No room for ID in science curricululm

16th February 2007 at 00:00
In last week's TESS, Alastair Noble made a case for considering intelligent design in the Scottish science curriculum. In order to evaluate this case, I will look at the nature of science itself. Science is the human endeavour to understand the universe around us. I think this is the most creative, competitive and fiercely scrutinised activity undertaken by humankind.

Scientists seek to develop theories that are firmly based upon evidence and are logically consistent with other well-established principles. Scientific research and development involve experimentation, observation and the publishing of findings subject to a rigorous peer revue process.

Theories emerge, are modified or discarded but always tested on the basis of evidence, internal consistency and their explanatory power. A classic example of this is the discovery of the neutrino. In order to satisfy the previously well-accepted principle of conservation of momentum, the neutrino was predicted by theoretical physicists. After many years of trying, and the use of more and more sensitive instruments, the neutrino was subsequently discovered by experimental physicists exactly as predicted. This greatly strengthened the theories involved.

Paradoxically, the development of scientific knowledge is simultaneously both tentative and very secure: something not well understood by young people. Science rarely provides the certainties and easy answers the public often asks of it. Significant strengths of the scientific process are its democratic nature and openness to scrutiny.

Mr Noble recalls pupils being rightly fascinated about the nature and origins of atoms. Humankind's understanding of the nature of atoms is relatively easy to document and will develop still further. The case for atoms only really became accepted knowledge with Einstein's paper explaining Brownian motion in 1905, and the subsequent experimental work by Perrin.

Since 1897, our understanding of the atom has developed through Thomson's "plum pudding" model, Rutherford's nuclear model, Bohr's model and quantum mechanical models as further evidence has become available. Particle physicists are awaiting the opening of the Large Hadron Collider in anticipation of new evidence to take our understanding of the nature of atoms and matter further. All this has provided humankind with a model and an understanding of the atom, as well as a good story about the nature of scientific inquiry.

The basis of ID is that cells exhibit complexity similar to human-designed machines and could not have evolved due to chance alone. ID's solution is some form of supernatural power: a designer. Darwinian evolution may not have all the answers, but the existence of a supernatural power is by definition un-testable. Such an approach also allows this supernatural power to be given as the explanation of any unexpected or unexplained observation. What is to stop this supernatural power giving its design a little tweak when it decides it is necessary? This is not science!

Scientists ignore the ID movement at their peril. The main advocates - the conservative, religious right in the United States - have considerable influence which has caused, ironically, a blurring of the distinction between religion and state education in that country.

Scotland has a proud scientific history. I wish it to continue and to see us having a science curriculum which promotes thinking, curious, questioning individuals who are not subject to dogma - individuals able to identify pseudo-science for what it is. ID may have a place in the curriculum, but not in the science curriculum.

Stuart Farmer teaches physics in Aberdeen

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