Sartwell on Dover
Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College, has this interesting, but puzzling, op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times. Sartwell writes:
I DON'T BELIEVE that the universe was intelligently designed. I don't think that “intelligent design” is a scientific theory: It appeals to the supernatural and cannot be empirically tested. I think its proponents have religious motivations for trying to insert it into the curriculum.
But I also believe it should be taught in high school biology classes.
Sartwell is building up to the idea that ID should be taught as an historical curiosity, like alchemy or astrology. It should be taught as part of a broader project to present Darwin in his proper historical context.
I think that's a fine idea, and I know of nobody on my side of this who disagrees with. But that's not what the fight is about. The question is whether ID should be presented as a respectable scientific theory. The reason it should not be presented that away is that all of its major scientific assertions are demonstrably false.
Sartwell goes on to say:
To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs — that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That's how the people in this community feel.
Well said. This is the one point that gives me pause in thinking about this issue. While I find the beliefs of Christian evangelicals to be completely irrational, the fact remains that they are deeply held. So, yes, I can imagine how it feels to be forced to pay for an education that you belive puts your child's very soul in jeopardy.
However, the reason I am not more sympathetic to this view is that I don't belive the sympathy is reciprocated. Sartwell is being very high-minded and ecumenical here, but the religious zealots on the other side do not share his even-handedness. Consider the issue of having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Do you think for one second that the School Board majority that voted in favor of ID ever worries about telling atheist children that belief in God and loyalty to their country go hand in hand? Of course they don't. Quite the opposite.
Many libertarians argue that the whole idea of public education is doomed to failure because of this problem. Everything is potentially offensive to someone, after all. They argue that all education should be private, so that people pay for the education they want. But surely it's not as bad as all that. Society has a stake in ensuring that all of its citizens have a basic education in the major disciplines, especially science. And surely at some point we're allowed to say, “Believe what you want in private, but your views will not be accorded respect in the schools.” No one worries about the sensibilities of the bigoted parents when Martin Luther King is presented sympathetically in social studies class.
The bottom line is that telling high school students that ID has any scientific legitmacy is tantamount to lying to them. If you are going to teach biology then teach the real thing. You teach the basics of evolution, what it is and why scientists have so much confidence in it, without fanfare, and then you move on to the next topic.
Anyway, it's certainly a difficult question and Sartwell is right to bring it up.
The clash between evolution and intelligent design is not a clash between two rival scientific theories. It is the latest moment in the most profound intellectual dilemma of the West: the disagreement between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, science and Scripture.
Again, well said. But if ID is not a scientific theory, then why should it be presented in science classes?
Neither reason nor faith can establish itself as the exclusively desirable strategy for generating beliefs. If the question is who has the science, the answer is obvious: Charles Darwin. In fact, as far as the use of reason goes, intelligent design has been as completely destroyed as any view ever has been: The great British philosopher David Hume achieved its utter devastation in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” in the 18th century. Its current proponents have done nothing substantial to advance the argument.
But Hume was the first to admit that all of his arguments left faith untouched.
That first sentence is far too ecumenical for my taste (reason may not be the exclusively desirable strategy for generating beliefs, but it's a whole lot more reliable than faith). That last sentence is weird as well. Of course no logical argument can touch faith. Being impervious to logic is what faith is all about. But the part in between is excellent!
Science classes typically make use of history and social context in order to, among other things, display the importance of science to human development and to make students understand science as a compelling human concern. For example, there is no reason, in an astronomy course, not to talk about the fact that Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church. If you don't put Galileo's theories in the context of the philosophical, religious and scientific beliefs of his era, and discuss Galileo's effects on the generations that followed, you cannot understand his achievement at all.
There is every reason, in giving a basic characterization of scientific method, to contrast it to medieval alchemy or astrology and so on. Whatever science may be, it is also a series of developments in human history; otherwise it cannot be understood and need not be.
The theory of evolution is a scientific development, but it is also a profound transformation of the way we understand ourselves. You cannot grasp Darwin's achievement without understanding what people believed before Darwin and how they have responded to his theories The alternative views are intrinsic to the meaning of the science, and the science is intrinsic to the question of what sorts of things we human beings are.
Great stuff! I agree with every word of it. But there's one more paragraph to come, and that's where things get confusing:
Taking 30 seconds to read an innocuous statement indicating that we are not unanimous is inadequate to present the genuine and profound debate about these matters. But it's a start. And if my kids come home asking the questions such a statement raises, I will regard that as a victory for their education in the sciences.
Huh? How does that follow from anything he said previously?
Didn't he just get through saying that ID should be presented as an historical curiosity, like alchemy and astrology? Didn't he just explain, in terms as strong as what I usually say at this blog, that ID is not science and has no merit?
Why does he now support a statement that contradicts all of that? The Dover School Board isn't telling kids that ID is an outdated historical curiosity. They are saying that it's a live scientific option.
And it is not the children of enlightened, well-educated parents like Sartwell who need to be instructed in the value of respecting disagreements and learning about all sides of an issue. It is the children of fundamentalist parents, the ones who tell their kids that dissent from their views means an eternity in Hell who need a lesson in open-mindedness. Many of these kids get one shot at hearing the real thing in science. To water it down at the request of society's most scientifically ignorant people would be a shame, to say the least.