February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
January 19, 2012
A long-time education columnist with the Washington Post, Jay Mathews, has been pushing a strange but all-American thesis (e.g., in his Jan. 18, 2012 essay “We’re smart enough for Darwin debate”): we should inject Intelligent Design ideas into public-school science classrooms and let the kids figure out that it is not science, or at least bad science. Don’t we trust our kids, and their parents, to be “smart”? Isn’t it healthy and democratic to give all voices a hearing, and let the shoppers in the Marketplace of Ideas decide what products to take home in their baskets?
I call this view “strange” because Mathews, not apparently an Intelligent Design (ID) believer himself, seems not to realize that prominent ID advocates’ urgings to “teach the debate” in biology classrooms—of which this is simply another form—are pretextual. There is ample evidence—as the depositions and cross-examinations in Kitzmiller v. Dover document—that such “wedge” tactics, as some of their most prestigious proponents have called them, have no authentic secular motive. They are religious in essence, and not only religious but sectarian (for not all Christians and other religious believers share their assumptions).
It’s also strange because the idea that ID should be ushered into science classrooms—there, presumably, to be shown by skillful Socratic pedagogy to be non-science—is so naive about what would inevitably happen on the ground. For one thing, Mathews himself reminds us that “16 percent of science teachers are creationists” and would “preach the doctrine if allowed to”—yet seems to think that the disaster of having sectarian religious notions openly preached to 16 percent of science classes as if those notions were bona fide scientific “alternatives” would somehow be compensated for by the pro-scientific conclusions reached (we hope) in the other 84%. Uh, maybe. Maybe not.
My reaction to the suggestion that ID belongs in science classes. (Image from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, 1872).
Mathew’s thesis is also off-base because . . . well, here is a bit more of all the volumes that could be said, in the form of an e-mail I sent to him (slightly edited):
You write, “Sanctioning [ID] for classrooms would misuse science and hurt teaching, [many readers] said. Could that happen here? I don’t think so. I asked Washington Post researcher Eddy Palanzo to search the past 30 years of Post archives for evidence of evolution becoming a major disruptive issue in our local schools. She didn’t find any. In 1985, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia made news when he supported discussing creationism in the classroom, but he lost. In 1995, The Post had a story about several candidates for the Fairfax County School Board who supported creationism. They didn’t win, either.”
Your argument seems to be that because creationism has not been taught in Washington-area public schools in the past several decades, with a resulting lack of disruption or controversy, it would do no harm to introduce it into classrooms now, as Intelligent Design. That makes no sense.
Intelligent Design theory is a set of claims that, as many readers have no doubt already pointed out, and as the Federal judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover ruled, has no more standing among working biologists than does astrology among astronomers or “energy medicine” among geneticists. Its use of scientific vocabulary words and its advocacy by a few persons possessing scientific credentials do not make it science. It has passed none of the real-world, working tests that qualify any set of claims to be called “science,” even “bad science.” Bad science at least appears in scientific journals: it is careless or unlucky or otherwise faulty, and, in the event, it is wrong. But what does not ever appear in such journals, having passed the imperfect but all-important barrier of peer review, is not science at all. It has no more to do with “how science works in real life,” which you say you would like students to learn, than does Wiccan spellcasting.
Intelligent Design is, then, a set of religiously motivated claims devoid of all the substantive earmarks of working science. And if this particular opinion is given a place in the classroom, on what ground will we exclude all the others that clamor for admission? Is it plausible that students will have the time, much less the intellectual equipment (which has nothing to do with how “smart” they are), to sift the grains of good science from a potentially endless desert of claims having no scientific basis at all? Who has ever learned science in such a fashion? How could they?
The view that we can best teach science by throwing in a generous helping of non-science, or “alternatives,” or special attention to “difficulties with the theory”—always evolutionary theory, mind, never gravitational theory or atomic theory or the germ theory, because the whole science curriculum would grind to a halt, and sectarian religious believers aren’t mad at those theories anyway—is, most often, an obvious pretext for getting students to view evolutionary biology as more dubious or shaky than other branches of science. Because there is no scientific ground for such special doubt, some people are driven to try wedging non-scientific ideas, e.g., Creation Science or Intelligent Design, into the classroom.
Why appease them? As courts have found—e.g., the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987—the claim of secular motivation for such efforts has historically been a “sham.” And so it remains.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.