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cdesign proponentsists January 29, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Politics, science.
Tags: , , , , ,

The evolution ‘debate’ is certainly a can of worms but, with Darwin’s 200th birthday coming up next month and recent creationist battles in Louisiana on the news wire, it’s a can that’s due to be opened here at Valence.

Before we go too far, let me just be clear, evolution kicks ass.  Since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 evidence ranging from such diverse disciplines as paleontology to genetics has consistently poured in to show that evolution is a robust natural explanation for the diversity of life on our planet.  I’ve paired the word ‘debate’ with evolution in quotes above because there is actually no scientific controversy over whether evolution is true.  (For a brief further explanation of my position you can read here and for a less brief but considerably more reputable discussion please check this out.)


That being said, there is certainly a debate between religious creationists (lately, thinly veiled as “Intelligent Design, ID, Proponents”) and reputable science.  Unfortunately, because ID proponents have little to contribute to the actual scientific community this debate is often waged over high school and middle school curricula instead of with actual research.  For IDers it’s much easier to slip creationism past the politics of school boards and state legislators than it is to deal honestly with scientific criticism.  A great summary of creationism’s tactics was in the January issue of Scientific American.

The effort to sneak religious overtones into the public school system by barring or seriously skewing the teaching of evolution is nothing new and has, as of yet, been unsuccessful thanks to our handy-dandy Establishment Clause (see Epperson v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard).  In fact, the entire ID movement was born out of the need to mask the religious overtones of creationism in order to side step the separation of church and state.  Luckily, even efforts as recent as 2005 to provide “alternative textbooks” in schools promoting ID have proven unsuccessful as the promotion of ID was equated with the promotion of religion (see Kitzmiller v. Dover).  After being so soundly thumped at Dover the ID community has been forced to retreat to their fallback strategy of lobbying for schools to simply “teach the controversy” about evolution by couching their arguments in the vocabulary of “academic freedom.”

It is this plea to academic freedom that I am most interested in discussing this week.  The strategy is so interesting because it appeals to an inherent sense of fairplay and debate that Americans go crazy for.  As soon as any argument seeks to silence its critics in order to remain valid all of our alarm bells go ringing.  One could ask, “If evolution is so secure than why try to shield our students from learning its pitfalls?  Why not teach the controversy and let the students decide?”  On the surface these appear to be strong and valid questions but ultimately I think they’re misrepresenting the science and twisting the purpose of education.

Here’s an example.  Louisiana took a small but important step back towards the dark ages last year with the unfortunate passing of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote? (SciAm Jan 09)

The bill is aimed at supporting and protecting teachers who want to teach ‘supplemental’ material about ‘controversial’ subjects.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Wrong. Tellingly, the only ‘controversial’ subjects highlighted by the bill are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”.  Also, “…the bill was introduced at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum, which seeks to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.” (SciAm Jan 09)”

Further, shouldn’t science teachers already be fostering critical thinking skills and logical analysis?  Is there really a need for the Louisiana legislature to suddenly step in and encourage them to continue do so?  I don’t think so.  This bill is simply seeking a loophole to sneak creationism back into schools.

…it is clear why the Louisiana Science Education Act is pernicious: it tacitly encourages teachers and local school districts to miseducate students about evolution, whether by teaching creationism as a scientifically credible alternative or merely by misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial… Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is-to be blunt-a lie. (SciAm Jan 09)

But what of academic freedom?  Yes, teaching is about equipping your students with critical thinking skills but it’s also about pointing them to the best and most reliable sources of information available. Helping them up onto the proverbial shoulders of those giants they are supposed to be seeing from, if you will.

The simple fact is that evolution is not contested in any reputable scientific circles.  All of modern biology is built upon the stoutness of evolutionary theory.  Does academic freedom extend to lying to our students about the validity of scientific theories in order to be ‘fair’ to opposing views?  I think not, especially when those views are largely contrived and long ago debunked.  Why handicap our students with this kind of garbage?  ID’s request to teach creationism, or at least cast doubt on evolution, is tantamount to giving equal time to the Flat Earth Society in the physics classroom because they disagree with Newton.

Additionally, the appeal to ‘teach the controversy’ betrays a serious misunderstanding on the side of creationists as to how science actually works.  Science thrives on argument.  The strength of evolutionary theory (and any other well established scientific theory for that matter) is the tangible ways that it meets and answers questioners with actual evidence.  It’s the controversy and skeptical questions which keep us looking for evidence and which have ultimately strengthened evolution over the years.

The problem with the ID movement is not that they contest the validity of evolution but instead that once their theories have been refuted by evidence they consistently refuse to revise their ideas.  Dishonesty.  When they are no longer able to proffer their arguments in scientific circles they decide to take their case directly to high school students.  Talk about preying on the vulnerable.  A plea to academic freedom is used to excuse a lack of academic integrity.  Is this the educational standard we should be holding to?



