Should We "Teach the
By Jason Rosenhouse
Posted August 8, 2005
Diepenbrock is a writer for the Southwest Daily Times, a newspaper
published out of Liberal, Kansas (yes, that is really the name of the
town). In a recent article
(available at http://www.swdtimes.com/swdtimes/2005/021805/opinion.html),
about the ongoing disputes about the state science standards in Kansas, he
wrote the following:
This scares opponents to death
because they are more worried about Kansas gaining criticism from national
media as it did in 1999.
Instead opponents should come up
with a good argument on why teaching only the evolution theory does not violate
the state education science mission statement to make all students lifelong
learners who can use science to make reasoned decisions.
Presenting only one life science
theory in classes without alternatives breeds ignorance and violates the
In this essay I propose to answer
so is not so easy, however, because Diepenbrock never gets around to explaining
what alternative theory he has in mind.
The closest he comes is this paragraph:
But after the August 2004
election, conservatives now have regained a 6-4 edge [on the School Board], and
it appears they are pursuing avenues to change state science standards again to
teach other theories, mainly intelligent design, in addition to evolution.
It would have been helpful if
Diepenbrock had told us what, precisely, teaching Intelligent Design entails.
us also consider the last line of the article. How does presenting only one theory breed ignorance? If there is only one theory that is
supported by the available evidence, then surely it breeds ignorance to present
anything other than that theory. High school physics classes generally only
discuss the Copernican model of the Solar System. The alternative, Ptolemaic model is accorded no respect. If it is mentioned at all it is only
for its historical significance.
Does Diepenbrock believe physics classes are breeding ignorance?
We might say
that presenting only one theory would, indeed, breed ignorance if there were
other theories of equal merit that were not being presented. I assume that Diepenbrock believes that
to be the case. And since the only
rival theory Diepenbrock mentions is Intelligent Design, we will consider the
merits of presenting it in science classes.
What are the
chief claims of Intelligent Design Theory? It cannot simply be that there is some higher intelligence
responsible for the presence and structure of life on Earth, for that idea is
entirely consistent with evolution.
If that is all Diepenbrock has in mind then he has not presented an
alternative to evolution.
Surely he has in
mind the stronger claim that there are certain biological structures that are
so complex that it is simply impossible to attribute them to non-intelligent
causes. That being the case, there
simply must be a higher intelligence responsible for them. That claim has been defended by people
like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Is that the alternative to evolution Diepenbrock wants
If it is, then
the reason for excluding it is very simple: the claim is false. For example, Michael Behe claims that
if a biomolecular system is made of several well-matched, indispensable parts,
then it is irreducibly complex and therefore could not have evolved by gradual
accretion. Scientists have refuted
this claim in three main ways: (1) By presenting hypothetical scenarios, based
on known genetic mechanisms, for how irreducible complexity could evolve
gradually. (2) By pointing to
specific complex biological systems and describing specific scenarios, based on
copious data, for how they evolved.
And (3) By pointing to computer simulations of evolution that show that
irreducibly complex systems routinely evolve gradually.
Since Behe is
claiming that the complexity of biochemical systems is utterly beyond the
capabilities of natural causes, it is for him to explain why the scenarios
scientists have presented are implausible. So far he has had no success in doing so.
contrast, claims to have developed an elaborate mathematical framework for
proving that a given biological structure is the product of design. Alas, when it comes time for him to
apply his framework to actual biological systems he makes essential use of
Behe's claims that irreducibly complex systems cannot evolve gradually. Since that claim is false, so are
Dembski's arguments based on that claim.
I have no doubt
that Diepenbrock does not want blatantly false information to be presented to
school kids, and that ought to be enough to justify excluding ID from the
curriculum. But perhaps he could
offer the following reply to my argument:
Sure, he could say, I claim that Behe and Dembski are wrong, but other
people say they are right. Clearly
there is a controversy here, and students should be made aware of that fact.
But is there a
controversy? Suppose I decide that
I believe the Ptolemaic system is more plausible than the Copernican
system. Does that mean there is
now a controversy among scientists about the proper theory to teach in physics
classes? Suppose I get a handful
of my PhD holding friends to go along with me, particularly those who are not
physicists and who therefore do not need an accurate theory of planetary motion
to carry out their day-to-day work.
Maybe we even write a book presenting our ideas. Is that enough to have the Ptolemaic
system taught with respect in science classes?
Surely not. Surely it counts for something that the
enormous majority of scientists are on one side of the issue, while it is only
I and a handful of friends on the other.
Surely an idea has to gain some currency within the scientific community
before it is taught with respect in science classes.
The fact is that
every scientific theory presented as orthodoxy in science classes began in
exactly the place ID finds itself now: A heresy believed by a handful of people
dissatisfied with the orthodox view.
In no case, however, did the supporters of the heresy earn their place
in the curriculum by appealing directly to school boards and state
legislatures. Rather, the heresy
won out only by producing evidence adequate to convince a large majority of
And that is
exactly what ID proponents refuse to do. The arguments they are making now are
identical to the ones they were making a decade ago. As a scientific enterprise they have made no progress at
all. At no point have they shown
how their theory accounts for the data of the fossil record, or the findings of
genetics, or the evidence from embryology, or the data from any other branch of
science. Evolution accounts for
all that data. Nor have they
described, let alone carried out, any innovative research program based on
If we present ID
respectfully in science classes we are saying that the mere existence of a
handful of dissenters from the orthodox view is enough to have the dissent
presented in science classes.
It is a standard
that would be laughed at in any other context. There are millions of Americans, some of them with PhD's,
who believe in astrology. No one
seriously argues that is sufficient reason to present astrology respectfully in
science classes. Why not? Surely the reason is that very few
scientists believe astrology has merit, coupled with the inability of
astrologers to produce any useful insights based on their theories.
So that is why
ID should not be taught: The overwhelming majority of the scientific community
believes its claims to be false, its defenders have not shown that their theory
can account for any of the data evolution accounts for, and they have not
provided any reason for believing that their theory even has the potential to
produce anything useful to science.
If Diepenbrock believes I should be applying different standards in
deciding what should get taught in science classes, I invite him to tell me
what those standards are.