No, really. Lets do it. Let's bring Intelligent Design (e.g. Creationism) into the science classroom. I know, I know, its not "science", ID is not a scientific theory. It's not testable ... Trust me, I know, I'm a scientist.
But the fact is, scientists (myself included) are really bad at making arguments in the popular press and in school board meetings where ID's soundbites dominate. Its better to argue in the bright lights of the science classroom. Follow me over the orange squiggly to find out why this could be the end of ID and creationism as we know it.
The arguments against evolution, as we all know, are mostly borne of willful ignorance. There are no transitional fossils ... There are "holes" in the theory. Scientists don't "teach the controversy". Scientists shield evolution from criticism.
Of all the arguments Ive heard, that last one takes the cake. Scientists viciously attack all theories. They dismantle them piece by piece, attack them from every angle and then take the remains and put them back together. Many a theory has crumbled under this scrutiny. Darwin's theory of natural selection is one of the very few that have withstood scientific onslaught and remains standing after the dust has settled.
If they knew how science actually works, proponents of ID and creationism would not be so eager for their precious theories to be treated as scientific. We won't need 150 years to dismantle Intelligent Design. In fact, Ill do it in the remainder of this diary.
What I'm about to demonstrate is how to out a pseudo-science. How to dismantle a theory into it's core assumptions, test each (testable) assumption, throw out those that don't stand up to the pressure of scientific scrutiny, and then determine if what's left has any value. This is a process that is not taught nearly enough in our schools. It is why people cling to outdated debunked theories such as supply side economics, austerity, climate change denial-ism, the vaccine/autism link and various religious ideas (that will be left for another diary). I believe it is imperative that we teach our children to be able to detect and dismantle these ideas. The science classroom is just the place for this important lesson. So without further ado, lets teach the controversy:
For those that are not familiar with intelligent design, it basically goes like this:
Assumption #1: There are holes in the theory of evolution. After 150 years evolutionary scientists have not been able to answer every question about how life began and evolved on this planet.
Assumption #2: There are things in the word that are too complex to have developed from natural selection. What's more, this complexity is irreducible. It is difficult to see how individual mutations could have resulted in the complexity we find in the world
Conclusion: There must have been an intelligent designer responsible for the complexity in the world. Also this is why evolution has holes. It can't explain everything because it does not consider the intelligent designer.
So, how to begin. Ill leave most of Assumption 1 alone because the holes in evolution are only actually holes in what IDers understand about evolution. There are transitional fossils, and there is very little that we don't understand about the origin of the species. In fact, a list of ID complaints about evolution could serve as a good list topics for independent student research. I can't think of anything that would teach the scientific method better.
However, a point should be made about assumption 1. Scientific progress is incremental. Assuming there are "holes" in evolution, some of those holes will invariably shrink. As such, ID is the incredibly shrinking theory. The unknowns it claims to explain will be smaller in the future, just as they were larger in the past. Another fun exercise would be to have students read 5-10 yr old ID books and find examples of evolutionary findings over the past decade that answer some of those questions. Again, a new and exciting way for our children to learn about evolution.
But the most fun will be had in dismantling the complexity argument. This argument, that somehow complexity = intelligent design, is ludicrous and surprisingly easy to destroy. It is also an excellent teaching opportunity. The first lesson is that oftentimes assumptions are not presented in their most basic form. Often they can be reduced to other assumptions that have been mistakenly taken for granted. For instance, the assumption that there are things too complex to have been created without an intelligent designer assumes that all complex things are designed, and all simple things are not.
Here we have 2 serious problems. First, there must be some level of complexity beyond which we can assume design, but no such measurement exists. Here we can teach our students the importance of having valid instruments for measuring scientific constructs. This can be a launching off point for discussing scientific research methods and teaching real scientific controversies, such as the value of intelligence test scores (and NCLB standards).
Second, we can use examples to show that complexity and design (at least good design) are orthogonal. And we can teach our students what the word orthogonal means. A chair is not complex, but it is designed. A snowflake is complex, but I doubt even the most stringent ID supporter would argue each snowflake is designed (perhaps I am mistaken). Thus we can teach our students to break down even basic assumptions into more basic units . Once we demonstrate that complexity and design are not related, the basis of ID begins to crack.
But we can go beyond demonstrating that complexity is not necessarily indicative of design and talk about the nature of design. The purpose of designing something is to solve a specific problem. We design chairs so we have something to sit upon. Good design is simple. In fact it can be argued that the definition of "intelligent design" is the creation of the simplest possible solution to a given problem. Thus complexity is not a marker of intelligent design, just the opposite. Design is also incremental. Rarely are things designed all in one step. Modern computers were designed, yes, but they were modified over decades of incremental advances.
Hmmm, designs are modified incrementally over decades (or centuries). Sounds kind of familiar. Yes, natural selection is a designer. Natural selection selects for mutations that allow for the procreation of a species in its current environment. So in the end we don't need to debate whether the species were designed. Of course they were designed. They were designed by changes in the environment. In fact every species alive today contains in its DNA a kind of record of all the environmental changes experienced of all of its ancestors. For if any of our ancestor species had failed to adapt to a changing environment, we would not exist. Thousands of small changes over thousands of years. Sounds like a recipe for complexity to me.
Finally, we can discuss whether design is intelligent. This, of course is the most fun exercise in our destruction of ID. This is where we get to point out that if there was a being who "designed" all of this, he should be fired for incompetence immediately. My favorite example is lower back pain. The human spine was clearly not designed for a two-legged creature. It was designed for a 4-legged one. But when we became bi-pedal, our spines curved in a way which has guaranteed that nearly every human experiences excruciating pain from the age of about 40 on.
This is my favorite example because the first question is always "Why didn't evolution fix this problem?" And the answer of course is that evolution only solves problems that relate to procreation. Since most people do not experience debilitating back pain until well after their child-bearing years (with the notable exception of the pain endured during childbirth), this is not a problem that needed to be solved. On the other hand, an "intelligent designer" would never have submitted such a terrible design structure.
So lets bring it all back together. We have demonstrated that complexity is not related to design and that the design we see in the world is often far from intelligent (I mean there's the republican party for one thing). We have demonstrated that the holes in evolutionary theory are for the most part nonexistent. The main arguments for ID have crumbled easily, leaving nothing for its conclusions to stand upon. But most importantly, we have taught our students how to deconstruct candidate theories into their most basic assumptions, taught them how to think critically about them, AND taught them a whole lot about the theory of evolution in the process.
So yes, lets teach the controversy in science class. It will end this ridiculous argument, and it will serve our children well as they enter the real world where pseudo-scientific theories are more prevalent than we would like to admit.
4:55 PM PT: Update: Yes, per the comments, I'm quite aware that this approach would never work due to the lack of qualified teachers and the too high percentage of teachers who believe in magic fairy dust. Still, one can dream.
Tue May 07, 2013 at 5:48 AM PT: Wow. 100 recs and nearly 24 hrs on the community spotlight. Must have hit a nerve. Glad to see so many are passionate about this topic
Tue May 07, 2013 at 6:33 AM PT: updated with poll question