AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner: Science Classes are for Science, Not Faith
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner
[The following commentary was first published on 2 February 2005 in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Alan I. Leshner is the chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science.]
At Dover Area High School in Pennsylvania's York County, administrators recently appeared before ninth-grade biology classes to read a statement. Evolution is no more than a theory, the statement said, and as a way to explain the origin of humans on earth, "intelligent design" theory is just as valid.
The statement, approved by the Dover school board, was briefbut the intent is revolutionary. It seeks to discredit the science of evolution, backed by nearly 150 years of research and accepted by an overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide, and to encourage the acceptance of intelligent design, a theory with strong appeal to many religious people, but no backing in actual evidence or in science.
Perhaps it is fitting that we in the United States are having this debate again. This year marks the centennial of Albert Einstein's "miracle year" in which the physicist penned papers on light, time and energy that changed our understanding of the universe. The year 2005 also marks the 80th anniversary of the Scopes "monkey trial," a historic legal drama in which Tennessee officials tried to enforce a ban on teaching evolution in schools.
These anniversaries remind us of how much our understanding of the universe and of life on Earth have evolved in a mere 100 years. Still, the persistence of the debate in places like Dover, Pa., Grantsburg, Wis., and Georgia's Cobb Countyand in South Carolina, Kansas, Montana and elsewhereis deeply troubling, both for what it says about public attitudes toward science and for the very real consequences those attitudes might have for our children.
People on both sides of the current controversy have contributed to the impasse. As scientists, we have, at times, been insensitiveunwilling to hear and respect the thoughts of critics. But it is impossible to ignore the fundamental mistrust of science, and the hostility toward it, that comes from some quarters of the religious community. Both extremes are distracting us from our common goal of preparing the next generation for a future of great challenge and hope.
As we search for common ground, it is important to remember that science is not by definition opposed to religion, and our work is not intended to impose science and its values on religion. Science is as broad and diverse as our country itself, and among the millions of people working in science-related professions, many are guided by their faith. Einstein himself was profoundly spiritual, with beliefs that paralleled the God-in-nature deism of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
Where evolutionary science and the philosophy of intelligent design part ways is over the central questions of how and why evolution has progressed as it has. Intelligent design theory holds that an enlightened designer is responsible for the unfolding of life and the emergence of humanity. While individual scientists may agree or disagree, science, as a discipline, takes no position. It is a central tenet of science that any theory must be testable and grounded in evidence, not belief. Intelligent design cannot be tested or proven, and therefore it falls fully short of the criteria to be called "science."
Proponents of intelligent design say there are gaps in the science of evolution, but that proves nothing. Yes, there are some gaps; that is the nature of all human knowledge. When they lack solid evidence, scientists might initially rely on intuition to build a plausible and testable hypothesis, and then systematically subject the hypothesis to testing and further experimentation. And it is true that evolutionary scientists at times have suggested conclusions based on limited evidence. But then, when a new fossil or other new evidence is discovered, the conclusion is confirmed or disproved, in which case refined theories emerge. Even now, fascinating questions remain unanswered, and scientists of integrity and passion are at work in many fields to answer those questions so that the story of life can be told in greater detail.
Intelligent design has gone through no process like that. And so, until there is verifiable evidence to support the theory, it remains a matter of faith. As such, it can be discussed in churches and temples and religious schools, even in public schools during classes that deal with government, philosophy, literature or current events. But just as matters of religious faith are not the province of science, faith should not be imposed in the science classroom to undermine fact.
What troubles me most is the certainty that right now in Doveras in Georgia, Wisconsin and Montanathere are children endowed with potential to do good work in the fields of science. But if they are confused about the nature of science, or if the science taught in their classrooms is distorted by an overlay of non-scientific values, then they may never reach their full potential.
In this age of global scientific and technological progress, we don't want our children to be stragglers. That would be a tragedy not just for the children, but for all of us.
Alan I. Leshner
2 February 2005