Teaching about ID versus teaching ID

The Disco Institute’s Rob Crowther is confused. Because the NCSE announced and linked to an ID statement by the National Council for the Social Studies, Crowther seems to think the NCSE has changed its own position.

This really rests on two confusions (two of Crowther’s many confusions). First, the flawed notion that the one organization adopts another’s position merely by pointing out that the policy exists. NCSE publishes a book full of statements opposing creationism by scientific, educational, religious and civil liberties organizations. No organization could simultaneously endorse the full range of views of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the American Humanist Association (to choose a few examples). The NCSE, those religious groups, the National Council for the Social Studies, and dozens of other groups, are united in thinking that creationism (including ID) is not science, and it is inappropriate to teach these religious concepts in science classes.

The second confusion in Crowther’s analysis is the claim that the NCSS statement conflicts with the previously stated NCSE position. The NCSS states:

Social studies may, at first glance, seem to be a better fit for this approach to teaching intelligent design [than science classes], but the same constitutional issues arise whether religious beliefs are taught in science or in the social studies curriculum. While the social studies classroom is the proper forum for the discussion of controversial issues, educators should be wary of being used to promote a religious belief in the public schools. This unintended outcome can be the result of teaching students that a scientific controversy exists between intelligent design and the theory of evolution when, in fact, no such controversy exists.

Teaching about religion in human society is an important component of many social studies courses (see the NCSS position statement ?Study about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum,? revised and approved by the Board of Directors in 1998). However, teaching religious beliefs as the equivalent of scientific theory is not consistent with the social studies nor is it allowed under the First Amendment. Evolution is a scientific theory subject to testing by the scientific method. In contrast, religious teaching based on the existence of a supreme being does not allow for the scientific processes of hypothesizing, gathering evidence or questioning as they are based on faith, not scientific observations or experimentation.

I took a course about religion in high school, and I wish everyone else took a course like it. Learning about Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. is an eye-opening experience, and brings a deep appreciation of the diverse ways that humans have addressed themselves to the metaphysical questions and challenges we all face. Courses about religion are not constitutionally or pedagogically problematic.

What is problematic is using the classroom to endorse or promote religion per se or to advocate one denomination over another. That a clear violation of the first amendment, and the Founders rejected that approach for good reasons. It is guaranteed to alienate certain students, and it sows division within the community when the goal of governmental actions ought to be to bring people together.

That is why the NCSS opposes teaching ID in social studies classes or in science classes, and why the NCSE does, too. Neither group opposes teaching about religion, however. Crowther even links to a statement Eugenie Scott made to that effect in 1998:

Personally, I favor teaching about religion in the public schools, including the role of religion in history, and the role of religion in human societies. We are not only a scientifically illiterate population, we are also a theologically illiterate population, understanding little about not only the varieties of belief found within Christianity and Judaism, but understanding practically nothing about either the other great world religions or the diverse animistic religions held by native populations, including Native Americans. Teaching about religion is an important undertaking for public school teachers, but unfortunately, too frequently sectarian religious views are advocated in the public schools.

The NCSE takes no position on that subject (it being beyond our mandate), but the NCSS does. The statement Crowther linked to continues after what he quoted (as shown above). They agree that “the same constitutional issues arise whether religious beliefs are taught in science or in the social studies curriculum,” but continue to observe that “Teaching about religion in human society is an important component of many social studies courses.” ID is a religious idea, and would fit into that discussion. The NCSS gives several examples of ways that social studies teachers could teach about ID:

There are a number of ways in which social studies teachers might introduce the issues surrounding intelligent design in their curriculum. The following recommendations examine the issues from a social studies, rather than a religious, perspective.

* Constitutional perspective: A teacher using this approach would focus on court cases that consider policies requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

* Historical perspective: A teacher adopting this perspective would focus on the historical conflict between science and religion since the Middle Ages, with particular attention to public debates over the teaching of evolution in the United States in the past century.

* Sociological perspective: A teacher using this lens would focus on competing organizations and social forces involved in the attempts to teach about intelligent design in the schools.

* Anthropological perspective: A teacher choosing this perspective would have students analyze creation stories and beliefs of many cultures as well as scientific theories dealing with the origin and development of human life.

* Public issues perspectives: A teacher using this approach would encourage students to research intelligent design and debate whether intelligent design should be taught in the public schools.

Far from saying that “they see no room for any discussion of intelligent design anywhere in schools today,” the National Council for the Social Studies presents several places where it would be an appropriate topic to teach about. It would no more be appropriate to teach ID as an established scientific fact than it would be appropriate to present transubstantiation in science classes.

Crowther’s claim that the NCSS is censoring teachers is false. His claim that NCSE endorses every detail of NCSS’s policy is false, but his claim that there is a conflict between the NCSS position and the views NCSE has expressed over the years is also false. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether these falsehoods are so tightly intertwined as to be irreducibly complex.


  1. #1 AJ Milne
    October 6, 2007

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether these falsehoods are so tightly intertwined as to be irreducibly complex.


  2. #2 inkadu
    October 6, 2007

    Social studies, dude? I don’t know if I’d trust the slipperiness of ID in the hands of a social studies teacher. I think the main lesson of ID is a scientific one — something you can cook in the crucible to illustrate what science is, and how slippery things can get when you use certain rationalizations to avoid the evidence.

    I know Carl Sagan used the struggles of religious men to great effect in cosmos — and it was about the struggle of the reality (elliptical orbits) being different from the expected, Godly expectation (circular orbits). That’s what I’d want.

    I’d hate to have a debate about ID in a social studies class, because I don’t think a social studies teacher would be properly equipped to discuss if it’s right or if it’s wrong. I know it’s already coming pre-packaged into the classroom as a “religious ideas,” but it takes some slow and careful explaining to say why it’s not science.

  3. #3 tristero
    October 6, 2007


    “it takes some slow and careful explaining to say why it’s not science.”

    Really? And I mean that as a serious question, not snark. I’m a layperson and it is patently obvious to me that id creationism has nothing to do with science. It was obvious when I was in HS back in the 60′s that fundamentalist readings of the Bible had nothing to do with science (or religion, but that’s another story). Agreed that teachers vary in quality, but explaining why IDC is junk is literally child’s play. My daughter figured it out, without prompting, when she was about 8 or 9.

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    October 9, 2007

    There are people with badly skewed concepts of what “science” means, and getting them to understand how it actually works can be very tricky. People with a fundamentalist mindset are looking at the world seeking absolute authority and absolute knowledge. They think science provides that (or that it is meant to). People who understand science as a process for asking questions don’t have a problem seeing the flaws in IDC, but people coming at the question with a misunderstanding of science can’t understand why anyone would have a problem with it.