Why we should learn Intelligent Design

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

Shivers were sent down the spine of many secularists and religious moderates when the woman responsible for more than 4,600 Church of England schools recently suggested in The TES that Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught in schools. Even the Christian think-tank Ekklesia was outraged at the idea, saying that ID was "creationism masquerading as science" and "appallingly bad theology".

Aren't we getting a bit hysterical? Like the mythical Victorians who covered their piano legs because they were so prudish, dislike of ID has led many to become irrationally phobic about its very mention. As a committed atheist, I actually want to see ID discussed in classrooms, and I'm also pleased to say it is already happening.

The Reverend Jan Ainsworth was not saying ID should be taught as science, but in the history of science. This is already what happens in the new "perspectives on science" AS level, which covers the history, philosophy and ethics of science. Teaching this subject is critical for preparing tomorrow's adults for the most perplexing and urgent problems they will have to deal with, such as GM foods, biotechnology, fertility treatment and climate change.

ID should be on the syllabus because it is a widely held dissenting view, and if you do not equip people to assess such views, they are going to appear more, not less, credible. It is not enough to stick to "good science": you need to know why it is good, what makes bad science false, and why mavericks can always use the inherent uncertainty and provisionality of science to make unfounded claims seem credible.

The main counter-argument is that many Bible-literalists use ID as a Trojan horse for a more hard-line creationism. But this is a bad reason for not teaching ID in any context at all. It's a bit like that favourite comedy trope whereby characters in danger are about to do the one thing that will save them until one says, "But wait! That's just what they'll expect us to do!"

I am not persuaded either by the view that because even to discuss ID legitimises it, we should ignore it. If we can teach pupils about fascism without legitimising it, we can do the same with ID. If we believe, as I do, that ID is bad science, then we need to show why it is, not just say it is. People will be exposed to the claims of religious extremists at some stage, and I for one would prefer that their first introduction to their wilder claims is in a classroom where they can be properly assessed. If people are going to reject ID, they can't be expected to do it purely on trust.

Research, page 30

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