Creating a Controversy

Here we go again.

Newspapers and TV chat shows have been buzzing lately with news of the latest "controversy" in Kansas, over evolution and "intelligent design." Analogies to the famous Scopes trial of 1925 have been rampant, despite the seemingly obvious fact that in Kansas there is no trial. Rather, a series of trial-like hearings have been engineered by the creationist majority on the state's board of education, which aims to create the semblance of a "controversy" over evolution to justify changes to state educational standards. No controversy exists, however, in the forum where scientific debates are properly hosted and refereed: scientific publications. Accordingly, the scientific community has boycotted the hearings.

There's nothing new about attempts to create a "controversy" over evolution by misrepresenting and selectively citing scientific information. However, the Kansas situation is distinguished by the fact that a little-noticed, but increasingly central, aspect of the new anti-evolutionist strategy has taken center stage in this state's dispute. In Kansas, criticisms of evolutionary theory have been accompanied by a direct philosophical assault upon the nature of science itself.

Kansas's previously proposed science standards had appropriately defined science as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." Anti-evolutionists want to change this language to the following: "Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."

This may seem harmless at first glance. But the change carefully removes any reference to science's search for natural explanations in favor of “more adequate” explanations, creating a opening for creationists to insert the supernatural. Such a change reflects the fact that the new generation of anti-evolutionists has launched an attack on modern science itself, claiming that it amounts, essentially, to institutionalized atheism. Science, they say, has a prejudice against supernatural causation (by which they generally mean “the actions of God”). Instead, the new anti-evolutionists claim that if scientists would simply open their minds to the possible action of forces acting beyond the purview of natural laws, they would suddenly perceive the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

Anti-evolutionists are trying to bring religion back into the picture with this maneuver and to free up science teachers to speak to their classes about matters involving the supernatural. But religion isn't all they may bring back. As far as I can tell, keeping an open mind about supernatural causes would also mean that when you or I investigate claims that a house might be haunted, we should be on the lookout for a ghost. Similarly, it would mean that when we look into reports of a weeping icon, we should get ready to investigate a paranormal event, rather than a mere case of pious fraud. And so on.

In reality, though, while they may leave open the theoretical possibility of a supernatural occurrence, scientists don't operate in this way -- and for good reason. Science seeks to explain natural phenomena in a way that other scientists (including those of varying religious faiths) can understand and independently evaluate. So, for at least two different reasons, scientists would not leap to a supernatural conclusion about a phenomenon like creaky floorboards and suddenly slamming doors in an old house. For one, they can construct a more simple explanation that does not require stretching beyond the reach of science. And for another, invoking supernatural causation (a ghost) ultimately doesn't work. Instead, postulating a supernatural cause effectively ends the inquiry, because we have no way of further investigating such a cause -- save more supernatural speculation. Supernatural "explanations" can't be tested, because scientific testing itself depends upon the constancy of natural laws.

For these reason, scientists since the Enlightenment have seen fit to distinguish between supernatural beliefs based on faith or metaphysics and scientific findings based on observed evidence and inferences about natural causation. Such inquiry is technically termed "methodological naturalism," more commonly known as the "scientific method." It has quite a successful track record over the years, from medicine to nuclear science.

But methodological naturalism deeply offends today's anti-evolutionists. Because the theory of evolution is perceived to have contributed to the undermining of religious belief, the intelligent design movement has taken to arguing that the theory itself betrays a deep philosophical prejudice against God and the supernatural. Hence, they seek to overturn not just evolution but methodological naturalism itself. Right alongside the ghost creaking the floorboards, they will reintroduce a "designer" who swoops in and fiddles with the history of life, apparently at will. Of course, we can't actually know anything definitive about who this designer is, why he/she/it likes to engage in such meddling, or why he/she/it couldn't get things right the first time. Or, at any rate, we won't be able to know anything about the matter through science. Turning to scripture, however, may provide some clues.

What all this betrays, ultimately, is that anti-evolutionists aren't much better at philosophy than they are at science. In one of the best pieces of journalism to emerge from the Kansas hearings, The Boston Globe's Nina Easton effectively refuted the argument equating evolution with atheism with a single article: A profile of Kansas scientist Keith Miller, an evangelical Christian who says he was "called by God to be a geologist" and who has been a leading critic of the new attacks on evolution, including in his book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (a collection by Christian evolutionists). "Science does not affirm or deny the existence of a creator," Miller told Easton. "It is simply silent on the existence or action of God."

As Miller's words suggest, while evolution may well suggest atheism for some people, it does not suggest it to all. The atheistic conclusion is itself philosophical, not scientific -- as is the theistic conclusion, for that matter. That's crucial to bear in mind, because attacking science as atheism isn't just wrongheaded; it's dangerous. Going down this road will only generate still more strife between the scientific community and the overlapping community of people of faith -- two groups we should be bringing closer together rather than driving further apart.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at