SCIENTISTS WHO MOANED when they read this week that President Bush favors teaching "intelligent design" along with the Darwinian theory of evolution should be grateful for how far the president has come. In 1999, as Texas governor and GOP presidential front-runner, George W. Bush said much the same about creationism, which tried to force natural history to match the biblical creation story. At least creationism's successor, known as ID to its adherents, makes room for paleontology and human descent from apes.
Beyond that, politicians' support for what they call "balance" still damages both science and faith.
In a broad interview Monday with Texas newspapers, Bush agreed with the idea of teaching intelligent design as well as evolution, saying, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." If only different schools of thought (say, capitalism versus Marxism) were involved, we'd say, sure, go for it. However, ID and evolutionary theory are not just irreconcilable; they are in realms as distant as astronomy and the polka.
ID posits (quoting from the Intelligent Design Network website) "that certain features of the universe and of living things" -- the eye is often cited -- "are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process like natural selection." Its adherents see the "intelligent cause" as a divine one.
Evolutionary theory doesn't claim to explain everything, but theorizes that from the earliest life, genetic mutations providing a survival edge were retained and amplified, leading to species diversity and specialized traits (such as Lance Armstrong's lung capacity or fluorescent deep-water fish).
Both are, to a certain point, about biology. But ID also demands belief in the untestable. There it becomes faith, not science. Science explicitly rejects belief without direct or indirect evidence. Teaching students, at taxpayer expense, to see them as comparable leads straight off the path of scientific rigor. The best scientists may, of course, cherish a religious faith, but they don't confuse one for the other.
Still, the fight plays out in school districts across the nation, egged on by politicians who see religion as a path to votes. Bush is far from alone. In 1999, soon after Bush said "both [creationism and evolution] ought to be taught," Vice President Al Gore said through a spokesman that schools should teach evolution but local boards "should be free to teach creationism as well." Gore backtracked, but he deserved all the scorn aimed his way by scientists and teachers.
Bush's rather offhand statement this week may have been unconsidered. In that case, he should clarify what he meant by "schools of thought." Or it may have been well-considered, getting his message across to the base without being too specific.
His administration has not been kind to natural scientists. Some have left government after their findings were disregarded or changed to match policy. Teaching intelligent design would be an even greater blow to U.S. scientific credibility.