Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum
Posted on Truthout
02 September 2005 Issue
Volume 52, Issue 2, Page B6
Scientists who teach evolution sometimes feel as if they are trapped in an old horror film - the kind where the monster is killed repeatedly, only to come to life in a nastier form each time. Since the Scopes trial in 1925, the battle between scientists who want to teach mainstream biology in American public schools, and creationists who want to promulgate a more religious view, has gone through several cycles.
In McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education in 1982, a federal court ruled that the introduction of creationism into public-school curricula constituted the establishment of religion, and hence was expressly forbidden by the First Amendment. That decision dealt a serious (though by no means fatal) blow to old-line creationism and its close cousin, so-called creation science. But another variant of creationism, so-called intelligent design, has cropped up. At least 19 states are now debating its use in public education, and President Bush commented in August that he thought both evolution and intelligent design "ought to be properly taught."
Many people fail to understand the subtle but important differences between the new and old forms of creationism, and the different debates those approaches engender. Like the French generals who used tactics from World War I to face the Nazis in 1939, some educators seem intent on fighting the last war.
A word about the authors of this essay: Although our areas of expertise differ, all of us have investigated aspects of life's origin and evolution. In addition, our political views span the spectrum from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. Thus the essay does not represent any particular ideological or disciplinary viewpoint. We are united in our concern that the science curriculum, from kindergarten through university, should reflect the best and most up-to-date scholarship.
Consider, then, several different theories of life's origin and evolution. The main theories are those of miraculous creation and of sequential origins. Within the theories of sequential origins are the theories of intelligent design and of emergent complexity, and the latter can in turn be divided into the theories of frozen accident and of deterministic origins. The debate surrounding each pair focuses on a different aspect of the nature of science.
Miraculous creation versus sequential origins. Was the origin of life a miracle, or did it conform to natural law - and how can we tell? Many different versions of the doctrine of miraculous creation exist, but the one that is most at odds with modern science is called "young Earth creationism" and is based on a literal reading of the Bible. According to the supporters of that theory, our planet and its life-forms were created more or less in their present forms in a miraculous act about 10,000 years ago.
Young Earth creationism is in direct conflict with scientific measurements of the age of rocks, the thickness of polar ice sheets, the expansion of the universe, and numerous other indicators of our planet's great antiquity.
One unusual solution to that disparity was proposed in a book by Philip Gosse, called Omphalos, which was published two years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The word "omphalos" means navel in Greek, and Gosse argued that Adam was created with a navel, even though he had never been inside a womb. From that insight has flowed the so-called doctrine of created antiquity (Gosse actually called it Pre-Chronism), which states that although Earth was created 10,000 years ago, it was created to look as if it were much older. Are some stars more than 10,000 light-years away? The universe was created with light from those stars already on its way to Earth. And what about those apparently ancient rocks? The universe was created with just the right mixtures of potassium-40 and argon to make the rocks appear much older than they really are.
It is impossible to conceive of any experiment or observation that could prove the doctrine of created antiquity wrong. Any result, no matter what it was, could be explained by saying "the universe was just created that way."
In fact, that property of young Earth creationism proved to be its Achilles' heel. Every scientific theory must be testable by observation or experiment - or it cannot be considered science. In principle, it must be possible to imagine outcomes that would prove the theory wrong. In the words of Karl Popper, scientific theories must be falsifiable, even if they are not false. Popper said that a theory that cannot be overturned by experimental data is not a part of experimental science.
Created antiquity is not falsifiable. The teaching of young Earth creationism, along with any other doctrine based on a miraculous creation of life, was prohibited in public schools not because the theory was proved wrong but because it simply is not science. It is, as the court in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education recognized, a religious doctrine, untestable by the techniques of science.
Once we discard the theories of miraculous creation, we are left with the theories of sequential origins.
