I said I was going to write on producing video next, but so much interesting stuff about the Evolution/Intelligent Design controversy in science teaching has crossed my radar screen recently that I just have to hit that first. (My wife says I’m guilty of bait-and-switch. Sigh.)
“The Connection” on NPR had a good segment the other day (which you can listen to online), featuring two biology teachers, one a proponent of teaching evolution only, and the other calling for adding Intelligent Design to the curriculum. Everyone agreed, at least, that you have to make clear what science can and cannot answer. One telephone caller, after noting her own belief in an intelligent designer, went on to say that the discussion of it belongs in the philosophy or religion class, not the science class.
That’s a position I used to hold, but I’m wavering. In one form or another, the belief in a guiding intelligence is a part of the national landscape (whether it’s creationism and biblical literalism, or so-called Intelligent Design theory, which claims to apply scientific inquiry to the question of whether evolution is a blind, random process or a guided process). I forget the numbers from the latest polls, but a huge majority of Americans believe in a creative intelligence behind it all. That’s not going to go away, and how we treat it affects how scientific inquiry is understood and perceived in the U.S. I don’t think we’re doing our young people any favors by teaching the theory of evolution without any reference to the other viewpoints.
My friend Rich says if he were a science teacher, he wouldn’t want to touch Intelligent Design—because, for one thing, you’d risk being seen as attacking people’s religious beliefs, and for another, you’d be implicitly legitimizing fake science, or at least empty science. (God of the Gaps: if you can’t explain the complexity, it must be the design-work of God.) I grant the danger. I haven’t seen anything convincing yet in the science writing of Intelligent Design proponents. (For a good read on this, look at http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html, where three proponents of Intelligent Design present their views, each responded to by a proponent of evolution. One of the respondents is Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown and author of Finding Darwin’s God, who notes his own philosophical belief in a designer, but finds no merit in the scientific claims of the ID writer.)
But the thing is: What a great opportunity to teach real scientific and critical thinking! Why can’t the question be raised? (Beyond the political agenda—more on that in a second.) Maybe, probably, it is outside the realm of what science can or cannot answer. But how will we know if we don’t ask the question? How can students understand the strengths and limitations of science if we rule one of the most interesting (and toughest) questions out of the arena? How can they learn to evaluate scientific claims if they don’t look at controversial claims as well as widely accepted claims? If there’s any value to the scientific claims of the ID people, let’s look for it. If there’s no value, let’s show students why.
Heretic! you say. How dare you insult my religion?! Wait a minute…who said anything about your religion? I’m not attacking your religion. I didn’t even mention it. We’re talking about scientific evidence or lack of evidence. Maybe science can’t show any evidence of God; that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it just means we have no testable, repeatable scientific evidence. Or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. What would really be an insult would be to dismiss your claims of evidence without even discussing them.
Well, okay—maybe it’s not going to be that easy. But how easy is the present situation?
The real thorn here is the real or perceived hidden agenda. Is all this just a ruse to get religion—specifically, conservative Christian religion—into the schools? For some proponents, I’m sure it is. For others, I don’t know. It’s a real danger. The religious divide in America is threatening to tear this country apart. And I don’t mean the divide between Christians and those stinkin’ secular humanists—I mean the divide between those who want to impose their own particular brand of faith on the rest of us, and…well, the rest of us. And the rest of us includes Christians, Jews, Muslims…and yes, secular humanists.
Are we caving to the agenda if we talk about intelligent design (lower case) in the same classroom as evolution? Maybe. But if we bar the doors and hope they go away, aren’t we just deepening the divide? What are kids to think who believe in ID or creationism, but aren’t given the tools to examine for themselves whether it’s real science, or another kind of thinking camouflaged by the words of science?
It’s not an easy question. But if we don’t teach the thinking skills, we’re in trouble.
For more on this, read The Slate’s What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism and Creation vs. Intelligent Design: Is There a Difference?