Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Campbell at JMU

I just got back from a public presentation given by John Angus Campbell on the subject of what to teach in high school biology classes. You may recognize Campbell as the coeditor (with Stephen Meyer) of the Michigan State University Press anthology Darwinism, Design and Public Education. I reviewed this book a while back for Skeptic magazine. You can read my (mostly negative) review (PDF format) here.

I agreed with most of what Campbell had to say. He began by extolling the virtues of civil discourse and respecting those with whom we disagree. No argument there. He had nothing but praise for Charles Darwin, both as a scientist and as a writer. He mentioned also that he was himself a Darwinist, which he reiterated to me in our conversation after the talk (more on that later). I liked all of that.

Eventually he got to his main point, which was that science education should emphasize the role of argument and intepretation of evidence in its presentation. There should also be enough philosophy introduced to help students understand the distinction between science and nonscience. He argued that in The Origin Darwin frequently contrasted evolution with the rival idea of ID, and as a result it was impossible to understand Darwin's argument without discussing the rival ideas prevalent at the time. It was in this context that ID had a role in science classes.

After the talk I had the opportunity to talk to him semi-privately (there were a few other people hanging around who also offered some thoughts). I pointed out to him that I agreed with nearly everything he said, but that I thought he had avoided most of the issues that cause all the heat. What gets scientists angry is not the idea that there should be more discussion of the nature of science and the role of argumentation and interpretaion of evidence within it. Nor is anyone bothered by the idea of presenting Darwin's work in the historical context of the times in which he was writing.

Rather, the problem comes in presenting the modern incarnation of ID as a legitimate scientific theory alongside evolution. I argued that we should not do that because the arguments ID proponents make are totally false. I also pointed out that civility is a two-way street, and that considering that all of the leading ID proponents engage in sleazy, dishonest rhetoric, it was a little galling that I was expected to be civil towards them.

Campbell didn't seem to disagree with any of this. In the end, I was a little confused about what role ID was playing in his argument. After all, he made it clear during his talk that it was not his intention to single out evolution for special treatment. Rather, he was making suggestions for fundamentally rethinking the way science gets taught. I suggested to him that he shouldn't be casting his argument in the context of evolution and ID, but rather as a more general talk about the nature of science education. He even seemed to agree with that!

Another point that arose in our conversation was the role of ID in the Origin. I pointed out that Darwin did not contrast evolution with ID as that term is understood today. Instead he contrasted the idea of common descent with the idea that species were fixed through time. That is a specific hypothesis with different predictive consequences from common descent. Consequently, it was not a good argument to say that we should present ID in science class because that is how Darwin did it in his own work.

Yet another point that came up was the role of the courts. Campbell fretted that it was a bad idea to look to the courts to resolve this issue, since that leads to ill will from non-scientists who dislike being told what they can and can not teach in schools. Curiously, though, Campbell was adamant that he did not favor any sort of equal-time treatment of evolution and creationism or ID.

So I pointed out that the equal time question was precisely the one the courts were adjudicating. This was explicit in the 1982 Arkansas trial, and implicit in the recent Dover trial. The courts only come into this to prevent people from taking over science classrooms to teach their preferred religious views. Again Campbell didn't seem to disagree, but argued instead that it should be possible to develop a scientifically rigorous curriculum along the more ecumenical lines he was suggesting.

One genuine point of disagreement was the role of the Discovery Institute in all of this. I tend to see the DI as a sinkhole of darkness and rottenness, whereas Campbell seems to think they want something along the lines of what he is suggesting. I argued that the DI might go along with Campbell's ideas, but only as a stepping stone towards their real agenda of having their religious views taught in public schools.

One final point that came up was when Campbell quoted from the book The Evolution of Darwinism by Timothy Shanahan. In the quote Shanahan was talking about debates from within Darwinism on certain fundamental issues about evolution. Campbell suggested that in light of this scientists shouldn't be so quick to say that there is no controversy.

I have not read Shanahan's book, but from the nature of the quote that was read I surmised that he wasn't talking about anything the creationists or ID folks are pointing out, but rather about more esoteric points. Judging from the blurb linked to above, I believe I had it right. So I replied that such controversy as exists among biologists on the subject of evolution has nothing to do with those portions of it that get taught in high schools. The hypotheses of common descent with natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution are, indeed, noncontroversial. Anyway, we didn't have time to discuss this in much depth.

All in all, it was an interesting night. Initially I was annoyed that he had been invited as the only guest to lecture publicly on this, since I knew him only from the awful anthology he coedited. But I was pleasantly surprised by his talk and found that he had a lot of interesting things to say. I think he has some interesting ideas about science education but shouldn't really be talking about evolution and ID at all.

An enjoyable evening nonetheless.


At 4:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel for you if you think all of the leading ID proponents engage in sleazy, dishonest rhetoric. You really need to buy a mirror.

At 4:45 AM, Anonymous pnd said...

I don't get what's so new about his approach, teaching science in its particular historical context. You do that with physics all the time, even in high school. When discussing Newtonian forces you hold them against older views of motion etc. When you come to relativity you compare them to the then prevailing Newtonian/classical views. Same with thermodynamics, astronomy, particle physics

You just don't do it on a 'decide for yourself or ask your parents/minister' basis, like IDers want us to do, as if there were no pressing reasons that older ideas had to be changed. That would be neither science nor teaching.

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Jeffrey said...


If you're implying that Jason is using "sleazy, dishonest rhetoric", why not provide an example? And hiding behind the "anonymous" label isn't likely to provide confidence.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason, please substantiate the claim of sleazy, dishonest rehetoric by leading ID proponents. I pay relatively close attention to a handful of them and I don't understand what you're talking about. Thanks.

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Look at Jason's post about Salvador's comments.

Also, look at virtually any ID or creationist rant about the fossil record. They ignore the fact that sequence data provide overwhelming support for modern evolutionary theory, which is much more then Darwin. The support from sequence data is so extensive and strong that fossils wouldn't have to even exist.

Also, any time that someone uses the label "Darwinist" he/she is being dishonest, because modern evolutionary theory goes far beyond Darwin.

How's that? Now, where is your demonstration that Jason has ever used "sleazy, dishonest rhetoric"?

At 12:18 PM, Anonymous wswilso said...

To Anonymous:

Here's a link to the talk Origins Quote Mine Project. Please read this and you will see why Jason's characterization of anti evolution "stars'" dishonesty is well supported.


At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Isaac said...

"I also pointed out that civility is a two-way street, and that considering that all of the leading ID proponents engage in sleazy, dishonest rhetoric, it was a little galling that I was expected to be civil towards them."

Hmmm... you appear to be either a hypocrite, or a didactic moron, or both. It's appropriate for you to favor ad hominem attacks and overblown hostile rhetoric ("sinkhole of darkness and rottenness") -- and justify them by claiming that the other side is "dishonest?" It's "galling" to you that you are expected to be civil in debate? You come across as someone who truly needs to grow up.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful and well-considered comment. Rest assured that I will throughly reevaluate my opinions on these matters as a result of your insightful remark. People like you are the reason I do this blog.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry jason but both Evolution and ID both say something came from nothing so I think both should be taught in public schools.

At 3:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gentlemen please, keep your comments clean. We shouldn't put each other down, after all, we are merely expressing are personnal opinions. We should also thank Jason for voicing his opinions in the first place.

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