Mathews at it again…

| 29 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post wrote a poorly considered article on why he thinks ID should be taught in schools. (As hard as it is to believe, his primary justification is that biology is boring.) I critiqued it here. Now he’s come out with another article dove-tailing on his previous one:

Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Me.

It’s one of those “I was wrong but I was really right” articles that pundits are so fond of when they get justifiably skewered for writing something dumb. Mathews reproduces portions of some well reasoned emails he received criticizing his prior article, and notes that he anticipated this reaction (biology teachers he consulted before hand told him the same thing), yet he went ahead and wrote it anyway. And check out his bizarre rationale.

I assumed that if the idea had any merit at all, it would only be in some future age, when our big-brained, metal-bodied descendants would celebrate my meager effort as an interesting example of early 21st century off-color humor. Or something like that.

Uh, what?

What concerns me most, however, is that Mathews notes that his views on the subject are for the most part “ill-informed”. This much is implied by the title. But not content with merely stating it, he has to go on and prove it. Here’s what he writes:

I was surprised to learn that unlike the Creationists, the Bible fundamentalists who accept Genesis literally, the Intelligent Design (ID) folks agree with Darwin that the story of life is hundreds of millions of years long, and that chimpanzees and humans share an ancestor a few million years back.

Mr. Mathews, please, please, please quit writing about subjects that you know nothing about. You do not understand the ID folks at all, and this is the main reason why your previous article came across as wildly naive. The ID people do not agree that life has been around for hundreds of millions of years (billions, actually). Some do, some don’t, and most are ambiguous. But the movement as a whole refuses to take a stand on the issue. Some serious scientists these guys are; they can’t even figure out if the Earth is 6000 years old or 4.5 billion years old, as if it somehow didn’t matter. When it comes to human and ape ancestry, the same thing applies, except that among leading ID advocates, hardly any of them accept common descent. (Only one comes immediately to mind, and that is Michael Behe.) Much of the material they produce is directly critical of shared ancestry. When it comes to humans being related to apes, you’re hitting really close to home with those who have religious objections to evolution, which is of course what the ID movement is all about – a simple fact that Mathews hasn’t yet grasped. Even among that tiny handful who may be okay with the notion of shared ancestry, shouting it too loud would alienate the large mass of creationists who they depend on for political success. And if there’s one lesson to be learned from the tactical ambiguity displayed by the ID movement, it’s that politics is far more important to them than science.

If only Mathews could understand this last point, perhaps he’d finally know why sensible people have voiced such clear objections to his poorly thought-out plan.

29 Comments

Off topic, but it might be worth noting that Lee Stroebel’s show “Faith Under Fire” is featuring the following Saturday evening (9PM Central time–coastals, work it out for yourselves):

Teaching Evolution For generations of students, evolution has been taught as scientific fact. Yet there are scientists who doubt Darwin’s theory and believe that intelligent design better explains the origins of life. How can this be? And should intelligent design be taught in the same science courses as evolution? Dr. John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and associate director of their Center for Science and Culture, squares off with Rev. Barry Lynn, practicing attorney, ordained minister, and Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

I checked to see what Dr. West is doctor of. It’s not biology. On the other hand, Rev. Lynn is no bioligist either. So I’m pretty sure this discussion will miss the point, but nevertheless, let’s just see what the man who brought us “Case for the Creator” has to say on his show, shall we?

*sigh* I’d give up on this guy. For all the emails he received, I note he made absolutely no mention of The Wedge document which I (and I’m sure many others) pointed out. I was very specific of the URL and of Dr. Forrest’s claim that it is a valid document.

Of course, pointing out The Wedge to any who’ve written on ID without knowing about it is just the worst-case of “Emperor Has No Clothes”. They can’t acknowledge to themselves or the public that by writing a harmless “teach the controversy” editorial, they’ve played right into the manipulations that the Wedge enactors are trying to achieve.

So instead they deny it as if it really was just their idea and all the subtle pressure from the ID media machinery didn’t affect them at all.

” I note he made absolutely no mention of The Wedge document which I (and I’m sure many others) pointed out. “ I know I did - complete with copious quotes in case he was too busy to type in the URL …

His point - that we could make science more exciting - isn’t totally unfounded, though. I don’t know a great deal about secondary ed, but I would think that one could find some fairly lackluster hs bio classes that don’t really involve effective teaching strategies. (True of every kind of class, of course …)

My suggestion (which I did state in my email) for making the evolution section of biology was to incorporate Animal Planet’s “The Future Is Wild”. See some of the program, then have the students recap the assumptions made by the producers, discuss why they might not be valid and what alternative futures might be possible.