1. Philip - January 29, 2009

this reminds me of something in Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Blind Watchmaker.” when IDers or others suggest that evolution is scientifically contentious, the evidence they often cite for this is often modern-day scientists quibbling with some aspect of Darwin’s original proposal. alas, Darwinism/”The Origin of Species” is not equivalent to evolutionary theory. there are lots of aspects and fiddly parts of “Origin of Species” that have been refuted, but not the core principles, e.g. biological life is self-selecting for features/attributes that promote gene-passing.

2. Adam Heine - January 29, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve bothered with this argument. I’d like to say I gave up on it for some noble reason – perhaps because one side or the other wasn’t listening anymore, just arguing. Though that is true for many individuals, I think I gave it up because biology puts me to sleep (sorry, Cas ;-).

Anyway, this is an issue of the separation of church and state. The government, as a secular institution, is pretty much required to teach what science knows at the current point in time. The biggest concession they could make to ID (constitutionally) would be to teach that commonly-accepted science – even theories and laws – have been wrong in the past.

Of course they already do that, every time the textbook gets to Galileo, for instance.

I don’t believe the government can teach more than that without compromising The Separation. As you say, Casey, the evidence isn’t there nor is there scientific consensus on anything but evolution. For parents who don’t want their children taught that, there’s private school or homeschool.

Personally, I think the church needs to drop this debate. It’s not critical to anything except a literal interpretation of the Bible, which is a really hard stance to take even without evolution.

3. Dave - January 29, 2009

You raise an interesting point — interesting (to me) in large part because there is, in fact, a recognized research program dedicated to critically analyzing the scientific method. People like Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Karl Popper, the Vienna Circle, and even some of Charles Taylor’s earliest work, all take critical stances towards scientists’ self-understanding of the scientific method. Heck, even Weber does, at least in part, in “Science as a Vocation”.

So, what’s the difference between these critical studies of science and ID proponents? I think there are differences — it’s hard to imagine the Louisiana Family Forum embracing Paul Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism, for example — but I have a hard time articulating them.

Also, “Hi! Look, I finally started contributing(ish)!”

4. Eric - January 29, 2009

C’mon Dave — if you’re gonna drop in like that, at least clarify a few things about what each of these authors might say (or have said) about evolution. For example, my understanding of Kuhn and Popper (the only two with which I have any familiarity) is that they don’t so much critique the scientific method as seek to sharpen it (Popper) or investigate its role in scientific behavior and accumulation of knowledge (Kuhn). As I understand it, Kuhn identifies Darwin’s work as the start of a true scientific revolution, and Popper would be super-pleased with the falsifiability of the main claims of evolutionary theory. No?

But to build on something else Dave mentions: I think that it may be worth reflecting on what a “recognized research program” means. Why do Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper, et al. count as such, whereas the Louisiana Family Forum and its ilk — certainly not an insubstantial bunch of folks in this country and perhaps elsewhere — do not? There are those in the academy who regard large swaths of philosophy (not to mention other humanties disciplines, literary criticism being among the most prominent) as just so much armchair mental masturbation, and as completely expendible parts of the university curriculum. Where to draw the line?

5. Matt - January 29, 2009

Uh, I didn’t get the title – “cdesign proponentsists”? Huh?

6. Dave - January 29, 2009

@Eric: Debated trying to lay these guys out, but decided that the particulars of their criticisms of science were less important for this question than the perceived legitimacy of their criticisms.

But, I think that Kuhn, at least, opens the door to criticisms of, for example, evolution, insofar as his model of paradigms is specifically nonprogressive. Progress takes place within a paradigm (the evolutionary paradigm, for example), but the scientific revolutions marked by changes in paradigm are not progress; they’re just changes. In Kuhn’s model, you can criticize Darwin’s work with the paradigm, but not from outside (and, work in evolutionary biology fundamentally cannot criticize work outside of *its* paradigm).

At any rate, the question you get at (where to draw the line), is the question I was trying to get at. I suppose we could try and get all reflexive, and apply the perspectives of critical theory to critical theory, but I’m not sure where that would get us. That is, Kuhn et al probably give some attempts to answer the question of why some criticisms get legitimated and others don’t, but using them productively means buying them.

7. caseyww - January 29, 2009


You win the prize for being the first to ask about the title. Here’s the backstory:

In Kitzmiller v. Dover case the issue at stake was the introduction of an ID textbook into the school system, namely Of Panda’s and People. When challenged in court the ID strategy was to claim that the Of Panda’s was a purely secular book that had no ties to any religious organizations or creationism. Posing as secular science and using the title “design proponent” they hoped to avoid the establishment clause.

