Creeping Creationism or Galloping Intolerance at the Edinburgh Science Festival 2011?
On 21st April 2011 I attended an evening event at the prestigious Edinburgh Science Festival. Organised by the Humanist Society of Scotland, it addressed ‘The Threat of Creeping Creationism in Scottish Schools’. As a proponent of the debate around Intelligent Design (ID), I thought our Centre might feature. I wasn’t wrong.
It wasn’t the creeping creationism that worried me. In fact one of the speakers from Aberdeen University assured us there was no such problem in schools, and some of the survey data presented to the contrary was lacking in statistical significance. How horrifying is it that one, yes one, school in Scotland has invited a ‘creationist speaker’ to talk to pupils?
What really worried me were the factual inaccuracies and the tone of intolerance – not a good start for an event purporting to advance the cause of open scientific enquiry. One speaker – a member of the Glasgow ‘Brights’ compared ‘creationists’ and ‘intelligent design proponents’ to ‘Holocaust deniers’ – a claim as silly as it is scandalous.
The general approach was to dismiss as ‘tendentious’ the evidence presented by those who disagree with the consensus, reinforce with demeaning slogans (‘ID is BS’ is one the humanists are currently proud of, implying more than ‘bad science’ of course), and assume that a person’s background or beliefs allows you to disregard any argument they may advance in science.
First establish the facts about intelligent design
My scientific training taught me that the starting point for any credible conclusion is to establish the facts and consider all possible interpretations of the data. In this respect the event was a travesty of accuracy.
Firstly, no matter how often it is asserted, intelligent design is not creationism. The latter is a religious position; the former a minimal commitment to intelligent causation based on empirical evidence. Intelligent design has been described as the science that studies signs of intelligence. I know this is uncomfortable for the humanists, but if they wish to enter this debate they need to know what they are talking about.
Secondly, the Centre for Intelligent Design in the UK has said it is not targeting schools. We cannot say it more clearly. Our aim is to contribute primarily to the debate in academia and in the public square. Of course, if I am asked to speak about intelligent design in schools, I do so, but that is fairly infrequently. Happily, one of the contributors said he welcomed such contributions in schools, and another assured me that he would not subscribe to a ban on such discourse.
Thirdly, and most crucially, Intelligent Design is not ‘evolution denial’. ‘Evolution’ is a complex theory, with several major strands of varying evidential strength. As a matter of fact, intelligent design theorists have a range of positions on evolutionary propositions. At its simplest, elements of evolution could be part of the design.
However, intelligent design certainly challenges Darwinism at a fundamental level – that nature and life cannot be the result of blind and purposeless forces. The reasons, based on
established scientific findings, why ID theorists detect mind as well as matter and energy among the fundamental constituents of the universe are elaborated elsewhere on this website.
Science is fundamental to evolution
The published blurb for the event was revealing. It contains the statement, ‘evolution is fundamental to the understanding of science’. I know what is intended here, but actually, in the pursuit of scientific understanding, it’s the other way round. Scientific method and evidence are fundamental to all scientific theories. The theory is not above the method. Following the evidence where it leads is how you do science. So I’d rather say, ‘science is fundamental to understanding evolution’.
If a scientific finding, like the vast banks of functional information in DNA (‘the genetic code’), lacks a credible evolutionary explanation, as it does, the alternative of a source in intelligent mind must, at least, be worthy of consideration. That’s the wholly scientific approach of making an inference to the best explanation – and one that is known to have similar explanatory power elsewhere, as, for example, in the generation of computer software or print media. Now that’s getting to the heart of intelligent design, without invoking any faith position.
Naturalism – a faith position?
You might rule out an explanation which invokes intelligent mind because it does not fit within the ideological naturalism which is invading science. In that case you’re no longer doing science, but have adopted an overarching philosophy of nature into which you then try to fit the data - a faith position in effect.
If I were an organiser of the Edinburgh Science Festival, I would worry, not about the discussion of intelligent design in nature, which just happens to be the original starting point of Western science, but about the not-so-creeping arrogance of the new scientism, which acts as if it knows all the answers about everything, even where it doesn’t, and does not permit discussion of other credible interpretations of the evidence.
If the science of origins cannot be debated freely, in schools or anywhere else, then it’s not creeping creationism we should be concerned about, but galloping intolerance.
Dr Alastair Noble
Centre for Intelligent Design, UK
For some contemporary background press comment on matters relating to the above go to http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6079694. [Accessed link 8th April 2017]
Thumbnail and article images by AWL with free use.