Also more particularly discuss why “man” had to be removed from the equation, pointing out the power of artificial selection as both a cause of extinctions and a factor in creating new species (mostly in the lab and breeding experiments) and limiting the potential for new species (by killing organisms that seem dangeriously too different from what we expect or can live with).

They should recognize that programs like that are speculative fiction, but at least in being speculative they demonstrate that Evolutionary Theory can be predictive in that at least one can MAKE predictions, especially when compared to the “God did it and we can’t know when he’ll do it again because it only happens by His will” of the IDC mindset.

For a biology class to be exciting, the teacher needs to be enthusiastic. If there is pressure to teach science improperly (avoid teaching evolution, or diminish its value), the enthusiasm will inevitably drop.

Another issue is the money that goes into public education, especially under republican governers in some states (Indiana, for example). If the field trips are cut out of a biology class, that takes out a huge chunk of inspiration to learn about life. You cannot learn about life just by reading a textbook and browsing the internet.

Let’s not even mention the outdated or missing lab materials. Biology teachers need more moral support than ever, to be these perky, enthusiastic people despite all the obstacles that are being placed in front of them by single-minded politics.

Katarina, Many feel your pain right now. Here in North Carolina the assembly is figuring out how to cut 750mil from the education budget. Sincerely, Paul

“Another issue is the money that goes into public education, especially under republican governers in some states (Indiana, for example). If the field trips are cut out of a biology class, that takes out a huge chunk of inspiration to learn about life. You cannot learn about life just by reading a textbook and browsing the internet”

where i grew up, the gradual loss of field trip adventures in the public school system was due to budget cuts combined with increased (WAY increased) liability expenses. same where you are?

cheers

Paul, it’s things like that which remind me that there’s a lot more to North Cackilacky than my secular, educated fellows in The Triangle.

Yeah Steve, What is the first thing to do in a state with a teacher shortage? Why lay off the teachers. Do they really think we miss the logic? Paul

It seems to me that a number of people who refer to themselves as proponents of “intelligent design” have yet to come out with a position on the age of the universe and earth. And many – if not all – are hard to pin down on the issue of common descent.

Moreover, many people who refer to themselves as proponents of “intelligent design” have not offered any clear claims about what they think happened – about which event(s) they think the designer caused. A lot of them just say, or suggest, that evolution didn’t happen. But I haven’t seen any of them indicate what beliefs they hold that are logically inconsistent with what most scientists call “evolution.”

I’m not asking for the identity of the designer(s). And I don’t even care about what powers or technology the designer used. I just want to know which event(s) on planet earth over the last 3.8 billion years the designer caused. Did the designer turn dust – poof! – directly into two elephants (one male and one female)? Did the designer specially intervene and turn inert matter into the first self-replicating cell on earth? Did the designer specially intervene and cause the existence of the first bacterial flagellum?

This is the closest I’ve seen to a claim about what the designer did:

On one ore more occasions over the last 3.8 billion years, a designer specially intervened on planet earth and caused some organisms to live and/or reproduce, but I’m not going to say anything more about it. Period.

Do I know for certain that the above claim is false? I don’t think so. The claim is too vague for me to know that it is false. But a deity or extraterrestrial did not turn inert matter – poof! – directly into the first two organisms to live on earth that are anatomically very similar to me. Those organisms were born in the same way that I was born. Maybe someone will reject to my expression of certainty. Okay. Fine. I’m really really really confident that those organisms were born in the same way that I was born.

I posted:

This is the closest I’ve seen to a claim about what the designer did:

On one ore more occasions over the last 3.8 billion years, a designer specially intervened on planet earth and caused some organisms to live and/or reproduce, but I’m not going to say anything more about it.  Period.

That claim I offered. I’m justified in belieiving that the claim is not true, right? I think so, though I can’t elaborate more right now. But it is hard to know what to do with such vague claims. If someone has a claim about what the designer did vis-a-vis the organisms on earth that is incompatible with evolution, let me know.

I understand why Jay Mathews is concerned about science teaching being boring if teachers are effectively turning science classes into rote memory exercises, but introducing false controversy isn’t a good way to help matters.

There are genuine scientific disagreements and controversies that could be used to show that science is about people as well as about lists of facts; there’s no need to introduce controversies that aren’t scientific at all except in the claims made for them. The argument between Alfred Wegener and the scientific establishment was a genuine scientific controversy; the argument between the Discovery Institute and the scientific establishment is not. If Jay Mathews really can’t see the difference, he needs to do more in-depth research.

