Intelligent Design: Science and Uncertainty

Dr Ken Smith
Chaplaincy Services
The University of Queensland

The following letter was published  in The Australian newspaper's "Higher Education" section on 2 November 2005.

Dear Editor

I appreciated the article by Geoffrey Dobson (HES, October 19), but have some worries that it may be misinterpreted by people not closely involved in the scientific enterprise.

It is true that there is always uncertainty about the findings of science. However not all varieties of uncertainty are equal. It is unfortunate that some, mainly in the humanities and social sciences, have picked up the word "uncertainty" and taken this to mean that there is no certainty at all -- anything goes, some have claimed.

Let me give an example which Isaac Asimov used in his essay "The Relativity of Wrong", which is not as widely known as it deserves. The Earth is not flat. The Earth is not a sphere, either. But the statement "The Earth is a sphere" is not nearly as wrong as the statement "The Earth is flat". A statement which is even more accurate is "The Earth is an oblate spheroid", but even this is not completely true.

These points might seem trivial, but we are witnessing a thrust by some people to introduce creationism, under the label "intelligent design", into school science classes. Now it is true that there are gaps and uncertainties in our biological knowledge -- filling in these gaps is part of the fascination science has for so many people.

But to claim that because of some uncertainties we should consider a religious explanation is not the answer. And appealing to our present state of ignorance about the natural world to introduce the concept of a divine "intelligent designer" has been given the unflattering label of a "god of the gaps".

There are uncertainties in science, but the way to overcome misunderstanding is more education. We must not abandon the scientific enterprise which has provided us with so many benefits from CD players (based on quantum mechanics) to antibiotics (based, in part, on evolutionary biology).

By all means include non-scientific views about the world around us in the school syllabus, somewhere, but not as part of the science syllabus, which is already overloaded.