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The Galileo treatment

Culture | Baylor jumps to the wrong side of a scientific revolution

Issue: "President Bush?," Nov. 18, 2000

Science changes. Though the sciences are based on objective facts, the interpretation of those facts--the ways of tying them together into a coherent system--keeps developing. As Thomas Kuhn has shown in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when scientists discover more data, they must discard old models, as new models take shape. But between the models comes virulent controversy.

Just as religious institutions joined the scientific establishment of the time in trying to silence Galileo for presuming to question the notion that the earth was the center of the universe, so an educational institution with a religious base is harassing William Dembski, a key theorist of Intelligent Design, for questioning Darwinism.

In the Middle Ages, the model of the universe that placed the earth at the center explained the observed data. Later, telescopes brought in data that the geocentric model could not handle. An alternate model-the earth revolving around the sun-fit the data better. Similarly, Newton's mechanistic physics-with the model of the universe it assumed--had to give way to Einstein's physics, then quantum physics.

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Whenever the old model becomes exhausted, Mr. Kuhn showed, the scientific establishment acts in a predictable way. First, it stretches the old model beyond plausibility in an attempt to account for the new data. Then the scientific community lashes out at those who dare challenge the existing model. Thus, Galileo was persecuted, forced to deny his findings, and lived out his life under house arrest. Eventually, despite opposition, the new model replaces the old one. This doesn't mean that science is relative-but as scientists understand objective facts better and better, new explanatory models are always necessary.

For the last century and a half, Darwinism has been the great model taken for granted by biologists and other scientists. Life, they assumed, is the product of a random universe. Random chemicals came together to form a self-replicating system we know as life, with simpler forms evolving-with natural selection preserving chance mutations-over the course of eons, into the life forms that we have today, including human beings.

But today, new data is challenging Darwinism. We now know that DNA codes, which constitute not mere chemicals but, in effect, a language, are fundamental to life. This language, far from being random gibberish, implies a Speaker, just as computerized information implies a programmer. The biochemist Michael Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, shows that the most basic processes of cellular chemistry involve an "irreducible complexity"; that is, there can be no simpler forms that can evolve into complex forms ("After the big bang," WORLD, Sept. 11, 1999). Without this primal design, life could never get started.

William Dembski developed the theoretical underpinnings of Intelligent Design. His book The Design Inference, published by Cambridge University Press, provides the hard mathematics and the logical analysis necessary to delineate randomness from evidence for an intelligent designer.

Christians should be admiring this powerful line of research, which provides evidence that God created the universe. Instead, an ostensibly Christian university is giving Mr. Dembski the Galileo treatment.

It was natural for Baylor University, with its Southern Baptist ties, to support the development of an institute that studied the relationship between Christianity and science, with Mr. Dembski as its head. But the university, caught up in the fight among Texas Southern Baptists, and torn between a conservative president and its far more liberal faculty, stumbled. The faculty, worried that coming across as "creationist" would hurt its reputation, demanded that the university shut down the institute.

After an independent panel, which included critics of Intelligent Design, showed that this was a legitimate sphere of inquiry, the issue should have been closed. But when Mr. Dembski sent out an e-mail trumpeting his victory, the faculty grumbled that he was not being "collegial" and had him removed as director of the institute. Never mind that if not being collegial were grounds for demotion, faculties in nearly all of the nation's universities would be decimated. The science institute was absorbed into a more general faith and learning institute and given a "broader" focus than just Intelligent Design, and Mr. Dembski was busted down to the regular faculty, where he presumably will be persona non grata.

As is often the case, academic and church politics confuse the issues. But it is ironic that while faculty members at Christian colleges often resist conforming to statements of faith, they demand adherence to the tenets of the secular academic establishment with stereotypical dogmatism. In doing so, they are likely to find themselves, like the 16th-century church of Rome, on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of science.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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