Its proponents claim it has scientific merit; its detractors say it is grounded in religious doctrine. But the salient characteristic of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement is that it has focused more attention on legislative and legal battles than on scientific investigation.
Perhaps this should be no surprise: ID was first conceived by a law professor in response to a Supreme Court decision about creationism. Phillip E. Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, was dismayed by amicus briefs submitted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the Edwards v. Aguillard case that struck down Louisiana’s law mandating creation science be taught alongside evolution in high school classrooms.
The NAS declared in its brief that the movement known as creation science was not in fact science, because “proponents of ‘creation-science’ hold that the creation of the universe, the earth, living things, and man was accomplished through supernatural means inaccessible to human understanding.”
From the perspective of the NAS, the key phrase in this sentence is “inaccessible to human understanding.” Science is a method for understanding the workings of the universe and everything in it, so a hypothesis cannot be considered scientific if it suggests we cannot ultimately understand the cause of an observed phenomenon.
But to Johnson, the key phrase was “supernatural means,” which he sees as code language intended to exclude religious talk from the public square. In his book Darwin on Trial, Johnson wrote:
When the National Academy of Sciences tells us that reliance upon naturalistic explanations is the most basic characteristic of science, is it implying that scientists somehow know that a Creator played no part in the creation of the world and its forms of life? Can something be non-science but true, or does non-science mean nonsense?
On the surface it appears that, had the NAS been more careful in crafting its statement, the Intelligent Design movement perhaps would never have begun.
However, Johnson’s dissatisfaction with the NAS briefs ran deeper than that. He also took issue with this statement:
“Creation-science” is thus manifestly a device designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. The dualistic mode of analysis and the negative argumentation employed to accomplish this dilution is, moreover, antithetical to the scientific method.
To Johnson’s legal mind, that was the equivalent of demanding that a criminal defendant not only prove himself innocent, but also produce a more likely suspect.
However, the science lab does not work like a criminal court. The purpose of the scientific method is to provide testable explanations for observed phenomena; it is an ongoing process with the goal of finding the explanation best supported by observation and experiment. It is impossible to advance science simply by casting doubt on what we think we know; in order to discard an accepted scientific theory, we need to formulate a hypothesis that can better accommodate the observed evidence.
But that’s probably a moot point. Johnson reveals in Darwin on Trial that he is less interested in testing the science than in testing the boundaries of the legal code. He writes:
Equal time for creation-science in biology class, the Darwinists like to say, is like equal time for the theory that it is the stork that brings babies. But the consensus view of the scientific establishment is not enshrined in the Constitution. Lawmakers are entitled to act on different assumptions, at least to the extent that the courts will let them.
In one short paragraph Johnson lays bare the underpinnings of the Intelligent Design movement. The ID philosophy, at its core, is not grounded in scientific method but in U.S. Constitutional Law. Johnson is very open about his goals of using legal loopholes and the power of the legislature to pressure science teachers to present an alternative point of view. This strategy may or may not be religious, but it certainly isn’t science.