Teach the Controversy?

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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.

19 Comments

Dembski Wrote:

“The clarion call of the intelligent design movement is to “teach the controversy.”

Being something of an amateur logophile, I was intrigued by Dembski’s use of the word “clarion”. Without knowing the exact history of the word, it conjures up “clarity” (obviously), and the notion of a call to arms.

So I looked it up in good ol’ Merriam-Webster, and note that indeed the definition of the adjective, clarion, is: “brilliantly clear; loud and clear”. Interestingly, though, it comes to us via the noun, clarion: “a medieval trumpet with clear shrill tones”

The links between ID and postmodernism are interesting. The original title of Phil Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial” was “Deconstructing Darwin”, or so I’m told.

Many right-wing creationists might be less enthusiastic about ID if they were more aware of the relativism that it embraces. However, that’s probably a weak weapon against ID at best. A bigger problem that ID has, in the eyes of most of its potential supporters, is that it’s not openly talking about Christ. I think that’s why most anti-evolutionists remain old-style creationists, rather than supporters of ID: because its chilly intellectualism doesn’t rouse their emotional sympathies.

The really clever part of teach the controversy or teach the criticism is that ID lacking an actual theory is composed of nothing but criticism, thus it’s not even that teach the controversy opens the door to ID, it flat out IS ID

Russell Wrote:

So I looked it up in good ol’ Merriam-Webster, and note that indeed the definition of the adjective, clarion, is: “brilliantly clear; loud and clear”. Interestingly, though, it comes to us via the noun, clarion: “a medieval trumpet with clear shrill tones”

The term definitely has religious overtones (just google it). But the etiology is pretty funny.

What secular liberals fear, however, is that in many classrooms the scientific truth would be overwhelmed by dogma and prejudice.

Behind such fear — and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate — one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating “values” with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.

Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists — maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.

I’m all for teaching the controversy as long as there are lesson plans that are available to teachers. If ten or twenty teachers in heavy bible belt areas use the chance to push their brand of creationism nothing is really lost. Parents who know better can immunize their kids with knowledge and parents who don’t wouldn’t try anyway. The rest of the country would be getting a good insight into how money and pr works in politics. Also, might give a good chance for a legal smack depending.

Here’s an odd opinion piece in The Minnesota Daily: Faith’s place in science and seeing the good of both sides After saying some stupid things that indicate her lack of knowledge about evolution (speciation not observed), Shannon McMartin hits the “teach both sides” message:

The purpose of education is to teach people how to think for themselves, not to indoctrinate them with whatever ideas the teacher deems to be “truth.” To deny either theory is to limit ourselves to the rhetoric and paranoia of the status quo. Teach both — let the students weigh the facts and make up their own minds.

Are we supposed to pretend that Kitzmiller v. Dover never happened? You won’t find the least glimmer of it in this clueless piece.

Another opinion piece, in the Badger Herald (Did the DI issue a directive for all its field operatives to write their student papers?) by Joelle Parks: Public schools need open debate on intelligent design “Open Debate” - another variation on the theme.

Just pick: Pro-evolution or intelligent design. For some, the answer may be a clear-cut decision for one or the other. For others, the choice may be a bit more complicated. It may be because of religion or other influencing factors, but this choice, in the U.S., at least, will never be a unanimous one because of one dominating staple of American life: freedom of choice. … Students should have the opportunity to explore and decide for themselves which view to take, and nothing, not even the law, should be able to take that away from them. … There are many Christian groups that have expressed opposition to the bill, but there are others who have put their opposition into action. William Dembski, one of the leading supporters of intelligent design, is offering a $1,000 award to the first teacher in Wisconsin who would challenge the policy by teaching intelligent design as science within a public school curriculum. … It started with no prayer in public schools and has led to a ban on teaching intelligent design in public schools.

Once again, no mention of Kitzmiller v. Dover, although she seems to have discarded the “ID is not religion” lie. She doesn’t seem to have a clue about separation of church & state though.

BWE–

That quote you reproduced didn’t come from either of the articles I talked about, but instead came from an earlier article by Gerald Graff (the one where he complains about his pocket being picked). I almost didn’t include that link because I was afraid that it would distract from the two articles I was talking about.

Graff does indeed give a kind of half-hearted support for “teach the controversy”, as long as it’s done right. Which is to say, not how the IDists would want it done. The problem with his idea is not in its intentions, which are pure enough, but with its application. Here’s how he describes it:

How might such a debate be taught? Ideally in a way that would not become fixated on the clash of faith and science, which might quickly produce an unedifying stalemate, but would open out into broader matters such as the history of conflicts between science and religion and the question of how we determine when something qualifies as “science.” At the broadest level, the discussion could address whether the ID-evolution debate is a smoke screen for the larger political and cultural conflict between Red and Blue states. Representing such a many-sided debate would demand the collaboration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, a collaboration that could make a now disconnected curriculum more coherent.

Everytime you see someone make a sincere proposal for how to “teach the controversy” in a justifiable way, it sounds like they’re describing an upper-level college philosophy class, one which spans a whole semester and incorporates an interdisciplinary approach with professors from two or three different departments. I say, go right ahead and include a course like that in college level philosophy or social science curricula. It is an appropriate and potentially valuable course.

