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File This Bill under “Ambivalence”

The Texas Legislature is in session, and a bill has been proposed to protect faculty and students from discrimination for studying “theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.”

As you can imagine, this is simply igniting the blogosphere, mostly with outrage at how backwards Texas is. Pick your own favorite invective and it is surely being hurled our way.

I am having a very difficult time deciding how I feel about the bill. Part of me supports the general idea of protecting academic freedom from political correct whims. We have respected research on many esoteric and minutial topics, yet there are some topics that are simply taboo. The purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom to explore extremely controversial topics with a minimum of blowback. To the extent that universities fail to hold themselves to that standard, such laws may be useful. Regardless of how folks feel about “Expelled,” there is a certain level of antipathy towards areas with theistic implications, whether or not they explicitly have anything to do with evangelical Christianity.

To be honest, there is also some controversy among scientists of faith as to how to define ID. Is it a theory, as the bill calls it, or something more vague? A theory implies a series of testable/falsifiable hypotheses that suggest research to answer specific questions. If ID merely suggests a different interpretation of the data, but does not offer insight on how future experiments can be performed that would reveal either an increase or decrease in the ruggedness of that interpretation, it is of limited scientific value.

Of course, I suspect some ID proponents would rebut with the idea that if they had the freedom to pursue ID research in the open, then they would be in a better position to move from the latter to the former. Fair enough.

For me, the heart of the matter goes back to the whole agent/mechanism dichotomy. When looking at origins, we need to be careful to distinguish the mechanism by which things occurred, from the agency initiating and/or guiding that mechanism. Both sides muddy this line pretty badly and it makes for increased antagonism.

The mechanism question is best explained thus: Did the various species on earth arise from whole cloth, either instantaneously or in a type of punctuated equilibrium, or by a series of gradual processes from simple to more complex? There are a number of variations from these descriptions, but basically this covers the various proposed models.

The agency question is quite independent from the answer to the mechanism question: What initiated the first thing we can clearly identify as a living organism and was subsequent development directed or random. If directed, how and by what?

Then there is the clincher agency question:  Can we definitively distinguish the difference between various agencies? If the mechanism is Darwinian evolution, how would we tell if it were motivated by an intelligence with a purpose or simply was a series of random mutations that now that we are here, we call ‘lucky?’ The same question can be asked for whatever answer we come up with to the mechanism question.

If we cannot distinguish between agency models, then the discussion is moot, and must firmly remain in the areas of philosophy. If, however, there were a way to distinguish between the agency models, then it seems like it is of paramount importance to pursue that course and resolve it. Otherwise, we are limiting our own progress. But to the extent the question cannot even be discussed in the academy, there will be a nagging question in people’s minds, “what if?” The Christian church has received a great deal of criticism over how it handled various key scientific discoveries and how if they had embraced the investigations rather than squelching them, more progress might have been made faster. Are we as the scientific establishment making the same mistake that we accuse the Church of making?

If ID researchers can garner grant money, attract students, perform competent investigations and help resolve even the clincher question, why not allow it? Why should universities care as long as they are getting their overhead? It certainly adds to the diversity of the community.

I know many in the scientific community see the issue as moot. They are upset because they genuinely believe the issue is settled, the horse is so dead that it’s already a fossil in the British Museum. At the very least, part of tolerance is allowing others to scratch their itch.

Also, many believe ID is just an excuse for quietly inserting religion into science. While many ID proponents are scientists of faith, not all are. While a few may have a hidden agenda, most don’t. I personally know many people in the ID movement, and they have absolutely no desire to post the Apostle’s Creed in their classrooms and recite it at the beginning of class. However, no matter how convincingly that is argued, I know that many naturalists cannot be convinced that ID is nothing more than a secret Christian conspiracy. All I can say is that it isn’t. You can choose to believe it or not.

(Some readers are probably asking where I come down on this as I am obviously sympathetic, but not quite embracing, and so wonder if I am adopting an artificially neutral position to ‘appear legitimate.’ I address that issue here.)

Going back to the proposed bill, the small-government, freedom-minded part of me isn’t terribly thrilled with it. Here is yet another law cluttering the books. Even if the universities do not discriminate and take the attitude I propose four paragraphs ago, would the ID researchers be able to obtain grant money or be reviewed fairly in the literature? Can this bill help with that? Should it try? How will the Law of Unintended Consequences have an impact on things? Many well-intentioned laws end up, through the vagaries of practice and interpretation, doing the exact opposite of their intended effect. If someone wanted to study the scientific implications of, say, the Hindu creation story, would that be covered by the protections of the bill? It is an equal protection bill? The wording appears so, but the challenges of a pluralistic society require us to examine such things, preferably ahead of time.

Did Representative Zedler consult with faculty and universities to explore impact before proposing the bill? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to “bite the hand that’s petting me.” I’m exploring the issue as a scientist—looking at it from various angles to see if it is needed, wanted and/or accomplishes the intended purposes. If the answer is no to any of those, it needs to be reexamined for improvements or possibly discarded as a nice try.

I have no doubt that my ambivalence on this issue will irritate folks on both sides. I think there is need for increased charity towards one another, and let the data lead where it will, but I’m not convinced this bill is the best way to make progress towards that.


1 comment:

  1. Bills like this aim to counteract bad attitudes. There might actually need to be a specific constitutional amendment about religious freedom and its place in public life - stating its purpose in society - with reasons and examples of why science can not replace God due to its limitations. Also, in real life, nothing is separate, i.e. separation of church and state. Science categorizes things to dissect to understand them better but then has to fit it in the big picture to test it as well. Science is whatever scientists say it is and humans are imperfect so science is imperfect - something to that effect. Science is a great servant but a terrible leader, it can be a false and very weak god if/when we let it be.