Medicine Icon Medicine

What’s Up with Ronald Numbers? An Analysis of the Darwinist Metanarrative in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Part II)

[Editor’s Note: The three individual installments of this series can be seen here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. The final complete article, What’s Up with Ronald Numbers? An Analysis of the Darwinist Metanarrative in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, can be found here.]

Ronald Numbers is a well-known historian of science, but when he co-authored a recent article in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, “Defending science education against intelligent design: a call to action,” I was surprised by the invective language the authors used in comparing peer-reviewed scientific monographs by ID proponents to religious “tracts.

Unfortunately, the flaws of this article go far beyond merely employing inflammatory remarks. Given Numbers’ previously more objective scholarship, I was surprised to find myself reading an article co-authored by him that recycles the standard Darwinist metanarrative, one that repeats false claims about intelligent design and science standards. I describe the metanarrative and rebut two of its claims here. In the current piece, I want to consider the article’s claim that ID is simply a negative argument against evolution, one that supposedly makes untestable appeals to the supernatural.

Inaccuracy # 3:The article states that Kansas now includes the supernatural in its state standards’ definition of science:

Even the definition of science itself has fallen victim to political attack; the state board of education in Kansas decided that the supernatural may now be taught as science in the classroom.

That is a false statement. The new Kansas science standards simply re-set their definition of science back to how approximately every other state in the country defines science, essentially the way Kansas had defined it until 2001, as a way of knowing that investigates the natural world through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument, and makes only testable hypotheses:

Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observations, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena. Science does so while maintaining strict empirical standards and healthy skepticism. Scientific explanations are built on observations, hypotheses, and theories. A hypothesis is a testable statement about the natural world that can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations. A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate observations, inferences, and tested hypotheses. Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. Scientific explanations are consistent with experimental and/or observational data and testable by scientists through additional experimentation and/or observation.(2005 Kansas Science Standards, pg. 10, emphasis added)

When the Darwinists took over the Board of Education in 2001 and defined science as “seeking natural explanations,” Kansas became the only state in the United States to explicitly advocate for hard-code methodological naturalism into its state science standards. Thus, the new Kansas standards (2006), by removing such language, moves closer to the norm for U.S. science standards.

There is a great irony in the fact that this article criticizing the Kansas science standards was co-authored by Wisconsin State Representative Teresa Berceau (D). Ms. Berceau submitted a bill to the Wisconsin legislature that she thinks outlaws ID because the bill requires that material taught as science be “testable as a scientific hypothesis.” Ignoring for the moment the fact that ID is testable, the article’s assertion on this contradicts Berceau’s own logic: she thinks ID is an untestable supernatural explanation, so she submitted a bill that she thinks will outlaw ID because the bill requires that all science taught must be “testable as a scientific hypothesis and describes only natural processes.” Yet in the article discussed here, she claims Kansas’s definition of science includes the supernatural despite the fact that testability is a strong thread throughout Kansas’s definition of science (see emphasized portions above). Berceau making contradictory arguments, and she is doubly wrong: Not only is ID not outlawed by her bill (because ID is indeed testable and doesn’t invoke the supernatural) but the Kansas science standards nowhere incorporate the supernatural.

Here’s a question I submit to Berceau and all proponents of the false conspiracy theory that Kansas now teaches the supernatural in science classes: if Kansas incorporated the supernatural into its definition of science, then how do you explain the fact that its science standards emphatically require that all science be testable?

…This leads us to the next and perhaps most important inaccuracy in the Berceau/Numbers article:

Inaccuracy # 4: The article makes various false statements that ID postulates a supernatural creator and is untestable: “ID and its progeny rely on supernatural explanations of natural phenomena,” and “ID makes no testable predictions. There is nothing in this concept that allows for scientific investigation of the ‘designer.’ It is simply an argument by default; the failure to explain something is said to lend credence to a supernatural explanation.”

These quotations recapitulate the Darwinist metanarrative at its best. Yet the writings of ID proponents make it clear that these statements are completely false:

(1) ID does not require supernatural causation because to do so would go beyond the limits of scientific inquiry.

(2) ID is not merely a negative argument against evolution; and

(3) ID makes testable predictions.

Indeed, the very text Of Pandas and People, the supplemental biology textbook Numbers and his co-authors claim demonstrates that ID is creationism, instead makes clear that it does not rely upon supernatural causation and shows that ID makes positive arguments:

If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. But what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause.

(Of Pandas and People, pg. 7, emphasis added)

Oddly, the article also states that ID proponents “conveniently omi[t] mention of God.” Call this the opposite-arguments-regarding-ID-and-the-supernatural fallacy: You cannot critique ID because it requires “rel[ies] upon supernatural explanations” and then on the other hand critique it for allegedly cleverly removing references to the supernatural (i.e., God). Darwinists can’t criticize ID on the one hand because, as they claim, it does identify the designer as supernatural, and then on the other hand because it doesn’t.

What does ID actually do? ID shows appeals to our uniform experience of presently acting causes to show that certain features of the natural world are best explained by reference to intelligent design rather to some purely material cause like Darwinian natural selection. This is a program of inquiry that can be undertaken apart from religious questions about the supernatural.

Contrary to what the articles says, ID proponents do not “conveniently omi[t] mention of God.” Consider how Michael Behe has explained that, while he does believe in God, the scientific data from biology do not allow one to tell if the designer is God or even whether the designer is supernatural:

The most important difference [between modern intelligent design theory and Paley’s arguments] is that [intelligent design] is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. (Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165, emphasis added.)

Thus Behe is open about the fact that he believes that the designer is God. I, too, believe in the same God that Michael Behe believes in. But these are our religious beliefs, which are not derived from the scientific claims of intelligent design. Many ID proponents may share our view that the designer is God (though some do not), but that belief is not derived from ID theory.

Behe’s characterization of intelligent design is consistent with what the early pre-publication drafts of Of Pandas and People stated, as well as what the published version stated:

[S]cientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science.” (Of Pandas and People, a pro-ID textbook, pg. 126-127, emphasis added)

Ronald Numbers and his colleagues misunderstand intelligent design and are misrepresenting it to the public. I am surprised that a historian such as Numbers would have added his name to this article.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.