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Monday, October 03, 2005


 Darr Wyn

The school day is too short to teach falsehoods. Other than that, you make a good point.


I'll go along with this as long as so-called Ebonics is also taught as a legitimate linguistic alternative in English classes. (Oakland joke!)

I think Balter is incredibly naive as to the difficulties that teachers already face, the limited time to cover core curricula and the limited ability of some to effectively pass along critical thinking skills.

This sounds good, but it's a can of worms and needless capitulation to absolutely bullshit challenges to the very nature of science and ID's fundamental distortion of scientific methodology, the philosophy and history of science and, frankly, it's inherent limitations - limitations which allow for all kinds of interesting (or not so) speculation outside of the scientific discourse or, on this more mundane level, science class.

This sounds like a great idea in theory based on the way way education should/could work...but it's a terrible idea given the realities of an educational system already overburdened with bullshit, school-board politics, bored and ill-prepared students, too many mediocre teachers and self-serving bureaucracies.


(Terribly written last paragraph - I'm a product of the over-burdened public schools.)


If I can make another Oakland reference, concerns about ID taking up too much classroom time are unfounded because, "there is no there, there." Once you make the proviso that evolution and natural selection are theories and therefore open to debate and critique, what else is there to the ID lesson? There is simply no science to it, and if we stick to the rules of science as we should in a public school science class (with no place for the supernatural), that silence will not hold in the face of the science that can be marshalled for the evolution cause. This is Balter's point. Balter is correct that in such a religious society, students will bring their ideas about creationism with them to the classroom. But those ideas are religious, not scientific, and such frank discussions can sharpen these distinctions. I echo Marc's kudos for Balter's confident, assertive challenge and anyone who believes in science should have the same affirmative attitude. Bring it on, indeed!

richard lo cicero

If Mr Balter does indeed write for SCIENCE let me suggest that the AAAS send him back to school for some elementary science courses. Why not teach astrology while we're at it or paranormal phenomena like telekinesis or mind-reading? They have as much validity.

When asked why his universal theory of Gravitation made no mention of God, Issac Newton stated "I had no need of that hypothesis." In other words adding God to the laws of motion imparted no new information. Now consider evolution. The Fact of evolution is incontrovertable and no biologist disputes it. Every time you look you see evidence of it. Next time any of you get to Cambridge visit Harvard's Musuem of Comparative Zoology and see Louis Agassai's collection of fauna showing the connection between organisms based on their anatomical design. Now go forward to the age of molecular biology and classify living systems by their genetic make-up and markers - for example sequences of amino acids on Hemeglobin - and compare to Agaissais' classification. They match. In fact our genetic make-up differs from our nearest reletives - the Great Apes like Chimpanzees - by less than one percent.

What people don't seem to understand is that battles occur over the nature of the mechanism of evolution. Was it a gradual process (see A.S. Romer) or was it done in sharp distinct episodes as per S.J. Gould. In neither case does the presense of a diety add anything useful to the debate. We have no need of that hypothesis.

What Mr Balter wants to teach would be appropriate in a History of Ideas Class. Fine, but that is not the way we teach science in this country or any country I'm aware of. History of ideas or of science is fascinating but it is another discipline.

There is of course a place where science was taught with a dogma attached. Lysenko claimed that evolution could be accomplished thru adaptation - the old Lamarkian view. I buid up my body and my phsique will be inherited by my offspring. This suited Stalin to a tee since it agreed with his concept of building the "NEW Socialist Man". Anyone who demured was jailed. Guess what happened to Soviet biology and Agricultural Sciences?

We have enough dumbing down in out schools as is. When South Korea starts making the breakthroughs, as they did recently on Stem Cells, the alarms are going off.

Mohammed Christopher Cohen

Why not also teach holocaust denial and the secrets of Roswell? Same topic


Let me add that ID's "challenge" to evolutionary theory exists at a level beyond the comprehension of the average high school student. The appropriate way to frame this for the typical student who may well be threatened by the theory of evolution is to suggest that once they've mastered some of the basics of the theory, they are more than welcome to do some outside study on the debates both within evolutionary theory on gradual development vs. "disjunctive leaps" and between evolution's established scientific theory and the essentially theological speculation of ID theorists in response to evolutionary science.

Scientists should obviously be debating ID speculators in the public arena and they are, but to suggest introducing arcane ID speculation at the level of an introduction to evolutionary theory in public school curricula is bizarre.


"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."

In fariness to MB, I these are reasonable suggestions that could add to public understanding of this essentially populist controvery, but they should be presented for what they are - speculative theological overlays attempting to challenge, or at best philosophically contextualize, established scientific theory - in distinction to actually giving ID speculation a platform equal with evolutionary theory as part of the core science curruculum itself.

Richard (lyman)

I grew up in the South and cannot recall one time in my biology education when the teacher discussed the theory of evolution. Of course, said teachers didn't discuss creationism either. It was the elephant in the living room of our biology class.

