Sunday, August 21, 2005

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Abstinence

This is the long-awaited conclusion to Evolution Week.

I am not necessarily a proponent of Intelligent Design. Quite frankly, I don’t know enough about it to comment. But I do have some observations about the debate itself. Opponents of teaching Intelligent Design in schools have advanced a handful of arguments:

  1. The topic of religion does not belong in schools, period.
  2. Evolution is correct; Intelligent Design is wrong.
  3. Religion does not belong in a science class because:
    1. It is not falsifiable, thus not scientific, so it could be taught in a philosophy class rather than a science class.
    2. Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive.
    3. There is not enough time to teach the curriculum we already have, let alone adding new topics.

Let us look at each one, in turn.

  1. Religion does not belong in schools, period.


This is a particularly weak argument. This absolutist position would prevent the drama club from staging Inherit the Wind, a social studies teacher from discussing Al Qaeda, and the music teacher from teaching about certain pieces by Bach, Mozart, and many others. It would bar the discussion of some writings of Darwin. Religion as a topic is definitely appropriate for a public school. However, a distinction should be made between teaching religion and teaching about religion.

  1. Evolution is correct; Intelligent Design is wrong.


The government should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas. If ID is indeed wrong, the public should be able to figure it out.

  1. Religion does not belong in a science class because:
    1. It is not falsifiable, thus not scientific, so it could be taught in a philosophy class rather than a science class.


The Scientific Method does call on those with an hypothesis to test it by either falsifying or not falsifying. The argument against ID is that the inability to falsify the existence of God means that ID is not scientific. This is a narrow definition of science. An alternate definition is “knowledge, especially that gained through experience.” If science meant falsification, we would call the curriculum “falsification class.” It is easy to falsify things that are observable within recorded human history, like gypsy moths and agricultural hybrids. Things in the distant path are less falsifiable. There is some amount of faith in any theory involving the distant past. In addition, those who claim to value the ability to falsify an hypothesis seem to spend an awful lot of time protecting Evolution from competing ideas. Finally, how many public schools offer a philosophy class? This strikes me as a cop out, saying that students can discuss ID in a class that is not required or sometimes even offered to them.

    1. Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive.


Again, the government should not pick winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas. As noted below in the Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish saga, some people believe that Evolution and ID are in conflict, with factions choosing one side or the other. That there are other factions who see the ideas as compatible does not eliminate the debate. To say that ID must be excluded from the science curriculum because certain people (perhaps even a majority of people) believe that the ideas are not mutually exclusive means that government is picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas.

    1. There is not enough time to teach the curriculum we already have, let alone adding new topics.


Oh yeah. Schools are all business, never wasting time on the frivolous. In other contexts, when a teacher strays from the curriculum, it is called a “teachable moment.” Adding interesting notes to an otherwise dry topic can keep the students interested. What happens when the science teacher is asked the meaning of the names of the planets or the constellations. Suddenly mythology and astrology are being discussed in a science class. As long as the teacher does not stray too far off track, such a discussion can actually enhance learning of science. If the same student asks a question about the Creation story and its relation to the curriculum, should the teacher nervously tell the kid to hush up? It is all a question of how much time you devote to each topic.

This reminds me of abstinence only sex ed classes. As I understand it, teachers are not allowed to talk about birth control unless it is in the context of failure rates. However, if a hypothetical method of birth control has a 5% failure rate, and even less if it is used properly, the math teacher can help the kids fill in the blanks that the effectiveness of the method is 95% or greater. In this way, even abstinence only classes will discuss birth control. It is just a matter of emphasis.

Without knowing the exact details of Intelligent Design, I can’t speak to its merit. But I can say that the arguments used against ID do not measure up.

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