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A quartet of op-eds

A quartet of op-eds -- from Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne in the Guardian, Daniel C. Dennett in The New York Times, John Derbyshire in National Review On-Line, and Craig E. Nelson in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette -- all argue in their various ways against the idea of teaching "intelligent design" and the related slogan "teach the controversy" -- in the public schools.

In "One side can be wrong" (published in the September 1, 2005, issue of the Guardian), Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne take on the "teach both sides" slogan. "As teachers, both of us have found that asking our students to analyse controversies is of enormous value to their education," they comment. "Why, then, would two lifelong educators and passionate advocates of the 'both sides' style of teaching join with essentially all biologists in making an exception of the alleged controversy between creation and evolution? What is wrong with the apparently sweet reasonableness of 'it is only fair to teach both sides'?" Because, they reply, the controversy over "intelligent design" (which they identify as "creationism camouflaged with a new name to slip [with some success, thanks to loads of tax-free money and slick public-relations professionals] under the radar of the US Constitution's mandate for separation between church and state") is not a scientific controversy at all. "If ID really were a scientific theory, positive evidence for it, gathered through research, would fill peer-reviewed scientific journals. This doesn't happen. It isn't that editors refuse to publish ID research. There simply isn't any ID research to publish. Its advocates bypass normal scientific due process by appealing directly to the non-scientific public and -- with great shrewdness -- to the government officials they elect." They conclude by informatively listing a few of the "genuinely important and interesting controversies that enliven evolutionary discourse" as opposed to the manufactured "controversy" proclaimed by creationists. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; his latest book is The Ancestor's Tale. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago; his lengthy essay on "intelligent design" -- "The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name" [Link broken] -- recently appeared in The New Republic.

Writing in the August 28, 2005, issue of The New York Times, presumably as part of the newspaper's recent extensive coverage of the evolution/creationism controversy, Daniel C. Dennett challenges creationists to "Show Me the Science". Dennett asks, "Is 'intelligent design' a legitimate school of scientific thought? Is there something to it, or have these people been taken in by one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science?" The motivation behind "intelligent design" is clear: "The fundamental scientific idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling; natural selection, by executing God's traditional task of designing and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists." But its proponents have failed to provide the promised scientific revolution. "Instead," Dennett observes, "the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a 'controversy' to teach," adding, "And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details." Quoting the Discovery Institute's George Gilder's recent admission that "Intelligent design itself does not have any content," Dennett concludes: "Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?" Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

In the August 30, 2005, edition of National Review On-Line -- a forum that in the past has hosted articles and op-eds sympathetic to "intelligent design" -- John Derbyshire wrote on "Teaching Science". Taking his cue from President Bush's remarks seeming to endorse the teaching of "intelligent design," Derbyshire lamented, "This is Bush at his muddle-headed worst, conferring all the authority of the presidency on the teaching of pseudoscience in science classes." Offering a list of various pseudosciences (taken from Martin Gardner's classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), he asked, "Does the president have any idea, does he have any idea, how many varieties of pseudoscientific flapdoodle there are in the world? If you are going to teach one, why not teach the rest?" Instead, Derbyshire recommended, "We should teach [students] consensus science, and we should teach it conservatively. Consensus science is the science that most scientists believe ought to be taught. 'Conservatively' means eschewing theories that are speculative, unproven, require higher math, or even just are new, in favor of what is well settled in the consensus." Evolution is, and "intelligent design" is not, part of consensus science. (As part of his evidence, he cited NCSE's Project Steve [then with 577 signatories, now with 594] and commented, "When the I.D. support roster has 57,000 names on it, drop me a line.") Presumably alluding to the "teach the controversy" slogan favored by creationists, Derbyshire added, "And Darwinism ought to be taught conservatively, without skepticism or equivocation, which will only confuse young minds. Darwinism is the essential foundation for all of modern biology and genomics, and offers a convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences." Derbyshire is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to National Review; his latest book is Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics.

Last but by no means least is Craig E. Nelson's op-ed "Design Isn't Science", which appeared in the August 28, 2005, issue of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette. Nelson reviews four excellent reasons for not teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools -- its lack of scientific standing, its dubious constitutionality, the expense and bother of dealing with likely lawsuits, and the economic costs of a biologically miseducated workforce. But then he adds a fifth: the impact on the teachers. After quoting a passage from Michael Behe claiming that the identity of the "designer" is scientifically unascertainable, Nelson asks, "How is a science teacher supposed to help students deal with the claim that any unexplained design-like features of the cell might be the result of an incompetent, inconsistent and evil alien or a fallen angel? How can a teacher maintain enough control of such a discussion to assure that the students' various religious views are adequately respected? How can a high school biology class be improved by such a discussion?" "If ID is to be examined in biology classes," he explains, "the teacher will have to directly confront its claims that some features of organisms cannot have evolved, as part of the argument for some kind of a designer. Since these claims fail, the teachers will be faced with the largely insoluble problem of examining the claims in such a way that students feel that their faith is not being challenged by the teacher or other students. Nothing will be gained either scientifically or religiously from such a direct confrontation." He adds, "Fairness would require that any side that is presented must also be critiqued. But a direct critique of ID is going to be much more confrontational to students' beliefs than most high-school teachers feel is appropriate. I agree with these teachers." Nelson is a professor emeritus in the Department of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington. A specialist in science education as well, he is co-director of ENSI, the Evolution and Nature of Science Institutes.