Adventures in Ethics and Science

Here in California, I had hoped we might be safe from the high school Intelligent Design follies playing out in other states. Turns out, not so much.

Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec, California, part of the El Tejon Unified School District, offered a class called “Philosophy of Design” which has prompted a lawsuit from the parents of 13 students arguing that the course violates the separation of church and state.

“The course was designed to advance religious theories on the origins of life, including creationism and its offshoot, ‘intelligent design,’” the suit said. “Because the teacher has no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis of this presentation.”

I don’t want to take up the merits of the lawsuit on the separation of church and state, in part because I know others are doing that even now as I type. Instead, I’m going to get worked up about the claim that the class in question is at all respectable as a philosophy course.

The first thing to note is that PZ Myers has launched an initial volley in defense of the integrity of philosophy here. (He has time zones and the lack of a Bay Area commute working for him!) You’ll recall that the Dover trial made it crystal clear that ID can’t pass muster in a public school science class, but there seemed to be the possibility that it could be OK in a “philosophy” class. (How many public schools actually have “philosophy” classes? The public high school I attended was both hoity and toity — it even had an art history class, for crying out loud — but there was no philosophy to speak of.) So the El Tejon Unified School District apparently judged that putting ID in a course labelled as “philosophy” would make it completely legal. Here’s PZ’s response:

So “philosophy” is the new dumping ground, the subject with no serious content, the one where you can safely present any ol’ garbage and it still fits? Like the colloquial definition of “theory” (any guess), I suppose the new definition of “philosophy” is “idiots babbling”.

Let me tell you, it’s always a good thing when scientists know that “philosophy” is not “idiots babbling”.

But on with the subject at hand: Is the Frazier Mountain High School course really a philosophy course on Intelligent Design? If not, how would a philosophy course on intelligent design differ from what Frazier Mountain High School is offering?

Let’s start with the course description, as reported by local newspaper The Mountain Enterprise:

Philosophy of Intelligent Design: “This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that wlll be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Recall, if you will that “Superintendent John Wight said last week that the class, ‘Philosophy of Design,”‘was not being taught as science and was an opportunity for students to debate the controversial issue.” But this description seems not to set out the various “sides” of this debate evenhandedly. Not only does the description present evolution as “not rock solid,” but it tags it as “Darwin’s philosophy“. There will be “[p]hysical and chemical evidence” for a young earth. And, your grade will be based on how well you “support or refute the theory of evolution”. Did we mention that you’ll be graded by someone with no apparent training in philosophy or science to speak of (she has a B. A. Degree in Physical Education, Social Science: with emphasis in Sociology, Special Education) — but, she’s married to an Assembly of God pastor. That probably qualifies her to teach “what the new principal described as ‘a course in critical thinking,’ “ right?

But maybe the deck is less stacked than the course description makes it seem; what about the actual content of the course? The proposed syllabus is on the web, with helpful annotation provided by Ken Hurst, a geology Ph.D. listed as a guest speaker in the class. Of course, he hadn’t, when the syllabus was put forward, agreed to be a speaker in the course, nor did he agree once he was asked. He’s one of the parents who brought the lawsuit. (The only other pro-evolution speaker listed on the syllabus was Francis Crick — spelled incorrectely on the syllabus — who’s been dead for a year and a half.) You should follow the link and read Hurst’s commentary on the syllabus, but I’m just going to look at the syllabus itself so as to give you my own commentary:

1. What is Philosophy? @ 3 days

… How does philosophy influence individual lives?

… Is Evolution a science or a philosophy?

… Is Intelligent Design a science or a philosophy?

2. What is Intelligent Design? @ 5 days

… Why is it a movement?

… Why is it gaining momentum?

… Why is it so threatening to society?

Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of Life

… Is it based on science?

… Is it based on what we know?

… What evidence does it bring and is the evidence measureable data?

3. What is Darwinism/ Evolution? @5 days

… The History behind Darwinism/ Evolution.

… The Historical Roots/ the Greeks.

… Is Evolution based on a religion?

… Is Evolution based on philosophy?

4. Laws of Thermodynamics @ 2 days

… Conservation of Energy

… Law of Entrophy

5. Fossil Records and Dating Methods @ 2 days

… Testable Predictions/ experiments

… What is known about the fossil records

… How the dating methods work

*** Much of the teaching will be done by way of videos and discussion. A list of video will be presented.

***Several scholors/ scientists in the field will be invited to come and present on selected topics.

*** Students will prepare a position paper supporting their beliefs on the subject of evolution or intelligent design.

Issues of content:
Groundwork
Of course, I’d love to see what sources would be used to discuss what philosophy is. More importantly, shouldn’t there also be a discussion of what science is, and of what religion is? In a “critical thinking” course, getting clear on the distinctive features of all three of these human activities is absolutely essential. Moreover, it’s not at all clear from the syllabus above that there is any kind of focus on philosophy, science, and religion as activities as opposed to, say, bodies of knowledge that just somehow appeared and are now offering competing claims.

