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AAAS Leader Does Not Rule Out Design, Says Science Must Follow the Evidence

Herman B. Bouma
Photo: American Association for the Advancement of Science, exterior, by 'Matthew G. Bisanz, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Herman B. Bouma, an attorney who leads the National Association for Objectivity in Science, as a new contributor. For more on Mr. Bouma and his experience of being censored by the National Science Teaching Association, see Sarah Chaffee’s earlier coverage here.

In recent years the American scientific establishment has sought to shut off debate about neo-Darwinian theory by playing its trump card: the contention that the theory of intelligent design is inherently unscientific and thus cannot even be considered. Basically, the scientific establishment says, “Neo-Darwinian theory is the only scientific theory we have, so we just have to stick with it.”

So it was refreshing last month to hear Dr. Sudip Parikh, new CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), when asked if he felt that theorizing about design in nature was unscientific. Interestingly, he did not expressly rule out design as a scientific theory. Instead, he said that science must follow the evidence wherever it leads. His remarks were made at an April 5 virtual Headliners event sponsored by the National Press Club. 

Here’s the Story

As a member of the National Press Club, I registered for the event and submitted the following question in advance of the program:

To Dr. Parikh,

Many of the most eminent naturalists of the 19th century (including Louis Agassiz, the founder of the American scientific tradition) were strong proponents of the biological theory of design. In fact, Darwin himself theorized that the very first forms of life were the result of design.

Today, however, the AAAS seems to take the position that theorizing about design in nature is “unscientific.” Do you agree with this? 

Sincerely yours,

Herman B. Bouma

The impetus for my question was the Statement on the Teaching of Evolution issued by the AAAS Board of Directors on February 16, 2006. The Statement declares that “[s]cience is a process of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena” and states that the concept of design “is in fact religious, not scientific.” (The Statement had been preceded by an earlier resolution on the concept of design issued by the AAAS on October 18, 2002.)

Toward the end of the program, the moderator of the program was kind enough to read my question, starting around 48:40:

A Politic Answer, Unsurprisingly

As one might expect, Dr. Parikh’s answer was politic, but I was pleasantly surprised, as it could have been much worse. He did not specifically mention or support design in his answer, and he was clear to state his view from the outset that “there are lots of data out there showing that the principles of evolution are what are driving life forward.” But instead of repeating the party line that science, by its very nature, is committed to methodological naturalism and cannot entertain theories such as design, he said that we should be teaching our students science that has evidence behind it “wherever that evidence takes them.” 

He also said, that the AAAS is “open to any form of science that can be peer-reviewed, stand up to criticism, and make its way through the process.” He continued, “As long as things have evidence behind them, and that’s evidence that is peer-reviewed, that’s part of the scientific process, that’s important to support.” 

An Unavoidable Implication

Whether he intended it or not, the unavoidable implication of his answer was that design could be a legitimate scientific theory if there is peer-reviewed evidence to support it. So how would he respond to all of the peer-reviewed scientific evidence supporting intelligent design, including a prominent paper supporting intelligent design published in Journal of Theoretical Biology last year? Should scientists not follow the evidence for design if that is “wherever the evidence takes them”? 

Throughout the history of science, many famous scientists have been strong proponents of design. As I mentioned in my question, Darwin himself theorized that the very first forms of life were the result of design. In addition, Darwin stated that the general biological theory of design “has been ably maintained by many authors” and noted that “[a]uthors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied” with the theory. (Origin of Species, pp. 17, 449)

Science has always been about coming up with the best explanation for phenomena, without arbitrarily ruling out a prioriany logically possible explanation. While Dr. Parikh did not express any explicit support for design, I hope that his remarks signal the return of the American scientific establishment to this common sense approach.