Open Letter to Administrators of University Place School District

| 21 Comments

A creationist named Cowan who teaches science at the University Place School District in Washington state has written an essay that was published in the Christian Science Monitor. In part, it talks about how teaching the “controversy” regarding evolution is a stimulating pedagogy.

I wrote a letter to a few of the administrators of the high school at which Cowan works. I’ll show what I wrote on the flipside.

My name is Burt Humburg. I am a physician with an interest in religion and science issues. I have followed the anti-evolutionary creationism movement, including intelligent design creationism, for many years as a Christian and I wanted to inform you about an aspect of their tactics that I found reflected in one of your teachers’ comments in the Christian Science Monitor.

At first glance, teaching the evidence “against” a particular theory sounds like a reasonable pedagogical tool. After all, science is not a set of facts that, having memorized, one then knows. It’s best thought of as a process and, if students understand that legitimate controversies exist in science and how scientists go about solving them, so much the better. So why not exercise the students’ brain cells with evolution. Teach the controversy, they say. Or so the creationists would have you believe.

Any legitimate consideration of this argument must consider the following points.

First, why is evolution the only verified theory in science deserving of this kind of scrutiny. Does Mr. Cowan teach evidence against the germ theory of disease? Does he explore how the first carrier state (Typhoid Mary) would have disproved Koch’s postulates? Does he explore how the four-humor theory of disease might be the “best explanation to a problem” instead of microbes and that the Kochists should not “just defend [their] own position at all costs”? Mutatis mutandis for gravity, physics, and heliocentrism: the singling out of evolution is of concern.

Second, the legitimate areas of controversy in the scientific community are not of a sort to justify witholding one’s assent to evolution and the areas of “controversy” that Cowan does mention are long since solved conclusively in science. To the extent that one of your teachers discusses the “widely discredited evidence for Neo-Darwinism” to the end of making common descent seem less well-verified than it really is, then he misrepresents the very science he has been charged to teach.

To be specific, Haeckle’s drawings of embryos were known to be fakes years ago and Kenneth Miller’s textbook now uses pictures to illustrate the concepts instead. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wel[…]haeckel.html and http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/e[…]Haeckel.html

Piltdown man was exposed as a fraudulent attempt to make a missing link of a human ancestor by working paleontologists within 40 years of its original “discovery.” Since then, human palentology has advanced. Our problem today isn\’t that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/piltdown.html and http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/

That Mr. Cowan is advancing controversies last considered legitimate decades ago as the sort of thing that scientists argue about today is of concern.

Third, despite what Mr. Cowan says, he does appear to be criticizing evolution for the sake of criticism alone. For creationists, the purpose of criticizing evolution is to criticize evolution. If they can make evolution seem less well-verified than it really is, then they succeed in their goals. I have described this strategy more fully in an essay I posted at The Panda’s Thumb. http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/001047.html

Suffice it to say that a teacher in your school district who is charged to teach and represent science to your students and provide them with the basic understandings of the methods and conclusions of science they will require in our biotechnical world is gloating about how he offers intelligent design as an answer to “controversies” that few (or no) practicing biologists consider controversial. Notably, as the president’s science advisor has said, intelligent design is not science.

But rather than see correction from the superintendent, she simply considers it a freedom of speech issue. I wonder if her willingness to allow false statements to masquerade as legitimate controversies would extend to other fields as well. Presumably, a history teacher that was a holocaust revisionist might also be allowed to present his views, provided they were sufficiently “neutral” and provided the superintendent considered it a “free speech issue” as well.

Were I that superintendent, I would remind Mr. Cowan of his charge, which is not to be “legal,” or push the envelope, or advance his personal misgivings against evolution, or advance his personal affinities for intelligent design creationism. His charge is to provide students with an understanding of the methods and fundamental concepts of science.

In short, the superintendent of your district has asserted that he must remain neutral about evolution versus anti-evolution creationism. Given that the scientific community is not neutral on this issue, I would submit that the superintendent of your district has not appropriately guided Mr. Cowan in his duties.

And that is of concern as well.

BCH

21 Comments

I think a brief round of applause is suitable at this point. Excellent and evenhanded letter.

Yeah, real neutral bringing up ancient frauds like Piltdown. The trouble with these stupid creationists is that they think it was done to advance the theory of evolution (which wasn’t in question), rather than for individual gain and advancement. Sort of like Dembski, say.

I wonder if the dolt brings up the Jan Schon fraud in physics classes to discredit physics. It’s way more recent.

Our problem today isn’t that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links.

This phrase makes sense, but I can see how it could easily be mis-read as meaning “There are more missing links now than there were in the past.”

Glen Davidson Wrote:

I wonder if the dolt brings up the Jan Schon fraud in physics classes to discredit physics. It’s way more recent.

Oh my. I’ll need to call up our fab and tell them to stop making nanotech memories because it is based on a fraud. :-)

Our problem today isn’t that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links.

actually, i can see a quote miner like Dembski taking that word for word as meaning:

“scientists admit that there are “too many missing links” in the fossil record for darwinism to be correct. Just as we have been saying all along, there aren’t any transitional fossils (missing links) to make their case!”