Intelligent design versus emergent complexity. The theory of intelligent design, or ID, is a theory of sequential origins, but it is also the latest attack on the idea that the origin and evolution of life follow natural laws. Like created antiquity, ID has a long intellectual pedigree. The English philosopher William Paley first espoused it in 1802, arguing that if you found a watch in a field, you would conclude that it had been designed by some intelligence rather than assembled by chance. In the same way, the argument goes, the intricate universe in which we live reflects the mind of an intelligent maker.
The modern theory of intelligent design is more sophisticated than Paley's argument, although it derives from much the same kind of reasoning. It is anchored in a concept called "irreducible complexity" - the idea that organisms possess many complicated structures, which are essential to the organism's survival but which are useless unless all the structures are present. The chance of Darwinian evolution's producing so many such structures and of their existing simultaneously, according to the theory, is so small that they must have been produced by an intelligent designer.
Intelligent design challenges the conventional wisdom in origin-of-life research that life is a prime example of so-called emergent complexity. All around us are complex systems that arise when energy flows through a collection of particles, like living cells or grains of sand. Ant colonies, slime molds, sand dunes, spiral galaxies, traffic jams, and human consciousness are examples of such systems. Although scientists have yet to produce a living system in the laboratory, most origin-of-life researchers are optimistic that one day we will be able to do so, or at least to understand how life first emerged from inorganic materials.
The supporters of intelligent design resort to the same kind of argument that creationists have used for decades, identifying some biological structure and claiming that it is irreducibly complex. Then supporters of emergent complexity have to analyze that structure and show that its complexity arises naturally. For example, 20 years ago, the predecessors of ID advocates pointed to the modern whale as an example of what would be called irreducible complexity today (that term wasn't used then). The whale, they argued, is a form so specialized that it could not possibly have been produced by Darwinian evolution.
Alan Haywood, author of Creation and Evolution, put it this way: "Darwinists rarely mention the whale because it presents them with one of their most insoluble problems. They believe that somehow a whale must have evolved from an ordinary land-dwelling animal, which took to the sea and lost its legs. ... A land mammal that was in the process of becoming a whale would fall between two stools - it would not be fitted for life on land or at sea, and would have no hope for survival."
The power of science is that, faced with such a challenge, one can test the relevant theory. The theory of evolution predicts that whales with atrophied hind legs must have once swum in the seas. If Darwin is correct, then those whales' fossils must lie buried somewhere. Furthermore, those strange creatures must have arisen during a relatively narrow interval of geological time, after the evolution of the earliest known marine mammals (about 60 million years ago) and before the appearance of the streamlined whales of the present era (which show up in the fossil record during the past 30 million years). Armed with those conclusions, paleontologists searched shallow marine formations from 35 million to 55 million years in age. Sure enough, in the past decade the scientists have excavated dozens of those "missing links" in the development of the whale - curious creatures that sport combinations of anatomical features characteristic of land and sea mammals.
But there's always another challenge to evolution, always another supposed example of irreducible complexity. At the present time the poster child of intelligent design is the flagellum of a bacterium. That complex structure in bacterial walls features a corkscrew-shaped fiber that rotates, propelling the bacterium through the water. Obviously, a completely functioning flagellum is very useful, but it is also obvious that all its parts have to be present for it to function. A nonmoving corkscrew, for example, would be useless and would confer no evolutionary advantage on its own. Roughly 50 molecules are involved in constructing the flagellum, so the probability of all the parts' coming together by chance seems infinitesimally small.
However, that intelligent-design argument contains a hidden assumption: that all parts of a complex structure must have had the same function throughout the history of the development of the organism. In fact, it is quite common for structures to have one function at one time and be adapted for quite another use later on. A land animal's legs become a whale's flippers. An insect may develop bumps on the side of its body to help it get rid of internal heat, but when the bumps get big enough, they may help the insect glide or fly, thus opening up an entirely new ecological niche for exploitation. That process is so common that evolutionary scientists have given it a name: exaptation.
