Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Teaching Intelligent Design

Today, I want to defend the proposition that we should be teaching intelligent design in science classes.

Recent events (and not-so-recent events) have shown us that there is a serious deficiency in our education system. There are a lot of people in this country who think that intelligent design counts as a scientific theory. The numbers of people who believe this tells us that our education system has let us down. It has failed in its mission to help students to understand what a scientific theory is. Armed with that knowledge, they should find it much easier to see through the smoke and mirrors and legislative bullying of those who advocate creationism in its various forms.

It is a travesty of our educational system that so many young students can go through science classes in this country and graduate with such a poor understanding of what science is. The mere fact that we have such an ignorant population should be a cause of embarrassment in its own right. When America shows up at the bottom (or near the bottom) of countries when it comes to an understanding of scientific facts, our politicians should hang their head in shame for their failure, and the people themselves should take this as a reason to resolve to elect better politicians in the future.

Even worse than the pure shame of this national ignorance is the cost. Americans are spending huge quantities of money trying to get myth and superstition taught as science, and huge quantities of money fighting it. These conflicts are tying up the courts and diverting huge amounts of labor-hours into a worthless struggle that could be devoted to more productive concerns. In other words, we are losing money. What is the public education system for but to give Americans knowledge that will help our economy thrive and prosper? What is the public education system for, then, if not to teach people the ignorance and the waste associated with advancing the doctrine that intelligent design is science.

When I say that intelligent design should be taught in science classes, I am not saying that it should be alluded to. I am saying that science teachers should dedicate at least a class period to looking at intelligent design as a paradigm case of ‘not science’. When the lecture is done, the students should be tested on these facts. Those who fail – those who cannot explain why intelligent design fails to be a scientific theory. One of the measures by which we judge the quality of education in a school should be in terms of the percentage of students who can explain why intelligent design is not science, with schools (and students) counted down appropriately to the degree that neither can meet these simple requirements.

This way, when a student gets to college, the college biology teachers do not need to waste their time teaching students things that the students should have learned in high school. Students should enter their first college science classes knowing that the way that a theory gets contested is by putting it up against another theory, drawing implications from each theory as to what would happen under different circumstances, creating a set of predictions that can then be tested by observation. Whereas intelligent design theory cannot provide an instance where it makes a more reliable and accurate prediction than evolution.

Advocates of intelligent design do sometimes claim to have experiments that disprove evolution. For example, they claim that we should be able to put some creature in a given environment, come back in a few thousand years, and see if a new species springs up. However, since evolutionary theory does not predict that the results of such an experiment will be a new species, it is simply not the case that this experiment would be a test as to whether evolutionary theory can withstand empirical verification. A proper experiment must look at outcomes that a scientific theory actually exists.

Of course, this too is symptomatic of the overwhelming ignorance of science in this country. It is not surprising to note that those people who are so uneducated on the nature of science that they classify intelligent design as science are also too ignorant to construct a proper scientific experiment.

It does not matter that there are a few people who call themselves scientists who go along with this nonsense. In every field there will always be a bottom ten percent. The trick – and the purpose of science education – is to try to keep the levels of ignorance exhibited by the thesis that intelligent design is science. It is a bizarre form of education to allow students to point to a student in the corner that got the wrong answer on a test and claim that the ignorance of a few justifies the ignorance of the many.

In fact, one of the absurd implications of this type of policy – one of the absurd implications of saying that, “If one person in a field holds a position than everybody in the field is justified in holding that position,” is to generate a system of education where every form of insanity and ignorance can result in a passing grade. The field of science education should recognize that there are standards for determining that an answer is good or bad other than, “Pete likes it,” and it is by those standards that we judge whether an answer demonstrates competence in that field.

“Pete likes it” is not a demonstration of competence.

This, too, becomes an element of what we should be teaching in science. I have no objection to presenting Ben Stein’s movie Expelled in a science class. Because, then, a teacher can use that to further point out how the case for intelligent design has nothing to do with science.

“Okay, class, please notice that in this entire film on teaching intelligent design in a science class that the authors did not use one argument that would count as a scientific argument. In fact, what you see in this movie is a propaganda that is intended to rouse the rabble. By the form and structure of the type of claims that are made in this movie, we see that it was made by people who want to make mob action – the twenty-first century version of torches and pitchforks – a part of the scientific process. Nowhere today, in the peer reviewed literature, is an author’s ability to assemble a mob considered valid evidence in support of a scientific claim.”

Hopefully, if this plan were adopted, we could quickly come to a time in this country, through proper education, we can lift much of the ignorance that has people living under the delusion that intelligent design is a scientific theory. Democratic governments, where power resides in the people, requires that the people be educated to the degree that they can make intelligent decisions and cast intelligent votes. It is the goal of the education system to give the people the education they need to fulfill this role. Science is going to play a significant role in that future – from medicine to agriculture to energy production to climate change. It would seem that crucial to that enterprise that, at the very least, future generations be taught how to recognize the difference between science and not-science.


Anonymous said...

Very good point that teaching Intelligent Design is doing the students a disservice.

Also a good point that it could be used as an example of bad science, to build and reinforce critical thinking.

Phoenix Roepke said...

I think it is sad that the people of America seem to have forgotten what the scientific method is and why it is important. If they understood the scientific method they would understand why Intelligent Design is not science.

Nice site! My name is Phoenix and I've recently revived The Crazy Christian Blog and would love for you to check it out.


Keep up the good work man.

Anonymous said...

Here’s my version- “Expelled: No Bones About It”

The scene begins in a nice restaurant whose specialty is steaks. The waiters go about their business serving people their meals. One day, one of the waiters, Guillermo, announces to the rest of the waiters – “God has spoken to me and in his manifestation as a cow, told me that eating meat is all wrong. Julia Child was wrong! Emeril? Wrong! Martha Stewart? Spawn of Satan! This restaurant should not serve steaks, but only vegetarian dishes!”

The other waiters may think this is a little nutty, but let it go. Guillermo then starts announcing to all the restaurant patrons “My Cow -God has told me that that eating meat is completely wrong – you should all just order salads or leave”. He refuses to serve the customers their steaks, and disrupts the restaurant’s business.

The owners of the restaurant let Guillermo go, and Guillermo finds another job at a vegetarian restaurant.

Now enters the Vegetable Institute, a small, well-funded think tank of Cow-God believers who shout to the world – “Waiters are being EXPELLED and SILENCED because they believe in the Cow-God. Children are being taught in school to eat meat! We need to change the cafeteria menus! They proceed to make a movie including an interview with Guillermo saying that he was fired for his beliefs. The movie shows disturbing scenes of filet mignon, prime rib, and Hitler.

Dear readers - I ask you –

Did the other waiters at the steak house want Guillermo to shut up just because his concept of God differed from theirs? Where they just too committed to their “meatism” to see the truth? Or was it that they felt Guillermo was promoting something that they could find no rational basis for, and interfered with their profession needlessly?

I wonder if Ben Stein is ready to do a sequel.

Emu Sam said...


I didn't learn the scientific method in high school. The closest we came was the yearly science fair project (mandatory if you wanted more than a B, but with loads of extra credit for those who weren't inspired by that). There were, of course, the observation-hypothesis-test-data-conclusion sections. But somehow, the idea that this was the essence of science completely passed me and most of my peers by.

A bad example would have made a world of difference. Indeed, it has - reading blogs arguing about intelligent design has taught me more about science than five years of high school (a four-year high school, took two APs the last year).