But that’s not what the IDists are pushing for. They are aiming their efforts at public schools, where the students are adolescents who have no choice but to attend. Consider the following:

1. Evolution is frequently not taught at all in public schools thanks to teachers who are uncomfortable teaching it and creationist intimidation. When it is taught, it there is no more than one or two weeks (about 3-6 hours of class time) spent on the subject.

2. Most public school teachers do not have a science degree. They have an educational degree. And their jobs are pretty hard as it is.

3. Lots of highschool students are extremely bright people. Others can barely read. Educational policy, for better or worse, has to cover all of these students.

The idea that we’re going to introduce some interdisciplinary course in public schools with experts from various fields is insane. And it wouldn’t be appropriate even if it were feasible. People like Graff let their academic sensibilities get the better of them sometimes, and forget that down in the trenches public schools, things are must different than they are at the college level.

Well put, Steve. That’s a good, concise explanation of how high school is a very different environment from college, in the context of teaching controversies (real or imagined).

Getting deep down into the controversies in scientific theories is something that needs to take place in college, because it’s there that students have the extensive background knowledge they need to understand the theories and hypotheses. It’s in high school that you learn the basics, and then only some of them. The only reason to go after evolution in high school is to get at the students before they fully understand the issues–that is, when they’re especially vulnerable to simplistic ideas that sound good on the surface but don’t stand up to close scrutiny.

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.

Now that’s a controversy that SHOULD be taught, in comparative-religion, history and/or social-studies classes.

I’m curious; I just visited the “list” on the DI site, which has grown to 500. The statement they were agreeing to doesn’t necessarily mean they think that ID has scientific merit; in fact, the statement could be read one of several ways. Has anyone asked to have their name removed? Has anyone asked biologists on the list to clarify what they feel are the issues here?

I’m curious; I just visited the “list” on the DI site, which has grown to 500. The statement they were agreeing to doesn’t necessarily mean they think that ID has scientific merit; in fact, the statement could be read one of several ways. Has anyone asked to have their name removed? Has anyone asked biologists on the list to clarify what they feel are the issues here?

That was discussed here very recently. In short, yes and yes. And to add to that, some signers have explicitly stated that they do not endorse IDC.

Getting deep down into the controversies in scientific theories is something that needs to take place in college, because it’s there that students have the extensive background knowledge they need to understand the theories and hypotheses. It’s in high school that you learn the basics, and then only some of them. The only reason to go after evolution in high school is to get at the students before they fully understand the issues—that is, when they’re especially vulnerable to simplistic ideas that sound good on the surface but don’t stand up to close scrutiny.

They also go for high school because you can find some dingbat teachers who will promote creationism. If they try to order a bunch of biology Ph.D’s at the nearby university to promote creationism, the biologists will make the politicians look like idiots, Ghost of Paley vs Martin Brazeau style.

Thanks, and sorry I didn’t find that without having to ask! Sometimes I get very behind on reading PT. Guess I shouldn’t complain about being gainfully employed, but teaching high school leaves little time for other stuff.

Teach both — let the students weigh the facts and make up their own minds.

This would be fantastic, if the students were actually taught facts. The hoax that is ID would then be exposed, but as Steve has pointed out above, college might work that way, but schools often don’t.

Manufacturing a controversy where one doesn’t exist is a very popular ploy for getting attention. Recently I saw an ad in a newspaper (in Tennessee) from the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy where they implied that the confederate flag was in danger of being banned. They used this rubbish to drum up membership.

Steve Reuland wrote

2. Most public school teachers do not have a science degree. They have an educational degree. And their jobs are pretty hard as it is.

That’s what made the infiltration of creationist trash into the Ohio model curriculum so dangerous. Many of those teachers don’t have the background necessary to know it’s trash science, and don’t have the independent resources or time to put together their own detailed lesson plans, so they use the material that the state provides. It’s a surefire way for the ID creationists to wedge their crap science into public schools under the Orwellian banner of “teach the controversy” and “critical analysis of evolution”.

RBH

Steve Reuland wrote:

“2. Most public school teachers do not have a science degree. They have an educational degree. And their jobs are pretty hard as it is.”

This is not quite correct. Almost all states require at least a science major major to teach science at the secondary level. Many do cut corners where enforcing this is concerned but the No Child Left Behind Act will bring such violations to an end very soon.

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Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists — maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct.

It’s a waste of time. We get 176 instructional days of school. Many of them are taken up with over-head or class-room parties and other non-learning events as it is. Then we have the course/learning requirements of the (typically) one biology course most of these HS will take. A course in which, evolution is just ONE PART of SEVEN in most standard HS curriculums (and if it doesn’t include Sex Education (where I had it in HS)):

1. Cell biology 2. Inheritance 3. Organs & Organ structures 4. Classification systems 5. Inter-species dependence (symbiosis, parasitism, predation, environment, etc.) 6. Energy cycle through the ecosystem. 7. Evolution.

And someone wants to WASTE TIME “teaching the non-existent controversy” to a bunch of kids who LACK THE EDUCATION AND RESOURCES NECESSARY to even start evaluating evolution? &$%^ that!

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on February 25, 2006 12:47 PM.

Evolution hearts medicine was the previous entry in this blog.

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