Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Clearer Version of Something That I Have Previously Said

I'm not terribly impressed with most of what I run into over at, but this column by economist Gene Callahan expresses quite effectively one of my major arguments in favor of Intelligent Design at least getting a brief discussion in the classroom:
I will declare up front that I don’t regard Intelligent Design as a likely candidate to supplant Neo-Darwinism as the accepted model for understanding the origin of species, and not merely due to the hostility it generates in the scientific establishment, but even more because of its own weaknesses.


Despite the fact I suspect that ID is an intrinsically flawed approach, I still endorse the efforts to have it presented in schools as an alternative to the standard theory. If ID is included in a biology course, the enrollees should certainly be informed that Neo-Darwinism is currently the orthodox view, embraced by the vast majority of working biologists. But it is precisely such firmly entrenched orthodoxies that most cry out for challenges. Even if the dominant theory succeeds in repelling all rivals, they still can serve to rescue the mainstream from the danger of self-satisfied complacency. Furthermore, many of yesterday’s orthodoxies are now regarded as quaint curiosities, because some lonely dissenters refused to accept the prevailing wisdom. To me, teaching students that all scientific ideas should be open to criticism and that broad acceptance of a theory is no guarantee of its truth seems even more valuable than conveying the details of any particular theory.
Exactly! Discussing Behe's argument concerning irreducible complexity can be a useful method for showing students that science involves questioning, not simply absorbing the current received wisdom.

I have had defenders of the current biological orthodoxy tell me that there isn't really any way to teach science in the lower grades except in the received wisdom model. Now, I will agree that there is a point where this is true. There's no point in trying to have 4th graders prove associative law, or getting into fine philosophical points about what constitutes a "law" of math. "Teacher! We've only tried A + (B + C) = (A + B) + C with the first 1000 possible values for A, B, and C! Maybe this doesn't work with prime numbers above one billion!"

On the other hand, by the time you get to high school science classes, some serious questions about the nature of truth, scientific proof, and how thorough of a test do we need to call something "proved" should not be beyond the abilities of many of the students. My concern is that it may be beyond the abilities of many of the teachers.

Think back to some of the teachers that you had in primary and secondary school. Did you ever find yourself asking them a question for which they didn't know the answer? Most of the time, when this happened, my teachers were not only prepared to admit it, but often appreciated that a student was thinking carefully enough to ask that question. A few of my teachers clearly did not like this; their response reminded me a bit of the fervor with which some Priests of the Holy Darwinian Church of the Evolution respond to heresy. I think the problem had a bit to do with discomfort at being reminded that they didn't have all the answers.

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