Thursday, September 08, 2005

Why Do Smart People Fall into these Traps: On Intelligent Design

I have been increasingly disturbed by how easily smart and reasonable people have been falling into the trap of thinking that teaching Intelligent Design in science courses is a good thing to do. They have, unfortunately, fallen victim to the clever pundits and strategists who have packaged the teaching of Intelligent Design as part of a well-rounded, healthy debate.

Here is an example from Moderate Guy:

The current argument over teaching intelligent design vs. evolution provides an excellent example. The purpose of education, I believe, is to expand the mind by introducing it to new ideas, some of which are and should be controversial. Otherwise, how is a student to learn how to analyze, question and evaluate? Teaching a subject does not entail advocacy. One can teach about the holocaust without advocating racial extermination or about the period of slavery without advocating human bondage. So, teaching intelligent design does not require worshipping the designer any more than teaching evolution requires the worship of chimpanzees. But, the drive to conformity and simplicity precludes the introduction of more than one point of view and that leads to a non-questioning acceptance of simplistic explanations.

The argument usually goes like this: students should be exposed to a range of views so that they have all the tools they need to make up their own mind about what is the true nature of the origin of the universe. Now, stated like this, this seems reasonable. Every year I teach Introduction to Philosophy, where we discuss the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments for God's existence, we look at the tensions between religion and philosophical approaches more rooted in empiricism or logic. And, I think bringing up Paley's argument for an intelligent designer is appropriate for this course.

However, the issue with Intelligent Design is whether or not local school boards can force their science teachers to include a unit on Intelligent Design. I don't think these folks are advocating to have Intelligent Design discussions in their world history courses. Do secondary schools even have Philosophy courses? That would be great, eh? Start that critical thinking early . . .

Let me be as clear as I can: I don't think that Intelligent Design belongs in science classes. And, now I will explain why:

(1) Teaching Intelligent Design in science courses is, plain and simple, relativism. What you are saying here is that all ideas are equally valid; all ways of studying, scientifically, the natural world, are credible. The fact is that Intelligent Design is not a method for making discoveries about the natural world, which is what science teaches. Intelligent Design is merely a critique. No one from the Intelligent Design camp has contributed to the body of knowledge that explains how the world works. All they have contributed is speculative and philosophical arguments that put into question the theory of evolution. And, btw, scientists have shown, time and time again, why their arguments are flawed.

(2) Should secondary school curricula reflect what local citizens want their students to learn, or what are well-supported bodies of knowledge? I find it rather dangerous to create school systems where what is taught is in line with the views of the folks that live in the area. First of all, such an approach to building curricula is likely to contribute to the already questionable job that our public schools do. Shouldn't there be standards? Should'nt truth matter? If my community thinks its important to teach pre-Socratic science in my high school physics class, should we allow this? If my community thinks that people of color are less intelligent, should we teach that?

(3) The diversity of ideas approach is wholly disengenous.
(a) Those who present this issue as "the drive to conformity and simplicity precludes the introduction of more than one point of view and that leads to a non-questioning acceptance of simplistic explanations" are either engaging in sophistry or have been successfully manipulated by the intelligent design folks. If the issue is about giving students a well-rounded, liberal arts education, then why isn't there a range of curricular debates? Why is this completely focused on Intelligent Design? Because this is about power--further empowering religious conservatives in public institutions. And, its no surprise that they are going after science, which historically has lead people to raise questions about the dogmatic truths of religion. I don't see them going after math classes, criticizing mathematical theories as inaccurate or insufficient (Does Calculus really solve Zeno's paradoxes?).

(b) Another important way in which this is disengenous is that Intelligent Design, as a critique, does not allow for criticism of its hypotheses, and hence works against the goal to introduce more than one point of view. I addressed this in my last post: there is no evidence which you can present to someone who believes in Intelligent Design that convinces her to doubt its ability to account for the natural world. The entire theory rests on a belief that God is sole creator and no evidence you present to them will convince them otherwise. Intelligent Design is allergic to criticial thinking.

(3) How qualified are high school science teachers for teaching Intelligent Design?. I am already concerned that high school science teachers cannot articulate and defend the scientific method. Too much of science teaching revolves around teaching tools and not introducing students to the range of historical debates and arguments that lead to the development of those tools. Are high school teachers who studied Physics capable of teaching the philosophical questions about evolution as a theory or the philosophical arguments for God's existence?

How about a compromise? Let's introduce history of science classes in Secondary school curriculum or philosophy classes. Then you can teach the argument from design as well as Darwin's rebuttal. You could also expose students to the far ranging debates in between the two poles of Darwinism (as a worldview) and Creationism.

But, trying to force Intelligent Design into science courses is a bad idea.

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