Should we Teach ID in Schools?

There’s a post on ID over on Political Animal written by guest blogger Brad Plumer, who is apparently filling in for Kevin Drum. He gives us a nice plug, mentioning that he hasn’t seen us before and didn’t know that there are scientists who do indeed take the effort to address the claims of the ID movement. (Kevin though has seen us before - he linked to us on our second day of existence, nearly a year ago, sending us a much welcomed flood of traffic right from the start.) We certainly do put a fair amount of effort into rebutting the claims of the ID movement, quite successfully in my opinion, but of course that hasn’t stopped them or even seem to have slowed them down much. And that’s partly why I would like to address Plumer’s main point that perhaps (just maybe) we should concede the ID advocates’ push to get their ideas taught in public school science classes alongside evolution. Plumer writes:

Still, when the Washington Post today headlines the coming battle over creationism in the classroom, I wonder if a slight retreat by the reality-based community on evolution might not in fact be the best tactic, in order to vanquish the ID silliness in the long term. Really.

and later…

What I’m saying, essentially, is that if ID is truly as ridiculous as we all think it is, then why not shove it on the stage and force it to cluck around in public?

This is not an unreasonable sounding idea. Others have come up with it before, notably Richard Dawkins, who once stated something to the effect that we should spend the ten minutes it would take to rebut creationism and then move on. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Let me explain why this probably isn’t a good idea.

The real problem with this approach can be found within Plumer’s own post. He links to an article in The New York Times which states that many teachers around the country are too intimidated to teach evolution. As a result, evolution gets poor treatment if it gets treated at all. Why are teachers being intimidated? Because there exists a great deal of animosity towards evolution, the same animosity that drives the ID movement. So here we see that even with the curriculum standards on our side, a large fraction of teachers – perhaps even the majority – are already doing the creationists’ bidding. Under circumstances such as these, is it reasonable to expect that the scientific side will get a fair hearing once we drop our guard and let the creationists have their way with the curriculum? Would they just roll over and let teachers go out of their way for ten minutes to skewer ID and then move on? I don’t think so.

The creationist M.O. is not to have a debate with the normal objective standards of discourse that those of us in the “reality based” community take for granted. Indeed, the belief in such objective standards is what makes us “reality based” to begin with – the other guys aren’t even on the same playing field. (And let me quickly point out that what I’m about to say does not apply universally to all creationists, just most of them in my experience.) The creationist strategy is to toss out lots of false or misleading antievolutionist claims, most of them consisting of slick sounding one-liners that cannot be rebutted with a simple sentence, but rather require a fair amount of time and background knowledge in order to counter. This is especially true of the ID proponents, who have taken the additional move of excising any positive claims from their so-called theory that might themselves be open to criticism. Hence, when Plumer says that “ID essentially gives away the game from the start, when it says that microevolution can happen but not speciation,” he’s wrong. ID doesn’t say anything about microevolution, or speciation, or even how old the Earth is. Individual ID advocates differ greatly on these critical issues, yet they never debate them among themselves. Instead they downplay their differences and pretend as if they don’t matter. ID isn’t wrong so much as it is meaningless, because it consists of nothing more than stale and erroneous criticisms of evolution.

Once you go to the trouble of rebutting these criticisms, you most assuredly will not hear the ID advocates say, “Hmm, I guess I may have been wrong.” At best they will simply ignore you and proceed to the next bogus claim. Once you’ve gone through a whole cycle of them, the earlier ones that you already rebutted will suddenly pop up again, their proponents seemingly oblivious to your previous critiques. The whole point is, you’re not dealing with people who have a sincere interest in science. If you want to see what they’re really interested in, take a look at the Wedge Strategy. The ID movement is about religious apologetics. The leaders of the movement have convinced themselves that the very survival of our society depends on their “renewing” culture with a heavy dose of godly authoritarianism. Theirs is an extremist viewpoint that overrides any imperative for fair play and intellectual honesty. Is it any wonder that most scientists simply wish these people would shut up and go away?

This isn’t to say that their claims should go unanswered. Those of us who post here spend a lot of time answering them, and some of our contributors, such as Paul Gross and Mark Perakh, have written entire books critiquing the ID movement and its claims. But under what circumstances is debating ID warranted? ID is not taken seriously by researchers at graduate institutions, nor is it taught at 4-year colleges. If I were an ID advocate who was sincere about getting it accepted as science, I’d be mostly concerned about its standing among, you know, scientists. But barring some notable exceptions, the ID movement is first and foremost concerned with getting its views taught in public school science classes. They are aiming their “teachings” at a captive audience of kids who certainly lack the background knowledge to spot what’s wrong with most of their claims. And you know, that’s probably the point.

As I see it, if you wanted to teach the non-existent controversy in public schools, there’s only one way you could do it and give it justice. First, you’d have to give the students a very thorough background in biology and evolutionary theory. You could then introduce the ID claims and the mainstream scientific responses, and the responses to those responses, etc. You could then take things a step further and have students “critically examine” the scientific evidence, including reading important contributions to the literature. The problem is, once you manage to successfully do all this, the kids are ready to graduate college. There’s hardly enough time to give a comprehensive treatment to basic biology in high school, much less an in-depth study of evolution, and most high school teachers (much less the students) cannot be expected to read and review the primary technical literature. How are we supposed to fit in a detailed examination of ID? And why should we bother anyway? Hey kids, let’s spend the whole semester teaching you all about a so-called scientific theory that scientists don’t accept as legitimate. That will be a good use of your time.

Of course this approach almost certainly isn’t what the ID movement has in mind. I’m sure they would be happy if students were given a rudimentary introduction to evolution, as is usually done now (if it’s done at all), but then have all of their own antievolution arguments tacked on. The problem is, most of these arguments are downright terrible; students should never be taught false or unsubstantiated claims as if they were accepted science. “But the students should be the judge of that - let them weigh the evidence themselves!” the IDists bleat. Sure, that sounds nice and all, but it requires the unworkably lengthy approach that I outlined previously. That’s simply not feasible, and the IDists know it. What they really want is for their arguments to be presented right alongside mainstream science, as if they were of equal legitimacy. It’s not a matter of “critically examining” the evidence; it’s a matter of using the school curriculum to give ID an air of scientific authority that it has failed to earn on its own.

If you think the debate over ID is rancorous now, it’s not going to get any easier if we concede their attempts to monkey with public school science curricula. Once their foot is in the door, they’re not going to sit back and let teachers spend ten minutes dismissing ID, or allow ID arguments to be presented and then knocked down. Indeed, that’s when they’ll really start applying the pressure. I suspect that if we adopted Plumer’s proposal, teachers would find themselves more intimidated than they are now. I also suspect that in many places, with suitable encouragement from local parents, teachers would simply teach old-school creationism with its 6000 year-old Earth, and perhaps start proselytizing to their hearts’ content. If you think the “reality based” community is having a headache now, just wait.