This might work well in some parts of the country, but I think (anecdoctally) it would be utterly disastrous in the South.


As an agnostic biological scientist I couldn't disagree more. This ID is a ruse. Any science that can't be tested isn't a science at all. Teach the concept in a religion or philosphy class. Marc, you just want the entertainment factor from the ludicrousness and that's already here.

The danger is people who can't tell the difference will continue to be left ignorant. Ignorant people are dangerous. That's a hypothesis that's been well-tested.


One reason why that is a bad idea, Marc, is that the religious right does not really want an open debate. Instead, they want to cram their dogma in the door and then exclude discussion of evolution as godless error. This is exactly the tactic used to first crush sexuality education by insisting on having 'both sides' represented, then when that wedge was firmly in the door, moving on to abstinence-only. If Bush & Co. are so eager for a full airing of issues, why does that not apply to a discussion of sex? (which incidentally has something to do with evolution too)


I think the quote from Balter frames the issue in a deceptive way, because as far as I know, biology teachers aren't forbidden from discussing creationism and the controversy over evolution. So the only change that we might make is to require biology teachers to teach about creationism, and that would be quite a concession to non-science.


More to the point it falls into the journalistic fallacy of faux objectivity, e.g. Both sides must be treated fairly and with respect even if one is a joke on its face. Don't do it.


His book looks good and is highly regarded by a Maine Archeologist professor to boot. That's a good endorsment.


Interesting topic, Marc. Provocative Op Ed by Balter. But, in the end, wrong headed. This is taking an adult battle over faith issues and laying it on kids---and as reg and Mr..... uh...Dar Winn said---adding an additional, entirely inappropriate burden to an already over burdened public school system.

More importantly, religion doesn't belong in public school. Period end of story. That's not a slope we want to start skipping down, no matter how appealing the public theater.

Dave K.

Why not teach ID as an alternative to evolution? Because it's bullshit, that's why. It does nothing more than point to holes in evolutionary theory and say "God did it," and it has yet to prove itself outside of its own uncritical echo chamber. Not to mention that putting the burden of proof on an established theory that's already gone through that process twice is awfully arrogant, especially when ID has yet to hold itself to such rigorous standards.

If you want to teach it, put it in a comparative religions or philosophy course where it can be dissected in the proper forum. But calling it science at this point is akin to pissing on my leg and calling it rain. Spare me.


Is ID considered elsewhere, other than the United States, or is this an ideology formenting in debate only in this country?

Abbas-Ali Abadani

An interesting sidenote, hot on the heels of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam" Regnery is preparing to release "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science".

Now, I don't know who the author is going to be but I can just imagine what the contents will be.

Now there's only so much nonsense that one can write about ID and how global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the far left and the liberal media.

So I'm betting that other chapters in the book will have provocative titles like "Hollow Earth: Biblical Fact" and "Earth Revolves Around Sun? Only if You Hate America"

Anthony Nassar

Grover Norquist admits that he doesn't understand how an eye could evolve: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050704&s=adler070705. David Frum doesn't think that something as unpopular as natural selection should be taught in schools at all. These two don't surprise me (that Frum thinks that science education should be plebiscitary doesn't surprise me, either), but some other educated gentlemen on the Right seem very wary of biting the populist hand that feeds them.

Anthony Nassar

Oh, yeah: George Gilder is a member of the Discovery Institute. Both capitalism and nature are working out God's designs...

Marc Cooper

There are some excellent counter-points being raised here. But Ive yet to see someone take on Balter's central argument. SOMETHING is eroding the popular belief in Darwinism. He bravely suggests that MIGHT in part due to the backlash against evolution being granted the educational monopoly. I suspect there's something to be said for that.

So while it might be unproductive to "teach" intelligent design, would it be smart to COMPARE it with Darwinism in the class room and let the students decide? Only a question,

Hopefully, Michael Balter himself, a regular reader of the blog, will check in here with some of his own responses. Let's leep on keeping it civil. So much better than screeching orangutans.

Michael Balter

A lot of the comments here imply that the scientific method is too complicated or sophisticated to teach to high school students. Does that mean they want students to accept the theory of evolution as a MATTER OF FAITH?

That is the way it is usually done now, and it's not working--that is my whole point.


"A lot of the comments here imply that the scientific method is too complicated or sophisticated to teach to high school students."

Who said that ???