No evolutionary theorist would suggest that something as complex as the flagellum appeared ab initio. Instead, it was assembled from parts that had developed for other uses. For example, some molecules produce energy by rotating, a normal procedure within cells. Other molecules have a shape that makes them ideal for moving materials across cell membranes. The flagellum's building blocks include both types of molecules. Instead of being assembled from scratch, then, the flagellum is put together from a stock of already existing parts, each of which evolved to carry out a completely different task. The flagellum may be complicated, but it is not irreducibly complex.
An important distinction between the theories of intelligent design and miraculous creation is that the former makes predictions that can be tested. The problem with ID, at least so far, is that when statements like the one claiming irreducible complexity for the flagellum are put to the test, they turn out to be wrong.
That distinction means that we should use different methods to counter intelligent design than those that defeated young Earth creationism. The more thoughtful advocates of intelligent design accept many of the tenets of Darwinism - the idea that living things have changed over time, for example. Although the motive of some ID proponents may be to re-introduce God into the debate about the origin of life, their arguments can be met with scientific, not legal, rebuttals. That is good news: They are playing on our field.
Frozen accident versus deterministic origins. The last pair of theories are both subsets of emergent complexity, and both fall within the scientific mainstream; the debate here is about whether life had to develop the way it did, or whether it could have turned out differently. A number of distinguished scientists see the development of life on our planet as a series of accidental, perhaps improbable, events that became locked into the structures of living things - what have been termed "frozen accidents." In the words of the most eloquent advocate for that point of view, the late Stephen Jay Gould, if you played the tape again, you would get a different set of accidents, and hence a different outcome. Therefore life may be rare in the universe, and the way it began and evolved on Earth may be unique.
Other scientists see life's chemical origin and many of its subsequent evolutionary steps as inevitable - a cosmic imperative. Indeed, much modern research on the origin of life is devoted to showing precisely how living things arose from inanimate matter through the action of the ordinary laws of chemistry and physics. That more deterministic view of life's origin and evolution means scientists are more likely to eventually understand the details of life's emergence, and it includes the testable prediction that similar life-forms exist on many other planets throughout the universe.
It seems to us that the frozen-accident theory of life's origin is at best unsatisfying, and may be unworthy of the scientific way of approaching the world. To say that a natural process is random is, in effect, an act of surrender, something that should be done only as a last resort. If you read the frozen-accident literature carefully, you often get the feeling that what is really being said is: "My friends and I can't figure out why things happened this way, so it must have been random."
Another aspect of the frozen-accident school of thought has unfortunate consequences for the educational system. Random events are, by definition, not reproducible. That makes them disturbingly similar to the unknowable interventions posited by intelligent design. Is there really much difference between irreproducible random events and irreproducible acts of God? We should note, however, that proponents of the frozen-accident theory make no claims of divine intervention, while advocates of intelligent design do move on to theological arguments.
Although both the theories of frozen accident and deterministic origins have their supporters, virtually all scientists who work in the field believe that once living things appeared on our planet, the Darwinian process of natural selection guided their development. There is no disagreement on that point, although there is - and should be - vigorous debate on the details of the way natural selection has worked.
Shouldn't we just teach the debates? That is the rallying cry of intelligent-design advocates. Having learned their lesson in Arkansas in 1982, they no longer demand that schools teach the theory of miraculous creation. Instead they say that students should be told that legitimate alternatives to Darwinian evolution exist, and thus biology classes should include the theory of intelligent design.
That argument has an apparent fairness that is hard to resist, especially for academics who believe that, at least in the sciences, subjects should be approached with an open mind and critical thinking. But the idea of "teaching the debate" founders on two points.
First, there really is no debate in the mainstream literature. The vast majority of scientists who study the origin of life accept the idea of nonmiraculous origins without any reservations. Only creationists support the theory of intelligent design.
Second, American students, from kindergarten to university, spend far too little time as it is studying science. We shouldn't teach them about intelligent design for the same reason that we don't teach them that Earth is flat, or that flies are produced by spontaneous generation from rotting meat. It's bad science, and the curriculum has no room for bad science.
