Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Don't Dare Argue with Evolution

The letters you write can get you into trouble. Take the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which funds scientific research: they wrote that they can’t tell whether the theory of evolution is correct.

The SSHRC rejected a funding application by McGill University Professor Brian Alters, who had asked for $40,000 to find out if the increasing popularity of the “intelligent design” idea about the origins of life was “eroding acceptance of the theory of evolution.”

The SSHRC turned down the application because “the proposition did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teaches, parents and policymakers,” its letter read.

But what really got them into trouble was the next sentence: “Nor did the committee considerer that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct.”

Professor Alters read the letter at a public lecture in Montreal at the end of March, garnering gasps from the audience and headlines in newspapers.

The professor has scored a lot of points by repeating the line about inadequate justification for the assumption of evolution. And rightly so: evolution is proven. While there is legitimate scientific debate about its mechanics, and while I will admit that the theory has become unassailable orthodoxy in scientific circles, Intelligent Design is an attempt to to put a scientific fa├žade on creationism. It’s supported, so far as I can tell, only by those who confuse willful ignorance with religious faith.

Maybe Professor Alters’ application was inadequate: if I were marking a student’s essay on comparing the theories of evolution and intelligent design, I’d look for the same rigour applied to both arguments. And evolution would win, obviously. So maybe what the Council is saying is that Prof. Alters didn’t fill this part of the application out right.

And we know how important it is to the federal government (any federal government) to fill out applications the right way.

What does this controversy mean? It means that anyone writing a letter on behalf of an organization—university, federal agency, or business—should have it checked by a communications professional before sealing the envelope.

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