So President Bush has explicitly endorsed the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, according to this article (via Pharyngula). My first reaction to that is, "Wow, big surprise!" The man who endorsed the teaching of creationism as governor (not ID creationism, but hardcore 6 days and a smoke break creationism) is now endorsing the watered down version. Who'da thunk it? If there's any surprise in this, it's that he didn't throw in any comments about young earth creationism being taught too. I'm sure there are some on the religious right who see this as Bush wussing out. Really, Bush's endorsement of teaching ID, by itself, seems unimportant to the supporters of science. I doubt it lends any more legitimacy to the ID movement among any of its detractors, and those who will be heartened by the endorsement were already firmly in the ID camp anyway. I don't even think it represents a troubling political maneuver. The people who would be likely to vote for a candidate because he or she endorses the teaching of ID or creationism in public schools were probably going to vote Republican anyway. It just doesn't seem like a very big deal.
But, and that's a big but, there does seem to be something somewhat disturbing going on here, of which Bush's remarks are only a symptom. What's disturbing is where, and how, the Intelligent Design community is promoting its ideas. They've avoided the scientific literature almost without exception, and gone straight to the public. The idea behind this, which I have seen expressed on occasion, seems to be that if they convince the public, then they can get it taught. This implies that in a democracy like ours, the views that the majority wants to be taught in public schools should be taught. And there's some intuitive appeal to this idea. I mean, public schools are publicly funded, by our money, so why shouldn't those of us who are paying for the schools have a say in what gets taught in the biology classroom, or any classroom? If most of us think Intelligent Design should be taught, then shouldn't it be? This is a democracy, after all!
The answer, of course, is no. In most cases, majority opinion shouldn't determine what is taught in science classrooms, or pretty much any classroom. For one, there are all sorts of things that are publicly funded, but about which the public should have no say. We shouldn't have a say on the interpretation of classified intelligence reports, for instance, even if the majority of us would disagree with the official interpretation. The reason is, interpreting intelligence requires a certain degree of expertise, and it's better for all of us if we leave it up to the people who possess that expertise. The same goes for most areas of education, especially science education. It's best for all of us if our schools teach the best knowledge we have, and the best knowledge we have about scientific issues comes from scientific experts. There is such a thing as a scientific division of labor. People who spend their entire adult lives studying something are simply better prepared to determine what is currently the best knowledge available in their fields than people who learned about evolution from the Discovery Channel or the Discovery Institute. Of course, experts will disagree, but science itself is a lot like a democracy within a democracy. The best knowledge available is determined by a consensus among the experts. The consensus will often be wrong, but that is, after all, what science is: better and better wrong ideas. But it will be closer to right than any idle speculation or propaganda-induced skepticism.
What's disturbing about Bush's endorsement, then, is that he feels justified in giving it because in doing so he is representing his constituency. This is exactly what the Intelligent Design public disinformation campaign is designed to do. The scary thing is that it might make other elected officials, particularly those who can directly influence public school curricula, feel that they too can endorse the teaching of Intelligent Design to represent those who elected them. But deciding what should be taught based on public opinion not Bush's job, and it's not their job either. Their job is to provide our children with the best possible education, and that means going with the experts, not the people who elected them, on issues of course content. Hopefully, enough of the men and women on school boards and in state legislatures will realize this and keep Intelligent Design, and other scientific nonsense, out of our children's science classrooms.