Teaching students to critically analyze

I cross-posted my last essay on science standards and ID over at ARN, and someone there offered this:

Concerning the Ohio standards, Meyer [Stephen Meyer, of the Discovery Institute] said this:

[quote] Dr. MEYER: Well, we agree with you, Ken, and this is one of the reasons that we asked–certainly there were political supporters of design in Ohio who are getting the cart before the horse. That’s one of the reasons we took the theory off the table for the purposes of the state testing standards. We understand that this is a new theory. We think it’s unrealistic to think that teachers would be able to be informed enough to teach it well at this point, and so we said, ‘Look, the main focus,’ as you have said, ‘of biological research is evolutionary theory. Let’s look at that openly and in a critical manner.’ [endquote]

Do you agree with this?

I’d like to respond to this question here.

First, and I don’t want to dwell on this point, calling ID a new theory is a misnomer. It is an unformulated and untested hypothesis at this point: there is no ID theory, so it’s no wonder they took it off the table.

The “Let’s look at that [evolutionary theory] openly and in a critical manner” statement is trickier.

All of science should be looking at openly and critically, and so no respectable scientist would object to this statement. However, the ID movement tends to use that statement to mean “let’s doubt some or all fundamental tenets of evolution” as a means of introducing ID (since the basic ID argument is to establish ID as true by establishing evolution as false.)

For instance, in response to the statement about critical analysis in the Ohio standards, the IDists on the curriculum committee created a “model lesson plan” full of inaccurate science focused on creating doubt about the existence of macro-evolution and thus common descent. These are not concepts that are in doubt in mainstream science. In this case the IDists abused a principle that all scientists agree with in order to smuggle in discredited anti-evolution ideas.

Again, the issue here is what is appropriate for the high school curriculum. If we are going to give students some experience in critically analyzing some part of science (and perhaps show them what controversy looks like and how it is resolved,) then we need to choose topics that are genuine scientific controversies and we need the topic to be one for which the students have the appropriate background in order to practice critical analysis.

For instance, my friend Keith Miller has suggested that the question “what is a species” would be a good question for high school students to tackle. This question would bring a lot of important issues to the table about evolution, and it would also serve to illustrate more general considerations about science

For instance, the question would involve both the present and the past: in the present, species are differentiated primarily (but not exclusively) by the ability to breed or not, but in the past they must be differentiated much more by morphological characteristics preserved in the fossils. (And how do we decide about species of bacteria?)

The question would bring up the tension between the messy ambiguities and fuzzy boundaries of the real world with the more precise (and misleading) sense of certainty created by using language to name things: things like ring species, hybrids, and transitional fossils would help students see some of the problems of taxonomy in general.

Also, the question, by looking at such things as reproduction, DNA, geographical distribution, and so on, would help students see that multiple lines of evidence are brought to bear on scientific problems.

In addition, one could also examine a related question from the past (such as the classification of the various panda bears) to see how questions that were once controversial became more or less settled.

The point of this example is to show that there are genuine scientific controversies accessible to high school students that can be used to show them how scientists critically analyze the evidence, argue among themselves, and eventually move towards consensus.

This type of exercise would be genuinely educational in respect to science. However, this is not what the ID movement intends when they support “critical analysis” - what they want is a vehicle to insert their decidedly non-mainstream concerns into the curriculum.