Open Letter to Administrators of University Place School District

A creationist named Cowan who teaches science at the University Place School District in Washington state has written an essay that was published in the Christian Science Monitor. In part, it talks about how teaching the “controversy” regarding evolution is a stimulating pedagogy.

I wrote a letter to a few of the administrators of the high school at which Cowan works. I’ll show what I wrote on the flipside.

My name is Burt Humburg. I am a physician with an interest in religion and science issues. I have followed the anti-evolutionary creationism movement, including intelligent design creationism, for many years as a Christian and I wanted to inform you about an aspect of their tactics that I found reflected in one of your teachers’ comments in the Christian Science Monitor.

At first glance, teaching the evidence “against” a particular theory sounds like a reasonable pedagogical tool. After all, science is not a set of facts that, having memorized, one then knows. It’s best thought of as a process and, if students understand that legitimate controversies exist in science and how scientists go about solving them, so much the better. So why not exercise the students’ brain cells with evolution. Teach the controversy, they say. Or so the creationists would have you believe.

Any legitimate consideration of this argument must consider the following points.

First, why is evolution the only verified theory in science deserving of this kind of scrutiny. Does Mr. Cowan teach evidence against the germ theory of disease? Does he explore how the first carrier state (Typhoid Mary) would have disproved Koch’s postulates? Does he explore how the four-humor theory of disease might be the “best explanation to a problem” instead of microbes and that the Kochists should not “just defend [their] own position at all costs”? Mutatis mutandis for gravity, physics, and heliocentrism: the singling out of evolution is of concern.

Second, the legitimate areas of controversy in the scientific community are not of a sort to justify witholding one’s assent to evolution and the areas of “controversy” that Cowan does mention are long since solved conclusively in science. To the extent that one of your teachers discusses the “widely discredited evidence for Neo-Darwinism” to the end of making common descent seem less well-verified than it really is, then he misrepresents the very science he has been charged to teach.

To be specific, Haeckle’s drawings of embryos were known to be fakes years ago and Kenneth Miller’s textbook now uses pictures to illustrate the concepts instead. and

Piltdown man was exposed as a fraudulent attempt to make a missing link of a human ancestor by working paleontologists within 40 years of its original “discovery.” Since then, human palentology has advanced. Our problem today isn't that we don’t have a missing link: it’s that we have too many missing links. and

That Mr. Cowan is advancing controversies last considered legitimate decades ago as the sort of thing that scientists argue about today is of concern.

Third, despite what Mr. Cowan says, he does appear to be criticizing evolution for the sake of criticism alone. For creationists, the purpose of criticizing evolution is to criticize evolution. If they can make evolution seem less well-verified than it really is, then they succeed in their goals. I have described this strategy more fully in an essay I posted at The Panda’s Thumb.

Suffice it to say that a teacher in your school district who is charged to teach and represent science to your students and provide them with the basic understandings of the methods and conclusions of science they will require in our biotechnical world is gloating about how he offers intelligent design as an answer to “controversies” that few (or no) practicing biologists consider controversial. Notably, as the president’s science advisor has said, intelligent design is not science.

But rather than see correction from the superintendent, she simply considers it a freedom of speech issue. I wonder if her willingness to allow false statements to masquerade as legitimate controversies would extend to other fields as well. Presumably, a history teacher that was a holocaust revisionist might also be allowed to present his views, provided they were sufficiently “neutral” and provided the superintendent considered it a “free speech issue” as well.

Were I that superintendent, I would remind Mr. Cowan of his charge, which is not to be “legal,” or push the envelope, or advance his personal misgivings against evolution, or advance his personal affinities for intelligent design creationism. His charge is to provide students with an understanding of the methods and fundamental concepts of science.

In short, the superintendent of your district has asserted that he must remain neutral about evolution versus anti-evolution creationism. Given that the scientific community is not neutral on this issue, I would submit that the superintendent of your district has not appropriately guided Mr. Cowan in his duties.

And that is of concern as well.