Q&A with Dr. Jeremy Gunn and Tania Simoncelli

November 23, 2005
Dr. Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Freedom of Religion and Belief program.
Tania Simoncelli, ACLU's Technology and Science Fellow

Recent attempts by school boards to introduce the concept of intelligent design into public schools science curriculum has raised concerns among the scientific and civil liberties community.

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To understand what's at stake, we posed the following questions to two experts at the ACLU: Dr. Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's new Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and Tania Simoncelli, Technology and Science Fellow with the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project.

Q: What is the concept of intelligent design?
TANIA SIMONCELLI: Intelligent design is a pseudoscientific concept that claims that supposed gaps or problems within the scientific theory of evolution constitute empirical proof for the existence of a supernatural, intelligent designer. It uses the rhetoric of science to describe a fundamentally religious view, but its methods and conclusions are totally unscientific.

Q: Is intelligent design a scientific theory?
SIMONCELLI: No. Scientific theories are testable, based on observable evidence, and predict things about the natural world. There is no way to test whether or not there is a supernatural, intelligent designer, nor is there any way to observe such a being. Furthermore, intelligent design doesn't even attempt to predict anything; it just tries to poke holes in the scientific theory of evolution and then says, See? Evolution can't explain why this organism looks like that, so a supernatural being must have designed it! There's absolutely nothing scientific in that. Of course, proponents of intelligent design are free to believe whatever they want -- just don't call it science.

Q: How does intelligent design differ from creationism?
SIMONCELLI: Intelligent design is the most recent incarnation of an evolving political strategy that began with creationism and creation science. What creationists, creation scientists and intelligence designers have in common is that they wish to overthrow evolutionary theory not with better science but with an ideology whose origins have nothing to do with good science. Traditional creationists explicitly mentioned God and they based it upon their own particular reading of the Bible that is rejected by many religious people.

Recognizing their initial failures, intelligent design advocates are now pretending to distance themselves from this traditional creationist view. They're worried, and rightly so, that their efforts to teach design will once again be declared an unconstitutional government endorsement of one religion. This new wave of creationist thinkers have reluctantly abandoned some of their weakest arguments and also state that the intelligent designer is not necessarily God. Some of them have suggested that it could be a space alien, or maybe a very intelligent human being with a time machine. What's interesting is that the intelligent design movement tries to point to every little squabble among evolutionary biologists as proof that the theory of evolution must be false, but somehow their own internal disagreements about the central idea of intelligent design don't matter.

Q: There has been much talk in the media about the controversy surrounding intelligent design. What do you think about that?
DR. JEREMY GUNN: This is very unfortunate. There is no scientific controversy about this issue the controversy was created by people engaging in a lobbying and public relations campaign to advance their particular beliefs at the expense of good science. Imagine that Albert Einstein, instead of writing respected scientific publications to persuade scientists, set up instead an institute to lobby school boards to adopt untested and improvable theories? Fortunately, Einstein followed the scientific approach. Those promoting the pseudo-science of intelligent design are lobbying and spreading disinformation. One of the major harms from the controversy is that it undermines the need for improved scientific education at the very time that the United States is falling behind.

Q: Is there support for intelligent design in the scientific community?
SIMONCELLI: No. Every major scientific body in the country, including the National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, hundreds of individual scientists, and even President Bush's own Science Advisor, John Marburger, have all said that intelligent design is not science. Think about it this way: if every time scientists came across a problem that they couldn't solve, they just threw up their hands and said, This must be the result of intelligent design, then we would have no need for science at all, since we would already have the ultimate explanation for everything!

Q: But isn't there controversy about the theory of evolution among scientists?
SIMONCELLI: There are plenty of fascinating debates within the theory of evolution obviously we don't have a complete picture yet of how evolution occurred on this planet, and working out those particulars is one of the most exciting activities in modern science. But whether the theory itself is fundamentally correct is not controversial at all. The theory of evolution is the best explanation for how life on earth has changed over time. It has been reinforced by independent observers over and over again for 150 years, and so far no persuasive evidence has been put forward to contradict it. As the geologists say, it's rock solid.

Q. Even if we do not think that intelligent design is scientific, is there really any harm to science if it is taught in science classes?
SIMONCELLI: The problem is that we're talking about inserting one particular religious belief into science education and calling it science. People are trying to get the government to call their religious beliefs scientific. This would give kids a very distorted view of the scientific method and take precious time away from teaching real science. The biological sciences are probably the fastest growing technological field in the world right now and the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of every biologically related discipline. Imagine if scientists believed that since AIDS and cancer are such complex diseases, they must have been created by an intelligent designer, and therefore a cure would also have to be designed. Intelligent design's threat to scientific literacy today could become a disaster for public health tomorrow. We cannot allow this sort of pseudoscientific ignorance to pervade our culture and paralyze our next generation of researchers.