Our educational system produces citizens who are ill prepared to deal with a world increasingly dominated by scientific and technological advances. If we were to "teach the debate," what should we remove from the already inadequate curriculum to make room for an idea that has yet to meet even the most rudimentary scientific tests? Should we neglect the environment? Energy? Genetics? Most high-school biology courses devote a pitifully small amount of time to evolution, which is arguably the most important idea in the life sciences. Should we dilute that instruction even further?
The time to discuss altering the curriculum is when the theory of intelligent design reaches the point where it has serious arguments and data to put forward - to the point, in other words, where there is a significant debate among scientists.
Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazen, and James Trefil are, respectively, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors of biology and natural philosophy, earth sciences, and physics at George Mason University.
Show Me the Science
Saturday 28 August 2005
Blue Hill, ME - President Bush, announcing this month that he was in favor of teaching about "intelligent design" in the schools, said, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." A couple of weeks later, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, made the same point. Teaching both intelligent design and evolution "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone," Mr. Frist said. "I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future."
Is "intelligent design" a legitimate school of scientific thought? Is there something to it, or have these people been taken in by one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science? Wouldn't such a hoax be impossible? No. Here's how it has been done.
First, imagine how easy it would be for a determined band of naysayers to shake the world's confidence in quantum physics - how weird it is! - or Einsteinian relativity. In spite of a century of instruction and popularization by physicists, few people ever really get their heads around the concepts involved. Most people eventually cobble together a justification for accepting the assurances of the experts: "Well, they pretty much agree with one another, and they claim that it is their understanding of these strange topics that allows them to harness atomic energy, and to make transistors and lasers, which certainly do work..."
Fortunately for physicists, there is no powerful motivation for such a band of mischief-makers to form. They don't have to spend much time persuading people that quantum physics and Einsteinian relativity really have been established beyond all reasonable doubt.
With evolution, however, it is different. The fundamental scientific idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling; natural selection, by executing God's traditional task of designing and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists. Nobody is immune to wishful thinking. It takes scientific discipline to protect ourselves from our own credulity, but we've also found ingenious ways to fool ourselves and others. Some of the methods used to exploit these urges are easy to analyze; others take a little more unpacking.
A creationist pamphlet sent to me some years ago had an amusing page in it, purporting to be part of a simple questionnaire:
Do you know of any building that didn't have a builder? [YES] [NO]
Do you know of any painting that didn't have a painter? [YES] [NO]
Do you know of any car that didn't have a maker? [YES] [NO]
If you answered YES for any of the above, give details:
Take that, you Darwinians! The presumed embarrassment of the test-taker when faced with this task perfectly expresses the incredulity many people feel when they confront Darwin's great idea. It seems obvious, doesn't it, that there couldn't be any designs without designers, any such creations without a creator.
Well, yes - until you look at what contemporary biology has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt: that natural selection - the process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which improvements automatically emerge - has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs.
Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps? Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in a sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years on end.
But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved, and how they work - all the way back to their predecessor genes in the sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a half-billion years ago - we can begin to tell the story of how photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters that could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering capacities all the while.
We can't yet say what all the details of this process were, but real eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found, dotted around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models to demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory says.
All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by one mindless step. And since these lucky improvements accumulate - this was Darwin's insight - eyes can automatically get better and better and better, without any intelligent designer.
Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
If you still find Test Two compelling, a sort of cognitive illusion that you can feel even as you discount it, you are like just about everybody else in the world; the idea that natural selection has the power to generate such sophisticated designs is deeply counterintuitive. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, once jokingly credited his colleague Leslie Orgel with "Orgel's Second Rule": Evolution is cleverer than you are. Evolutionary biologists are often startled by the power of natural selection to "discover" an "ingenious" solution to a design problem posed in the lab.
