RE: [asa] The fight in Texas over evolution training in schools

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Wed Mar 25 2009 - 10:47:05 EDT

Here is my two cents' worth on this issue, taken from a magazine article I wrote about the Kitzmiller v Dover trial.

Given the evidence, the judge really had no choice but to rule that the school board tried to inject a reference to ID for religious reasons, and that it had no clear secular purpose for doing so. “The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism,” the Judge wrote, and in this particular instance I can’t blame him. As a result, “it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”
        Does this leave open the possibility that a science teacher might still be allowed to discuss aspects of ID? If not, it would be unfortunate. It is true that ID ideas are not now getting space in science journals, with rare and highly controversial exceptions, such as when philosopher Steven Meyer published an article advocating “design” in 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, an action that was soon repudiated by the scientific society that owns the journal. (The whole affair, including the denunciation of the journal’s former editor Richard Sternberg, amounted to a mirror image of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition.) Yet–and this is crucial to bear in mind–ideas associated with ID are being advocated in some refereed professional literature related to the philosophy of science, such as the journal Biology and Philosophy and several recent books from academic publishers. Some of this literature was mentioned by witnesses for both side!
 s in the trial, but curiously neither side made much of it.
        Pennsylvania science standards call for teachers to discuss the “nature of science”–which in the language of science education is a reference to aspects of the philosophy of science–and the existence of refereed professional literature on ID in the philosophy of science suggests the relevance of the subject to questions regarding the interpretation of data and the formulation of hypotheses. The magazine Nature went even further in an April 28 editorial headed “Dealing with Design,” which stated that scientists in the lecture hall “should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs.” Likewise, public school science teachers have a legitimate secular purpose in discussing various philosophical objections to aspects of evolution that have been raised by scientists in the 147 years since Darwin’s book was published. The general education of a science student is well served when such topics ar!
 e introduced. Yet I cannot criticize the judge for overlooking this possibility, because the defense did not make a case for it. Rather, the defense kept insisting that ID is science, not philosophy of science, despite the near total lack of backing for that claim in the scientific literature.

I add this:

I am a former high school science teacher myself (physics and chemistry), and IMO we would do a better job of educating students in both high school and college, if we would cut some traditional scientific topics to make room for teaching a little more history & philosophy of science. (Given that I am in that field, no one should be surprised that I would say this.) IMO, in such a context it could be entirely appropriate to bring in some of the many objections to evolution that have been raised since the mid-19th century: they might at least be presented as serious objections that have been raised, often by scientists themselves--and, in some cases at least, have been fully answered by subsequent science (such as the problem of inheritance, acknowledged by Darwin in his book and not dealt with satisfactorily for another 70 years). It would also be appropriate in that context, IMO, to discuss contemporary objections to evolution, including aspects of "intelligent design." !
  Students are not being educated as well, IMO, when such things are ruled out of bounds for public school science classes simply b/c they may be religiously motivated. We wouldn't rule out teaching students about the controversy among scientists themselves, about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945, even though some of those objections were religiously motivated; we wouldn't rule out teaching students about the controversy among scientists themselves, about how to interpret QM (Copenhagen vs other possibilities), simply b/c some might hold a given view partly for religious reasons or express a view in theological terms ("God does not play dice"). Likewise, we should not bar discussion of the fact that some scientists do not find Darwinian evolution fully convincing, and why.

I realize of course that many public school science teachers are woefully unprepared to have those larger conversations--and this is not their fault, given the courses they are required to take in order to be certified. But some teachers may be very well prepared for such conversations, and they IMO should not be barred from entering into them. The legal issue is, do they have a clear secular purpose (as vs a religious purpose) for doing so? Prior to and during the Kitzmiller trial, legal expert Edward Larson held the view that aspects of ID could be discussed in public school classes, if a teacher had a clear secular purpose for doing so. The judge's ruling in Kitzmiller might still allow for this, but it's not clear that it does. *Teaching ID as an alternative to evolution* is quite different IMO from *discussing aspects of it* for secular purposes. Probably, many teachers who would want to try that would be motivated by religion and not have a clear secular purpose,!
  but IMO that would not be true in all cases.

Of course, the ACLU's position is that you just can't use the "ID" term in public school science classes. But they do not oppose teaching students about ID in other courses, such as religion or philosophy--both of which can be offered in public schools. So, if there is a clearly legal middle course, that would be it.


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Received on Wed Mar 25 10:47:46 2009

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