March 15 , 2006

Interview with ARN Executive Director Dennis Wagner


My name is Lindsay Hamilton. I'm a graduate student at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. I'm writing an article on the teaching of intelligent design in schools and I was wondering if you would have a few minutes to respond to some questions on the subject?

Sure.

1. Can you give me some background information, such as your name, job title, organization, etc.

My name is Dennis Wagner and I am the founder and Executive Director of Access Research Network, a 501(c)3 scientific and educational non-profit organization. I have a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

2. Can you briefly describe intelligent design theory and summarize your organizations goals in regard to intelligent design and education?

Intelligent design (ID) theory is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence. The scientific methodology behind ID is already in place in other fields of science like archeology, forensics, cryptology and SETI (search for extra terrestrial intelligence) where researchers are searching nature for patterns of intelligence. ID extends these same principals to biology and cosmology. The goal of ARN, as a non-profit educational organization, is to provide accessible information on science, technology, and society issues from an intelligent design perspective.

3. What should be taught in science classrooms regarding the origin of man? Intelligent Design? Evolution? Creationism? All of the above? None of the above?

Let me start by pointing out the distinction between “evolution” and “neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.”  Evolution means “change over time” and it is an observable scientific fact that biological systems change over time due to mutations and natural selection.  We do not dispute the evidence or teaching of this definition of evolution.  However, there is a larger, unsubstantiated theory and worldview called the neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, that postulates as its basic premise that all of life can be explained in terms of chance events and natural selection.  This is where the controversy is focused.  Intelligent design theory proposes that there are design features in living systems that can be empirically detected and cannot be accounted for by the neo-Darwinian view of mutations and natural selection.

Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is the most-widely held position by scientists at the moment, and it should be fully taught as such. But where scientists have raised significant scientific criticisms to aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, particularly in mainstream and peer-reviewed science literature, students should be able to learn about that. Critical analysis is a valuable component of the scientific and educational world, and yet recent decisions in Dover and Ohio indicate that criticisms or critiques of the theory are not being allowed. That’s just not right from an educational or scientific perspective.

Teaching the theory of intelligent design should not be mandated in the science classroom. But if the subject of intelligent design comes up in the context of a scientific discussion that is course-relevant, it would be both strange and wrongful to single out the theory of intelligent design for special censorship. It’s like saying we are only going to teach democracy in our government classes and not going to let our children learn about other forms of government. The competing systems are what make us debate, learn and think through our own positions. At the core level this is really an academic freedom issue which is the basis of a true liberal education: learning to think for ourselves. I certainly think some discussion of the theory of intelligent design should be allowed if it can be framed and presented in a scientific context. Students thrive on competitive ideas.

Creationism presents an altogether different set of core propositions and differs in substantive content. I don't think we should put that into science curriculum, and there are some concerns arising from Supreme Court precedents directly bearing on this subject.

4. At what level do you think the curriculum decision regarding education on the origins of man should be dictated? Local, state, federal, classroom by classroom, etc?

Congress can, and has, provided guidance on this issue in the report language to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, calling for "the full range of scientific views" to be presented concerning controversial scientific topics, such as biological evolution. It is up to the states to define what broad areas/topics will be covered in their science curriculum, and the local school districts to decide how those broad areas get covered. So all three levels have some input into the process. Ultimately it is up to the individual teacher, but the teacher needs the academic freedom from the state and local officials to cover topics in a reasonable fashion.

5. Why does intelligent design theory belong in a science class verses a philosophy or religion class?

I think it belongs in both the science class and the philosophy class, as does neo-Darwinian theory. Darwinism, as it is currently taught in our schools, is more than a scientific theory. It is also a worldview that affects many areas of study. It has become an a priori set of assumptions through which data is filtered in many disciplines. All you have to do is look at the impact that neo-Darwinian theory has had on sociology, ethics and psychology to understand this. When your core philosophy is that all of life can be explained by random events and natural processes, then that affects many of the ways you think about life and reality.

There is a strong case to be made that both viewpoints could be the subject of a religion class. But in so doing, the focus would be more upon religious implications and understandings of neo-Darwinian theory and intelligent design, rather than the empirical scientific arguments made by those scientific theories.

6. What do you see as the future for the education of the origins of man in science class? How do you think the current controversy will evolve?

I think scientists, politicians, educators and teachers will soon recognize that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not above criticism. There is a very powerful political force in our scientific and educational institutions that is artificially propping up Darwinian theory as the modern “creation story” of our culture. In the past those in power could control the origins story by controlling the scientific publications and textbooks. But the internet has changed all that. Students can now investigate the issues on their own. There are now over 500 Ph.D. scientists who have gone on record as having doubts about neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Many of the scientific objections to neo-Darwinian theory are now available on the internet (including our website at www.arn.org). If something doesn’t change from the top down, it will change from the bottom up. You can’t stop students from asking questions. And a lot of students are now asking questions and finding that this is not an academic or scientific issue, but a political issue. Samuel Chen and Josh Dill are just two well-documented examples of the political pressure brought on students who tried to organize activities outside the classroom on their campus to look at the scientific alternatives to Darwinism. This kind of harassment by teachers is not scaring the students off. If anything it is steeling their resolve. They realize there is a cover-up going on.

7. How have key political supporters, such as Bill Frist and President Bush, influenced the discussion on ID?

I think it has raised the public (and media) consciousness on the issue. We are certainly getting a lot more inquiries about ID at ARN than we were a year ago.

8. What is the most effective response your group gives to critics who say that ID is masked creationism?

I say look at the definition of intelligent design I gave above. Does that look like creationism or religion? Look at the scientists doing research from an intelligent design perspective like biochemists Michael Behe and Scott Minnich. Are they trying to promote religion in the classroom or the research laboratory? This criticism is a purely political tactic. Darwinists were successful in the courts in the 70s and 80s of keeping creationism out of the classroom by getting it labeled as religion and now they are using a guilt-by-association tactic to do the same for intelligent design. Finally, take a close look at what leading intelligent design theorists have to say, like mathematician William Dembski. You will find that they are advocating for better science, not religion.

If you look closely at Dover and Ohio and other situations like live debates, you will see that Darwinists often avoid debating the scientific issues raised by intelligent design proponents. They can’t win the scientific debate.  The best they can hope for is a draw. But by labeling intelligent design as creationism or religion they have adopted a strategy to try and can keep ID out of the classroom. It is a strategy of misinformation. Certainly ID has religious implications, but then so does Darwinism when it is presented as an explanation of our ultimate origins. But religious implications and teaching religion are two different things. Let’s separate out the science from the religious implications for both ID and Darwinism. We’ll teach the science in the science classroom and the religious implications in the philosophy and religious studies classroom.

9. Anything else you want to add?

We have a very active discussion forum on these topics where folks of all persuasions are welcome. I would invite you and fellow students to pay a visit for an example of how civil and educational discourse can be conducted on the topic of origins. Hopefully our schools will get there sometime in the future.  Until then, we are only a mouse-click away at www.arn.org.