they say:
"Because advocates of intelligent design have never been able to convince scientists that their theory has scientific merit, they've relied on political methods to get it into school curriculums."
Both clauses of this sentence are pretty much accurate. Intelligent Design proponents have not convinced scientists that their theory has any merit (scientific or otherwise), and they have in fact relied entirely on political methods to wedge their "theory" into public school science classrooms. The problem with the statement rests with the choice of conjunction. Had the Post joined the clauses with "and," they would be entirely correct. Unfortunately, they chose "because" instead.

The Intelligent Design proponents were using politics to push their material long before they ever even attempted to convince scientists of anything. In fact, they have put virtually no effort whatsoever into arguing for Intelligent Design within the scientific community. In science, you convince other scientists that your ideas have merit by devising experiments to test them, carrying out those experiments, and publishing the results in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Intelligent Design advocates did not shift to using political methods to advance their agenda because they tried and failed to convince scientists that they were correct. They used political methods to advance their agenda instead of trying to use scientific methods to convince scientists that their ideas have merit. This is still the route that they are taking. There are individual graduate students who have managed to exceed the peer-reviewed journal output of the entire Intelligent Design movement this year.

The editorial concludes:
"[Elections are] a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but once that controversy has been politicized, it's hard to see how it can be resolved any other way."
I absolutely agree that elections are a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but that is not what is happening here. Intelligent Design is not a scientific controversy. For Intelligent Design to be a scientific controversy, they would have had to actually make an effort to do science, and they would have had to actually try to convince scientists that their ideas have some merit. They have done neither.

What they have done is to make a strong effort to use political tactics to push their platform into the schools, and to use public relations tactics to convince people that their ideas represent a scientific controversy. Fortunately, the voters of Dover rejected their political tactics. Unfortunately, their public relations strategy appears to have worked on the editors of the Washington Post.
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