Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Oakland Press Wrong on Intelligent Design

The Oakland Press published an editorial on its website on Saturday about Dick DeVos’ statements advocating the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes. Their editorial stance is essentially to dismiss it as a non-issue brought up by a “frenzied media” or by “anonymous political groups.” Speaking as a founding board member of the only organization that has spoken out publicly on the issue, I can only assume that they are referring to Michigan Citizens for Science. Unfortunately, the editorial in the Press fails to address the crux of the issue.

They make two primary arguments. The first is that while DeVos says he supports the right of local school boards to include ID in their science classes, he “stressed that he would not push the idea if elected.” I’m frankly a bit baffled as to where they got this idea from. There is nothing in any public statements put out by DeVos or his campaign that even indicates, much less stresses, that he would not push the idea if elected; indeed, there is good reason to doubt this.

In the state legislature, Republicans with whom DeVos is allied have been pushing this issue for years, initiating several bills since 2001 that would either mandate or allow the teaching of ID in public school science classrooms (the initial strategy was to attempt to mandate it, the latest strategy is merely to put in language encouraging and allowing local boards to do so). And Republican party leaders in the legislature are currently pressuring the state school board to incorporate many of the arguments of ID advocates into the new science standards; they have already pressured the board into delaying the vote on the new standards to give them time for more input into the decision. In light of that, is there any good reason to believe that DeVos would not “push the idea” if elected? Clearly not.

The second argument they make is that the issue is a distraction from “real issues” and that we should instead be focusing on “Michigan’s long-suffering economy and our financially strapped schools.” But in reality, the question of whether ot allow ID in science classrooms has an enormous impact on both of those issues. The fact that our schools are strapped for cash is precisely why DeVos’ position is so irresponsible. By encouraging local school districts to put ID into their curriculums, the Republicans are inviting them into a Dover Trap.

In 2004, the school district in Dover, PA, passed a policy to put ID into their science curriculum, against the advice of their attorney. A suit was filed and a Federal judge in the case declared the teaching of ID unconstitutional. The result was that the Dover Area School District ended up having to pay $1 million in legal fees, and they were fortunate to only get away with a bill that small (the total bill for the plaintiffs was nearly $2.5 million, and the board didn’t even have to pay the cost of their own defense because the Thomas More Law Center picked up that bill). It could easily have cost them much more.

DeVos and the Republicans in the legislature are leading local school districts down a primrose path to financial difficulty. They are encouraging them to incorporate into their science teaching a religious belief that has already been declared unconstitutional to teach by the Federal courts. If local school boards do what DeVos wants them to do, they will invite a Federal lawsuit that will almost certainly end with them holding a huge bill for legal fees. It is absolutely irresponsible for anyone involved in state government to be encouraging local school boards to follow this path, especially at a time when our economy has left schools strapped for cash.

Let’s also consider that Michigan’s economy depends largely on our ability to attract high tech companies to locate here, and teaching ID in public schools will make it more difficult to do so. Kansas has already discovered that in the wake of their battles over ID, where university officials report that it has become more difficult to recruit top flight professors who do not want their children in schools that water down science education with religious alternatives, and where officials from high tech corporations have also said it would affect their decision on where to locate because they would have a harder time recruiting top scientific talent in such an environment.

The Oakland Press editorial team has it half-right. Yes, there are important issues that we ought to be focusing on in regard to our economy and our schools. That is all the more reason, then, to reject DeVos’ stance on this issue and to reject these attempts to weaken the science standards in public schools. What is at stake is nothing less than our children’s future in science-related fields and our state’s future as a place that can attract businesses that depend upon a pool of scientifically educated employees.

