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Should We "Teach the Controversy"?

By Jason Rosenhouse

Posted August 8, 2005

Geroge 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 mission statement.

In this essay I propose to answer Diepenbrock's challenge.

Doing 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.

Let 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 presented?

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.

Dembski, by 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 scientists.

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 their ideas.

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.

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