November 4, 2004

"Teach the Controversy," An Intelligently Designed Ruse

(Published in the Sept/Oct "04 issue of Skeptical Inquirer )
"When two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects the public school curriculum students should learn about both perspectives" (Meyer, 2001).
On its face this appears to be a reasonable, even desirable approach to pedagogical practice. This is the first line of Stephen Meyer’s "Teach the Controversy," an article that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 20, 2001. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, spoke at a meeting of the Ohio State Board of Education and wrote this piece in support of the inclusion of "Intelligent Design Theory" as part of the state’s biology curriculum. Meyer expands upon his opening sentence with the following: "In such cases teachers should not teach as true only one competing view, just the Republican or Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. Educators call this “teaching the controversy.""

Meyer is but one of many individuals employing this particular rhetoric in support of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools. Another, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson had this to say regarding a school board vote in Ohio: "This vote is a significant breakthrough in a major state towards official recognition that there is a scientific as well as a public controversy over the theory of evolution, and that the contested issues ought to be taught rather than suppressed"(Johnson, 2003), And there is this from one of the leading lights of ID, William Dembski: "The clarion call of the intelligent design movement is to "teach the controversy." There is a very real controversy centering on how properly to account for biological complexity (cf. the ongoing events in Kansas), and it is a scientific controversy" (Dembski, 2001).

The ID movement even goes so far as to enlist the help of a man whose name is lent to the body of work they challenge. To buttress their argument several have quoted this line from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (Multiple online sources, 2003): "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question"(Darwin, 1859).

It is obvious that there is a concerted effort - Dembski says as much above - within the Intelligent Design movement to work the “controversy” angle and, again, at first glance these arguments appear to be an appeal to rationality and compromise. To be sure, it's possible that Drs. Meyer and Dembski and Mr. Johnson believe they are being rational when they apply these arguments to the broad spectrum of biological origins. However, the assertion that there is a "scientific" controversy to be taught is at best misguided, and at worst, disingenuous.

Individuals who push the "it’s only fair to teach both sides" tactic count on those estimable intellectual qualities one finds in critical thinkers to tip the balance of opinion in their favor. These qualities, including fair-mindedness, intellectual curiosity and openness, not only allow for but indeed urge that all sides of an issue be aired. But I submit that ID proponents hope that those who employ these attributes will not scrutinize the "scientific controversy" assertion too deeply. A closer examination of these arguments in general, and Meyer’s fortuitous analogy in particular, shows that the metaphor breaks down, and the so-called scientific controversy is little more than a political ploy. It is revealed that what Dembski et al are offering, looked at from the perspective of science, is not controversial. And examined in the broader political context this dispute, while perhaps rising to the level of controversy, is demonstrably not scientific.

A look at Meyer’s metaphor is useful. Likely all will agree that competing political views of the New Deal not only deserve to be taught but in fact must be taught in order to properly cover the scope of the subject. And it is not surprising to find that there are differing, perhaps even diametrically opposed perspectives, regarding a particular aspect of a sub-discipline (Modern American History) of the overarching rubric of history itself. It is through exploration of these opposing perspectives that part of the teaching of this subject takes place. Meyer’s example could perhaps reasonably be referred to as an historical controversy, qualifying as such by virtue of the fact that there is a source of dispute marked by expression of opposing views (Merriam-Webster, 2004), and more importantly because it involves historians discussing history. The point here is that there is a broad gulf of difference between a ‘controversy’ and an ‘historical controversy.’ Addition of the modifier implies a dispute as to detail or process between those who share a common epistemological and empirical foundation. The prosecution of this debate can proceed using common reference, terminology and accepted evidence. Within this context, viewed at this scale, what may seem an overblown dispute over arcane minutiae to those outside the discipline could properly be deemed a controversy. By contrast however, consider an outsider, perhaps a mathematician, who insists that he has discovered that the foundational precepts of historical sciences themselves are flawed. If he makes his case to historians, and they, by an overwhelming percentage, affirm that his argument has no applicability within their discipline, how could we legitimately call this an historical controversy? Our mathematician may wish to engage historians on the issue and in doing so might drive the dispute to a controversial pitch. But while his argument may indeed be about history it is not the kind of 'historical controversy' that one would suggest requires inclusion in the history curriculum. In short, in the context of history (the discipline), the fact that historians regard our mathematician’s case as immaterial certainly leaves it short of controversial. And in the larger context any resulting controversy could not reasonably be qualified as historical.