Comments

  1. #1 Prup aka Jim Benton
    September 27, 2006

    I have been wondering recently if the best way to really teach evolution is to ‘teach the controversy’ the RIGHT WAY — not the way the IDers suggest. Anyone who has dealt with students, or even remembers his own school days knows the ‘vomitorium method of test-taking’ — you cram the information the teacher wants down your throat, hold on to it justr long enough to regurgitate it on the test, and then it is out of your system forever. (This could be why, for example, you find high school grads who got through their math tests with passing or better marks are amazed when someone can add up a column of figures in his own head, or even know without checking that if something costs $.50, ten of them cost $5 — try it on your next check-out line.)

    Furthermore, if the teacher explains why evolution is true — given the student’s frequent inattention to details — it can set up a ‘conflict of authorities’ in his head ‘teacher says this, but preacher says that’ and while we may know that it is the teacher that he should be listening to, from our viewpoint, the student is unlikely to be as sure. The preacher may be far more eloquent — and eloquence can be more convincing than logic to someone without training in criticial thinking — and if the student picks the ‘third authority’ that is Daddy, too often Daddy sides with the preacher.

    But, if a teacher splits the class into thirds, has one-third examining the evidence for evolution, one-third for ID (or the claimed evidence, since there really isn’t any), and one third as a ‘neutral jury’ and then spends the time on evolution as a debate between the two sides, and guides it properly, ‘teaching the controversy’ might prove the best way of actually convincing the students how right evolution is, and how wrong ID is.

    One final point. Bu barring ID from the classroom discussion, isn’t there at least a slight danger of winding up with a ‘forbidden fruit’ situation? Students will hear about creationism and ID from the preachers, and if they can’t argue it in school, they might be tempted to look it up on their own, thus exposing themselves to the arguments of Dembski, Behe, or even *shudder* Coulter without having anyone to counter them.

    I realize there are dangers in this approach — bad teachers or teachers sympathetic to ID might push their students in that direction — but that might happen anyway. I think a LOT more students would remember why evolution is true — and ID isn’t — from this method of teaching it.

  2. #2 gary l. day
    September 27, 2006

    How’s this as a response to the idiots who want to “teach the controversy” over evolution and ID in schools?–When explaining how evolution works, and citing the overwhelming evidence for the validity of evolution, the teacher then says “There are those who do not believe in the overwhelming evidence for evolution, advocating instead a hypothesis called Intelligent Design. ID advocates, however, have never put forth any evidence in support for that hypothesis–which is why serious scientists in the biological fields almost unanimously dismiss ID.” Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the facts involving the “controversy”?

  3. #3 bourgeois_rage
    September 27, 2006

    Nice reply, Ed. Are you planning on sending it to Oakland for possible publishing as a letter to the editor?

    Prup:

    Splitting a class into parts that study ID or evolution would only serve to put ID on equal footing with evolution, which is not the case. Perhaps we should also have a group(s) that studies Creation Science (I know, it’s the same thing), and/or Pastafarianism.

    I think science has done well enough in previous years, not addressing Creationism at all. Stick to the good science and ignore everything else. If you start talking about religion, it becomes a philosophy class.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    September 27, 2006

    I emailed the editors of the Oakland Press to see if they would print either a guest editorial or a letter in reply. I didn’t even get the courtesy of a reply.

  5. #5 Prup aka Jim Benton
    September 27, 2006

    BR:
    You say
    “I think science has done well enough in previous years, not addressing Creationism at all.”

    Huh! What proportion of Americans accept Creationism? Isn’t it close to 40%? Isn’t it the highest in the “Western World”?

    Again, you do not address my ‘conflict of authorities.’ If the teacher is simply lecturing, making himself the authoprity — especially if he doesn’t allow himself to be challenged on these areas so that he can DISPROVE them, then he has to have more credibility than the preachers that the students will also hear. How often does that happen, especially if the student’s parents also accept Creationism.
    The students should be taught to think for themselves, and the only way you do that is by risking the chance they will ‘think wrongly,’ by displaying the fact that there ARE alternate theories — again, so you can show that these theories are WRONG.

