Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

 This seemed to me a clear classification error. My predecessor in managing the science collections probably hadn’t been particularly well-versed in scientific methodology or the criteria deployed in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. They’d purchased or received a book that had all the superficial trappings of science and made the understandable mistake of placing it among science books.

 Curious, I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out, my predecessor had indeed made an error. Unfortunately, they were far from alone in making it. This misclassification is astonishingly pervasive. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) lists catalog numbers in the 570s (Dewey) or QHs (Library of Congress Classification) as the most frequent classification for not only Darwin’s Doubt, but a variety of similar works. I checked the catalogs of public libraries in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and the District of Columbia – in each location, the story is the same. Of course, this is hardly a representative sample, but the emerging pattern was distressing nonetheless: public libraries across the United States are failing in their charge to present accurate information to the public.

History of a Bad Idea: the Rise of Intelligent Design

In popular parlance, the perspective peddled in the books I’m referring to is called intelligent design. It is the modern incarnation of creationism, a thoroughly discredited branch of religious dogma that formerly masqueraded as science. The 1975 Daniel v. Waters circuit court and 1982 Mclean v. Arkansas district court decisions gave legal standing to the current scientific consensus on the processes that account for cosmological, biological, and geological phenomena, rejecting creationism as a suitable topic for public science education. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the U.S. Supreme Court did likewise. It was recognized that creationism is a religious perspective on the origins of life, incapable of withstanding serious scientific scrutiny and incompatible with the principles of secular education.

 Thereafter, those inclined to view religious origin stories as an essential component of science education adopted a new tactic. Creationism was stripped of all obvious references to Christianity, Biblical doctrine, and even deity. Subsequently married to a school of rather potent intellectual gymnastics, creationism sired what is now known as intelligent design – a more sophisticated and insidious rebranding of the old campaign to inject theology into the realms of scientific discourse and public science education.

 Advocates of intelligent design have worked hard to disguise their sectarian motivations and present a veneer of scientific objectivity. Despite these efforts at obfuscation, intelligent design has been consistently rejected as an appropriate topic for public science classrooms. Most recently, in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Johns – a Bush appointee – ruled that, because intelligent design is not science, its presentation in publicly funded science curricula represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On its own, this legal precedent makes the presence of books like Darwin’s Doubt in public library science collections a real eyebrow-raiser. Why, if it is inappropriate to inject religiously motivated thinking into publicly funded science education, is it somehow permissible to allow religiously motivated thinking into similarly financed science collections at public libraries? According to established legal precedent, every library that shelves books like Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s equally unscientific Darwin’s Black Box in their science collections stands in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

This alone should offer sufficient reason for any publicly funded library to take the simple step of booting these books out of their science collections. But to drive the point home, let’s push a little further. Surely it will be protested that the courts do not decide what is and is not science. This is true. But if the courts don’t decide, who does?

 One answer might be that the scientists themselves decide. And there is a sense in which this is true. Consensus does play a role in shaping the course of scientific progress and the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as junk or pseudoscience. This is especially true among life scientists, who tend to have the most relevant expertise when it comes to evaluating the scientific validity of an idea like intelligent design. Scientific organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have issued unequivocal repudiations of intelligent design, denying its credibility as a scientific theory and urging educators to guard against its intrusion into public science curricula.

 Of course, science doesn’t work by consensus alone. This means that the deepest reasons for doubting the scientific veracity of intelligent design come from the nature of science itself. Individual scientists have different ideas about what exactly differentiates science from non-science. But one defining feature about which there is virtually unanimous agreement is this: science must make some appeal to observable reality. Its special standing as a knowledge-gaining pursuit is granted by a thorough dependence on the fruits of observation and experimentation. Scientific claims must be testable and, more fundamentally, falsifiable. If there is no conceivable way in which your idea can be proven wrong, then it is extremely likely that it is not science.

 This is where intelligent design is dealt its fatal blow. The entire program of intelligent design consists of stubborn attempts to poke holes in a Darwinian understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth. Intelligent design advocates do not formulate testable hypotheses, in no small part because their central claim – that the existence of life hinges upon the intervention of an intelligent designer – can’t be tested. Those sympathetic to intelligent design posit scientific-sounding notions like irreducible complexity – the notion that certain features of the biological world cannot have evolved by natural processes because they depend on an intricate interplay among essential components – as a smokescreen for the credulous, hoping clever branding will mask a paucity of strong ideas.

 Various intelligent design proponents have posited candidates for irreducible complexity in the form of biological traits like flagellar motors and complex eyes. Each of these features rests well within the explanatory wheelhouse of modern evolutionary theory. Insofar as an irreducibly complex flagellar motor is an intelligent design hypothesis, the theory has been falsified. But this is too permissive. Look deeper and you’ll find that there are no objective criteria for recognizing irreducible complexity when you see it. The claim that the camera eye is irreducibly complex doesn’t flow from the logical structure of intelligent design, so it can’t actually be seen as a hypothesis with any relevance to said idea’s explanatory potential. What is and is not irreducibly complex is all in the eye of the beholder. The notion that the Cambrian Explosion can’t be explained by established Darwinian principles isn’t a hypothesis – it’s an opinion. It is an argument from incredulity that offers no fodder for experimental or observational evaluation and therefore disallows intelligent design entry into the scientific fold.

Lying in Place: Misleading the Public Through Careless Shelving

None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff. These ideas have been spelled out repeatedly in ponderous legal decisions, dense philosophical tracts, breezy popular science bestsellers, and from countless university lecterns across the globe. Yet somehow intelligent design books like Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin’s Black Box have managed to sneak into public library science collections across the United States.

 A mislabeled book here and there is a small thing. Surely the vast majority of the books on the surrounding shelves represent good science. Those good ideas should swamp the bad. But think of the disservice done to the laypersons that come to these topics with fresh eyes. It’s a simple thing, but the placement of books can say a lot. In this case, it may say that intelligent design – an idea regarded by the vast majority of actual scientists as either junk science or pseudoscience – should be granted the same credence as any other book in the science section. In which case, the library will have done the job of carelessly misinforming its patrons. Placing intelligent design books in science collections is a decision that carries with it an implicit suggestion that they have the same explanatory merit as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

 Darwin’s Doubt and books like it belong in the library. Public libraries have a duty to serve the interests of the theologically minded as much as the scientifically curious. These books might make good candidates for entries in philosophical collections dealing with the metaphysics of change or teleogy. More aptly, they might find a place in religious collections. Collection managers ought to have some discretion in this regard.

 There is, however, one place in the public library where these books do not belong: the science section. Most libraries weed out books on discredited ideas. If a library is doing its job, patrons shouldn’t find books advocating the phlogiston theory of combustion or offering astrological explanations for the condition of their love life in the science collection. Intelligent design is equally unscientific. Let’s do the public the service of cataloguing it accordingly.

One thought on “Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

  1. It might also be by design; Young Earth Creationists / Intelligent Design Advocates were tired of science museums that never featured their particular point of view, so they raised money from Christians and built the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter (among others) so that they would be taken more seriously. They’re beginning to flood the marketplace with their books – their thinking might be that once they get their foot in the door – their book on the shelf, it’s only a matter of time before they’re will be more. One “misplaced” book today might be the ID book on the Pure Science shelf, but their hopes might be that ID is seen as Pure Science and Pure Science as myths from unbelievers.

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