October 9, 2005

Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers Pt. 1" - An exercise in disingenuous rhetoric

Dr. Stephen Meyer has begun a series of "Notes to Teachers" which are presumably, judging from the first, meant to respond to ideas and concepts drawn from the events taking place in Dover. In this opening Note, he attempts to bolster the flagging reputation of the book that began "intelligent design" as a modern phenomenon - Of Pandas and People. To that end, he pasted the Afterword for that book, written by himself and Mark Hartwig. As Meyer and Hartwig use the convention of speaking directly to teachers, I will follow suit while addressing his myriad distortions.

Meyer begins [italics from the original],
A Note To Teachers: First in a Five Part Series
Stephen Meyer

Since its first edition ran off the press in 1989, Of Pandas and People, has been an extremely controversial book due to the significant challenge to Darwinism it presents, as well as its presentation of intelligent design. And by the sales rank at Amazon.com (#749 today) it seems that the book and the controversy are as popular now as ever.
Teachers, please observe: Of Pandas and People (OPAP) has never been seen by biologists as a challenge to Darwinism. It is a presentation of creationism in which the names have been changed to protect the innocent. “Intelligent design” (ID) is a phrase coined by those who recognized after courtroom losses that "creationism" was no longer going to cut it legally. Ever protective of the big tent, and not wishing to be seen as conceding ground to “evolutionists,” Meyer defends OPAP even though its content is not recognizable as what even Meyer would put forth as ID “theory. Also take note that Meyer is engaging in a bit of the familiar slick marketing language the DI (Discovery Institute, the "intelligent design" organization of which Meyer is a Vice President) uses by trumping up the “controversy” angle. He knows very well that there is no significant controversy in science as regards ID, and is well aware that this is a political issue largely of the DI’s making.
Once again Pandas is under attack, this time in a court of law. Reading some of the false criticisms aimed at the book by the ACLU it seems a good time to present the book's afterword written by myself and Dr. Mark Hartwig. Here then is the first part of that forward, originally titled "A Note to Teachers."

[A Note to Teachers]

Biological origins can be one of the most captivating subjects in the curriculum. As a biology teacher, you have probably already seen how the topic excites your students. The allure of dinosaurs, trilobites, fossilized plants and ancient human remains is virtually irresistible to many students. Indeed, many prominent scientists owe their interest in science to an early exposure to this topic.

The subject of origins, however, is not only captivating--it is also controversial. Because it touches on questions of enduring significance, this topic has long been a focal point for vigorous debate--legal and political, as well as intellectual. Teachers often find themselves walking a tightrope, trying to teach good science, while avoiding the censure of parents and administrators.

To complicate things, the cultural conflict has been compounded by controversies within the scientific community itself. Since the 1970's, for example, scientific criticisms of the long-dominant neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (which combines classical Darwinism with Mendelian genetics) have surfaced with increasing regularity. In fact, the situation is such that paleontologist Niles Eldredge was driven to remark:

If it is true that an influx of doubt and uncertainty actually marks periods of healthy growth in science, then evolutionary biology is flourishing today as it seldom has in the past. For biologists are collectively less agreed upon the details of evolutionary mechanics than they were a scant decade ago.

Moreover, many scientists have advocated fundamental revisions of orthodox evolutionary theory.
Teachers, consider how Meyer (and Hartwig) begin by saying the subject of origins is controversial, citing difficulties such as parent censure. This is indeed true. The difficulties to which he refers are those that some individuals of religious conviction have expressed regarding the teaching of evolutionary biology. These concerns manifest themselves as legal and political, as well as pedagogical controversies. Now note the dishonest way in which Meyer (and Hartwig) morph this particular cultural controversy into one which he suggests, and advances quotes as evidence for, is going on in science. These are, of course, very different discussions. There are genuine areas of dispute among evolutionary biologists regarding issues of detail, as there are in any vibrant and productive scientific discipline. There is, however, no dispute as to whether evolution is an appropriate scientific theory for explaining the descent and diversity of modern organisms.
Similarly, the standard models explaining chemical evolution--the origin of the first living cell--have taken severe criticism. These criticisms have sparked calls for a radically different approach to explaining the origin of life on earth.
Note the ambiguity of the language used here. There is virtually no model, theory, hypothesis or idea in science that has not taken severe criticism at one point or another. This is how scientists evaluate concepts and reach consensus. Recognize Meyer’s disingenuous attempts to plant false impressions. Keep in mind that the criticisms of which he speaks have sparked no calls from scientists for non-scientific approaches such as creationism or “intelligent design.”
Though many defenders of the orthodox theories remain, some observers now describe these theories as having entered paradigm breakdown--a state where a once-dominant theory encounters conceptual problems or can no longer explain many important data. Science historians Earthy and Collingwood, for example, have described neo-Darwinism as a paradigm that has lost its capacity to solve important scientific problems. They note that both defenders and critics find it hard to agree even about what data are relevant to deciding scientific disagreements.
We see the use, typical of ID apologetics, of demagogical language (“orthodox”) meant cynically to appeal to notions of presumed entrenchment and unfairness. Note, as well, the phrase “some observers,” which, of course, can mean someone with an informed opinion, or a blundering partisan. In this case only ID proponents and “theorists” have prophesied this purported breakdown. As for Earthy and Collingwood, since the only references I can find to their work come from Meyer I must provisionally conclude that few others have taken their conclusions seriously (or that Meyer has misunderstood them).
Putting it more bluntly, in 1980 Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pronounced the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" to be "effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy."