    We WANT students t learn to challenge and question authority — because authorities (can you spell GWB?) are frequently WRONG, and because ‘Critical Thinking” is THE most important skill we can give a student. But the way someone learns to think for himself is by looking at the alternatives, and learning to discard the ones that are wrong, not by making teachers yet another authority that is to be unquestioned.

    And let’s face it, any teacher worth his salary SHOULD be able to explain why ID or Creationism is worng. We have all the weapons on our side if the ‘war’ is a battle of facts. But if we let it be a ‘battle of authorities’ we give the IDers and the Preachers a chance to use the weapons that teachers don’t have.

  6. #6 Skemono
    September 27, 2006

    But, if a teacher splits the class into thirds, has one-third examining the evidence for evolution, one-third for ID (or the claimed evidence, since there really isn’t any), and one third as a ‘neutral jury’ and then spends the time on evolution as a debate between the two sides, and guides it properly, ‘teaching the controversy’ might prove the best way of actually convincing the students how right evolution is, and how wrong ID is.

    One problem I can see with that, is… are grade school science classes going to have the time for all that?

  7. #7 bourgeois_rage
    September 27, 2006

    Prup:

    Huh! What proportion of Americans accept Creationism? Isn’t it close to 40%? Isn’t it the highest in the “Western World”?

    Perhaps I am too hasty. I guess I think that I made it out of the system alright, so others should as well. Clearly, that is not the case.

    If we are going to make sweeping changes to the system, first show me that it is broken everywhere. Are there any studies that show some schools seem to teach critical thinking better than others? And how do other western countries teach evolution? I’m guessing that they don’t teach ID in science classes.

    One other problem with having a group look at ID is the Establishment Clause issue. If ID has been branded religion (like in Dover), how are you going to teach against it without violating the First Amendment?

    I just feel very learly about letting ID into the classroom, if only for the reason that is what the creationists want.

  8. #8 RickD
    September 27, 2006

    Grade schoolers aren’t up to debating the controversy. Grade school is a time to accumulate facts and learn the very basics of scientific reasoning.

    FWIW, even high schoolers should have better things to be doing with their class hours than learning “the controversy”. If you understand scientific thinking, there is no controversy. If you don’t understand scientific thinking, there’s no point wading into the debate.

    At some point in the 19th century, one of the state legislatures debated a bill that would have fixed the value of pi as some rational number. (I forget which state, and what exactly the value was, but it was either a fraction like 22/7 or something like 3.14). What would happen if it suddenly was required of all math teachers to “debate” whether pi was a rational number, or perhaps a number in a radical extensions of the rationals like sqrt(2)? This would be a waste of everybody’s time. The proof that pi is transcendental is well beyond most high schoolers. (Indeed, I would guess it’s beyond most high school math _teachers_.)

    At some point, society has to just sit back and accept the fact that scientists are, in fact, experts in their own fields. By all means discuss how arguments were developed in the history of science, or what kind of evidence supports a leading scientific argument or what kind of evidence would refute a scientific theory. But giving equal time to “both sides” is entirely inappropriate.

    “Teaching the controversy the right way” is a far weaker way for students to be learning science than for them to simply spend their valuable time actually learning science. Not every crackpot theory deserves time in a science class, regardless of how much popular support it has.

  9. #9 Leni
    September 27, 2006

    I wouldn’t give ID a whole third- I think that’s far too much. But I do agree with Jim Benton that teaching the controversy will not work to the IDers advantage.

    My introduction to the debate was a freshman zoology course in which we spent the first week (3 classes) discussing the various types of creationism. And why they are wrong. Aside from being informative it served a very practical purpose: at the end of the week the instructor basically said they would not be using any more class time on the issue. Period. We were told any questions on the topic could be directed to the professors or assistants outside of class.

    The primary advantage of this is that they were able to address it in a more controlled way, rather than having to fight with the class creationist all semester. They were also, I’m sure, much better prepared to address questions and challenges. I don’t see any reason why a similar thing couldn’t be done in high schools. 3 or 4 days would cover it.

