Teach the Controversy?

The Intelligent Design movement’s clarion call for “teach the controversy” is a very clever strategy; it’s the sort of thing that strikes otherwise bright and sensible people who aren’t creationists as agreeable. It sounds like a good idea as long as you don’t ask yourself the following questions: 1) Is ID legitimate science? 2) Are the ID movement’s criticisms of evolution scientifically valid? 3) What are they trying to achieve by altering science curricula? Given that the answers to these questions are “No”, “No”, and “To advance a religious agenda”, respectively, “teach the controversy” seems upon further analysis to be lousy educational policy. But to the uninitiated, “teach the controversy” appeals to notions of fairness, and moreover, the very wording of the talking point itself implies that there is actually a controversy to teach.

A couple of recent articles explore each of these issues and shed light on why this strategy is bogus. The first one by Stanley Fish recounts the history of “teach the controversy” when it existed as a sensible means for resolving genuine controversies within academia. The ID movement didn’t actually invent this idea (it’s an odd fact that none of their ideas appear to be original) but rather “picked the pocket” of one Gerald Graff, who came up with the notion some 20 years ago concerning wholly unrelated things. The second article by Bob Camp tries to ascertain the extent to which there actually exists a controversy among biologists.

In the first article, Fish points out that the whole “teach the controversy” strategy is used by the ID movement in a rather cynical manner to obscure the contentious aspect of their plans by way of changing the subject:

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of intelligent design – away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” – and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. […] One needn’t believe in this line of argument in order to employ it; it is purely a matter of tactics. Phillip Johnson, a leading intelligent design advocate, is quite forthright about this. “I’m no postmodernist,” he declares in a 1996 interview with the sociologist Amy Binder, but “I’ve learned a lot” from reading them. He says he’s learned how to talk about “hidden assumptions” and “power relationships”, and how to use those concepts to cast doubt on the authority of science educators and other purveyors of the reigning orthodoxy.

And of course, Fish points out that for the reactionary fringe to borrow such a liberal idea is hardly new. There is another movement afoot that would like to um, wedge its way into academia as well:

Intelligent designers are not the first denizens of the right to borrow arguments and strategies from the liberal and postmodern left. In the early 1990s, the Holocaust denier Bradley Smith was able to place an ad – actually an essay – in college student newspapers in part because he presented his ideas under the heading “The Holocaust Controversy: The Case for Open Debate”. Not the case for why there was no campaign to exterminate the Jews, or for why the Nazis were innocent of genocidal thoughts, or for why Holocaust-promoting Jews are just trying to drum up “financial support for Jewish causes” – though all these things were asserted in the body of the ad – but the case for open debate, and how could anyone; especially an academic, be against that?

ID advocates tend to bristle at this comparison. But as Fish points out, the equivalency here is not moral, it is intellectual. The arguments provided by the ID movement for teaching the “controversy” over evolution, and hence to gain a platform for their views, could be just as easily used to teach any brand of nonsense, no matter how bizarre or discredited. All you need to do is make an impassioned plea that a controversy exists, find a handful of PhDs who side with you (and the Holocaust deniers have that), and according to the ID movement, fairness demands that the ideas be taught in public schools. But of course that assumes a degree of internal consistency that ID advocates are not exactly known for.

Fish’s article is so good and thorough that you need to read the whole thing. But I can’t resist quoting one last part:

In the guise of upping the stakes, intelligent designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proved out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices – relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorisers.

The invocation of soft-minded relativism is quite ironic for people whose worldview is authoritarian and absolute. If there’s one thing that I would add to Fish’s article, it’s that not only is “teach the controversy” merely a convenient political ploy, it is in many ways diametrically opposed to the core belief system of the ID movement. The lack of sincerity of this approach is apparent when one considers that the ID movement began largely as a compromise between young-Earth and old-Earth creationists, people who previously attacked each other bitterly over what for them were issues of Biblical interpretation that could not be compromised. The ID movement’s answer to this schism was not to “teach the controversy”, it was to bury the controversy, to never talk about it in a way that could threaten their alliance against hated evolution. These people represent the most reactionary elements of society whose entire purpose is to suppress those things they perceive as controversial – even frivolous things like cross-dressing. And yet they try to sell their ideas by appealing to very liberal virtues they hate.

But what of this “controversy” anyway? Those of us in biology and related fields are well aware that there is no controversy over the basics of evolution, and among the ID movement’s litany of criticisms, the only valid one they have is that we still don’t know everything – a trivial fact that doesn’t justify tinkering with science curricula. But the IDists still keep insisting on what the rest of us know to be false: That there exists a strong minority who doubt the basics of evolution, or who favor ID. And that brings us to our second article. Bob Camp of CSICOP decided to put this claim to the test by asking the heads of biology departments at major research universities whether or not there’s a scientific controversy over evolution within their departments. What he found should come as no surprise. Of the 73 responses he got back, only one (1) agreed that there existed a controversy. One additional respondent gave an ambiguous answer. The other 71 were quite clear that there was no controversy within their departments; that whatever controversy might exist out in society at large, it doesn’t exist among the professional scientists that they work with on a daily basis. If one doubts that this is what the respondents meant, simply read the article and see what some of them had to say. The comments range from mundane disapproval of ID to crushing oh snap! take-downs. As for the one who responded in the affirmative, Camp doesn’t tell us who the person is or what university he or she resides at, but he does mention that the school is a “theological medical university” that is “dedicated to an ideological view of the world”.

There is indeed a controversy within many conservative religious institutions regarding evolution, a split between those who find evolution to be compatible with their faith and those who don’t. There are a large number of religious conservatives, many of whom would describe themselves as evangelical, who do not have a problem with evolution. I think one might learn a thing or two about contemporary American Christianity by exploring this issue more in depth. But this is not a controversy the ID movement wants taught.

Update: Bob Camp also has the article at his blog with some additional material and commentary.