However, when early drafts of the book were procured for evidence they found that the original text used the word “creationist” all over the place… creationist theory, creationist evidence, creationist argument, etc. In an effort to make the text book admissible in the public school system the editors had gone through the text and changed all the references to ‘creationist’ to ‘design proponent’. All except one that is. There was a copy-paste typo in the book’s draft that proved the link between creationists and IDers. A transitional species if you will that was smoking gun evidence of their religious motivations. As they copied ‘design proponents’ into the middle of ‘creationists’ they didn’t select the whole word and they were left with: cdesign proponentsists

The Dover trial did not end well for them.

8. T - January 29, 2009

Ahhh, the “Separation,’ one of the most clearly written and easily interpreted clauses of the Constitution. Oh wait…it’s not in the Constitution. Or the Declaration. Bill of Rights? Federalist/Anti-Federalist Papers? Emancipation Proclamation? No, No, No.

That doesn’t add much to this debate, which is about science, but since the subject was broached it’s fun to point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” was coined by Tom Jefferson in a private letter he wrote to a bunch of bummed out Baptists in Connecticut around 1802, and later borrowed by the Supreme Court in various rulings that sought to inflate this supposed “wall” between God and government. Of course, it can be argued that SCUTOS’ intent was to remove the Christian God from the public scene (whose got first dibs on that big stone etching inside the Supreme Courtroom of Moses holding the 10 Commandments?) whereas Jefferson was only making the point that the nascent federal gov’t wouldn’t favor one Christian denomination over another.

Uh oh. Talk about a can of worms…

9. T - January 29, 2009

Ok, bit of dyslexia there. Acknowledged.

10. Matt - January 29, 2009

@Casey – Ha! That’s a good story. I think it’s especially good because let’s face it – we’ve all made that copy and paste error before. (Or some other clbuttic mistake.)
@T – you say nothing incorrect, but you seem to be putting words in the mouth of Adam. He never once mentioned the Constitution.

11. T - January 29, 2009

Matt, I wasn’t picking on Adam in particular (sorry, Adam, if it came across that way). The ‘separation’ thing was brought up by Casey, too.

12. Adam Heine - January 29, 2009

Oh crap, T! I knew that and I totally made the mistake anyway (I did mention the Constitution once, parenthetically – but more importantly, I thought it the whole time).

At the risk of spilling the can, the intent of the Founders was that the government should not decree the beliefs of its people. Is that right? Hence, ‘freedom of religion.’

So I think what I said is still true. If the government is going to provide public education, then that public education needs to be religion-neutral. I don’t think that necessarily means religion-absent (that’s another can), but it does mean that in a science class, science needs to be taught – whatever the current theories and laws are.

If those theories and laws are wrong, that needs to be proven with science, and only then can it be taught in the schools (I think this is Casey’s point, and I agree with it).

This is all assuming, of course, that science does not begin prescribing religion either. Meaning, in a public school science class, they do not teach that there is a God, but they also don’t teach that there isn’t one. Either way, it’s not science.

13. T - January 29, 2009

Adam, I have no problem with yours and Casey’s point, which, if I am restating correctly, is that hard science should be taught in science class and religion taught in religion class. My blurb on the ‘separation’ thing was really just an exercise in rabbit chasing more than anything else. That discussion belongs in the poli sci classroom.

Whether or not ID proponents or Creationists are able to offer competing views of how the world operates based on proven science I’ll leave for others to debate since I have little knowledge in this area. Casey’s post heartily suggests they don’t. Perhaps that’s true. My question, then, is if you believe in God do you believe He had any hand in creating/guiding/helping things along as we know them, and if so at what point does that become part of the scientific discussion?

This question is open to everyone.

14. Paul - January 29, 2009

“whereas Jefferson was only making the point that the nascent federal gov’t wouldn’t favor one Christian denomination over another.”

This is partially true T. I’d go back and read some of his letters to both Adams and Madison… Jefferson is much more blunt in that he wanted a separation because he believed an established religion would corrupt the minds of man and ultimately the government. Interestingly enough, Madison agreed with him but in a sort of opposite way, that there should be a separation between government and religion because Madison didn’t want government to corrupt religion.

15. Matt - January 30, 2009

I would say that regardless of your belief/unbelief in God, whether He had a hand in creating things can never enter the scientific discussion. It can and probably should enter the metaphysical discussions related to existence, but it can’t ever enter the scientific ones.
PS This is very frustrating, but all the language I want to use to talk about this stuff is wrong – I only know the concepts as mediated through Neal Stephenson’s excellent novel Anathem. Anathem is a “speculative fiction” (I guess we can’t say “sci-fi” anymore?) novel that Stephenson wrote essentially to explore some philosophical concepts (the direct factor was reading Husserl, if I recall correctly). He set it in a different world that parallels our own in many ways, and had different words for the same concepts. So I don’t know the real-world philosophical concepts upon which he based them. If any of you have read Anathem, I’m talking about the “Sconic Discipline” here.
It’s probably a sign of something bad when your postscript is longer than the main body of what you wrote.

