Intelligent Design in schools

Wednesday 21 December 2005

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that intelligent design cannot be taught in public schools. Many are cheering this decision as a victory for the forces of science over religion. I’m not so sure.

I think the three or four paragraphs of disclaimer the ID folks wanted read was not such a big deal, and would have been a great jumping off point for a discussion about what science is and is not. An entire class (or more) could be given over to the topic. It wouldn’t be teaching intelligent design, it would be teaching the philosophy of science with the current ID debate as a backdrop.

Part of the difficulty in this debate is the two sides are arguing about different things. The intelligent design people are trying to talk about how the world came to be. The scientists are mostly arguing about what science is. Putting the discussion into the hands of science teachers would let them frame the debate.

The most interesting piece I’ve read on intelligent design was this piece in the New Yorker: Devolution: Why intelligent design isn’t.. It wasn’t about right vs. left, or blue states and red states. It was about science. It lays out the arguments of the intelligent design proponents, and then discusses the scientific merits of their case. Reading it, I learned about biology and the philosophy of science.

Embracing the ID debate in this way is the best defense against it. All they want is a mention in science class. Give them that, then give them both barrels with a real examination of their stance. Get the debate out into the open. Refusing your opponent a chance to speak is rarely a way to defeat them.



I think you have completely missed the point. The teachers who will teach this in schools will either be rabid creationists, or will be directed by rabid creationists on the school board. The decision was a statement that a school board does not have the ability to redefine science in order to force teachers to lie in class.

Just imagine if the decision had gone the other way: it would mean that a school board could force science teachers to teach *absolutely anything* in science class, including "the flood", "we are made out of dirt", "the earth is 6000 years old", "medicine is bad and will make you go to hell", "women/black people are genetically inferior". There has to be a limit to what a nutty school board can do, and this seems to be a good one: you can't allow non-science to be taught in a science class.

This is not about the sophistry known as ID, it is about removing the seperation between church and state, and replacing education with state funded religious indoctrination, as long its popular.


It's not that I wish the judge had ruled the other way: you are right, I don't want school boards to be able to teach anything as science. But these days, teaching evolution without acknowledging the controversy around it also seems a little silly.

And I think the debate is a great way to get kids to think about what science is, what it does, and how it does it.

After all, the ID proponents will be able to stand outside the school and say, "Evolution is just a theory!", and they are right. The science teacher needs to explain what a theory is, and point out that ID isn't even a theory.


"""After all, the ID proponents will be able to stand outside the school and say, "Evolution is just a theory!", and they are right. The science teacher needs to explain what a theory is, and point out that ID isn't even a theory."""

The problem is that, in my experience, the vast majority of people who would say something like, "Evolution is just a theory," won't be receptive to the explanation of what "theory" means in a scientific context. I've tried dozens of times. Maybe even hundreds of times. It takes time to carefully explain the scientific method, what it is and isn't, and why it works. That's why the IDists have been relatively successful lately. Their side is nothing but short-and-sweet soundbites, meaningless statistics, and fallacious rhetoric. In short, they're politicians.

I would also argue that they aren't right when they say that, because they're not using the word "theory" the same way that scienists do.


"Embracing the ID debate in this way is the best defense against it."

But then you open the door to the inclusion of any wacked out, non-scientific beliefs being presented in science class. Once ID is allowed, imagine all the religion compatible "theories" that will demand equal attention. Science class is about teaching science, not explaining every alternative crackpot theory.

I once took a class in college called the Philosophy of Science, which we spent a great deal of time discussing what is science and what isn't, and we discussed things like astrology and homeopathic medicine. That seems like the right time to discuss it, when you are talking about in general what science is and isn't. But when trying to teach real scientific theories, we need not burden students with non-scientific alternatives to already non-intuitive concepts.


Wired's Evan Ratliff did a very nice examination of ID a few months ago. He raised the important point that ID proponents want to be accepted as legit. Simply giving them this pulpit is already a success for ID. They got the government and media to do their marketing for them.

I agree that giving them no opening for speech of any kind is censorship, and even Capricorn One followers ( deserve a chance to speak. But unlike your "embrace and extend" approach of your post, I worry that the more legitimacy we as society give these guys, the more we tear down the supports of a just and fair society which shouldn't promote religious dogma over science.


That isn't exactly what they ruled. They were responding to a motion the school board had in place to FORCE ID to be taught in biology classes. The forcing of the idea was unconstitutional, and hence the ruling.
There is nothing saying a teacher cannot teach a philosophy lesson and talk about/teach it. They just said that it cannot be "forced" into a science class.

The whole issue is ridiculous to me. ID isn't science -- it is philosophy. Its opponents keep saying that because it isn't science, it must be false. Well, then I guess all university philosophy departments should just shut down, eh? Its proponents are also going about it the wrong way -- they should be encouraging teaching it in non-science classes. Or better yet, let the schools do whatever they want, and you go ahead and teach your children your belief system yourself.


infidel said, "the vast majority of people who would say something like, 'Evolution is just a theory,' won't be receptive to the explanation of what 'theory' means in a scientific context."

