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The Danger of Teaching the Controversy

The Florida Citizens for Science blog has a post, Best practice with an integrated curriculum?, which looks at some approaches teachers might take to including both creation and evolution in the classroom. The FCS blog does a pretty good job of pointing out the discrepancies. (I should disclose here that I am a board member of Florida Citizens for Science.)

I just want to look at one aspect: teaching the controversy. Despite different vocabulary, that is, in fact, what these suggestions amount to. The question on many people’s mind is this: Why not teach the controversy? Isn’t that just simple fairness?

But that is the wrong question. Why? Because we must first ask just how one should determine the curriculum for public school classrooms. Without some sort of standards for that, it’s very hard to answer such a question. I know it annoys people to have their principles applied to different situations, but that is an appropriate test of a principle. Will it work, for example, when the shoe is on the other foot?

Should Christian schools, for example, teach the controversy? If the issue is fairness and sound education, both of which are given as reasons for teaching the controversy, should it not be regarded then as unsound educational practice not to teach the controversy in private Christian schools? I know many involved in these schools think they do, and I believe some actually are right, but many do not.

More importantly, however, let’s consider how this “teach the controversy” principle would work in public schools. Should science teachers be asked to teach the controvery on geocentrism? I know some people are just about to explode on that one. “Nobody believes that any more, or at least only a few kooks.” Well, that may be true, though I believe there’s even a kook with a PhD who tries to teach geocentrism. But this does illustrate the problem. We argue for teaching the controversy on creation and evolution or on intelligent design and evolution, but we are unwilling to invoke the same phrase for all controversial issues.

And that is actually as it should be, since “teach the controversy” doesn’t express any relevant principle at all. The real question is how much support some scientific view needs to have before it should be included in elementary school, middle school, and high school curricula. I believe the answer would be different in each case.

We don’t just teach controversies in science. We teach methods and how to evaluate results, how to make observations and categorize them sensibly. We also do not have unlimited time in which to teach the things we need to teach. Thus we pick and choose. And that is where I get my principle for determining what should be taught: consensus science. What has undergone testing, evaluation, and acceptance in the scientific community? Leading edge theories need not apply at these levels. Let them be evaluated first, then include those that make the grade.

There is, of course, prioritizing amongst those things which are consensus science, but considering that a large amount of well-established material will likely not get taught, those priorities need to be set for scientific reasons in order to prepare our children to understand their world.

Intelligent design doesn’t meet the criteria. It should not be offered in high school classrooms. There is no theory of creation, either old or young earth, that has met this kind of testing. They don’t belong in the high school and lower science classroom.

Now I don’t believe that discussion of these ideas should be cut off. There should be a free exchange of ideas. But a free exchange involves vigorous criticism, and as appropriate, even ridicule of ideas that are ridiculous. People today often complain about censorship because other people don’t like them. But I’m writing this blog entry on a very low cost web site using free blog software. It’s not hard to make ideas available. Getting people to pay attention? That’s more work–as it should be!

And on that note one more point about the science classroom. People who want religious ideas included in the science curriculum often don’t think of the fact that these young people need to learn to evaluate, and that means criticizes ideas. Do you want your high school science teachers offering a critique of your religious ideas?

My personal commitment to openness involves including discussion of these ideas in church programs and in the material that I publish.

. . . there is considerable scientific evidence against the theory that everything occurred simply by chance, and in favor of the theory that there was some sort of intelligent design involved. (Source: Hushbeck, Elgin L. Christianity and Secularism. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2006, page 28.)

What is the importance of that quote? Well, I’m the publisher of the work in question. I do believe these ideas should be made available and should be discussed, especially those ideas with which I disagree. I’ve put my dollars into action in making that so.

But not in high school science, unless the scientific community arrives at a consensus.

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  1. Personally, i’m not interested in seeing a theory taught in any school unless all angles and viewpoints are taken into consideration. I think that ‘teach the controversy” is a bit of a cliched attempt to get past the Darwin police that prevent the ugly side of Darwinism from being looked at.

    If science could be taught in a non-partisan way, the theory of evolution would get found out… that in fact the science behind it is as undemonstrable as the science behind I.D. This, to me, is what all the fighting is about.