    Of course, some teachers will abuse it. But chances are they already do. I’m not %100 sure if it’s safe enough to do this given the ridiculous numbers of Americans who treat creationism seriously, but I think it could definitely work to our advantage.

  10. #10 Prup aka Jim Benton
    September 27, 2006

    I never said ‘equal time’ I am using all the time to teach evolution in my proposed class. The WAY I am teaching it is by letting the students learn WHY it is true and using the falsity of ID as a way of showing that, not ‘teaching ID.” (And, btw, what better way of ‘learning scientific thinking’ is there than being forced to use it in this sort of debate?)

    Actually, that ‘pi story’ (and it wasn’t even 22/7, it was, by the story, simply ‘3’) is, I believe, apocryphal. Again, I am not trying to give ID a foothold. I am proposing what I still believe is the BEST way of combatting it.

  11. #11 Jason I.
    September 27, 2006

    What really blows my mind about all this is this:
    I went to a Catholic school from 7th through 12th grade. In 7th and 8th grade, I was taught by someone who had seriously considered the priesthood. In high school biology, I was taught by a devout Catholic. In high school chemistry, I was taught by a priest. They all accepted the TOE, and taught it where appropriate. Never once did any of these teachers bring up creationism or anything remotely resembling ID. That was left to our religion classes and psych/philosophy classes, where it belonged. No parents raised up with pitchforks and torches, no students complained, no faculty took issue with this. If it can be done this way in a prominent Catholic high school, why the hell can’t our public school system get it right?

  12. #12 Corkscrew
    September 27, 2006

    How about doing a couple of lessons on pseudoscience? Ask pairs of students to go out there, find the most whacked-out idea they can, and have one try to convince the class it’s right. Then the other can point out all the reasons why it’s rubbish. Could be educational, plus the IDers then don’t get to claim they’re being picked on if their names come up.

  13. #13 Prup aka Jim Benton
    September 27, 2006

    Jason:
    Your Catholic school got Evolution right, because the Roman Catholic Church does — and has during my lifetime (I’m 60) — accept evolution, as far as the physical body of man. (There is a separate caveat on the ‘soul’ but thats not important here.) Some Catholics may not but the Church does.

    Catholics, like liberal and conservative Protestants, Reform, Conservative, and (I believe) Reconstructionist Jews, are not ‘Biblical literalists.’ (Some spliter groups of each are, but doctrinally they are not.) The Biblical literalists, mostly evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants are a large minority among American Protestants — not Christians, which includes Catholics — and an almost invisible minority among European Christians of any kind. They are just noisier than most, and have a high level of support in the current and previous Republican Administrations, as well as being very active on radio and tv. But their numbers are much smaller than most people think.

    Corkscrew: Like the idea in general, but the IDers can’t complain that they are being ‘picked on’ since they are the ones saying ‘teach the controversy.’ Your scheme would be very good at teaching critical thinking and scientific method. My method is specifically aimed at teaching evolution.

  14. #14 Ms. S
    September 27, 2006

    I agree that we need to get away from the rote memorization aspect of teaching evolution… it does make it more memorable that way. I just don’t have time to spend several weeks on this alleged “controversy”.
    I’ve found that integrating evolutionary thought through the whole curriculum helps a lot, rather than simply confining it to chapters 17-19 or wherever it falls in the book. I also address the basic concepts of pseudoscience, like ID, astrology, ESP, etc. early on in the year, and we have a lovely discussion of what is and isn’t actual science – you’d be surprised how quickly most high schoolers understand the difference. The ones who don’t… I’ve been known to recommend books to them, including Ken Miller’s. I know some people don’t agree with him, but he’s a great tool to get kids moving along the path away from pure creationism. They find him nonthreatening. Baby steps, I guess… I’ll never get every student away from creationism, but I’m happy to at least plant the seeds of doubt in their minds so that 25 years from now, I’m not fighting the same battle with THEIR kids.

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