Right, but it's not the ID proponents who would be sitting in class, it's their kids. There's nothing that can be done for the true ID believers: they will not acecpt evolution on any terms.


I don't trust high school "science teachers" in the aggregate enough to entrust them with the responsibility of presenting ID in the manner you have suggested. There's a local high school (and community college!) physics teacher who frequently writes op/ed pieces for the local paper. His latest "masterpiece" was a rant about how every immoral thing in modern society is the direct fault of teaching children about Evolution. Thankfully this idiot is not a biology teacher, but it's kooks like him that make it impossible to do the intellectually proper thing like Ned suggests. If biology teachers were not required to teach evolution as part of the curriculum and/or were given a door through which they could introduce other ideas, I don't for a second believe that they would all treat the opportunity responsibly.



I'm afraid that you've been duped with the best of them. There is no controversy surrounding evolution in the scientific community. Evolution is not only accepted, it forms the absolute foundation of modern biology. The ID folks have succeeded in equating gaps in understanding with controversy. We don't understand everything about gravitational forces, but we don't accept supernatural explanations as an alternative to the theory of gravity.


cos, if you think I've been duped, then I haven't explained myself. I know that ID isn't science. I want others to know it too. I think discussing the structure and operation of science in science class is a good way to do it. I think the current turmoil around ID is a good backdrop for that lesson.


I did say "... with the best of them." ;) I agree with you that this hulabaloo does provide a good backdrop for a discussion around the philosopy of science. However, there is no justification for any type of disclaimer to be presented along side a universally accepted scientific theory. There is a social controversy, but no scientific one.


Ned: You're right. It's their kids. And their kids are already true believers. They were brought up that way. Some will rebel against their parents beliefs of their own volition, but the majority will not. Ask any sociologist about the age at which children fully internalize core beliefs like this. It's just before high school.

As far as "the controversy" goes: there is no controversy within science. There is work to do, gaps to fill, mechanisms to discover, and more... but there is no controversy.

You say "give them both barrels". No. Science isn't about debunking ideas made up out of thin air. It is about investigating hypotheses based on observation and supported by evidence.

Is there room for teaching the controversy? Sure. Just not in science class. I'm all in favor of teaching comparative religion in public schools, and philosophy, too -- as electives. Discussing creation myths and the difference between scientific theory and theology would be fine in that context.

But that's not what the Dover board wanted. They wanted to position ID on equal footing with evolution in the context of science class. That's a politically-driven agent, and it's totally inappropriate.


Even though creationism appears to be on its last legs, we will need to live with these last efforts of the pre-scientifc to turn back the clock for a while longer. ID people aren't crazy, just stubborn and closed minded. I think the majority of students will see through it. They still teach the Scientific Method in science classes, right?

IDers are right, though, on one point. Science can become a religion itself and is susceptible to poor thinking as a religion is (Science is more resistant because it is based on logic).

For more information, I recommend studying up on 'Intelligent Falling' Theory on :)


teaching evolution without acknowledging the controversy around it also seems a little silly.

The only controversy on this is either fabricated or due to
a (perhaps mistaken) belief that it contradicts some people's religious faiths. Huge swaths of biology are based on evolution. Given how important it would be, if there was a useful replacement for evolution then the drug companies would be looking to make money off of it.

I think discussing the structure and operation of science in science class is a good way to do it. I think the current turmoil around ID is a good backdrop for that lesson.

There are better ways. The book "The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age" is an amazingly good book on the concept of Ice Age. The scientific belief in the 1830s was (as I recall) that the earth had had many periods of creation, and the Biblical one was only the most recent. (Fossils came from earlier creation events.) Agassiz theorized an ice covered world but did not have enough proof. After various arguments, conjectures, and accumulated evidence over decades, ending with the discovery of the glaciers on Greeland, changed scientific opinion; that the world had had massive changes, and that some species alive now were alive before the glaciers.

It's a good read, and accessible to high school students. Plus, the people had honest reasons for their beliefs, and changed their minds (grudgingly) when shown counter-examples. ID proponents do not do that, and argue without
evidence at all.

Another example would be quantum mechanics. While the math isn't that accessible, the idea that there were things Newtownian mechanics + Maxwell's equations couldn't predict, like the ultraviolet catastrophe, is. Scientists knew what they knew was insufficient.

Plate tectonics. That's another easily understood idea. It took a long time before geoglists were convinced that the continents floated on plates. The story behind that, with the forming and the dissolution of Lyell uniformitarianism, is also interesting. It could include a side note on the Alvarez's proposal of an asteriod impact causing the K-T extinction event.

Results-based medicine. I read a book on phosphorous. People used to take it and other compounds as a medicine for years, despite it having no good effects, only bad ones. But people thought it worked and doctors would prescribe it. What changed is the push for double-blind experimentation against a placebo, because anything less was too easily affected by wishes.

Finally, just what should be taught in a high school biology course? There's only so much you can teach at the generalist level. I think the events I mentioned are much more interesting and insightful than a lesson based on ID.
At the very least they have alternate testable proposals, while ID has none, zero, zilch and nada.


Andrew Dalke for Public Schools Superintendent! ;-)

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