This observation lets us address a slightly more sophisticated version of the cognitive illusion presented by Test Two. When evolutionists like Crick marvel at the cleverness of the process of natural selection they are not acknowledging intelligent design. The designs found in nature are nothing short of brilliant, but the process of design that generates them is utterly lacking in intelligence of its own.
Intelligent design advocates, however, exploit the ambiguity between process and product that is built into the word "design." For them, the presence of a finished product (a fully evolved eye, for instance) is evidence of an intelligent design process. But this tempting conclusion is just what evolutionary biology has shown to be mistaken.
Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves without purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand, but so is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of atoms that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of tiny hot things.
The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.
To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.
Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.
Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.
William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as "some hair-splitting that could only look ridiculous to outsider observers." What looks to scientists - and is - a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.
In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.
To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.
To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:
About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.
If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued.
We'd still have the problem of how these intelligent genetic engineers came to exist on their home planet, but we can safely ignore that complication for the time being, since there is not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.
But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it. In fact, my farfetched hypothesis has the advantage of being testable in principle: we could compare the human and chimpanzee genomes, looking for unmistakable signs of tampering by these genetic engineers from another galaxy. Finding some sort of user's manual neatly embedded in the apparently functionless "junk DNA" that makes up most of the human genome would be a Nobel Prize-winning coup for the intelligent design gang, but if they are looking at all, they haven't come up with anything to report.
It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of substantive scientific controversies in biology that are not yet in the textbooks or the classrooms. The scientific participants in these arguments vie for acceptance among the relevant expert communities in peer-reviewed journals, and the writers and editors of textbooks grapple with judgments about which findings have risen to the level of acceptance - not yet truth - to make them worth serious consideration by undergraduates and high school students.
SO get in line, intelligent designers. Get in line behind the hypothesis that life started on Mars and was blown here by a cosmic impact. Get in line behind the aquatic ape hypothesis, the gestural origin of language hypothesis and the theory that singing came before language, to mention just a few of the enticing hypotheses that are actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts.
The Discovery Institute, the conservative organization that has helped to put intelligent design on the map, complains that its members face hostility from the established scientific journals. But establishment hostility is not the real hurdle to intelligent design. If intelligent design were a scientific idea whose time had come, young scientists would be dashing around their labs, vying to win the Nobel Prizes that surely are in store for anybody who can overturn any significant proposition of contemporary evolutionary biology.
Remember cold fusion? The establishment was incredibly hostile to that hypothesis, but scientists around the world rushed to their labs in the effort to explore the idea, in hopes of sharing in the glory if it turned out to be true.
Instead of spending more than $1 million a year on publishing books and articles for non-scientists and on other public relations efforts, the Discovery Institute should finance its own peer-reviewed electronic journal. This way, the organization could live up to its self-professed image: the doughty defenders of brave iconoclasts bucking the establishment.
For now, though, the theory they are promoting is exactly what George Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the Discovery Institute, has said it is: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."
Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?
Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is the author of "Freedom Evolves" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."
Scientific Savvy? In US, Not Much
Tuesday 30 August 2005
Chicago - When Jon D. Miller looks out across America, which he can almost do from his 18th-floor office at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, he sees a landscape of haves and have-nots - in terms not of money, but of knowledge.
Dr. Miller, 63, a political scientist who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at the medical school, studies how much Americans know about science and what they think about it. His findings are not encouraging.
While scientific literacy has doubled over the past two decades, only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are "scientifically savvy and alert," he said in an interview. Most of the rest "don't have a clue." At a time when science permeates debates on everything from global warming to stem cell research, he said, people's inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.
Over the last three decades, Dr. Miller has regularly surveyed his fellow citizens for clients as diverse as the National Science Foundation, European government agencies and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. People who track Americans' attitudes toward science routinely cite his deep knowledge and long track record.
"I think we should pay attention to him," said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, who cites Dr. Miller's work in her efforts to advance the cause of evolution in the classroom. "We ignore public understanding of science at our peril."
