Pharyngula

Santorum did not have a good idea

Now and again, some well-meaning but clueless person gets it into their head that teaching creationism in the schools is a good idea — that the clash of ideas is a good pedagogical technique. There are cases where that would be true, but doing it in the public school classroom and hashing over a bad, discredited idea vs. good science is totally inappropriate. Reserve that technique for issues where there is substance on both sides.

But now Jay Mathews is trying to revivify this nonsense in the Washington Post, suggesting that Rick Santorum has a good idea with his plan to “teach the controversy”. He’s done it before, and gotten a predictable response.

Teaching all sides of the evolution issue is supported in opinion polls. But those against it feel more strongly. When I suggested in 2005 that high school biology teaching would be improved by allowing students to debate Darwinism vs. the intelligent design theory, I received more than 400 e-mails. Seventy percent of them said I was an idiot. Many added that I was a dangerous idiot.

Heed your email, Mathews. The majority were right. And your opinion column just reveals that you don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

I respectfully disagree. It is important to note that Santorum and I have different reasons for wanting high schools to allow discussion of intelligent design — the notion that some supernatural force (not necessarily God) brought life to earth. Santorum believes that God had a hand in it. But he wants to avoid injecting religion into schools, so he says classes need only examine the scientific possibility that Darwin was wrong to conclude that life evolved only because of natural processes.

I highlighted part of that paragraph, because it illustrates how wrong Mathews is. No, the Religious Right wants to inject religion into schools; that’s clearly been on their agenda from the very beginning. They want prayer, they want religion classes, and they want to expunge any scientific finding that contradicts the Bible. Santorum and his fellow travelers see intelligent design creationism as a Trojan horse to get god into the classroom.

After his failed exercise in reading Rick Santorum’s mind, an exercise that ignores the paper trail the Religious Right has left us, Mathews turns his magic powers on the minds at the Discovery Institute, and gets that wrong, too.

Advocates of intelligent design at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have influenced Santorum. They accept many Darwinist concepts, such as the notion that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. They see a weakness in Darwinian theory because of the lack of much evidence of natural precursors to the animal body types that emerged in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. How did we get from random chemicals to creatures with eyes and spines? They say that gap in knowledge leaves open the possibility of intervention by an outside force.

Many scientists and teachers think the intelligent design folks are only pretending to have an allegiance to science. They seemed sincere to me. Some have doctorates in science. Even if they are fakes, their reliance on the fossil record rather the first book of the Bible qualifies them for a science class debate.

Mathews, look at your email again. You’re an idiot.

The Discovery Institute contains a diverse group of people; some are young earth creationists who completely deny common descent; some accept that the earth is old and that we can trace the derivation of humans from prior forms. What unites them is a categorical rejection of natural mechanisms of evolution; they don’t believe that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. Some of them believe that the ape genome was consciously ransacked by an intelligent designer to build a new species, us, with intent.

The absence of evidence of natural precursors you are babbling about is pure ID propaganda. It’s wrong. We don’t have fossils of these things, that is true, but you have to be thoroughly ignorant of modern biology to think that fossils are the primary source of information about our biological history. We analyze molecules, not bones. And the molecules tell us much about pre-Cambrian relationships.

GAPS? You’re proposing teaching “gaps” in our knowledge? OK, the right answer is to point to a specific question and say, “I don’t know”. It is not right to say “I don’t know, but I’m going to invent a magic ghost to fill in that gap, and I’m going to call him Jesus.”

Now Mathews claims to see “sincerity” in the intelligent design creationists, which is nice and charitable, but not credible. Philip Johnson has a doctorate, sure…he’s a lawyer, and he adopted this ID nonsense when he had a midlife crisis and also became a fundamentalist Christian. Bill Dembski has a doctorate in math, and also thinks ID is a modern version of the Logos gospel. Jonathan Wells has a doctorate in biology (amazing!), and also went into his graduate program at the behest of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, so that he could destroy Darwinism from within. They are sincere Christians. They are not sincere scientists.

I would like to see evidence that creationists rely on the fossil record. Mathews himself claims it’s about gaps; the Discovery Institute has not proposed that the way to advance their cause is by more intense study of paleontology.

So Mathews knows nothing about what the creationists actually argue. Does he know anything about biology? No, he does not.

I think Darwin was right, but boring.

It was hard for me to become interested in classroom explanations of natural selection when I was a student. Introducing a contrary theory like intelligent design and having students discuss its differences from Darwinism would enliven the class. It would also teach the scientific method. Did Darwin follow the rules of objective scientific inquiry? Does intelligent design?

Grrrr. BORING? You’re a goddamned ignorant moron, Mathews. Do not blame the instructional failures of your lousy teachers, or your inattentiveness in class, on Charles Darwin.

Right now, we have a wealth of wonderful material that can be taught in the classroom, and great texts to do it with. I highly recommend the books of Sean Carroll; I’m using his Making of the Fittest in our introductory biology classrooms right now, and it does a marvelous job of explaining the molecular evidence behind evolution. I’ve also used Endless Forms Most Beautiful in my developmental biology class — it’s great at summarizing evo-devo. We’ve also used Weiner’s Beak of the Finch as an example of modern population genetics; Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge for the intersection of paleontology and molecular biology; and Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for human evolution. These are real pedagogical tools and interesting scientific issues that can be and have been used routinely in good science classes, without resorting to contrived nonsense.

Boring? Jebus, Mathews, you aren’t competent to lecture us on how to teach biology if you think this entire field of science is uninteresting…so uninteresting that you want to introduce crackpots and wackaloons to liven it up. Hey, how about clowns, too? That would have perked you right up in your lackluster student days — sure, let’s just fill the science classroom with a whole fucking parade of clowns!

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You know what classes students really find dry and boring, and complain about frequently? Math classes. I anxiously await the patented Jay Mathews solution to make math exciting — it will probably involve lying a lot, putting mathematical concepts on trial, and inventing out of whole cloth solutions to problems that have resisted actual mathematical efforts to answer. Maybe magic tricks? Perhaps he thinks this old S. Harris cartoon is a legitimate example of good math teaching style?

I teach at the college level, and I do discuss intelligent design creationism in the classroom. But first, I spend a couple of weeks discussing the scientific evidence for evolution intensively; I prepare the students with the background to analyze the questions legitimately. And then I don’t present creationism as something that has to be addressed scientifically, but as a social and political problem — and we go through a subset of their arguments and show how they neglect and contradict the scientific evidence that the students already know. It is most definitely not because we need creationism to make the science lively; it’s because creationism is a pain in the ass lie that the students should be prepared to cope with.

(Also on FtB)