The obvious implication here is that the assertion of "scientific controversy" as regards ID and biological origins is little more than an attempt to define the parameters of the issue for the purposes of political gain. The interests of Intelligent Design advocates are served by the perception that a scientific controversy exists. But the truth is this is not a genuine scientific dispute between evolutionary biologists regarding details of legitimate controversies such as the pace of speciation or phylogenetic classification. It is a political movement, begun and led by those outside the discipline, which advances the proposal that biology, and science itself, are flawed at the core. Science is drawn to unanswered questions. Science attempts to shine light into dark, unexplained places and advance our understanding of the unknown, if only incrementally. But the operative result of ID theory is to take the opposite course, to draw from an unknown the conclusion that it is unknowable, and is therefore ontologically supernatural (intelligently designed). The chilling effect this methodology would have upon proper scientific inquiry is obvious.

Clearly this perspective does not spring from an understanding of, or respect for, science. Though current political strategy cues ID proponents to aver that their concepts make no statements regarding the nature or identity of the designer, the movement is unquestionably driven by theological imperatives. Most scientists recognize this and regard ID accordingly (in one poll of Ohio scientists 91% of respondents answered "Yes" when asked the question: "Do you think the concept of "Intelligent Design" is primarily a religious view?")(NCSE, 2002). In spite of this ID proponents present their theory as a combatant in a scientific controversy. This public relations maneuver allows ID to look respectable, to appear to be a concept of substance and science. But from the point of view of science and scientists, specifically biologists, it is neither. Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller characterizes ID as: "…essentially a movement against reason. It's an argument that embraces ignorance"(Miller, 2001).

Miller’s view is shared by the vast majority of scientists, some of whom have mobilized in an attempt to protect science education. In support of removing the Santorum Amendment (which expressly advanced this notion of "teaching the controversy") from the House version of the No Child Left Behind Act a "Joint Letter from Scientific and Educational Leaders on Evolution in H.R.1" was signed by representatives of 80 scientific and educational organizations. The letter was unflinching in its support for evolutionary science: "Evolutionary theory ranks with Einstein's theory of relativity as one of modern science's most robust, generally accepted, thoroughly tested and broadly applicable concepts" (Joint Letter, 2001), as well as its recognition of the underlying motivations in this movement: "As written, the apparently innocuous statements in this resolution mask an anti-evolution agenda that repeatedly has been rejected by the courts." And: "If the point of the resolution is to encourage teaching about political controversy surrounding scientific topics, then evolution is just one of a legion of issues that are the subject of political debate. It should not be singled out. Confusing political with scientific controversy on the topic of biological evolution will weaken science education."

Further, in a resolution released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science dealing directly with ID it was declared: "Recognizing that the "intelligent design theory" represents a challenge to the quality of science education,..." (it is important to observe here that this is not recognition of a challenge to science, but to science education), "...the Board of Directors of the AAAS unanimously adopts the following resolution:

o Whereas, ID proponents claim that contemporary evolutionary theory is incapable of explaining the origin of the diversity of living organisms;
o Whereas, to date, the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution;
o Whereas, the ID movement has not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims;
o Therefore Be It Resolved, that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called "intelligent design theory" makes it improper to include as a part of science education;
o Therefore Be Further It Resolved, that AAAS urges citizens across the nation to oppose the establishment of policies that would permit the teaching of "intelligent design theory" as a part of the science curricula of the public schools..." (AAAS, 2002).

Plainly it is not credible to suggest there is a scientific controversy regarding Intelligent Design. To be sure, there is a political controversy and some evidence suggests that there is a public controversy as well. Some polls indicate that there is significant public support for the inclusion of ID in public science education curricula. If true this should prompt us to examine some of the underlying causes, even as we recognize that public opinion does not bear upon scientific consensus. A poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer may offer some insight (Plain Dealer, 2002). One of the poll questions confirms what most opposed to ID would expect, that the level of science education is at least partly responsible for public misapprehension. The questions asks: "Would you say that you are very familiar, somewhat familiar, or not that familiar with the concept of evolution?" to which respondents’ answers fell out as,

o Very Familiar - 42%;
o Somewhat Familiar - 43%;
o Not Familiar - 15%

While we may reasonably ask what exactly qualifies as "very familiar," even with skepticism aside we can propose that at least 58% of respondents to this poll likely did not know enough about evolution to be able to critically judge questions of intelligent design and biological origins. This affords plenty of polemical opportunities wherein the well known "Wedge" (a documented strategy by ID proponents for infiltrating science by political means) might seek incursion (CRSC, 2001), and the strategy on the part of ID proponents in this effort can often be subtle (perhaps surreptitious?). As mentioned above, they seek to appeal to the honest, egalitarian natures of critical thinkers. In addition they attempt to demonstrate that esteemed individuals and scientists support their point of view (as with the quote of Darwin above).

