More on Teaching the Controversy
D. Allen Kerr is a columnist for the Portsmouth Herald, a New Hampshire newspaper. He has recently written two columns, available here and here, about evolution and creationism. It seems he is firmly on the evolution side, but also thinks that “teaching the controversy” is a worthwhile approach.
His first column has a few interesting parts. I liked this paragraph:
For those who are equally out-of-touch, intelligent design is basically a term coined to give creationism a more scientific sheen. The name itself, of course, is meant to suggest there is some form of purposeful design behind our existence, rather than the gradual accident of science proposed by evolutionists. One book on the topic — by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross — calls the concept Creationism's Trojan Horse, a way of pretty much sneaking religious beliefs into our classrooms under the guise of scholarship.
I was less enthusiastic about this paragraph:
I'm guessing proponents of creationism were eager to shed this image of backwoods ignorance opponents tend to associate with their theories, and leaped to embrace this new spin. But since the credibility of both the evolution and creation arguments carry gaping black holes it might behoove the curious to cast aside the more ridiculous notions of each theory and concentrate on their strengths instead. Even then, it's likely this is one puzzle that can never fully be solved in our lifetimes. And maybe that's part of the design too.
Sorry, but there are no gaping black holes in evolutionary theory. There are unanswered questions, certainly, and there are places where the available data is insufficient for drawing a firm conclusion. But there is nothing in nature, ID bloviations notwithstanding, to challenge the essential soundness of evolution. ID, by contrast, is one big black hole. It explains nothing at all.
It would have been helpful if Kerr had given an example of what he considers a ridiculous notion of evolutionary theory.
Also deserving comment was this paragraph:
Still, I'm glad students got the opportunity to hear both sides of the debate. The effort to include creationism into the classroom has continued pretty much unabated for decades now, and I personally don't see the harm in it. After all, it's likely the two explanations are not exclusive of one another — in other words, who's to say God can't be the force behind evolution? Kids should be allowed to explore both sides of the issue and make their own informed conclusion. It's not as if science has provided all the answers.
There's a standard equivocation going on here about the meaning of the term “creationism.” The minimalist definition of the term, that there is a higher power responsible for the existence of life on Earth, is entirely consistent with evolution. Of course, science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of a higher power, so it goes without saying that they are consistent.
But that minimalist definition is not what the argument is about. When poeple like me oppose teaching creationism, what we are opposing are certain specific assertions made by outfits like the Discovery institute or Answers in Genesis. They assert that evolution runs afoul of the laws of thermodynamics, or that probability theory militates against it, or that certain structures are too complex to have evolved naturally, or sundry other, equally false claims. To give respectful treatment to such claims would be to lie to students. I very much doubt that Kerr would argue that we should give respectful treatment to holocaust deniers in teaching about WWII, or to the view of the KKK in discussing Martin Luther King. Why not let students make up their own minds about those issues too?
Surely the reason is that it is hard enough to teach students the things they need to know, without wasting a lot of time exploring nonsense.
Actually, though, it was the second column that really caught my eye. Here's the beginning:
For a group so dismissive of the creation argument, some evolutionists sure seem petrified of sharing the same platform.
Just a couple of weeks ago, a column in this space (on Feb. 14) mentioned a creation-versus-evolution debate that took place in my kid's Newmarket High School science class. I mainly wrote about the incident because I was amused to hear creationism had wrapped itself within a new argument called "intelligent design." Now I find myself surprised by the outright paranoia of some in the scientific community.
I had thought it was a good idea to bring some intelligent design proponents into the classroom so students could hear both sides of the debate. Apparently this was naive and downright asinine of me, because allowing creationists in our schools is just two steps away from exposing our kids to the Putrid Fiery HOWLING CHASMS OF HELL ITSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I think everyone has had a “Get off my side!” experience. That's when you hear a viewpoint you generally agree with defended so badly, or in such an obnoxious way, that you are embarrassed on behalf of the cause. There are a handful of commenters over at The Panda's Thumb who make me cringe despite the fact that they are defending evolution. It's a feeling I often get listening to people like Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky as well.
