Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Intelligent Design and intelligent science education

Jay Mathews has a smart column in today’s WaPo. He quotes, among others, John West, with whom he disagrees. Which is what makes the column smart.

Let me explain. Mathews’ big point is that by actually addressing the controversy between proponents of I.D. and evolution in biology classes, students would become better, more self-conscious scientists. The material would be more engaging, and students would be compelled to think both about the big issues underlying all of science (and all of life) and about the ways in which scientific theories are developed and disproven. This is what would make a science class something other than indoctrination, i.e., the propounding of a doctrine simply asserted to be true.

Since I think that people become more self-conscious and better informed adherents of their positions when they are "compelled" to think through the challenges to them, I find Mathews’ position quite congenial. Most of my students come into my classes as vaguely Lockeian liberals (that is, they know they have rights). We read Locke, but we also read the thinkers against whom Locke as reacting (like Aristotle and Aquinas, to name just two), and we read those who criticize Locke (like Rousseau). They leave the class having a much better sense of what’s at stake in thinking they have rights, as well as a better sense of what might be missing from a "purely Lockeian" vision of the world. Even if they remain Lockeian (most of them do), they’re more thoughtful and self-critical Lockeians. I’d rather have folks who can intelligently defend Locke’s views (even if their convictions are less passionate and more "nuanced"--a word I use with some trepidation since John Kerry so debased its currency) than folks who can simply and passionately repeat slogans.

Just so we’re clear: this is a post about education, not about I.D.

Discussions - 8 Comments

If ID were taught alongside Evolution in a way which illuminates the differences between scientific knowledge and faith, this would be a most worthwhile endeavor, and could be expanded to teach students the nature of scientific evidence. Since so much of what people "know" is actually what they feel, efforts like yours can only elevate the level of discourse.

Ashland U. offered a course that was "team-taught" by professors from the natural sciences and philosophy. Intelligent-design must be taught because it is a valid scientific alternative -- that is, it looks at evidence and makes conclusions based on it. I think the problem comes when ID is confused w/"creationism", which tends to use the Bible as a science textbook (7-day creation, flood, young earth, etc.).
I think the analogy w/Locke was a very good one. That is the essence of education.

Forbidding any course of study, such as prohibiting IQ/race studies or male/female differences cannot but foster error.

I concluded in grade school (early Fifties!) that most education was deliberately being made as boring as possible and thinking was to be discouraged. Admittedly, this may be largely because of limited time and scope. Eg, we are told that the Monitor and Merrimac/Virginia were the fist ironclads. Not exactly: six ironclads of the Korean Navy defeated a wooden-vessel Japanese invasion fleet - in the 1580’s! And the British had put plating on a standard wooden warship shortly before our Civil War. The Civil War saw the first self-propelled ironclads. We are also told of Washington being the First President: technically, he was the first under the Constitution, there were several in conjunction with the Continental Congress during the Revolution. But how much time can be allocated to [relative] trivia?

And yes, to me ID is trivia. Its proponents say it is not about the religion of a superior being (read: God) but rather about the intervention of a superior being. Huh? While I do believe in a superior being, I also believe he/she/it might well have set things up to be self-starting and then gone on to other things. I am reminded of Bohr, tiring of EInstein’s repeated "God does not play dice" type comments about quantum mechanics, finally retorting "Albert, stop telling God what to do!"

For an interesting take on creation and evolution, read Robert Wright’s Non-Zero. A very thoughtful book which argues that evolution is increasingly creating win-win scenarios (in effect, teaching us ever so slowly that enlightened self-interest pays off better than raw self-interest). His grasp of early social thinkers (e.g., Herbert Spencer) is a bit superficial, however, so be warned.

Simply asserting that it’s a post "about education, not about I.D." shouldn’t distract anyone that both you and Mathews are, at least indirectly, attempting to legitimize "intelligent design" as real science. It isn’t.

From Scientific American magazine, here’s 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, which includes this, regarding intelligent design "theory.":

14. ARGUMENT: Living things have fantastically intricate features--at the anatomical, cellular and molecular levels--that could not function if they were any less complex or sophisticated. The only prudent conclusion is that they are the products of intelligent design, not evolution.

This "argument from design" is the backbone of most recent attacks on evolution, but it is also one of the oldest. In 1802 theologian William Paley wrote that if one finds a pocket watch in a field, the most reasonable conclusion is that someone dropped it, not that natural forces created it there. By analogy, Paley argued, the complex structures of living things must be the handiwork of direct, divine invention. Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species as an answer to Paley: he explained how natural forces of selection, acting on inherited features, could gradually shape the evolution of ornate organic structures.

Generations of creationists have tried to counter Darwin by citing the example of the eye as a structure that could not have evolved. The eye’s ability to provide vision depends on the perfect arrangement of its parts, these critics say. Natural selection could thus never favor the transitional forms needed during the eye’s evolution--what good is half an eye? Anticipating this criticism, Darwin suggested that even "incomplete" eyes might confer benefits (such as helping creatures orient toward light) and thereby survive for further evolutionary refinement. Biology has vindicated Darwin: researchers have identified primitive eyes and light-sensing organs throughout the animal kingdom and have even tracked the evolutionary history of eyes through comparative genetics. (It now appears that in various families of organisms, eyes have evolved independently.)

Today’s intelligent-design advocates are more sophisticated than their predecessors, but their arguments and goals are not fundamentally different. They criticize evolution by trying to demonstrate that it could not account for life as we know it and then insist that the only tenable alternative is that life was designed by an unidentified intelligence.

This post has been linked to The Carnival Of Education: Week 8 which can be seen here:

Let me explain. The big point is that by actually addressing the controversy between Neo-Confederate apologists for slavery and real historians in *9th grade* history classes, students would become better, more self-conscious historians. The material would be more engaging, and students would be compelled to think both about the big issues underlying all of histor (and all of life) and about the ways in which historical interpretations are developed and disproven. This is what would make a history class something other than indoctrination, i.e., the propounding of a doctrine simply asserted to be true.
(Additionally, some - probably most -of these 9th grade classes will be in the South.)
Agree or disagree?

I agree about the importance of critical thinking. However, even though your post is about education and not ID, I feel compelled to point out (this being a real controversy that seems to be gaining strength; see, for example, Dover, PA) that this particular example is a rather bad one in terms of education.
It sounds like you teach college students. Remember that the real controversy largely involves the insertion of ID into high school biology, often taught in 9th grade, to earlyish adolescents. As things go, they rarely have much of a scientific background, and as thing will go, they would almost certainly not have an opportunity to leisurely compare the two - perhaps a week at best?
Remember also that this is, for many people, about very strongly held and meaningful beliefs. Locke vs. Rousseau is a controversy that college kids can follow, argue, and reflect upon in a meaningful way. Darwin vs. God, (which is what this would be is for many students and places, especially where it is most likely to be implemented (I would think) is not a controversy these students could logically "do." I also don’t think it’s likely that a measurable number of professors would be evangelical Rousseauians (SP?) who would see this class as an invitation to spread the faith (although I suppose one never knows . ..)

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