16. Dave - January 30, 2009

At least early (17th/18th century) natural philosophers tried to resolve the tension between their religious beliefs in God and the increasing explanatory power of scientific explanations by likening God to a watchmaker. In this model, God sets up the gears of evolution to unfold according to a preordained design (human free will causes the normal set of problems, but no additional ones). Science describes the particular mechanisms, but nothing else.

Obviously, this isn’t the only possible resolution, but it’s the one that sprang immediately to mind.

17. Antony - January 30, 2009

My two cents on the two things running through this thread:

(1) Academic freedom and ‘teaching the controversy.’ I think it says something that nobody posting here has defended ‘teaching the controversy’, and I know enough of the commenters to know that we inhabit a pretty diverse range of opinions.

I think it’s interesting that we all also strongly accept the division between subjects: science is for science class; history is for history class. I’m not suggesting I disagree, but I think it contributes to a certain relationship to science that is unhealthy…

Dave pointed towards it (Comment #2) – the scientific method is not perfect, and requires some critical thought not just within science, but of science taken as a whole. So, I think that there should be an ethics of science component in any science course. That would be the place to lay out for the students what it is that we’re doing when we do science and give them the tools to think critically at every juncture of the class without the need to fabricate a nonsense controversy.

(2) T’s question about God’s role in creation and its relationship to science. I follow Matt on this. I think that if God had any role in creation, it has to be an existential question. As Matt said it has to be about our metaphysics.

If God exists and created the universe, then he has to, in some important sense, be outside of the universe. Thus the tools for understanding the universe (the natural) such as science can only go so far in addressing the questions of what God is and what he’s done/does. Whether or not we could develop a metaphysics that does a better job at knowing God than any other human form of knowledge, I don’t know. Maybe…

18. bear - February 1, 2009

I have been too busy with the start of a new semester to be timely, but I did want to respond to this by saying how much I appreciate the integrity of this discussion.

As an educator, this is a conundrum—how can we really be ourselves and at the same time be neutral enough to not offend. Many times, during office hours, I have found myself with a student who is struggling, seeking help or direction. There have been times where I have told them that they need to “get right with God.” There is often head nodding and agreement, but then invariably I say, “Whatever that means to you…you need to look to something more than yourself.” If they invite me to tell them more about what it means for me, then I tell them. I never start it. In the classroom, I will never say this because no matter how I present this it will come across as an agenda. This is why ID infuriates me—it is a cool idea about God’s interaction in creation that is then mutilated and made into disguise a creationist agenda—this is a complete lack of integrity in education as far as I am concerned, and it has no place in any classroom.

It reminds me of a talk I attended last year. I had just returned from the West Bank, and I was excited when I heard that certain, well known, Palestinian speaker was coming to campus to a Chicano Studies class to talk about reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis. The talk was shameful. Having just returned from Israel and the West Bank, I could truly understand, even support some of the frustrations he was expressing. But when he started into, “Right of Return,” for Palestinians, he lost some credibility. It was when he defined that I realized the agenda being presented. Students were asking fantastic questions…”But if the Pal. return, what happens to the Israeli citizens and their homes?” What about the Jewish Synagogues?” What about the children?” All of these questions were met with one response: “It is our land.” His message was one of revenge, hate, and murder, enmeshed in a valiant tale of supposed revolution. (I suppose like ID, the real message revealed itself by nature of its explication). I was incredibly frustrated by the students who left disgruntled. I had words about integrity and intellectual and academic honesty with the Chicano Studies professor, who, being pro-revolution himself, found the talk inspiring despite his students unanswered questions and baffled demeanor.

I think the academy is a unique place for integrity and honesty—academic freedom means nothing if it is under the thumb of someone’s agenda.


19. Matt - February 2, 2009

Bear’s comment has prompted me to say that we who identify ourselves with the Church also should be more proactive in our acknowledgment of, and apologizing for, the shameful ways that we have acted both historically and currently, whether in the suppression of scientific advancement or human or civil rights.
So I’ll start, I guess: I’m sorry. I’m very sorry about what people that I call my brothers and sisters have done to distort the truth or maim or kill, often in the name of One whom I consider very precious. I know that a stupid comment on a blog doesn’t mean anything, but perhaps it can start a conversation; if you wish to talk to me, email me at MattyDub. The domain for the email address is that of the mail service provided by google (ha! take that, spam bots!). If you can’t figure that out, Casey has my email.

20. Darwin Does It « valence - February 11, 2009

[…] suppose statements like “evolution kicks ass” probably already gave away my opinion that the Theory of Evolution is not only good and […]

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