Re: an article on the creationist's plea "teach the controversy"

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Oct 11 2004 - 06:00:38 PDT

Your post on Intelligent Design and your critique of the mainstream
Darwinian response to it is great, Jay. I liked the Evan Ratliff article
because it did an effective job of outlining the ID-believers "teach the
controversy" strategy, but I too noticed that the arguments Ratliff
outlined as being advanced by the pro-evolutionary theory supporters were

Taking a closer look at the Ratliff article, he cites numerous arguments
that pro-evolutionists, each in their own way, sometimes use against
teaching Intelligent Design beliefs in public school biology today. Here
is an outline (my interpretation, of course) of these arguments mentioned
by Ratliff.

a. public opinion has spoken in favor of evolutionism, so creationism
should be ignored
1. the lessons of the Scopes trial in 1925, and the Louisiana ruling by the
Supreme Court 15 years ago settled it: evolution won - end of discussion

b. the scientific community has spoken, there is no debate
2. ID belief principles have been dismissed by the scientific community
3. there is nothing to debate between evolutionary theory and creationist
theory such as the belief if ID
4. just as some people teaching that the holocaust did not happen does not
mean this should be taught in history, the creationist teaching that
evolution did not happen should not be taught in biology
5. a representative debate between ID-believers and science would be two
IDers vs 10,000 pro-evolution scientists

c. ID beliefs hurt children and society when taught in schools, so
discussion of it there should be banned
8. these ID-inspired lesson plans injure children
9. wasting public school time on bogus criticisms of evolution is
detrimental in our time (for example, GMO, stem cell research)

d. ID belief propaganda tactics are dishonest, so ID should be shunned
10. IDers are providing examples designed to undermine evolution and
promote creation in their curriculum proposals
11. the ID people use out of context, selective quotes
12. ID believers use incomplete summaries of research and muddled arguments

e. ID belief is not science
6. ID is just creationism in a lab coat
7. ID explains nothing, it just claims God made everything
8. ID is not a science because it makes no predictions

f. theory of evolution is valid and answers all of ID's objections
13. Darwinism can explain complexity
14. debates over the mechanism of evolution (natural selection, etc.) are
not a rejection of evolution, any more than Einstein's advances over Newton
were a rejection of physics

Each of these arguments has some truth - some are quite good - and some
have important flaws. Here are a few comments with my thoughts, building
on some of Jay's.

a. public opinion has spoken in favor of evolutionism, so creationism
should be ignored
Indeed, it is true that important sections of the public have spoken, but
the flaw in this view is this: many more sections have not. The larger
public still needs to be won over to evolutionary theory. At this time,
the public is confused and not well informed about the question of
evolution theory versus creationist belief.

b. the scientific community has spoken, there is no debate
This is one of the central points Jay emphasizes - the undemocratic idea
that the "scientific community" (the academically and/or professionally
credentialed) should have the final say in what is considered
"scientifically" true and therefore should decide what should be taught as
"science" in the classroom.

c. ID beliefs hurt children and society when taught in schools, so
discussion of it there should be banned
This style of argument is inherently flawed; while certainly impassioned,
is no better when used by one side or the other.

d. ID belief propaganda tactics are dishonest, so ID should be shunned
The methods of argumentation used by the ID belief enthusiasts are indeed
dishonest - especially when they pose their beliefs as a kind of science
and a form of inquiry. They certainly do promote misinformation to create
uncertainty. But these tactics must be exposed and ways of seeing through
them must be taught in order to isolate and defeat them. The ability to do
so is an essential feature of critical thought, which, as Jay emphasizes,
is one of the essential things that should be developed in all
schooling. Perhaps the analysis of ID belief "education" methods should
actually be taught in public school science as the opposite of scientific
methodology - as an example of pseudo-science.

e. ID belief is not science, so it should not be discussed in public school
Indeed, ID belief is not science, it is faith, and therefore does not
belong in biology class in the strict sense. But the conclusion is
flawed. Comparative and critical discussion about belief systems and
ideologies does belong in school. Science on the ideological level is just
another belief system - but it is also something more. Science is also a
method of (gradually, and in a zig-zagging, back-and-forth kind of
progressive historical motion) creatively trying to understand and control
nature and society - (Jay and others may not agree with this concept of
herky-jerky progress, I am not sure) - and this method and effort is what
makes science different from any other belief system. It is also a system
of theory and practice with the power and danger of modern industry and
agriculture (partially) in its hands (at least as an object of analysis -
the capitalist class generally owns and controls these entities, of
course). ID belief has no place in the specific theories and practices of
science because it makes no attempt at being scientific in any sense - and
this is essential to explain. In fact, ID-belief is a thoroughly
anti-scientific ideology, and should be openly discussed as such. So I
think it should be discussed, but not as a kind of science - it should be
discussed as a form of anti-science.