If biology teachers are made to teach this stuff as though it were a genuine scientific option, the good teachers are going to get discouraged and are more likely to leave the profession - and without good teachers, classes are going to be more, not less, boring. In anything other than the immediate short term, teaching intelligent design as anything other than an ideological attack on science will be counterproductive in terms of making science classes interesting.

Moreover, many people who refer to themselves as proponents of “intelligent design” have not offered any clear claims about what they think happened — about which event(s) they think the designer caused. A lot of them just say, or suggest, that evolution didn’t happen. But I haven’t seen any of them indicate what beliefs they hold that are logically inconsistent with what most scientists call “evolution.”

That’s because they don’t have a scientific theory. Just cheap arguments for why evolution can’t work.

ID is not a science. On one level, it’s a mechanism by which some devout people are trying to get around the prohibition against teaching the bible in science class. On another level, it’s a way for a few city slickers with academic degrees to extract checks from devout country folk, so to speak. At some point in a few years, when cases like Dover start losing, the money will dry up and the ID “theorists” will have to get new jobs.

I wonder if at that point the faithful will realize they were taken for a ride, sold tapes and books and lectures, talked into paying for grants and per diems and plane tickets, by some con men? I bet they don’t, that the conmen complain about dang activist judges, and liberal atheists, and sneak off stage left.

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to ScfP I was one of those four hundred and actually got a nice reply from Mathews.

The issue of letting open discussion into the classroom is beyond reproach, but the problem is that evolution/ID was never about opening minds, on any side of the aisle. Education is a means to kidnap the minds of small children and fix them Jesuit style as young as possible. The current ‘debate’ is between the two candidates with large enough market share to be in the Ad Wars at all. None other need apply. If open discussion is wanted, why not introduce Buddhist thought as an introduction to the evolutionary psychologies of the ancient yogas (hopefully without_ their_ propaganda. Why not introduce the history of Higher Criticism, on the one hand, and the _secular_ history of Darwin criticism (which the ID people mostly ripped off, starting with Denton’s Evolution: A theory in Crisis). They could even introduce Spinoza, as a way to mediate current confused ideas about divinity, and bring a materialist touch to God talk. Top that off with Hegel’s version of what he ripped off from Spinoza. Hegel by the way resembles Dembski. How? Threatened by the austere strictures of Kant against rational theology, a way had to be found to counterattack and put Protestantism back in the picture with an Absolute Science that would do to Newton what Dembski wants to do with Darwin. But then again, fairness would at this point require bringing that dreadful anti-hegelian, Karl Marx. He should go over well in Ann Coulter territory.

So let’s be fair. You know, if biologists were actually open they would have brought some secular Darwin critiques into biology quite a while ago. A book like Wesson’s Beyond Natural Selection, or the Wistar institute symposium, or Koestler, or Lovtrup, or Robert Reid. Failure to present a self-critique has handed the football to the religious right wing, who most certainly don’t have any intention of granting anyone else any objectivity.

In fact Darwinian biology is unique in making intelligent students completely stupid about evolution. Parrots with high IQ. There is still time and plenty of opportunity to remedy this situation and fight off the ID assault, but that would require intelligent self-critique, and the paradigm is now too woefully hegemonic for that.

to John Landon

I think that is a nice recommendation, but I am not quite sure if high school biology is the right place for a full blown philosophical excourse. In school I was always aware that I was not getting the full picture of the topics but what is there to expect, with music or sports given the same time as math or biology? It was always clear that only the basics can be taught and only a little of that. And why single out biology? Why not the same treatment for all topics? I am sure, students would love to spend their time arguing pros and cons instead of learning.

And by the way, could you explain the impact Hegelian philosophy had on Newtonian physics? Somewhere I read the expression “Physics Envy”. It fits.

Landon, are you serious, or just spoofing something or other? I could’ve sworn you were just presenting a reductio ad absurdum, but that Darwinian … parrots bit makes it sound like you believe this silliness.

Are you proposing we discuss Spinoza, Hegel and Kant in 9th grade biology classes? You don’t know much about education, do you?

“Education is a means to kidnap the minds of small children and fix them Jesuit style as young as possible. The current ‘debate’ is between the two candidates with large enough market share to be in the Ad Wars at all. None other need apply.” Forgive me, Sir, I see you are an expert. Such breath-taking postmodern cynicism makes my little heart go pitter-patter. Please, be gentle, or I shall surely swoon … What say you about biologists?