Most importantly, however, they try to soft pedal their goals, appearing to desire only to have evidence both for and against biological evolution covered in science classes. But this is already the case. Perhaps in high schools, where there is barely enough time to communicate the empirical and theoretical foundations of biology, there is little opportunity for fine-scale analysis. But certainly in higher educational environments this is, as with the example of historical contention earlier, integral to the advancement of biology itself. To propose that one desires only that "evidence for and against" evolution be taught is, from the perspective of science, to be utterly banal while simultaneously trying to appear scientific and unfairly scorned.

In comments regarding the Plain Dealer poll article cited above, ID proponents from a group called Science Excellence for all Ohioans exulted: "The results are quite gratifying to those of us who favor an objective "teach the controversy" approach to biological origins. Science Excellence for All Ohioans believes that schools should (a) teach the evidence for and against biological evolution, (b) permit, but not require, teachers to discuss alternative theories such as intelligent design, and (c) adopt a definition of science that allows for consideration of all logical explanations for phenomena in nature"(Plain Dealer, 2002). Of course no reasonable scientist, or layman for that matter, would argue against either "a" or "c." Both are wholly non-controversial, and are matters of scientific procedure. But here again a patina of conciliation and reason is employed to obscure an attempt ("b") to smuggle religion in the form of Intelligent Design into the science curriculum.

In the light of limited science education and political tactics it is not hard to understand that many parents might initially support teaching ID in schools. One is left to wonder, though, what the public’s reaction would be if, with the door opened, a bewildering variety of theologically motivated "scientific" origins theories demands equal time. (For that matter where would this leave those who complain that we must teach "both" sides?) Reflecting on this scenario it’s not hard to imagine biologists sarcastically observing at some point, "all these problems with evolutionary biology and no one bothered to tell us about it."

It is a sad, foregone conclusion that we have not heard the last of "teach the controversy." As long as people like Phillip Johnson and William Dembski feel they can profitably bring the battle to school boards - as they have done in Kansas, Minnesota, California, Ohio, Texas, and recently in Missouri - they will continue to promulgate their political campaign. Despite suffering defeats (notably in KS, CA and TX) in their attempted end runs around the scientific process, they will almost certainly continue this strategy.

In his testimony before the Texas SBOE Dembski said: "Don’t believe for one moment that all meaningful scientific debate about biological evolution has ceased or that it is only about loose ends and trivial details. If that were the case, none of us would be here today"(Dembski, 2003).

Most biologists will happily confirm that "all meaningful scientific debate about biological evolution" has certainly not ceased. It is the lifeblood of science, as for many other disciplines, that ideas are squeezed and prodded and debated vigorously. This is how scientific consensus is eventually reached. But Dembski’s suggestion that he would not be speaking at a school board meeting had all meaningful debate ceased, while probably literally true, is, as a metaphor for his motivation, misleading. To extend the metaphor, certainly the assorted scientists would not have been there, likely the board would not have needed to bother, and most of the spectators would be elsewhere. But Dembski would be there, regardless of the state of biological consensus, precisely because his difficulty with evolution is not scientific, and his political controversy can only be sustained by feeding the rhetorical flame. The image of Dembski arguing from an empty dais, to a nearly empty room is indeed an apt metaphor. For evolution enjoys a remarkably broad scientific consensus, and scientists, as well as the media, take notice of ID only when it tweaks a sensitive spot such as science education. It is for this reason that ID proponents extol the virtues of teaching a "scientific controversy" that clearly has little to do with responsible public education, and even less to do with science.

- AAAS Board Resolution. Intelligent Design Theory. 2002. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. 2001. The Wedge Strategy.
- Cleveland Plain Dealer Ohio Issue Poll. June 2002.
- Darwin, Charles R. 1859. The Origin of Species. New York. Penguin Group.
- Dembski, William A. 2001. Teaching Intelligent Design – What Happened When? A Response to Eugenie Scott.
- Dembski, William A. 2003. Testimony of William Dembski before Texas State Board of Education.
- Johnson, Phillip E. 2003. A Step Forward in Ohio. Touchstone 16 (1).
- Joint Letter from Scientific and Educational Leaders on Evolution in H.R.1. 2001.
- Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 2004.
- Meyer, Stephen J. 2001. Teach the Controversy. Cincinnati Enquirer.
- Miller, Kenneth. 2001. Evolution and Intelligent Design. Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
- Multiple online sources. 2003?
- Ohio Scientists' Intelligent Design Poll. 2002. National Center for Science Education.


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