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Monday, February 9, 2009

Wise on Intelligent Design in the Classroom

The state of biology education in America is alarming. According to a well-known study of dozens of countries around the world, America is second only to Turkey in having the highest percentage of citizens who do not accept the scientific fact of evolution. According to a recent Penn State study, evolutionary theory is dangerously neglected in the biology classroom. Many teachers avoid the subject altogether, and only a small percentage emphasize its importance to the field of biology. Meanwhile, a number of them already discuss creationism in the classroom.

A broader cultural dilemma is involved: how to resolve the tension between science and religion in America. This is a serious issue, and I do not think America's scientists are responding to it properly. The most outspoken supporters of evolutionary theory believe their biggest enemies are those who try to wedge discussions of Intelligent Design into the science classroom. This is a mistake.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asks, "a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"

This question calls to task received wisdom about the relationship between science and religion, as well as the separation of church and state. (The teaching of Intelligent Design in the public school system has been ruled unconstitutional because of its relation to creationism.) If what have traditionally been held to be exclusively religious conceptions turn out to be relevant to an understanding of science, we cannot properly teach science without challenging tradition. This means the separation of church and state should not extend to a banning of all discussions of religious ideas in the public science classroom.

The historical and philosophical importance of evolutionary theory cannot be separated from its relationship to religious teachings. To fully understand and appreciate the value of evolutionary theory, students must learn how effectively and bluntly it disarms appeals to intelligent creation in the effort to understand life and humanity.

Introducing a critical discussion of Intelligent Design in the science classroom will not threaten the sanctity of a science education; on the contrary, it will open up students' minds to the full weight of evolutionary theory, and so properly counter the ignorance plaguing American society. The war against ignorance in America is not going to be won by banning discussions of Intelligent Design from the public classroom, even if such discussions are deemed "religious." The war is going to be won after a sound debunking of Intelligent Design becomes a required, integral part of science education in America.

The main enemy here may be NOMA ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria," a phrase coined by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould). NOMA is a political principle which says that science and religion must be kept at arms length at all times. Their respective domains, their "magisteria," do not overlap. Science develops experimental models of nature; religion deals with questions of ultimate value and meaning in life. The two are not related, and so must keep out of each other's business.

When it comes to science education, a hands-off agreement with religion is a recipe for disaster. Students who have been raised with creationist beliefs are not taught to think criticially about them in a way which explores the nature of scientific inquiry and the value of evolutionary theory. They are therefore that much less receptive to a lecture on evolution; especially when they believe that the whole truth, God's truth, is being banned from discussion. NOMA thus allows students' misconceptions about evolution to go unchallenged, providing a sanctuary for their mistrust of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular.

NOMA has its critics, such as Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who argue that it wrongly imbues religion with an untouchable status, as though religious values and practices were beyond reach of scientific scrutiny. NOMA also has a rather serious built-in flaw: when scientific practice challenges religious codes, it offers no means of resolving the disputes. (See, for example, the cultural debates over abortion and stem cell research).

Regardless of its problems, many science educators embrace NOMA as a way of avoiding discussions of religion. NOMA absolves them of responsibility, allowing them to act as though Intelligent Design, as threatening as it is to America's understanding of science, is not relevant to their work.

Some science educators recognize the inadequacy of NOMA, but resist introducing discussions of ID in the classroom for other reasons. They say a discussion of the relevant issues would only confuse students. Teenagers are apparently too immature to understand the difference between a valid scientific theory and religiously motivated, anti-scientific prejudice. If that is true, then we should have very little hope for the future of American science education.

Some argue that America´s teachers are not qualified to address the issues raised by Intelligent Design. Either the subject is too complex and advanced, or it is too time-consuming to deal with in the public classroom.

I find this hard to believe. For one thing, there is no need to get into the most complex or advanced discussions of evolutionary theory here. What is needed is a broad yet concise analysis of the main issues, with direction for further study. If the teachers are not qualified to give that to their students, then they are not qualified to teach biology.

The issue of qualifications is raised by the authors of the Penn State study I referenced earlier. They conclude that educators are more likely to teach evolutionary theory if they have taken a course in evolutionary biology. However, this could merely be a correlation. Perhaps those who embrace evolutionary theory are more likely to enroll in a course in evolutionary biology. We should not assume that requiring ID advocates or creationists to take a course in evolutionary biology will increase the likelihood that they will give adequate attention to evolutionary theory in the classroom. Of course, we must make sure our educators are qualified, and a required course in evolutionary biology is a great idea. However, it might not be enough.

As for the issue of class time: What could be more worthy of time in the biology classroom than a proper presentation of that which grounds the entire field of study?

This question has particular relevance today. As reported in The Florida Times Union, Florida State Senator Stephen Wise has announced that he plans to introduce a new bill requiring that all teachers who teach evolutionary theory also discuss Intelligent Design in the classroom.

In step with America's National Science Education Standards (1996), the Florida Board of Education requires that evolutionary theory be taught as the foundation of the biological sciences. Senator Wise says, "If you're going to teach evolution, then you have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

Wise wrongly implies that Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary theory. His argument is flawed, but his conclusion remains appealing. We do need more discussion and critical thinking in the science classroom; we just need to make sure that it is done properly.

If Wise's proposed legislation goes through, it might eventually lead to a different piece of legislation, one requiring that all biology textbooks include a section in which Intelligent Design is adequately dealt with: that is, debunked according to scientific standards and theory.

The kind of legislation Wise is proposing will not end the tension between science and religion in America, nor will it cure America of its ignorance; but it might be a step in the right direction. It may even be a necessary step. Even more, there does not seem to be a good reason to challenge such legislation. On the one hand, there is the questionable argument for NOMA; on the other, an argument for pessimism rooted in the fear that teachers will not be able to do their jobs and students will not be able to learn the material.

While we cannot support Wise's thinking, we should not oppose his bill--that is, assuming it only entails a call for discussion and critical thinking. (Compare Wise's proposal to the recent legislation approved in Louisiana, which I also spoke out in favor of elsewhere.) Of course, if Wise proposes legislation that explicitly regards Intelligent Design as legitimate science on a par with evolutionary theory, then it must be stopped. But I do not expect Wise to make that mistake.

The point is, rather than spend our political efforts trying to keep ID out of our public schools, let us instead fight to make science education stronger by explicitly debunking ID in the classroom. If the scientific community continues to resist all discussions of ID in the classroom, it will only add more fuel to the fire of ignorance and prejudice against scientific methodology.