Science

Testimony Tackles Question: What Is Intelligent Design?

By Sean Cavanagh — September 29, 2005 4 min read
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Testimony on the third day of a closely watched trial on “intelligent design” spanned the history, philosophy, and definition of science, with an academic scholar offering his opinions on what intelligent design is—and what it is not.

Robert T. Pennock, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, described the concept as a form of “special creationism” that combines several forms of belief in a supernatural creator, in testimony in federal court on Sept. 28.

Robert T. Pennock from Michigan State University enters federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., on Sept. 28 to testify on behalf of parents who are suing the Dover Area School District over its intelligent-design policy. He told the court that intelligent design fails the test of science.

Mr. Pennock was testifying on behalf of a group of parents suing the Dover Area School District over a policy established in 2004 that requires students to be exposed to the intelligent-design concept through a statement that is read to them in 9th grade biology class. The case is believed to be the first in which the constitutionality of exposing students to intelligent design in science class is being tested, and it could have broad impact on how other school districts treat the concept.

Lawyers for the 3,600-student district ultimately hope to convince U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III that intelligent design does not fit Mr. Pennock’s description. They suggested that the professor’s criteria for defining science were, like those of other critics of intelligent design, giving it far too little scientific credit. Intelligent design is the view that certain natural phenomena, such as the development of human life, show signs of design by an unnamed master architect. Evolution, by contrast, posits that living things evolve through natural selection and random mutation.

The university professor, who said he has studied the writings and opinions of intelligent-design advocates for at least 15 years, described the concept as a sort of hybrid of many religious views, with links to various forms of biblically based creationism.

The core principles of “intelligent-design creationism,” as Mr. Pennock also described the concept, are amorphous, depending on the audience, he testified. “If they’re talking to the press, they’ll say one thing,” he said. “But if they’re talking to a church group, they’ll say something else.”

Expert: Intelligent Design Fails Test of Science

In addition to describing his scholarly articles on intelligent design, Mr. Pennock also testified about his work conducting detailed computer simulations at Michigan State, in East Lansing, aimed at demonstrating how the process of evolution works. “We can sit back and basically watch evolution happen,” he said of the program.

Mr. Pennock also echoed a core argument made by the plaintiffs: That intelligent design fails the test of science, because it is not testable by the rules of science, which are well established. “Science [sets] limits upon itself,” he said. “It has constraints.” What separates science from other forms of study, and from religious belief, is not the conclusions reached by science, he added, but “the process.”

But Patrick T. Gillen, a lawyer for the school district, suggested that Mr. Pennock was wrongly linking intelligent design with religion, simply because some of its leading advocates had spoken openly of their faith. He noted that another witness for the plaintiffs, well-known Brown University biology professor Kenneth R. Miller, had testified about his Roman Catholic faith and its compatibility with his support for evolution.

“That doesn’t make [Mr. Miller] an intelligent-design creationist?” the lawyer asked Mr. Pennock.

Mr. Gillen also questioned Mr. Pennock about the work of Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists in history, who, through experimentation and research, was able to rapidly expand society’s understanding of physics and gravity. At the time, Mr. Newton’s findings were regarded skeptically by many of his contemporaries in the 1600s and the public at large, the lawyer noted.

“Isn’t it true that in his day, Newton was thought to have departed” from the laws of natural science, Mr. Gillen asked the professor.

Mr. Pennock responded that the famed British scientist had held to a set of thoroughly scientific rules for experimentation and observation in his work.

Religious Motivations?

The issue of whether religious beliefs played a role in the Dover board’s crafting of its intelligent-design policy has emerged repeatedly during the opening days of the trial. On the same day Mr. Pennock took the stand, plaintiffs in the lawsuit testified about having heard board members openly discuss creationism and their Christian views, around the same time the intelligent-design policy was adopted.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers introduced a letter to the editor they said was written by Dover board member Heather Geesey to the York Daily Record in June 2004, a few months before the policy was adopted. The letter in the York, Pa., newspaper defended the board’s actions by stating: “Our country was founded on Christian beliefs and principles.”

But defense lawyers argued that the plaintiffs have based many of their allegations about Dover board members’ religious motivations on accounts of public meetings from stories in local newspapers. The Dover board members dispute the accuracy of those journalists’ accounts, which they say have created a distorted image in the south-central Pennsylvania community of the motivations behind the intelligent-design policy. But one newspaper, the York Daily Record, included an editor’s note in its Sept. 28 edition saying it was “certain about the accuracy” of its stories.

Still, Richard Thompson, a lawyer for the school board, said in an interview after a round of testimony that newspapers can give “totally inaccurate reflections of what actually occurred. You can’t just look at the newspaper. You have to look at the whole picture.”

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