Q: Is evolution anti-religious?
DR. GUNN: Evolution is no more anti-religious than the earth's turning is anti-religious. Evolution and the spinning of the earth are natural phenomena. Of course some people try to assert that the recognition of natural phenomena is anti-religious. Some people, acting in the name of religion, criticized Galileo's claim that the earth spins on its axis as being anti-Christian indeed Galileo was persecuted by the church for his scientific theories and observations. His persecutors claimed that the earth was the center of the solar system and that the sun went around the earth. If the earth turned, they argued, then it would spin so fast that winds would blow us away! Some people unnecessarily make the same misguided common sense arguments to refute evolution. In fact, many theologians and religious people accept evolution just as many scientists believe in God and religion. By setting up an artificial disagreement between science and religion, people harm science without doing anything to help religion. How was religion helped by denying that the earth rotates?

SIMONCELLI: I think it's important to understand that the people behind the intelligent design movement are a small group of activists who by no means represent all people of faith. There are many leading scientists in the United States who are religious. People of faith can accept the overwhelming evidence supporting the scientific theory of evolution, and see no conflict with their own religious beliefs.

Q: The current lawsuit challenging the presentation of intelligent design in public science classrooms, which goes to trial on September 26, will be the first time this issue has come before the courts. How important is this case?
DR. GUNN: Although this is the first intelligent design case to go to court, it is in reality a version of several older cases in which courts have ruled that pseudo-scientific theories based on a supernatural entity are religious and cannot be taught in science class including twice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 and 1987. It is very important if we care about science education, educating children to understand the world, and educating a new generation of scientists and doctors who will be able to fight diseases.

Q: Do you think more school districts will attempt to introduce intelligent design into science curriculum, or is this an isolated case?
DR. GUNN: Some schools are likely to try. The Dover case will provide many reasons why it is not a good idea particularly if school districts care more about the science education of their children and less about making public controversies.

SIMONCELLI: Any school district that attempts to masquerade intelligent design as science is harming the educational future of its students.

Q: Can intelligent design ever be discussed in public schools?
DR. GUNN: Of course. It is a subject that is entirely appropriate for inclusion in comparative religion, social studies, politics and current events courses. The problem comes from attempting to insert it into an inappropriate setting. While discussions and readings about different myths are perfectly appropriate in history, literature and anthropology classes, it is not appropriate to teach them in science classes.

Q: What does this mean for freedom of religion?
DR. GUNN: Americans have a right to believe, practice, and profess their religious beliefs in the public square and the ACLU defends these rights everyday. But the government should not be in the business of selecting among different religious beliefs and then trying to teach them as if they were science. When the government chooses to endorse any particular religious belief, then everyone is harmed, whether they believe in religion or not. The American approach to protecting religious freedom has been to keep the government out of the business of deciding which religious beliefs should be taught and which should not. Religious beliefs are properly a matter for families, individuals, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and for public debates not for public schools.

Q: Some activists have charged that the Dover case is not a religious liberty issue, but a matter of freedom of speech. What do you say to that?
DR. GUNN: This is one of the most amusing assertions that has been made. The ACLU certainly supports freedom of speech and it will defend the right of intelligent design proponents to argue for their theories in public settings. But while free speech is important, this does not mean that pseudo-science should be taught as if it were science in public schools. Do intelligent design activists argue on free speech grounds that science classes should include astrology, phrenology, atheism, witchcraft and Hindu creation myths? As soon as we hear that those supporting intelligent design actually advocate teaching these other non-scientific theories in science classes, then we will know that they are serious about this argument. Until then, we can assume that they are simply playing a game to disguise what they are really doing.

Q: President Bush recently said he believes that teachers should discuss intelligent design alongside evolution when teaching students about the origin of life. Is it unusual to see politicians getting involved in scientific debate?
DR. GUNN: President Bush should listen to his own Science Advisor, John Marburger, who stated unequivocally that intelligent design is not a scientific theory and it is not a scientific topic. Fortunately, this is a free country and politicians can make comments on many subjects. But people in positions of responsibility should speak responsibly. And people who want to improve education should listen to their own science advisors!

SIMONCELLI: Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to intelligent design. As the ACLU illustrated in our June 2005 report, Science Under Siege, there has been an extraordinary level of political interference across many scientific disciplines in recent years, especially in the areas of environment and public health. During its tenure, the Bush administration has repeatedly and blatantly sought to bias the scientific recommendations produced by advisory committees by dismissing experts whose opinions are politically inconvenient and replacing them with those whose research and advice appears driven by political ideology rather than sound science.

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