A Taste of Teaching the Controversy

“Teach the controversy” is one of the well-worn slogans of the creationist movement, and has been well used in the controversy about intelligent design (ID). It’s power is in an appeal to fairness. There’s a dispute? Teach both sides. What could be fairer than that?

As with most slogans the problems occur in practically every word. What is “the” controversy? What are the “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory that one should teach? And even more importantly, what does it mean to teach a controversy?

I would suggest that in order to actually teach something, the instructor needs to take the students through a process of evaluation, of weighing and testing the evidence provided. If that controversy is ID vs the theory of evolution, such a weighing and testing will result in a negative evaluation of ID–unless, of course, one tries to privilege certain ideas over others.

This is not the type of “teaching the controversy” that is desired by ID proponents. In general, they are asking that their views, though representing those of a very small minority of the scientific community, should be taught alongside evolution as having equal validity. The attempt to get these materials into public schools is simply an end-run around the process of science, and indeed of scholarship in general. What ID advocates are asking is that ideas that have been rejected by the vast majority of the scientific community should be presented instead to high school students for their evaluation.

I can understand this desire. It’s always fun to take your material to an audience that will not be qualified to challenge you seriously on facts or logic. But it’s not the proper place to get ideas evaluated.

We have just seen an example of “teaching the controversy”, and doing it well, on NOVA, and the ID folks don’t particularly like it. (The complaints about “Inherit the Wind” footage are particularly humorous.)

Well, I’m not surprised. They didn’t actually want the whole controversy taught. They didn’t want all their claims evaluated. They just hoped they would be presented side by side to unsuspecting high school students who do not yet have the knowledge to evaluate what they are hearing.

There are reasons why ID is presented to popular audiences rather than scientific ones. 1) Doing the actual science is too hard, or perhaps 2) The advocates know that no matter how hard they work, the evidence just isn’t there, or 3) They don’t actually care about science at all, and they’re just trying to make points in the culture wars. Come to think of it, it could be all of the above.

But this argument does not only apply to ID. In the public school science program, we need to teach science, and we need to have some basis on which to decide what is and is not science. Any minority viewpoint can hire PR firms and try to get itself treated as science through the political process, but that is not a good way to determine what really is science. I suggest one standard: Consensus science. There is plenty of that to fill the science curriculum. Other ideas may apply, but the process goes through the scientific community for publication, testing, and verification.

I would add one more note on this. I have commented before on the NCBCPS Bible curriculum which is aimed at public schools. Many Christians see this as a wonderful opportunity to restore Biblical literacy. But they need to think again. Just how is it that the Bible can properly be taught in public schools? It will have to be taught as an academic subject, which means that the historicity of certain stories, such as the exodus, the destruction of Jericho, or similar things, should be evaluated in a scholarly fashion, as objectively as possible.

That requires, amongst other things, qualified instructors, and good curriculum (NCBCPS isn’t good curriculum). This will be Bible as a secular topic. Now I wouldn’t mind such a class. The reason I still oppose putting this in public schools is that I believe it inappropriately privileges my own sacred book over that of others and that it is extremely unlikely that we will find appropriately qualified teachers for a sound, academic course on the Bible at the High School level.

I know, for example, that if I were to teach such a course, many fundamentalist and conservative evangelical students and parents would be shocked at what I would say, though I would be able to point to a great deal of scholarship in all of it. You see, I would “teach the controversy” about many of these subjects, evaluating the evidence, and some people would not be happy with the results.

Perhaps in High School classes we should teach the most important elements of a subject (and make no mistake, evolution is one of these), and leave the myriad of controversies that people can cook up to be settled through examination by qualified persons.

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