In this intellectual and cultural climate, knowing how to teach biological origins can be exceedingly difficult. When respected scientists disagree about which theories are correct, teachers may be forgiven for not knowing which ones to teach.
But Meyer (and Hartwig) cannot be forgiven for this shameless bit of dissembling. We are not experiencing an intellectual climate in which “scientists disagree about which theories are correct.” Scientists disagree as to some details of evolutionary theory, but they do not disagree about whether the theory represents the best scientific account of descent and diversification, nor do they disagree as to whether it is logical or defensible to teach alternate explanations that derive from religious belief (they do not).
An Opportunity

Controversy is not all bad, however. For it gives teachers the opportunity to engage their students as a deeper level. Instead of filling young minds with discrete facts and vocabulary lists, teachers can show their students the rough-and-tumble of genuine scientific debate. In this way, students begin to understand how science really works. When they see scientists of equal stature disagreeing over the interpretation of the same data, students learn something about the human dimension of science. They also learn about the distinction between fact and inference--and how background assumptions influence scientific judgment.

It is against this backdrop of challenge and opportunity that the publisher offers this supplementary text, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. The purpose of this text is to expose your students to the captivating and the controversial in the origins debate--to take them beyond the pat scenarios offered in most basal texts and encourage them to grapple with ideas in a scientific manner.
The purpose of the text of OPAP is to expose students to a premeditated re-tooling of “scientific creationism” in the hope, not that it will “take them beyond the pat scenarios offered in most basal texts and encourage them to grapple with ideas in a scientific manner,” but that it will reinforce literalist tendencies in such a way that students will resist natural evidence, relying instead upon religious ideology. Of Pandas and People, like all of creationism and ID “theory,” is an insecure rebuke of an increasingly secular world. It is a political attempt to wedge open an artificial gap in scientific methodology wherein God can reside.
Pandas does this in two ways. First, it offers a clear, cogent discussion of the latest data relevant to biological origins. In the process is rectifies many serious errors found in several basal biology texts.

Second, Pandas offers a different interpretation of current biological evidence. As opposed to most textbooks, which present the more-or-less orthodox evolutionary accounts of how life originated and diversified, Pandas also presents a clear alternative, which the authors call "intelligent design." Throughout, the text evaluates how well different views can accommodate anomalous data within their respective interpretive frameworks. Pandas also makes the task of organizing your lessons and researching the scientific issues much easier. Pandas provides the scientific information you need in such a way that it coordinates well with your basal text.
Notice how Meyer (and Hartwig), who could come out in a straightforward fashion acknowledging their, and OPAP's, commitment to religious ideology as a guide for “interpretation of current biological evidence,” very pointedly do not do so. Consider, in light of the evidence for OPAP's creationist beginnings, Meyer and Hartwig’s creationist affiliations, and “intelligent design’s” religious underpinnings, that this can only be interpreted as deception of a very intentional sort. It is a deception based upon forlorn recognition of current Constitutional reality.
In the spirit of good, honest science, Pandas makes no bones about being a text with a point of view. Because it was intended to be a supplemental text, the authors saw no value in simply rehashing the orthodox accounts covered by basal textbooks. Rather, its presentation of a non-Darwinian perspective, in addition to the standard view, is intended to stimulate discussion and encourage students to evaluate the explanatory power of different theories--which, after all, is what science is all about.
Notice once again the “designed” ambiguity of this argument. Science is about the explanatory power of different scientific theories. Other kinds of explanations can be far more comprehensive while not meeting the standards required of empirical science.
By using this text in conjunction with your standard basal text, you will help your students learn to grapple with multiple competing hypotheses and to maintain an open but critical posture toward scientific knowledge. As students learn to weigh and sort competing views and become active participants in the clash of ideas, you may be surprised at the level of motivation and achievement displayed by your students.
Teachers please observe: As an example of the lengths to which pseudo-scientists and religious ideologues will go in order to force their viewpoint upon others OPAP may well serve as a valuable aid, and may indeed stimulate a more informed and “critical posture toward scientific knowledge.” That would be all to the good. However, it is not the “good” Meyer and Hartwig envision, and we should be acutely concerned with preserving that distinction.

[Further "Notes" from Meyer will be evaluated in upcoming entries]


Blogger Ed Darrell said...

It is interesting to watch the way Meyer distorts information to make it polemical.

The book ranked #749 in sales at Amazon.com? On a day when the Discovery Institute bought 100 of them, at 3:00 a.m. before regular sales start, perhaps. But Meyer shouldn't kid that the book is in the top thousand most popular books in America at any time. I just checked -- it's about #3,400 for today (October 15, 2005, in the evening).

As with all facts, Meyer finds a way to bend them to fit his argument, and he bends them in a way that, before a fair tribunal, would get the argument labeled "foul."

5:19 PM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

To the best of my research, the book was never approved by any school district in America. The publisher refused to offer it for analysis to the Texas State Board of Education because it did not meet even basic requirements for a high school text.

The book is not just "with a viewpoint," it is horribly incorrect in key concepts, and it totally ignores most research in the past 40 years. It has not been updated in over a decade, a decade that has seen the sequencing of the human genome (which directly refutes the chief claims of the view of this book), and dramatic advances in a dozen other fronts.

Some scriptures warns us that there will be those who try to twist reality like that.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your work. Maybe Meyer was refering to this Collingwood:
Essay on Philosophical Method
R. G. Collingwood

2:46 PM  

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