Saturday, June 11, 2005

Opposing ID

It would be nice to think that all supporters of evolution are intelligent and civil, whereas zealotry and small-minded insults were the sole domain of Creationist conmen. Unfortunately, as Studi Galileiani has found, this is not the case:
For mentioning ID without dismissing it in the same breath, I have become the subject of abuse and my orthodoxy has been questioned, without having written in favour of ID or against evolutionary theory... I have been variously accused of incompetence and dishonesty, called deluded and mooted as being a Stalinist... The substance of my entries was not addressed, regardless of how correct or mistaken they may have been.

Now, I am very strongly opposed to the "Intelligent Design" movement, but it does our side no favours to hurl unwarranted abuse at the authors of even-handed (even if mistaken) commentary.

In fact - like David Velleman - I would not oppose teaching about ID in high school philosophy classes. Students could examine the arguments on either side, and learn about what separates pseudoscience from the real thing. ID has flourished as a political movement, but it lacks intellectual substance. If students were exposed to a balanced academic critique of it, they may be less likely to be suckered in by ID-ist's claims. Like I said before, getting out the truth has both partisan and non-partisan benefits.

But of course ID has no place in biology classes. The role of high school science classes is to teach the basics of mainstream science. For biology, that means evolution. Critiquing evolution is neither mainstream nor basic. Thus, to teach it anyway would be to both (1) dismiss the experts; and (2) fail to provide students with adequate foundational knowledge. As Michael Sprague writes:
Even if they were right, (which I remind you they are not), it would be inappropriate to teach these "problems" and "alternatives" in high schools. First, even if there were dissent, (which I remind you there's not), no one is denying that an overwhelming majority of biologists strongly endorse evolution, nor, in fact, is anyone in ID denying that organisms do evolve by natural selection. Suppose they were right that neo-Darwinism can't account for some traits. It still accounts for the vast majority of traits; it still explains homology and biogeography and many curious facts of anatomy and physiology; it is still strongly confirmed by a huge body of evidence.

So, rather than "Why not teach the 'problems' and 'alternatives'?" I think the question we should be asking is, "Until ID is also confirmed by a huge body of evidence, why teach it?"

Here's the analogy I have in mind: High school physics, if it even gets to relativity, doesn't address the fact that there are serious problems for the theory (and now we're talking about real problems, unlike when ID people talk about evolution). General relativity is not compatible with quantum mechanics in some cases, though both are very highly confirmed. Thus, physicists have been searching for a way to unify these theories for decades - so far, to my limited knowledge, with little success. Would we think that high-school physics teachers should start speculating about string theory? I suggest that this would be absurd. And string theory isn't even a wedge for creationism!

As a general principle, before you can effectively criticize a theory, you must first learn what the theory is. ID proponents frequently engage in behaviors which suggest that they do not believe this; therefore it is perhaps not surprising that they would argue in favor of teaching kids how to attack evolution before teaching them how it got to be so widely accepted in the first place.


  1. I would also point out that very often, evolutionists show very little understanding of what ID is.

  2. I guess it comes down to your philosophy on education. Do you want people to be fed facts they are to accept blindly or to think for themselves? Is school just a tool for brainwashing students with the currently accepted beliefs of the scientific or religious communities?

    Knowing there is debate around issues is important to developing how to think and decide for yourself. Covering the debate is important IMHO for a well rounded education. It is important to separate what science and faith are for students at the same time, and to allow for respect toward those who either come from an atheistic or theistic background and will have to decide for themselves what they believe and think.

    I think for the theist studying high school biology it raises a potential problem that if not handled correctly by schools could force people toward fundamentalism and a rejection of science. I kind of went the other way, which created its own internal tensions.

    Evolution BTW does not remove the possibility of a God, or "ID". There are not just two opposing camps out there. Some people choose to believe in a God, and accept evolution as a theory that explains many things we see in the world. It explains some of the "how", but not necessarily the "why" we are here. That separation is key to a balanced education. Keep the "why" out of the science classroom, and the "how" in it.

    Fundamentalists/ creationists choose not to accept evolution for their own ("why") reasons, that are based on faith and not logic. I see the problem with creationism is their faith is actually quite weak -they have failed to split the "how" and the "why" effectively. They cannot accept even the possibility of evolution as they think it means that if true then God doesn't exist -which their hearts/intuition tell them otherwise. They then feel they must try and use psuedoscience to try and proove the opposite is true.
    Its a classic case of making decisions based on intuition, and then trying to back it up with logic. We all do it, pretty much all the time!

    It's important for students to understand where these people are coming from, and especially that this is not the only option for theists to take. It is infact the weakest option.

    Equally as you point out, some people who choose not to believe in God will be fanatically biased towards showing that God is not required in any and every facet if possible, and pull down people who do choose to believe in God, whether they accept evolution or not. Evolution then becomes a tool in their own anti-theist fight. It only causes further polarising of the issue. They too are seeing the "why" and the "how" as being integral.

    I had to stumble through this quagmire myself to realise that I could accept evolution as a theory and believe in God. The two are not mutually exclusive, and my faith now isnt so weak as to require Moses highly symbolic illustration in Genesis to be literal historical scientific fact.

