You know what I hate most about the evolution/creation debate? It isn't the ignorance peddlers of the Discvoery Institute or the gibbering insanity of Answers in Genesis. It's not the semi-literate know-nothings who pollute the comment boards of blogs with their reptitive drivel. It isn't even the fawning press coverage these dangerous right-wing ideologues occasionally receive.
No. What I really hate is the child-like naivete of some scientists who really ought to know better.
Take Richard Gallagher, for example.
He is the editor of The Scientist
, a usually very good science magazine. He wrote this editorial
(registration reauired) for the current issue endorsing the teaching of ID alongside evolution in science classrooms. As with all such editorials he is remarkably vague about what teaching ID actually entails.
We consider his remarks in full.
The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.
There, I've said it. And no, I'm not a fundamental Christian, a creationist, or a right-wing ideologue. What I am is someone who sees an outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysayers, and a rare public examination of a set of ideas that are pretty much taken as Gospel – sorry for the blurring of metaphors, but it drives home my point – by us in the scientific community. Played the right way, everyone – yes, including scientists – should come out enriched by the interaction.
So we should be happy that a group of lying ignoramuses, motivated entirely by religious and political concerns, are wasting the time of school boards that have real issues to deal with? Were we lacking in opportunities to exchange views with the naysayers prior to their assault on science education?
I'm all in favor of engaging the naysayers. That's why I do this blog, after all. I just don't think science classes are the right venue for that engagement.
And does Gallagher really not understand that the public examination of evolution he finds so nifty does not, for the most part, involve the public actually educating themselves about what scientists do or why they believe what they believe? That instead it involves them responding to cheap soundbites about teaching the controversy or opposing censorship or presenting all sides? Does he really think that the widespread public opposition to evolution is simply the result of people not having heard a clear presentation of the evidence on both sides?
For those who haven't been following developments, here's a précis: Conservative forces, likely buoyed by the recent election, are applying pressure on the science education system to adopt the teaching of a theory called “Intelligent Design.” The nub of intelligent design is that Earth and particularly the life on it are much too complex to have evolved; simply, it must be the work of an intelligent creator.
The squeeze is on in legislatures and school boards in at least 18 states, from Alabama to Alaska. The movement is even becoming a US export to the United Kingdom, according to a story on page 12 of this issue.
As with most people who endorse “teaching the controversy” Gallagher never gets around to telling us what, exactly, he wants taught. If I satnd in front of a classroom and say “Some people believe that life is too complex to have evolved by natural means alone,” have I just taught ID? Or am I supposed to say something else?
I have no objection to the assertions of ID proponents being raised in science classes. I would only object to those ideas being presented respectfully. Indded, I'm not sure what it would even mena to present them respectfully. I imagine the conversation going something like this:
ID'ist: Certain biochemical structures are irreducibly complex, meaning they are composed of several, well-matched indispensable parts. Therefore thy could not have evolved gradually.
Evolutionist: That's not true. Here are three or four scenarios for how irreducible complexity could arise gradually. Here are specific examples like the blood clotting cascade or the mammalian ear structure to show how those scenarios play out in practice. Here are computer simulations that model evolution and show that irreducible complexity frequently arises by gradual processes.
ID'ist: Well, I still don't believe it.
The fact is that ID consists of nothing more than a bunch of people folding their arms and shaking their heads. If Gallagher has in mind something like what I just described, then I'm all for it. If he has something else in mind, I'd appreciate it if he would tell us what it is.
Opponents have two possible responses. The dominant one is something close to panic: fear that a generation will be brainwashed into accepting intelligent design and that science itself is under threat throughout the country. That response results in avoiding the topic altogether and refusing to debate. In fact, some scientists regret using words such as “design” in published studies, for fear it will be used by intelligent-design advocates (see p. 12).
The dominant reaction is not panic, it is disgust. And it is a simple fact that science is under threat from conservative forces; “teaching the controversy” is the least of their ambitions. As for refusing to debate, that's just silly. Countless scientists have been willing to engage and debate the ideas of ID proponents. The issue here, again, is whether that debate should take place in science classes.