“You know, if biologists were actually open they would have brought some secular Darwin critiques into biology quite a while ago . … Failure to present a self-critique has handed the football to the religious right wing.”

You don’t actually *know* much about biology, do you? Perhaps quite a lot about philosophy, and of the image of biology as viewed through that lens, but the thing itself? No. And to imagine that any sort of self-critique could have stopped the anti-evolutionists from grabbing the ball? *Snort*.

What a waste of time.

“The current ‘debate’ is between the two candidates with large enough market share to be in the Ad Wars at all. None other need apply.”

The current “debate” is akin to an imaginary “debate” between the teaching of classical philosophy on one side (not so much debating as simply carrying on with what they’ve been doing), and the exciting new idea that the philosophers were really space aliens whose attempts to instruct mankind in extraterrestial science were strikingly misunderstood.

John Landon Wrote:

In fact Darwinian biology is unique in making intelligent students completely stupid about evolution. Parrots with high IQ. There is still time and plenty of opportunity to remedy this situation and fight off the ID assault, but that would require intelligent self-critique, and the paradigm is now too woefully hegemonic for that.

Talk about a false premise–Darwinian evolution makes intelligent students completely stupid about evolution?? What other type of evolution do you propose? Another false assumption is that there is no “intelligent self-critique” in biology, or science in general. Hegemony and the establishment of a paradigm do not imply prejudice or jealous territorialism, as you suggest. If the best idea is recognized as the best idea, hegemony is a product of that, not the reason for it. Let the IDers propose a cogent theory, then let’s talk.

John Landon Wrote:

In fact Darwinian biology is unique in making intelligent students completely stupid about evolution. Parrots with high IQ. There is still time and plenty of opportunity to remedy this situation and fight off the ID assault, but that would require intelligent self-critique, and the paradigm is now too woefully hegemonic for that.

Talk about a false premise–Darwinian biology makes intelligent students stupid about evolution?? What other type of evolution do you propose, particularly in view of the fact that some of the most prominent IDers (Behe, e.g.) don’t deny evolution at all? The establishment of a paradigm and ensuing hegemony don’t suggest, as you seem to believe, prejudice on the part of science. Hegemony is the result of the existence of a sentient theory, not the cause of it.

John Landon wrote:

The issue of letting open discussion into the classroom is beyond reproach, but the problem is that evolution/ID was never about opening minds, on any side of the aisle.

So, John, do you also propose that we “teach the controversy” with regard to economics? I mean, communism is still alive. And in the Western Hemisphere, the nation with the lowest infant mortality and highest literacy is Cuba. The evidence is that it works – except for those dogmatists who refuse to allow it in the classroom.

Why not teach the controversy with regard to economics? The lives of millions of babies hang in the balance, the educational achievement of the nation hangs fire …

How about we teach the controversy with regard to reading? Shouldn’t kids be taught that phonics has serious philosophical errors, and that “whole word” reading is being kept out of the academy by materialist reading teachers? We will have to teach that in kindergarten, though, before the kids become indoctrinated in one reading system or another.

How about we teach the controversy with regard to history, too? Isn’t there a good case to be made that America’s “advances” were all based on racially oppressive actions? Dennis Means has an alternative textbook for history classes – it’s kept out of the classroom by materialist educators …[/satire]

A mind must be educated before it can be opened. A doorway must be cut in the wall before a door can be installed. A baseline of real, accurate information is necessary if insanity or disaster is not to follow.

Intelligent design is dumbing down of the curriculum, pure and simple. No, we shouldn’t be open to sabotage of education. That would be not intelligent.

So, John, do you also propose that we “teach the controversy” with regard to economics? I mean, communism is still alive. And in the Western Hemisphere, the nation with the lowest infant mortality and highest literacy is Cuba. The evidence is that it works — except for those dogmatists who refuse to allow it in the classroom.

Is knowledge of how a centralized, command economy operates, being withheld from public school classrooms? That’s news to me.

I emailed Mathews pointing out that the ID folks do not accept and old Earth and shared ancestry. He replied and said that the people he spoke with at the Disovery Institute said that they do. I don’t know whether he was lied to or he misunderstood what they were telling him. (And I’m not holding my breath on him replying to my latest, in which I pointed to several leading ID advocates who are against common descent.) There’s also the possibility that the whole ID movement, including YEC Paul Nelson, have suddenly had a change of heart and decided to accept common descent, but that seems rather unlikely.

I think Mathews was taken for a ride, and is unwilling to realize it.