  3. Of course evolution does not disprove the existence of God - no empirical evidence could! But the ID movement is not merely the conjunction of evolution + God, rather, it is explicitly anti-evolution. The ID movement makes purportedly scientific claims (at least negative ones, about alleged "flaws" in evolutionary theory), and asks to be taught in the science classroom. As such, even intelligent theists such as yourself ought to oppose the ID movement, as it is an attempt to merge science and religion. You are rightly aware of the foolishness of such a move.

    BTW, what's all this about "brainwashing" and "blind acceptance"? Is it brainwashing to teach kids the periodic table of elements, or Newton's laws of motion? Science is about constructing theories that are well-supported by empirical evidence. As such, that's exactly what students ought to be taught in science classes.

    Groundless speculation is simply inappropriate within the scientific context (and, sad to say, "groundless speculation" is all that ID has to offer). It would be more acceptable in the philosophy classroom, so long as it was backed with some sort of logical reasoning or argument. But science is constrained by the evidence. To teach creationism is to dismiss the evidence, and that is not science.

    And then of course there's Sprague's point about how you can't teach the controversy until after you've taught the basics. Until students have learnt about (and understood) evolution, they simply are not capable of submitting it to informed critique!

  4. In relation to that last point, it's worth noting the converse of Macht's comment. Most opponents of evolution are mind-numbingly ignorant about what the theory actually claims. They're fed lies and distortions through the Creationist literature. It really is important to correct these misconceptions, i.e. to teach what the theory of evolution really is.

    One final point, since it's a pet peeve of mine: "why" questions are strictly philosophical rather than religious. Insofar as religions attempt to provide answers, those religions are engaging in philosophy. But it is of course quite possible to do philosophy in a secular manner. This important point is concealed by the common rhetoric which identifies "science vs. religion" with "what vs. why".

  5. I think the fundimental thing is that, true or not, evolution seems to be a pretty effective tool for understanding the world around us.
    If I want to organize animals into types evolution provides a useful theory for understanding htat structure (etc etc). Creation doesnt help me much at all doing anything I know of (except the basic religious stuff).

  6. BTW, what's all this about "brainwashing" and "blind acceptance"? Is it brainwashing to teach kids the periodic table of elements, or Newton's laws of motion? Science is about constructing theories that are well-supported by empirical evidence. As such, that's exactly what students ought to be taught in science classes.

    I personally don't think I really learnt how to think at school. Just what to remember for the exams. The only difference being History where we were taught to critique and what "historiography" was.
    That's the distinction I was getting at. It appears that school has the purpose of conforming students to learn facts and accept science as dogma (yes the periodic table of elements was taught as dogma -I had to memorise it!). It is not until university or further self education are you able to come to understand how the theories came about, and ask/answer the questions as to why or rather how.

    This is, as you say, largely due to the basics needing to be taught to establish a grounding from which real science can actually be learnt. But I think school is rarely where education happens beyond the force feeding/ blind acceptance phase.

    I recently read Bill Brysons "a short history of nearly everything" which was an excellent way of explaining science -discussing how they developed, the debates that raged, personalities involved etc.

    But if we are to take Biology at school to the level beyond "dogma" then we inevitably need to teach what ID is and evolution, and the implications of the different viewpoints. Of course that implies we must teach them philosophy as well (perhaps we should!). If we all had a grounding in skepticism before approaching science then teaching ID and Evolution concurrently may be possible.

    But as it stands I am happy people are taught evolution only at high school, so long as it is also noted that there is a debate, but that the debate lies outside the scope of the course -as it enters the realm of philosophy, religion (and inevitably politics), and to enter the debate requires a more advanced course of study (university level philosophy for instance).

    It does leave the poor theist a hard time to resolve this conflict without the tools to reason through it. As I said, it could lead to a rejection of science and acceptance of fundamentalism if not handled by schools correctly. The ground rules of teaching evolution need to be stated clearly to the students. Then both theist and atheist can learn what evolution is before later deciding on the implications.

  7. Oh, I actually agree with you on the issue of thinking vs. memorizing -- as you'll see if you read my old post on education.

    As a matter of principle, I would say that it is not the science teacher's job to reconcile the facts to her student's religious preconceptions. Her job is to teach the science. It's up to the Sunday School teacher to show how one's religious beliefs may be made consistent with known science.

    Unfortunately, the Sunday School teachers are evidently not pulling their weight here. So perhaps science teachers need to do it, for simple utilitarian reasons (if, as you suggest, the alternative is that religious students will simply reject science altogether otherwise).

  8. Would you be totally ineffective as a teacher if you had a class full of people kids who had religious reasons for doubting what you are saying and you didn't even take the time to offer ways that their religious beliefs and what you are saying are compatible? I could say the same thing about a Sunday School teacher - if he has a class full of students that accept modern science and they are going to disbelieve what you are saying since it seems incompatible with that science, he has a duty to address those issues of contention.

    It seems like the responsible thing to do as a teacher, in both cases, to address any points of contention between what you are teaching and what your students may already believe.

  9. That should start out as "Wouldn't you ..."

  10. Unfortunately most advocates of ID I have met are generally quite unsophisticated, their scientific understanding is a cherrypicked series of opinions from favoured authority figures that protect their comfort zone. I think most of ID does Christians a disservice because in many cases it is mixed in with tired old canards from the Discovery Institute.

    It's late; I am losing the thread.. I blogged this also..


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