The NCSE, however, is a group that I am happy to align myself with. Yet it is the NCSE to which Kerr turns first:
An organization called the National Center for Science Education circulated an e-mail regarding the column, wondering just “what is going on in biology classes at this high school.” Was the teacher promoting creationism? Was he caving in to parental demands? Were ritual sacrifices involved?
“It's not as if we don't have enough to do already here at NCSE dealing with anti-evolutionism around the country,” the e-mail declared. “However, if there is a problem in this district, we would be glad to try to help local parents/citizens to deal with it.”
Thank God such resources were available during this trying ordeal.
I see no evidence of paranoia here, and Kerr's sarcasm is misplaced. What the NCSE knows, that perhaps Kerr doesn't know, is that debating evolution and creationism is often just code for teaching creationism. Based on the quotes Kerr provides, it sounds like the NCSE was simply making people aware that if they think the teacher crossed the line into promoting creationism, then there are resources available to help them fight back.
What's wrong with that?
But what really got to me is this paragraph:
I also heard from creation advocates, and was somewhat surprised at how reasonable some of their arguments sounded. A lot of it seemed scientific, but then I don't know squat about science so therefore can't tell the difference between valid points and genuine cockamamie. One guy, describing evolution as the theory of chance, mentioned the analogy of a million monkeys attempting to type Shakespeare and the unlikelihood of even a protein molecule forming itself by accident. I'm not sure I followed it all as closely as I would like. It would be great to get a bunch of these folks into the same room and listen to them go at it, trading body blows of knowledge for knowledge, so they can refute each other's arguments in person. But of course that equal billing would give creationists credibility the evolutionists are loath to share. I guess that's what caused such a stir in the Newmarket classroom in the first place.
As an example of an argument that sounds plausible and scientific Kerr chooses the one about evolution being a theory of chance. This is genuine cockamamie, to borrow his term. In fact, this is elementary cockamamie. If you know even the most basic elements of evolution then you know that this argument is garbage. And it is not a matter of opinion that it is garbage. It is garbage in the same sense that claiming that 1+1=3 is garbage.
But Kerr longs to see “a bunch of these folks” trading body blows on the subject. In his child's classroom. Aside from the obvious problem here, that trading (presumably metaphorical) body blows is hardly the best way to get at the truth of anything, there is a practical problem.
To make the creationist argument, you need only point to a long protein or gene sequence, whip out a very small number you claim represents the probability of that protein or gene evolving by chance, and then assert that the whole idea is insane.
Here's what's involved in refuting that argument, if you are going to do it properly: (1) First you have to explain basic probability theory. (2) Then you have to explain the mechanics of natural selection. (3) After that you have to point out the unwarranted assumptions that go into the creationist calculation. (4) Next you explain how the action of natural selection alters the probability calculation. (5) Finally, you can flesh all of this out with specific biological examples.
The fact is that it is a lot easier to spew nonsense than it is to refute it. That's why people on my side are generally suspicious of debates.
Also troublesome is Kerr's proud admission that he knows squat about science. If that is true, then why does he believe there is a legitimate controversy here. Would he respond to holocaust deniers by saying, “Well, I don't know squat about history, but a lot of their arguments sound plausible so let's put them in a classroom to trade body blows with their opponents. You know, let the kids sort it out.” I agree with Kerr's last sentence. Putting creationists in the classroom would give them a legitimacy they don't desrve and have not earned.
Instead of accusing the scientific community of paranoia and fear, perhaps Kerr should try educating himself about science. By doing so I think he would see for himself that the ID folks have only money and power on their side, not scientific merit. Then he would understand why scientists are rather nonplussed by the idea of having to take time away from their work to go argue with people who haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about.