If you don’t get that science is an activity — a way of building a certain kind of body of knowledge using distinctive methodological tools — there is absolutely no good way to understand how to compare it to religious ways of understanding the world. The same goes with philosophy — it’s an activity, it applies various methodological tools to build knowledge. Ideally, there would need to be a careful discussion of the scope of science, of philosophy, and of religion, and of the kinds of standards claims of knowledge must meet to survive in each of these realms of human activity.

You know, so we’re not comparing apples and oranges.

Presenting the competing positions
Maybe I’m imagining it, but the bullet-points under the ID section of the course sound rather more positive (look it’s a movement and it’s gaining momentum, so why does society feel so threatened?) than those in the “Darwinism/Evolution” section (which seem to focus solely on historical antecedents, and possible religious and philosophical “bases” for it). If the intended goal is really critical thinking, it seems like presenting the two positions objectively ought to come in here, too. And just to be fair, you’d probably want to give the students an account of each position as presented by its proponents and a critique of that position from its opponents. Even better would be to include the proponents’ best rebuttal to the critique.

But wait, maybe this would be too much? It’s not a science class, after all. Do philosophers really spend this kind of time poring over the details of arguments?

You bet your sweet bippy they do!

Thermodynamics, fossil records and dating methods
Two days for thermodynamics? Guys, I’ve taught thermodynamics. There’s no useful information you’re going to get from a mere two days of thermodynamics. Taught by a social studies teacher. The only intellectually honest thing to is to drop it entirely rather than doing the half-assed, superficial take that can only lead to misinterpretation. I’m guessing the same can be said for the fossil records and dating material.

Probably what ought to go here is a section on how scientists draw conclusions from partial data, and what they do when the same data can reasonably support different conclusions. On the philosophical end of things, there would be no problem with including a discussion of what’s at stake in choosing among competing beliefs that are equally supported (or unsupported) by the data; the William James essay “The Will to Believe” might be appropriate here.

Issues of pedagogy:
I know this is high school, but give them some good stuff to read! All videos (especially given Hurst’s scoring of their biases: “19 creation, 4 unknown, 1 documentary to support catastrophism, 0 evolution”) is, I suspect, going to herd the students in the direction of sloppy thinking rather than real critical engagement; watching what’s on the screen is a more passive experience than reading what’s on the page. And, making them write a paper on their own positions on evolutionary theory vs. ID? Naw, that won’t seem like a dangerous thing at all, even if the preacher’s wife is grading them. NOT!

Look, even though I’m on record as saying that ID is uninteresting as philosophy, I think there is a legitimately interesting set of questions to be asked around the issues of why people sometimes prefer knowledge claims from science and other times prefer knowledge claims from religion; about how people try to manage conflict, real or perceived, between these two human activities; and, more generally, about what drives human belief besides empirical data. But as far as I can tell, these questions are not the focus of this “philosophy” course. Instead, it really does look like a back-door attempt to say, “Science is not all that!” and/or “What the religious folks say here is better science than what those dogmatic scientists say!” While these may be claims worth examining, launching into such “examination” without scientific or philosophical context leaves the students without any reasonable basis for judging whether these claims are reasonable.

Last time I checked, that was what “critical thinking” is all about.

Comments

  1. #1 NJ
    January 13, 2006

    Hey, anybody who can work a catch phrase from “Laugh-In ” into an article is OK in my book, even if you did abandon p-chem for the dark side ;>

  2. #2 Corey Tomsons
    January 13, 2006

    I tutored a young student in London Ontario, who had philosophy as one of her course options. Aside from the drek involved in the proposed Philosophy of Design course, I think the topic could be nicely covered as a module in a critical thinking class. Which leads me to wonder, what would a junior-high or high-school ‘dream course’ in philosohy include? Proposals, anyone?

  3. #3 Bill
    January 23, 2006

    Your logic — not to mention, command of the language — blew me away. I could feel my underpinnings starting to loosen at the description of your high school (both hoity and toity — my goodness); by two paragraphs later, I was in awe. I think you said more substantive things here than I have in my last twenty posts. Very nicely done!

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