Defending Science by Defining It

By David Brown and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The opinion written by Judge John E. Jones III in the Dover evolution trial is a two-in-one document that offers both philosophical and practical arguments against "intelligent design" likely to be useful to far more than a school board in a small Pennsylvania town.

Jones gives a clear definition of science, and recounts how this vaunted mode of inquiry has evolved over the centuries. He describes how scientists go about the task of supporting or challenging ideas about the world of the senses -- all that can be observed and measured. And he reaches the unwavering conclusion that intelligent design is a religious idea, not a scientific one.

His opinion is a passionate paean to science. But it is also a strategic defense of Darwinian theory.

When evolution's defenders find themselves tongue-tied and seemingly bested by neo-creationists -- when they believe they have the facts on their side but do not know where to find them -- this 139-page document may be the thing they turn to.

"That will be extremely useful not only in future cases but to the scientific community, to science teachers and others who are struggling against this tremendous pressure to bring religion into the classroom," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general science organization in the country.

Halfway through his opinion, Jones asks "whether ID [intelligent design] is science." It is a question at the core of the case -- and he does not shy from it.

"While answering this . . . compels us to revisit evidence that is entirely complex, if not obtuse," he writes, "after a six-week trial that spanned 21 days . . . no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area."

He makes plain his hope that many months of intellectual heavy lifting "may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us."

The ruling gives two arguments for why intelligent design is not science but is, in the judge's words, "an old religious argument for the existence of God."

The first is that intelligent design invokes "a supernatural designer," while science, by definition, deals only with natural phenomena. Second, the court found that intelligent design suffers from blatant flaws in logic, one of the chief tools of science.

Since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, "science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena," Jones writes, noting that the scientific revolution was explicitly about the rejection of "revelation" in favor of empirical evidence.

Since then, he writes, "science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth."

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