October 02, 2005

Michael Balter on Teaching the Controversy

Michael Balter, a human evolution writer for Science Magazine has an opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times in which he advocates teaching the controversy. I think his piece is barely half correct. He correctly claims that because polls show that only a minority of people in the US believes in evolution, science has failed to communicate and therefore needs to do something different.

What should be done? Balter thinks the history of the development of the theory should be taught. But more than that, he thinks the history of the debate should be taught.

The history of the theory of evolution is one of bitter debates between religion and science, and the debates continue today. In "On the Origin of Species," Charles Darwin refuted the arguments for intelligent design put forward by the 18th century English philosopher William Paley, who greatly influenced the evolutionary theorist until Darwin witnessed natural selection at work on the Galapagos Islands. Over the ensuing decades, Darwin's theories were rigorously tested and criticized before they won over the majority of scientists.

The best way to teach the theory of evolution is to teach this contentious history. The most effective way to convince students that the theory is correct is to confront, not avoid, continuing challenges to it.

Before I go on to his most controversial points, I would like to point out that the biology books I have read lately, college level admittedly, all discussed the history of the development of the theory, all talk about Paley, etc. They even point out that Darwin and Wallace developed the scientific theory nearly simultaneously and independently. They also indicate that there was a long pre-Darwin/Wallace history of evolution. I for one think this is an important point to make. The complete history of the discovery removes the personal cult element from the debate. I know that Balter wants to discuss how to address the current political issues at a meta-level. But his whole piece seems to reinforce the Darwin cult myth that the creationist perpetuated.

The real problem with Balter's ideas comes as he attempts to argue that scientists should actively debate Intelligent Design creationists and that these debates should be extended all the way down to the classroom,

Pro-evolution scientists have little to lose and everything to gain from a nationwide debate. Let's put the leading proponents of intelligent design and our sharpest evolutionary biologists on a national television panel and let them take their best shots. If biblical literalists want to join in, let them. Let's encourage teachers to stage debates in their classrooms or in assemblies. Students can be assigned to one or the other side, and guest speakers can be invited. Among other things, students would learn that science, when properly done, reaches conclusions via experimentation, evidence and argument, not through majority view.

There are two major problems with all this and several not so major ones. I will address the major problems. First, the Intelligent Design creationists play on and reinforce the naive intuitions of the general public and they refuse to play by the generally accepted rules of debate: rhetoric is substituted for evidence and ignorance considered superior to knowledge. When these tactics are combined with the fact that modern scientific biology is complex and multi-disciplined debates tend to only reinforce existing beliefs; whatever side you are already on it will appear that your guy won. Second, when this idea is extended down to the classroom where the debaters know little or no biology, it will be impossible for anyone to learn that conclusions are reached via "experimentation, evidence and argument, not through majority view." In fact, the majority view will be reinforced.

What should be done? First, scientists should avoid debates with any kind of creationist except as they take place through normal scientific channels (i.e. peer reviewed journals). All classroom debates should be avoided. In their place, teachers should provide the evidence, opportunities for experimentation and the best scientific thought process and let the chips fall where they may.

Balter is correct about one thing. Science is not winning the public relations war. To address this, Science needs better PR. This, in my view starts with the individual scientist although the various societies have an important role to play. Scientists need to toot their own horn. It doesn't come naturally to many of them and timing is very important. Each year hundreds, perhaps thousands of article are published in peer reviewed journal that either rely on, support or even challenge the modern synthesis. When these articles are published they need to be "sold to the media." Every university public relations office knows how to do this. It's their job. They need to be used. Perhaps more important, scientist do need to engage in public debate. Properly structured debates between scientists on real scientific issues can be both engaging and educational. Scientists should seek out public media events like today's the Evolve TV event that features PZ Myers. The media also has a role but they need to be educated as much as the general public.

A couple of other nitpicks concerning Balter's piece. Proponents of evolution should never say things like this in any context,

Using complex statistics, intelligent-design theorists contend that natural selection fails to fully explain life's complexity, thus alternative explanations to evolution should be considered. As a rule, they don't speculate over who or what did the designing.

This sounds like the Intelligent Design creationists have a point. In addition, using the word "theorists" play to the populate idea that equates theory with speculation. No context can overcome the implications of such a statement.

Citing the Design Institute's 400 signatories to its "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism," with out mentioning that only a small subset are biologists and that the overwhelming majority of biologist not only did not, but would not, sign this document and that several of those who did sign it wish they hadn't. Combining this error with phrases that begin "Pro-evolution scientists . . ." compounds the misimpression.

While perhaps good intentioned, Balter's piece will, just like the debates he advocates, leave many thinking that there is something to Intelligent Design creationism. That is the wrong message and should be avoided at all costs.

Posted by DuaneSmith at October 2, 2005 11:39 AM | Read more on Evolution |

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