f. the theory of evolution is valid and answers all of ID's objections
The flaw in this is another point Jay emphasizes - many accepted aspects of
the theory of evolution are becoming out of date and out of synch with new
information and better theoretical frameworks. The place of the mechanism
of natural selection in evolution is particularly in need of revision. As
Joy points out, non-linear complex system theory and other lines of inquiry
in complexity science are opening up new ways of understanding how
biological change over time works that take us well beyond the constraints
of the gradualist methodology Darwin offered in his theory of natural

A final comment and appreciation about Jay's post, in addition to its
questioning of the philosophical foundations of Western (bourgeois)
science, is his mention of the Bruno Latour piece. A little googling
reveals Jay is referring to chapter 7 (and other chapters) of Latour's 1999
book _Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies_, which
draws in part from Plato's Dialogue Gorgias. These are now two readings I
look forward to.

Thank for a great post, Jay.

~ Steve

10/10/2004 Jay Lemke wrote:

>I've come across "Intelligent Design" before, but I generally don't
>respond well to the political counter-argument that science education
>should be about teaching what mainstream scientists have decided is "the
>scientific view". That's just what I don't like about religious education,
>or for that matter, traditional teaching about correct interpretations of
>All education needs to be about teaching critical thinking. All the more
>so when the odds against any challenge to dominant ideas and ideologies
>grow greater and greater with greater and greater concentrations of wealth
>and power on a global scale. The Ratliff article forwarded to us mentions,
>near the end, that Ohio's fields are filled with GMO corn -- which is
>banned in Europe, perhaps partly to restrict US imports, but also partly
>because GMO (genetically modified) agriculture is so profitable that there
>has been less than sufficient scrutiny of its possible ecological
>side-effects. The same scientists who claim to dictate the school
>curriculum are very likely to be the ones teaching us that what's
>profitable is also safe (as, of course, tobacco smoke was scientifically
>safe for many years, and asbestos, and the "Green Revolution" seeds, and
>nuclear reactors, and much much else).
>Of course Intelligent Design is just another political disguise for
>ultra-conservative, religious fundamentalist power-mongering, demagoguery,
>and fund-raising in the US. A near-cousin to gay-baiting,
>anti-flouridation, phonics-based literacy teaching, anti-abortion, etc.
>etc. -- regardless of the actual merits of any position on the issues
>themselves, pro or con.
>But the counter-arguments are just as flawed, just as political, just as
>anti-democratic, and just as inimical to genuine education.
>>For an interesting version of the argument that the Western
>>philosophical-scientific-rationalist tradition is profoundly
>>anti-democratic, see Latour's "The Settlement of Socrates and Callicles".
>>(BTW, this argument does present some difficulties I think for Marxist
>>rationalism as well.)
>>On the particular issue, the orthodox Darwinians are actually in rather
>>of a difficult situation. As noted in one legitimate research paper
>>mentioned in the article and cite by the ID side, there are in fact some
>>very serious flaws in Darwinian evolutionary theory, and they happen to
>>exactly center on the evolution of highly complex adaptive structures.
>>The argument, very simply, is that natural selection operating on random
>>mutations is not the sole or in many cases the primary explanation for
>>these structures, but rather they arise because of interactions among
>>material structures during development that are not totally controlled by
>>the genes alone, but also by the basic laws of physics and chemistry.
>>Essentially this is an alternative theory that says that Darwinian
>>paradigms are incomplete and in some cases seriously so, and that our new
>>understanding of nonlinear complex system theory, combined with
>>information theory, offers a better explanation, or at least the promise
>>of one. But nobody is teaching anything about complexity science in the
>>school curriculum (though the NSF has tried to interest a lot of us in
>>writing such a curriculum). We are teaching 19th century science for the
>>most part, with a few 20th century facts thrown in. This is true not just
>>in biology but in all of science. We are preparing students for the world
>>of 1950, not the world of 2050.
>>So the ID people are in part right about evolution being itself taught on
>>faith, and contrary to the best science of today. They are of course
>>totally wrong that just because Darwin doesn't tell the whole story, that
>>the logical alternative is alien design or divine creation. There are
>>other, better logical alternatives (though I really don't think we can
>>rule out alien design, and why should we?). But no one is teaching those
>>alternatives either. And worst of all no one wants to teach kids that
>>science is about controversy and disagreement, that many scientific
>>theories later turn out to be wrong, and that the heart of science is a
>>healthy skepticism toward current explanations and a creative, critical
>>effort to think along new lines.
>>But then it might be harder to get people to buy GMO corn.

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