ID in Schools, Redux

Everyone’s probably seen it already, but Jay Mathews has written an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post about teaching ID in schools titled Who’s Afraid of Intelligent Design?.

Mathews, who is not an ID advocate, argues that we should teach ID and have public school children debate the issue in order to liven-up biology class. I made a good sized post last week about why this is not a good idea in response to a similar argument put forth by Brad Plumer on Political Animal.

Since my last post was generic enough to cover most of Mathews’ claims as well, I won’t go into detail and repeat everything I wrote previously. But there are a few things I would like to address, just to make things clear.

First of all, Mathews writes:

Drop in on an average biology class and you will find the same slow, deadening march of memorization that I endured at 15. Why not enliven this with a student debate on contrasting theories?

Putting aside the issue of why biology class needs to be livened-up (I found biology class quite interesting without being taught pseudoscience, but I guess that’s why Mathews and I have chosen different career paths), the problem is that there is no theory of ID. ID polemics consist almost exclusively of criticisms against evolution. So instead of teaching contrasting theories, we’ll be teaching one theory, and then we’ll be teaching the arguments from people who hate that theory. If these arguments were sound, then I’d have no problem with that. Unfortunately, most of these arguments are not sound, and I for one will never concede that we should teach false or invalid claims as if they were legitimate.

So what exactly does Mathews think should be taught? He gives us an idea with a couple of examples from those other science classes down the hall:

And why stop with biology? Physics teachers could ask students to explain why a perpetual-motion machine won’t work. Earth science teachers could show why the steady-state theory of the universe lost out to the Big Bang…

This sort of naiveté is breathtaking. Physics students should already be able to explain to their teachers why perpetual motion machines won’t work, otherwise the teacher has done a lousy job. But what Mathews is proposing is the equivalent of teaching students that perpetual motion machines actually do work, that there is some major disagreement within the scientific community in this regard, and that the students should have a debate about the validity of perpetual motion. By the time the class is over, a large fraction of students won’t know what to think.

As for the Big Bang vs. steady-state theory, again, the proper analogy would be to teach steady-state as if it were legitimate, not simply to show why it’s wrong. That’s probably not what Mathews has in mind. What he seems to have in mind is already being done – students are routinely taught why older theories have been displaced by newer ones. In my high school biology class, I was taught that scientists once assumed that individual species were created separately, and that this view was later overtaken by an evolutionary point of view. And we were, of course, taught about the evidence that led scientists to accept the new theory.

That would seem to satisfy Mathews’ criterion, so what’s the problem? Unfortunately, I think he’s pretty much clueless about what the ID people actually want taught, to say nothing of their broader agenda. The following paragraph is strongly indicative of this:

The intelligent-design folks say theirs is not a religious doctrine. They may be lying, and are just softening up the teaching of evolution for an eventual pro-Genesis assault. But they passed one of my tests. They answered Gould’s favorite question: If you are real scientists, then what evidence would disprove your hypothesis? [John] West indicated that any discovery of precursors of the animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago would cast doubt on the thesis that those plans, in defiance of Darwin, evolved without a universal common ancestor.

Mathews swallowed that one hook, line, and sinker, and probably ate the fishing pole for good measure. There is no way that finding precursors of animal body plans could falsify the idea that some Intelligent Designer designed some feature of living things at some unspecified point in time. Once again, this is an argument against evolution, not evidence for ID. The argument could be wrong, but it wouldn’t mean that ID was wrong. In fact, at least one leading ID advocate, Michael Behe, believes that the evidence supports universal common ancestry. For some strange reason, the evidence for common ancestry hasn’t falsified ID according to Michael Behe, even though it would according to John West. Start to see the problem?

Creationists have come up with lots of arguments in the past that later research showed were dead wrong. I would include the Cambrian explosion arguments among them, as new finds keep making the original argument from ignorance less and less tenable. But none of this falsifies ID, nor could it ever make the ID advocates give up their crusade. If you follow them enough, it’s obvious that nothing will make them give up, at least not until culture has been thoroughly renewed. Unfortunately, Mathews is advocating that we teach something about which he apparently knows little, cooked-up by an extremist movement about which he apparently knows even less.