Rolf F. Lehming, who directs the science foundation's surveys on understanding of science, calls him "absolutely authoritative."
Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.
At one time, this kind of ignorance may not have meant much for the nation's public life. Dr. Miller, who has delved into 18th-century records of New England town meetings, said that back then, it was enough "if you knew where the bridge should be built, if you knew where the fence should be built."
"Even if you could not read and write, and most New England residents could not read or write," he went on, "you could still be a pretty effective citizen."
No more. "Acid rain, nuclear power, infectious diseases - the world is a little different," he said.
It was the nuclear power issue that first got him interested in public knowledge of science, when he was a graduate student in the 1960's. "The issue then was nuclear power," he said. "I used to play tennis with some engineers who were very pro-nuclear, and I was dating a person who was very anti-nuclear. I started doing some reading and discovered that if you don't know a little science it was hard to follow these debates. A lot of journalism would not make sense to you."
Devising good tests to measure scientific knowledge is not simple. Questions about values and attitudes can be asked again and again over the years because they will be understood the same way by everyone who hears them; for example, Dr. Miller's surveys regularly ask people whether they agree that science and technology make life change too fast (for years, about half of Americans have answered yes) or whether Americans depend too much on science and not enough on faith (ditto).
But assessing actual knowledge, over time, "is something of an art," he said. He varies his questions, as topics come and go in the news, but devises the surveys so overall results can be compared from survey to survey, just as SAT scores can be compared even though questions on the test change.
For example, he said, in the era of nuclear tests he asked people whether they knew about strontium 90, a component of fallout. Today, he asks about topics like the workings of DNA in the cell because "if you don't know what a cell is, you can't make sense of stem cell research."
Dr. Miller, who was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, when it was a dying steel town, attributes much of the nation's collective scientific ignorance to poor education, particularly in high schools. Many colleges require every student to take some science, but most Americans do not graduate from college. And science education in high school can be spotty, he said.
"Our best university graduates are world-class by any definition," he said. "But the second half of our high school population - it's an embarrassment. We have left behind a lot of people."
He had firsthand experience with local school issues in the 1980's, when he was a young father living in DeKalb, Ill., and teaching at Northern Illinois University. The local school board was considering closing his children's school, and he attended some board meetings to get an idea of members' reasoning. It turned out they were spending far more time on issues like the cost of football tickets than they were on the budget and other classroom matters. "It was shocking," he said.
So he and some like-minded people ran successfully for the board and, once in office, tried to raise taxes to provide more money for the classroom. They initiated three referendums; all failed. Eventually, he gave up, and his family moved away.
"This country cannot finance good school systems on property taxes," he said. "We don't get the best people for teaching because we pay so little. For people in the sciences particularly, if you have some skill, the job market is so good that teaching is not competitive."
Dr. Miller was recruited to Northwestern Medical School in 1999 by administrators who knew of his work and wanted him to study attitudes and knowledge of science in light of the huge changes expected from the genomic revolution.
He also has financing - and wears a yellow plastic bracelet - from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, for a project to research people's knowledge of clinical trials. Many research organizations want to know what encourages people to participate in a trial and what discourages them. But Dr. Miller said, "It's more interesting to ask if they know what a clinical trial is, do they know what a placebo is."
The National Science Foundation is recasting its survey operations, so Dr. Miller is continuing surveys for other clients. One involves following people over time, tracing their knowledge and beliefs about science from childhood to adulthood, to track the way advantages and disadvantages in education are compounded over time and to test his theory that people don't wait until they are adults to start forming opinions about the world.
Lately, people who advocate the teaching of evolution have been citing Dr. Miller's ideas on what factors are correlated with adherence to creationism and rejection of Darwinian theories. In general, he says, these fundamentalist views are most common among people who are not well educated and who "work in jobs that are evaporating fast with competition around the world."
But not everyone is happy when he says things like that. Every time he goes on the radio to talk about his findings, he said, "I get people sending me cards saying they will pray for me a lot."