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Commentary: Intelligent Design

By Paul Reitan

Buffalo, NY – What is it that is appropriate to study in a mathematics classroom? I think most of us would agree that it should be mathematics, and not art history, for example. How about an American History classroom? Not classical music composition, but American History, of course. And in a science classroom? I think most of us could agree that that's where we want students to learn about what the sciences have discovered and about the methods by which science conducts inquiries into the materials and the functions of the physical universe, through observation of natural phenomena and their products and observation of the results of experiments designed to test hypotheses.

So far those of you who are listening and haven't already fallen asleep are probably nodding and quickly losing interest in hearing stuff that is so obvious. But what if I now said: "I do not think that what is being called 'Intelligent Design' should be included as science instruction in science classrooms." Some of you might wake up and say, "Why not?"

Why not? Because, I reply, it is not science. But here we have the crux of the problem: understanding what is science and what is not science.

Legislators in state the legislatures of Arkansas 20 years ago, and in Kansas recently, and at other places and at times in between, have been asked to formulate legislation that would call for including ideas of Creationism, also called Creation Science, and recently reformulated as Intelligent Design, in state education standards for science curricula. And a New York legislator has now come up with similar legislation.

How are legislators and how are members of school boards to know what to do when faced with the proposal -- or demand -- that some new material be included in school science curricula? How can they responsibly evaluate it? Might it help if they had clear guidance about what qualities are essential to and characterize science?

I think so. So I have the following suggestion.

At our local state university center, the University at Buffalo, we now have a president and a provost and a dean of Arts & Sciences, all of whom are scientists. So I call upon all legislators and school board members who are listening, as well as parents and teachers of children in our schools, to request that UB appoint a group of scientists to prepare a brief "white paper" statement responding to the question: "What qualities are essential to and characterize science?"

That white paper statement could then be distributed to all members of the New York State Senate and Assembly and to school board members. It could serve to inform proposed legislation concerning what appropriately may be included in state education standards. It could help school boards and teachers understand what is appropriate in science curricula and in science classrooms, and many divisive disputes might be avoided and the quality of science education in New York would be protected.

I am not insisting on or advocating any specific content, either for inclusion or exclusion. My goal is that those involved in determining that content be well-informed about what science is.

Listener-commentator Paul Reitan is an emeritus professor of Geological Sciences at UB.