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

From: Bruce Robinson (
Date: Tue Oct 12 2004 - 15:48:10 PDT

I also read the Latour article. Am I alone in feeling some schadenfreude at the sight of the social constructivist bitten by his own theory?

Bruce Robinson
  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Steve Gabosch
  Sent: Tuesday, October 12, 2004 9:51 PM
  Subject: RE: an article on the creationist's plea "teach the controversy"

  Hi Don,

  I read the interesting Bruno Latour article you suggested. Here are a couple thoughts.

  In this short article, Latour expresses dismay that some are now using "science studies" -type critiques of Western science to promote various causes that he does not support. You quote one, the use of a scientific-sounding presentation of "scientific uncertainty" to create an "artificially maintained scientific controversy" about global warming. He also discusses the way conspiracy theories - alongside various social theories proposed by critical thinkers - rely on similar "weapons of social critique" that point to "powerful agents hidden in the dark" that are unseen by people who "live in the thralls of a complete illusion of their own motives." Latour is worried about the similarity in structure of the arguments used to draw very different kinds of conclusions. He wonders (somewhat rhetorically, I am sure) whether his efforts in science studies - which has included a strong emphasis on science's "lack of scientific certainty" - has been a mistake. The example of the way ID proponents use this kind of argumentation is a very good example of what Latour is saying.

  I also took a casual look at the Plato dialogue Gorgias that appeared in the Latour article title Jay mentioned. Callicles makes a jab at Socrates that parallels a point Latour makes (in the article you suggest.) Latour asks "Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them?"

  In the Plate dialogue Gorgias, Callicles has been listening to Socrates dialogue with Gorgias and then Polus for a while, and then chimes in with the question "Tell me, Socrates, are you serious now or jesting?" and proceeds to offer a critique of how Socrates argues.

  Callicles says (I'm on page 266 of the Edith Hamilton/Huntington Cairns (ed) 1961 Bollingen Foundation edition):

  "For, Socrates, though you claim to pursue the truth, you actually drag us into these tiresome popular fallacies, looking to what is fine and noble, not by nature, but by convention. Now, for the most part, the two, nature and convention, are antagonistic to each other. And so, if a man is ashamed and dares not say what he thinks, he is compelled to contradict himself. And you have discovered this clever trick and do not play fair in your arguments, for if a man speaks on the basis of convention, you slyly question him on the basis of nature, but if he follows nature, you follow convention."

  Callicles gives us something to think about in how we all - "bad" guys and good guys - formulate our arguments. This is one of the big points I think Jay was making.

  - Steve

  At 08:47 AM 10/11/2004 -0500, you wrote:

    Steve, here is another article for your "to read" pile.

    A representative quote:

    In this most depressing of times, these are some of the issues I want to press not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible. To prove my point, I have not exactly facts rather tiny cues, nagging doubts, disturbing telltale signs. What has become of critique, I wonder, when the New York Times runs the following story?
    Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a lobbyist for the Republicans] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."2
    Evolution is just a theory, after all. Right?
    Don Cunningham
    Indiana University


    From: Steve Gabosch []
    Sent: Monday, October 11, 2004 8:01 AM
    Subject: Re: an article on the creationist's plea "teach the controversy"
    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 unsatisfactory.

    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 selection.

    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 literature.

    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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