    When so-called ‘science’ is propped up by censor-ship, ACLU-driven litigation and outrageous anti-religious histrionics, i’m really quite surprised that the scientific community itself (not stupid people to be sure) doesn’t start to question some of the rhetoric.

    Too stubborn to look at the question honestly, i think…

    “There is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse: you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it.”
    Alexander Herzen

  2. Henry,

    I’ve enjoyed your weblog for a while, now. As you know, I’m a practising scientist, and I keep my own weblog sanctioned by the university of Sydney.

    The other day I saw a flyer for one of these ID muppets who is giving a talk soon at the Uni. I stated early on at the Labrats that I would not comment on the whole ID/creationism thing, but I got quite riled at the flyer; not because of what it said, but because of the guerilla comments hand-written on it – talk of ‘loony Christians’ and what not. It was indicative of the general view that all Christians believe in Creationism or ID and are therefore to be mocked. Now, I don’t mind being mocked for believing in the power of Christ as life for those who are dead, but this just gets my goat.

    So. . . I’m wondering whether you’d like to write a guest post at the Labrats along the lines of what you’ve written above? I won’t be offended if you decline, obviously 🙂

  3. The best response to the teach the controversy is “what controversy?” Scientists overwhelming support some form of evolution over a bronze age story. The evidence also overwhelming supports evolution and common ancestry over any bronze age creation stories, or any half baked notions deriving from such bronze ages tales. If anyone had scientific evidence that called evolution into question they would have published it in a peer reviewed scientific journal by now, and no one has. Yes the creationists and Idists out there would now say something about scientists conspiring to keep such evidence out of peer reviewed journals, (playing the martyr card as they do so well). I would have to agree scientists are conspiring to keep SCIENCE in scientific publications. A bunch of random statements that sound quasi-scientific written by people with Ph.Ds from diploma mills doesn’t really count as science….or even anything close to evidence.

  4. So, as per Henry’s essay, you support the teaching of the heliocentrism “controversy”? This is the problem: at present, there are no credible angles apart from the evolutionary one. There is no evidence to even hint that forces other than evolutionary ones (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, speciation, etc) are at work in the “design” of organisms.

    And, if there was an intelligent entity at work, there would be plenty of opportunities to discover such evidence. If the ToE was wrong, you’d be able to prove it without leaving your chair. For example:

    1) Find sequence data for two different genes across four different species (using a database like this one).

    2) Build phylogenetic graphs for these genes (using a tool like this one).

    3) Compare the two graphs. If they are not topologically equivalent then congratulations, you’ve found a strong piece of evidence against evolution.

    What this procedure is testing for is the existence of any migration of genetic material from one lineage to another. Remember the GM food controversy? In a transgenic species, the DNA that’s been “imported” from one species to another will have a different family tree than the other genes in that species.

    If our DNA had been tinkered with by an intelligent entity, you’d expect to see precisely this effect. Engineers and programmers generally try to reuse their existing work where possible. I believe that this is the usual creationist explanation for similarities between organisms, so it’s accepted by everyone: design implies gene reuse across organisms.

    Why, then, do we have so much trouble finding genes that ignore an organism’s proposed family tree? The theory of evolution is the only option I’m aware of that even explains this, let alone predicts it.

    This is just one of many pieces of evidence all leading to the same conclusion: any intelligent entity that helped design us did it in a way that’s indistinguishable from evolution.

  5. Personally, i’m not interested in seeing a theory taught in any school unless all angles and viewpoints are taken into consideration. I think that ‘teach the controversy” is a bit of a cliched attempt to get past the Darwin police that prevent the ugly side of Darwinism from being looked at.

    Your comment might have validity if: 1) Evolution was not examined critically and 2) if ID were a actually a valid critique of evolution.

    The problem that certain people seem to have is that critical examination of evolution in a scientific sense simply seems to substantiate the theory. Thus non-scientific approaches are required.

    Philosophically, we may discuss what is beyond evolution, but that’s not a subject for science classes.

  6. I think you are correct to comment that there is really not much of a scientific controversy, but there is a political one, and thus there is need for more education, and not merely for us to point out that the overwhelming majority of the experts are on our side.

    People need to understand how science works, and how modern communications make it possible for unorthodox ideas, even unorthodox ideas without any merit, to get a hearing. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they need to be taught in the High School science classroom.

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