August 21, 2005

Intelligent Design and the classroom

My recent screed was pinged by a much more thoughtful post over on Atlas Blogged. Although my rant is not mentioned specifically (which is probably a good thing) the point of that ping and post seem to be that one needs to teach ID in the classroom in order to properly address its failings and to put it in perspective.

My problem with this approach is the precedent. For two different reasons. First, there is the typical argument that if you begin teaching about this set of ideas in a science classroom, you open the door to being forced to add additional subject matter based on the preferences of strong believers, as opposed to the inclusion based on tested evidence. While I enjoy variety quite a bit, eventually your discussion of the core science will be overwhelmed by time spent addressing the options.

The second problem I have with it is that if one assumes that, having gotten discussion on ID allowed in the science curriculum, its proponents will stand for allowing it to be taught as a negative example, I believe one is being naive. I'm not saying ID shouldn't be addressed at all in science classes; far from it. What I am saying is that allowing mob preference to dictate policy on what is taught in science classes is the 'tipping point' to allowing approval and disapproval of ideas being dictated by non-scientist, non-educators. The anti-rationalist movement is not small, nor will it 'settle.'

That's the real danger.

In the post, the author (Wulf?) states:

We must explain what other beliefs exist to explain an observation, and why one is better than another, or why certain beliefs should not be considered scientific by the students. If you don’t tell them what “Intelligent Design” means, they won’t ever know why they should not believe it. I have found that to actually give more credibility to a belief - if you simply say "that's beyond the scope of this course", you do not challenge the weaknesses of the belief, and you do not show the student why the belief is not scientifically valid.

I have no problem with this at all. What I do have a problem with is assuming that when the true proponents say 'ID should be taught in schools' that they will accept 'taught' to include 'compared with evolution and other beliefs even if found wanting.' Read the BoingBoing post again, especially the attitude of the letter writer towards evolution. Then tell me with equanimity that allowing that person to have input (any input) into the public school science curriculum is a good idea. They're not taking your approach towards alternative ideas. While the approach itself certainly should be part of the lesson plan, assuming that 'include in the discussion' will end with 'we include it as a discussion of the alternatives' is to ignore the nature of this attack on the method itself - not evolution as a subject area.

Posted by jbz at August 21, 2005 1:33 PM | TrackBack


My high school *did* teach some alternative cosmology, but it wasn't in a science class. It was a humanities class, where the notion of a "prime mover" was cited as an example of Aristotelian doctrine, with Aristotle being studied after Plato. I forget when exactly we read Sophocles. The course was neither scientific (assuming we treat Aristotle as historical at this date) or overtly Christian (though we did read Dante later in the course).

I think Aristotelian celestial mechanics were mentioned in astronomy classes in the context of explaining pre-Copernican models and how horribly convoluted the motions of the planets were under those models. I think Lamarck may have been mentioned in biology classes as a predecessor of Darwin, with a very obvious flaw. Phlogiston and ether waves came up in physics when describing the historical settings for thermodynamics and quantum theory. Part of teaching the scientific method lies in providing examples of past theories which have been either modified or discarded and explanations of why this was done. Somehow, though, I don't think the most vocal ID advocates are suggesting teaching their theory as a historical predecessor that has been supplanted. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Gordon at August 22, 2005 9:34 AM

It appears we agree more than disagree. :-) Thanks very much for your comments.

I concur strongly that taking down the notion that Bush wants ID taught as science is critical. It pains me to see that Bush and crew gave so much 'room' to that interpretation, if not outright pandered to it - but yep, taking that on I will stand behind.

If I may, I'd like to thank you for being a teacher, especially at the high school level.

Posted by: jbz at August 22, 2005 12:40 AM

Great points.

The concern that prompted my article was the *political* whirlwind that has sprung up since Bush's comments - hence a slightly different focus from your article. Bush's comments are being purposely misrepresented in the media and some blogs to try to give credence to ID supporters. Bush knows that ID is not science, and we need to take the legs out from under the idea that Bush wants ID taught *as science*. It should be a non-issue.

I certainly don't want to open the science curriculum to the whims of the masses, which you correctly point out as a serious potential. But I think teachers *have* to add additional subject matter based on the preferences of strong believers, to some extent, because that's the source of most students' failure to truly understand the truths that scientists have to share. Any belief that is prevalent in my classroom is one I may have to address. I admit it is easier for me than for some others, for example biology teachers are usually more pressed for time over the year, and I wouldn't want to be involved in an argument with parents and administrators about this topic if I taught elementary or middle school science. But at least in high school, I can't imagine a way not to address topics like this.

I appreciate the discussion!

Posted by: Wulf at August 21, 2005 2:38 PM
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