Isn’t that ‘Senate addendum to The No Child Left Behind Act’ actually void? Why does he mention that?

Cowan Wrote:

And a June 2001Senate addendum to The No Child Left Behind Act states…

Same old same old.

Doug Cowen wrote:

There has always been controversy in science and tremendous opposition to those who challenge the orthodoxy of the day. An effective way to teach science is to explore some of these controversies.

I’m not sure how he is using the word “controversy.” He should not have used it in the context. More importantly, The Christian Science Monitor should not have published the Op-Ed. The word “controversy” is misleading. There is a “controversy” in the sense that a significant percentage of U.S. citizens don’t think evolution (cells to elephants) happened. But there is not a “controversy” among biologists. I suspect that, worldwide, literally 99% of all people with a doctorate in biology from an accredited university believe that self-replicating molecules evolved (through reproduction) into elephants. Finally, there is no “epistemic controversy.” That is, it is not as if evolution (cells to elephants) is no more plausible than not, or only a little more plausible than not. Some of the relevant data that has enabled scientists to determine that it is, at the least, overwhelmingly probable that self-replicating molecules evolved (through reproduction) into elephants is available at Talkorigins.org. I also recommend Ernst Mayr’s book What Evolution Is. It is for the general reader.

Now we are gaining a deeper understanding of the kinds of events that enabled cells to evolve into elephants. For instance, we are getting a better understanding of the kinds of events that cause organisms to have new mutations. But Cowen makes it look like common descent is no more plausible than not. And that is absurd. Moreover, it is clear that some organisms producing the number of offspring that they produced played a huge role in cells evolving into elephants.

Mr. Cowen wrote:

Teenagers, not surprisingly, find this approach exhilarating.

That is not grounds for teachers to teach students the way Mr. Cowen seems to be. Many teenagers would find exhilarating their teachers teaching them that some people may have been abducted by aliens. And clearly we shouldn’t do that.

Cowen’s teaching probably makes it seem to many of his students that it is no more plausible than not (or only a little more plausible than not) that cells evolved into elements. And that is wrong. He is doing his students a grave disservice.

I assume the author refers to the Santorum ammendment, which was crushed in committee (so it actually didn’t make it into the act), but somehow made it into an addendum commonly attached to publications of the act.

I wonder if the dolt brings up the Jan Schon fraud in physics classes to discredit physics. It’s way more recent.

Why don’t they teach chemistry students that element 118 of the Periodic Chart was simply an invention of Schon? Teach the controversy.

– Anti-spam: Replace “user” with “harlequin2”

Burt, it’s a good letter. The only part I would change is this sentence: “Our problem today isn’t that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links.” It could be misinterpreted. I like to refer to the phenomena in this way: “Nearly every known organism is very similar anatomically to at least one known organism that is older than it and relatively close in age to it. See, for instance, fish to amphibians and reptiles to mammals. Moreover, no known organism is significantly different anatomically than every known organisms that is older than it. For instance, there is no gorilla’s skull in the precambrian.”

Yes, a very good letter. Just to add two more cents:

The point of teaching the (so-called) controversy is to try and produce a generation of students who’ve been duped into thinking that “being open-minded” means refusing to accept evolutionary theory no matter how much evidence supports it. If you can’t indoctrinate ‘em into creationism, at least you can try and keep them from buying the alternative, under the guise of “maintaining an open mind.”

Didn’t Johnson have a book called Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds or something blatantly hypocritical like that?

Burt Humburg Wrote:

Notably, as the president’s science advisor has said, intelligent design is not science.

While we’re all adding 2c to an excellent letter, IDers will retort that the phony “critical analysis of evolution” strategy that Cowan obtained straight from the Discovery Institute is not the same as “teaching ID.” But as you know, it has all the misrepresentation tactics of ID and of pseudoscience in general. That alone, with or without the implication of a designer, is what the science advisor and every other critic of ID objects to as “not science.”

I wrote Christian Science Monitor to say that, generally, Mr. Cowan’s class sounds like a good place – but I am concerned that he does not appear to make a strong showing of the real evidence for evolution first; plus, his claim that the Santorum amendment is somehow an “addendum” is incorrect. Others have noted that in this forum already. I noted that Cowan’s mischaracterization of the failed Santorum amendment makes me hope his grasp of biology is much better than his grasp of law.

Santorum proposed the amendment in the Senate. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., opposed it on the wholly rational grounds, first, that such interference in curriculum by the federal government is not done by 200-year tradition, and now by law; and second, that the language was ringer language from creationists. There was a colloquy on the floor – that is, staffers drafted up a question-and-answer format script that had Kennedy and Santorum discussing the amendment, how current classroom and science practices already encourage full discussion, and ending with Santorum’s pulling the amendment down.

Santorum got the amendment mentioned in the Conference Report on the bill (the “No Child Left Behind Act”); from there DI minions and Santorum himself have argued against all legal precedents that mention in the conference report is as good as making it a law. It’s not, and Santorum’s office can’t produce any case to support the claim.