The other response is to accept the challenge and rise to it, even to relish it. That's the approach I would urge, and here's why:
Gallagher now gives three reasons for “accepting the challenge” whatever that means. Here's the first:
It's rare to have a full-blooded public debate about the school curriculum. And one about the science curriculum is as rare as rocking-horse droppings. We should play it for all it's worth, bringing a clearer sense of evolution to a wide cross-section of the population.
I've read these three sentences a dozen times and I'm still not sure what point Gallagher is making. The debate, such as it is, about the school curriculum, takes place in front of school boards and on the op-ed pages of local newspapers. Many scientists have been using those venues to get the message out as best they can, but those are hardly the appropriate settings for genuine scientific discussion. In a battle of 800 word op-eds, the creationists win just by showing up.
The phrase “We should play it for all its worth,” is the sort of vague silliness that gets me so frustrated with people like Gallagher. What, precisely, should we be playing for all its worth? What does Gallagher think scientists should be doing that they are not currently doing?
I believe that popularization should be part of every scientist's job description. I would even go so far as to say that the scientific community deserves a small measure of the blame for the public's ignorance of what scientists do, since as a culture they tend to look down on popularization, and popularizers. But that hardly implies that a shouting match in front of a school board, especially one in which the anti-evolution side operates completely divorced from any sense of conscience or integrity, is a good thing for science.
While some of the commentary, with headlines such as “Religious right fights science for the heart of America,”1 suggests that the heart of America is some kind of science utopia, this could hardly be further from the truth. With the exception of isolated pockets of excellence, the heart of America could do well with engaging a lot more with science, and this is a chance to make headway. Debates can be won as well as lost!
Gallagher continues to miss the point. How is “this” a chance to make headway? How does forcing a school board to listen to a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense they are unqualified to judge, coming from people more interested in politics and religion than they are in science, provide an opportunity to educate people about evolution?
Gallagher would do well to heed Stephen Jay Gould's maxim that “The truth is only one weapon, seldom the best, in the debater's aresenal.” Having said that, I have written elsewhere that under the right circumstances I am in favor of scientists debating creationists. The issue, however, is the proper forum in which to do this.
At the level of the students who are, after all, the principles in all this, the study of different explanations for the diversity of life on Earth will make science class more compelling. Clyde Herreid talks on page 10, in this issue's Opinion, about the need for science teaching to connect to the first-hand experiences of students. The evolution-intelligent design debate will fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution.
And here, again, Gallagher needs to tell us what the ID explanation for the diversity of life on Earth actually is.
There is one caveat, and it's a big one: The topics must be taught on a level playing field. Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied, and there must be no further pressure on curricula or teachers. Given this, I'm in little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.
Gallagher doesn't seem to understand that for many kids in the “heart” of America, every cultural influence on them supports the creationist view of things. The one place they will ever hear about what science has to say on the subject is in a school science class. And now he wants us to water down that class by presenting respectfully a lot of propaganda and false information.
There is also the practical problem that most biology teachers are not well-enough trained to handle the minutiae of this subject. Presenting full information on ID would presumably mean introducing a lot of information on the Cambrian explosion, or flagellum architecture or “complex specified information” things that most teachers are not in a position to discuss.
The primary effect of teaching ID would not be that students would see ID for the fraud that it is. Rather, the primary effect would be that students would be given the false impression that there is a genuine scientific controversy on this subject. The details would be forgotten shortly after the test, but the phony controversy would remain in their minds.
In addition, scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution. Scientists must propose their case to as wide an audience as possible. This includes commercial television news, a medium of which scientists have been skeptical.2 Let's get out there and argue!
I'm all in favor of scientists getting the word out, but it is hard to believe that Gallagher has actually watched any news segments on this subject. If he had, he would understand why scientists are so skeptical of it. Let him have a look at how Bill O'Reilly
or Joe Scarborough
handle these issues, and then say that the problem is just one of scientists getting out there and making their case.