Thanks for comments. My statement about the effect of Hegel on Newtonian physics, while seriously intended, was misleading. This is a two hundred year old joke which requires at least 48 hours archival research into the Romantic movement. The point was Hegel’s gothic claims for Absolute Science as a challenge to Newton. Hegel pioneered the kind of tactics visible in the Dembski-ites, sophisticated crypto-theology that would bowl over secular sophisticates.

“I think Mathews was taken for a ride, and is unwilling to realize it.”

IDC - the three card monte of the scientific world.

Alternately, it’s some sort of metaphorical virus or parasite, and a very clever one, too, trying to fool the immune system (the Supreme Court, etc.) by appearing like part of the organism (quasi-scientific material) …

I don’t know what to make of his new article. He was talking of some far-future hypothetical time? Let’s assume he was naive enough not to realize this was a very current, very live controversy, and that he was using a chunk of Washington Post real estate to broadcast pro-IDC ideas.

Carrier. We have to figure out how to deal with all these memetic typhoid marys. It’s strangely difficult to convince them they’re being used as a stage in the life cycle of a icky intellectual parasite …to mix metaphors, anyway . .

Steve Reuland Wrote:

I emailed Mathews pointing out that the ID folks do not accept and old Earth and shared ancestry. He replied and said that the people he spoke with at the Discovery Institute said that they do.

Steve, in your opening post you said that the ID folks (I assume you mean the major ID promoters) do not agree on an old Earth and shared ancestry. And your later statements made it clear that they disagreed among themselves, and not just in unison toward mainstream science. I agree with that, but not with the way you state it above. As I often say, one can never know for sure either way what someone else believes in private. If IDers at least tested their ideas, maybe we could use the word “accept,” if not necessarily “believe.” But since they avoid testing them, we can’t even say what they “accept” in the same way that we say that evolutionary biologists accept evolution.

What we can know for sure, however, is what they lead the audience to conclude. And there it seems that the early (1990s) ID arguments average out to “probably old Earth and maybe shared ancestry,” and the more recent ones average out to “maybe old Earth and probably not shared ancestry.” So the general trend of the “mean promoted position” is away from the mainstream science position, and toward YEC. If there is sudden reversal in their strategy, as you consider and dismiss, we’ll know it soon enough. But that too may have no bearing on what they conclude in private. Nevertheless, the only ID position ever stated in any (albeit minute) detail, to my knowledge, is one of old Earth shared ancestry. So, if that’s what Mathews means, I have to agree with him on that point, even though I still firmly disagree with his defense of teaching pseudoscience.

Granted, there’s always the chance that “the people he spoke with,” at the DI admitted their personal conclusions in confidence to a supporter who admitted accepting evolution, but that too seems unlikely.

I’m afraid I don’t follow you here. What all leading ID advocates seem to agree on is that ID is about “detecting design”, and that’s it. All of them do their best to pretend as if the age of the Earth and shared ancestry (when not arguing against it) is not relevant to “detecting design”. This is how they rationalize the Big Tent.

There is no “ID position” beyond that. There is no articulated theory of how “design” came about within an old-Earth, shared ancestry framework. (Aside from wild speculations about front-loaded super-bacteria, which no one in the ID camp appears to take seriously.) So I don’t know what you mean when you say that old-Earth, shared ancestry is the only ID position that has been “stated in detail”. YEC has been stated in far more detail than any shared ancestry version of ID has ever been, and since the ID folks make it clear that YEC fits within the sphere of ID (even if they’re reluctant to say so publically), that makes YEC the most detailed version of ID going.

BTW, I made it quite clear what I was talking about to Mathews, even giving him lots of examples. His terse reply to me wasn’t that clear, nor did he see fit to clarify it further after I asked him to.

Steve Reuland Wrote:

So I don’t know what you mean when you say that old-Earth, shared ancestry is the only ID position that has been “stated in detail”.

As usual I meant Behe’s position, and I made sure to say minute detail. To be clear, I totally agree that after Behe’s brief statements, there has been almost total evasion by all IDers, including Behe.

Not to sound like a broken record, but what the major IDers (1) accept in private (my guess is evolution, as I find it hard to think that anyone can repeat so many misleading arguments without knowing that they are misleading), (2) what they allow the audience to infer, and (3) what they can be pinned down on, are 3 separate things. And I think that it’s better to exploit this instead of having an ID-friendly public think that IDers always honestly believe what the audience infers, or what some critics charge.

I’m not sure where Mathews falls in the continuum from the scammed to the scammers, but I’m losing faith in the former.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on April 8, 2005 4:16 PM.

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