Mader on ID

Recemtly there was a bit of a kerfuffle over at Virginia Commonwealth University regarding the bioogy textbook Essentials of Biology, Sylvia Mader. An adjunct biology professor at VCU protested that the book gave short shrift to evolution and was soft on creationism.

I’ve not managed to locate a copy of the book for mysel, but I note that Keith Pennock, writing for the Discovery Institute’s blog, has this post up, in which he quotes two paragraphs from Mader’s textbook. Pennock’s intention is to show how silly the adjunct professor was being. Alas, I think there’s a different message to be inferred from the quoted material.

Mader writes:

No wonder most scientists in our country are dismayed when state legislatures or school boards rule that teachers must put forward a variety or “theories” on the origin of life, including one that runs contrary to the mass of data that supports the theory of evolution. An organization in California called the Institute for Creation Research advocates that students be taught an “intelligent-design theory,” which says that DNA could never have arisen without the involvement of an “intelligent agent,” and that gaps in the fossil record mean that species arose fully developed with no antecedents.

Since no purely religious ideas can be taught in the schools, the advocates for an intelligent-design theory are careful not to mention the Bible or any strictly religious ideas. Still, teachers who have a solid scientific background are not comfortable teaching intelligent-design theory because it does not meet the test of a scientific theory. Science is based on hypotheses that have been tested by observation and/or experimentation. A scientific theory has stood the test of time–that is, no hypotheses have been supported by observation and/or experimentation that run contrary to the theory. On the contrary, the Theory of Evolution is supported by data collected in such wide-ranging fields as development, anatomy, geology, and biochemistry. (Emphasis Added)

I think I’m going to cry.

Why, oh why, do so many scientists on my side of this issue make “It’s not science!” their first, and apparently in this case only, reply to ID? Teachers with solid scientific backgrounds don’t reject ID because it does not meet the test of a scientific theory, for heaven’s sake. They reject it because all of the scientific assertions made by ID folks in defense of their views are utterly wrong. That has to be the first point made in any serious textbook discussion of ID.

While we’re at it, it’s rather bizarre to say that the Insitute for Creation Research supports teaching “an intelligent-design theory.” The ICR promotes young-Earth creationism. Officially, I believe their view is the same as the ID corwd, namely that we should “Teach the Controversy.”

For a college-level textbook the correct approach is to address the main ID and creationist arguments while mentioning ID and creationism as little as possible. For example, it should be standard in a unit on evolution to explain in some detail how the prolonged action of natural selection can lead to complex structures. Specific examples, like what is known about the evolution of the blood clotting cascade or the immune system should be used. Or, you could briefly explain the creationist arguments using probablility calculations to argue against evolution, and then show why such arguments are always based on misapplications of probability theory. In other words, address arguments that students might have heard in the course of your discussion, but don’t present them as subjects about which there is any serious scientific controversy.

I suspect part of the problem here is that Mader hasn’t spent any serious amount of time educating herself about creationist and ID arguments. No shame in that, of course. But if that is the case then she shouldn’t be mentioning the subject in her textbook at all.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin McCarthy
    July 19, 2006

    As a high school science teacher, I don’t even get into creationism unless students bring it up. Then we review several things, one of which is the scientific method. Interested students will get a bonus assignment to look up ID or whatever and compare that with the scientific method and the various things that they say.

    Unfortunately, at my level, much of what the student says is just parroting what is told to them by parents, pastors, etc. The students just don’t have the background and ability to deal with many of the more robust arguements, so we’re forced to fall back on ‘is it falsifiable?’, ‘is it testable?’. However, this is good practice for science thinking.

    Fortunately, Texas requires the teaching of evolution and does not include ‘alternative theories’.

  2. #2 mark
    July 19, 2006

    I think you hit it in your last paragraph–that’s the impression I got from Mader’s quote. I wouldn’t spend too much class time on debunking Creationist arguments, because so many of them are utter nonsense (like the 2nd law of thermodynamics BS;)some few do go along with important considerations–e.g., the fossil record is incomplete, but it has been filled in tremendously since Darwin’s time. It would probably be worth while to make a statement that there are ant-evolutionists running about, but that they use specious arguments against evolution, lack a real theory themselves, engage in no scientific research, and are motivated by ideological or religious beliefs.