One of the more maddening things is the way Santorum violated the agreement he had with Kennedy – to the ire of Kennedy. Santorum has claimed publicly that Kennedy supported the language, and claimed implicitly that Kennedy supports teaching ID as an “alternative theory.” When I called my old friends in the Kennedy office in the summer of 2003, I got the then-press secretary Jim Manley. Manley was pretty hot about Santorum’s shuffle. Manley noted that Kennedy wanted the amendment out of the bill, and that’s what happened. Manley said Kennedy supported the colloquy only because it kept the language out of the bill. Had the amendment had support to stay in the bill, the bill would not be law today. Manley said Kennedy’s intent was to avoid letting creationists claim, as they did in Texas, that the Senate favored ID.

The Santorum amendment favoring ID is not law. The language of the conference report might be informative only if the law were so vague in that section that the Supreme Court had to go to the report to see what Congress intended, but it could not be “binding” in any way, even then. There will not be a court test of that section. The claim that the amendment is law is patently false; the claim that Santorum’s language has any bite is just so much helium without a balloon to hold it in.

Teach the facts first. Kids can’t make critical analysis of anything without the facts.

To comment on Ed Farrel’s remark: “I noted that Cowan’s mischaracterization of the failed Santorum amendment makes me hope his grasp of biology is much better than his grasp of law.”

Forget a cheaper labor pool of engineers, computer programmers, etc., overseas – what will really put the nail in the coffin of scientific education and advancement in this country will be the teaching of the non/pseudo-science of “intelligent design” (let’s not kid ourselves here,it’s really Creationism Lite) to impressionable young minds. Creationism, whether taught under the guise of “intelligent design” or not, belongs in a world religions social studies program, and has no more place being taught in a science classroom as a serious science than the teaching of spontaneous generation.

As someone who is concerned about the education and well-being of today’s youth/tomorrow’s adults, I find it deeply disturbing that a public school teacher thumbs his nose at the law to covertly (or possibly overtly) proselytize young public school students with his religious beliefs, in a public school classroom. What kind of example is Mr. Cowan showing them? That it’s OK to break the law, and dress up your own religious/political beliefs as science in a public school? Isn’t he the least bit concerned that by showing insensitivity to a diversity of religious/non-religious beliefs (including, yes, agnosticism and atheism) that one may well encounter in a public school, or in life, that it is OK to go out into the world and ride roughshod over other people’s faiths? Does Mr. Cowan really want to teach that as long as you are convinced that your beliefs are the only correct ones, and all others are wrong, it is OK to break the law to proselytize other people’s kids? We all see what this type of disrespect and disdain for those of other faiths leads to - whether in Guantanamo Bay (through the mishandling of “another faith’s – not ours” sacred texts); Abu Ghuraib (sp?); hateful graffiti and vandalism against communities of one religious minority or another, all the way to acts of terrorism and genocide.

Are these really the values Mr. Cowan and his fellow creationists wish to teach? Do parents seriously believe their son or daughter will get into a pre-med or med program at a prestigious university (connected to a hospital) if their child is fed that bunk?

“Are these really the values Mr. Cowan and his fellow creationists wish to teach?”

yup.

Longhorn Wrote:

The only part I would change is this sentence: “Our problem today isn’t that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links.” It could be misinterpreted.

I’m reading Longhorn’s comments a bit late. It’s a decent criticism, but that is what I wrote to the admins, so I’m not changing it, even though your points are very well taken.

BCH

Great letter from Humberg!

When I first saw the original op-ed, I was amazed at the level of message discipline the ID people have. Virtually every point in the letter was also advanced by Terri Leo in the Texas biology textbook adoption process, right down to the Darwin quote. It’s as though DI puts out talking points and gives them to local mouthpieces. Not sure what relevance it has to anything, but it seems disingenuous to me, all these local yokels saying the exact same thing each time.

It’s as though DI puts out talking points and gives them to local mouthpieces.

That is exactly what is happening.

A few weeks ago there was an allegedly 15 year old kid posting comments to this blog wherein he recited creationist scripts verbatim.

Really sad.

Mike, Re “Why don’t they teach chemistry students that element 118 of the Periodic Chart was simply an invention of Schon? Teach the controversy.”

You mean because the 1999 report of discovery of element 118 got retracted a couple years afterward?

Henry

When I first saw the original op-ed, I was amazed at the level of message discipline the ID people have. Virtually every point in the letter was also advanced by Terri Leo in the Texas biology textbook adoption process, right down to the Darwin quote. It’s as though DI puts out talking points and gives them to local mouthpieces. Not sure what relevance it has to anything, but it seems disingenuous to me, all these local yokels saying the exact same thing each time.

Like all fundies, they are too stupid to say anything original. The bets they can do is brainlessly parrot what their pastors at Discovery institute tell them.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Burt Humburg published on May 31, 2005 1:03 PM.

Privileged Planet: designed to help us understand the world? was the previous entry in this blog.

The burden of bearing a massive penis is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter