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. 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!

  3. 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".

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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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