My own point about the ID debate being beyond the knowledge of high school students is based on the fact that even on the very terms that ID presents itself, it attempts to make a speculative leap based on some pretty complex arguments about whether some of the things evolution documents could possibly be random. Some of the more sophisticated ID theorists make arguments about DNA and such, attempting to engage the open end of evolutionary theory, not the basics. Unless you are very familiar with the more complex aspects of evolutionary theory, you couldn't possibly be able to judge how much of a leap IDers are making with their conjecture. Teach the kids science - if they're really interested in pursuing speculation about intelligent design, learning the basic evolutionary theory will give them a start in grasping the debate on the terms it actually attempts to engage the scientific theory. What you are proposing is putting a speculative hypothesis on equal ground with a bona fide scientific theory (And obviously "theory" is a more precise and significant designation in scientific discourse than me blurting "I've got a theory about why Bush invaded Iraq". Frankly, teaching the kids - as I suggested above - exactly what a scientific theory is and isn't would be a good start when approaching evolution in the science classroom and could help defuse some of the more naive bullshit floating around when this issue is discussed.)


"So while it might be unproductive to "teach" intelligent design, would it be smart to COMPARE it with Darwinism in the class room and let the students decide?"

I think Balter's last comment gets at what's underlying this debate. Each side believes - I think correctly - that what happens in high school science is not really teaching students how to become scientists who can evaluate scientific theory or information, but that they basically get taught "how things work," with lots of information to boot. As a product of some of the best LAUSD schools out there, and AP Biology, I don't think even we learned much about the "theory" of evolution.

And that's because its a very advanced topic: what do most of us know about it? We might have read "The Selfish Gene" or "The Origin of Species", or watched the discovery channel a lot, but this is pretty much popular science. The point is that at a certain level generalized scientific knowledge is all a matter of faith. Many of us probably believe in evolution because it fits in with other beliefs we have about the superiority of scientifically-produced knowledge, about the status of religious-based claims, and about what "the right people" are saying.

It is really only university-trained scientists who are equipped to test theories and evaluate the "theory" of evolution. The rest of us are just picking out our team in the horse-race.

Sure-- there is a communication problem from scientists, and the ID folks focus on PR is showing that (but was it ever otherwise?). And yes, I think when evolution is taught properly, it will also include an analysis of why ID is unfounded.

But the larger point, as Thomas Friedman will tell you in every other column of his (which incidentally few will read anymore because they must pay the NYTimes for it), is that the state of scientific education in America is so pitifully awful that it matters little what most high school students think about evolution -- because there are 100 Chinese post-docs in line for each research position an American gets.

I'd love to hear from some public school teachers on this point. Perhaps this is a cynical view -- but I think given our limited teaching resources on complex topics, best not to confuse the matter with what the good team is telling us is bunk. (I can also imagine the idea of PC science teaching of evolution and ID together, and I don't trust the team of Teach-for-America folks, who often end up teaching biology with their English degrees, to leave underwhelmed students with enough good reasons to believe one and not the other).

Michael Balter

Okay, Marc has gone to bed, but before he did he asked me to make a more detailed response to the comments here. I guess he wants me to feel his pain as den mother to a highly contentious bunch of bloggers! Seriously, people make a lot of good points here, and most importantly, I fully understand the hostile reaction to what some see as introducing religion into the classroom.

However, some bloggers have clearly not read my piece but only Marc’s summary of it. As he always says, please follow the link and read the entire piece. For one thing, you will see that I do not advocate TEACHING intelligent design in the schools. What I advocate is a DEBATE, the best way for any point of view to win points. My starting point is that the theory of evolution has, in effect, already lost the debate—this is what the opinion polls I cite show, and a more recent Pew poll came up with similar results. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t believe it. As a science writer and former scientist, I find that unfortunate. But it does not make me think that I am smarter or superior to those who don’t buy evolution; it makes me think that something has gone wrong in the way the theory is being taught. It is being taught as a MATTER OF FAITH rather than a theory that has a lot of evidence behind it. The best way to sharpen the teaching process is by debating. As for those overburdened teachers: This way the students have to do the work! (with a little guidance in finding sources, of course.)

Nor, I would add, do I think that people who are religious are stupid or ignorant, which I am afraid is implied by some of the comments. If you want to change America, you don’t do it by writing off the majority of its people. That is a point Marc has been making for a long time, and I fully agree.

Now for some specific comments:

Reg on “needless capitualtion to absolutely bullshit challenges to the very nature of science”—sorry, too late, the challenges are everywhere, and the Dover case is not over yet. If it is bullshit, you can’t wish it away; debate the bullshitters and show how wrong they are, if you can.

Richard lo cicero on not teaching the history of science—sorry again, but how do you teach evolution without telling students about Darwin’s experiences on the Galapagos Islands, which changed his mind and made him refute the ideas of intelligent design which HE BELIEVED BEFORE HE WENT? Yes, the great Darwin believed in ID, smart as he was! And what convinced him otherwise? His own observations combined with a ferocious DEBATE with the rest of the scientific community who believed in ID. Yes, real scientists of that day. (sorry for the caps but needed for emphasis.)

Richard Lyman says my idea would be “utterly disastrous in the South”—quite the opposite, they would benefit the most from a serious debate. After all, students and adults would have to listen to the arguments.

Marky48 says “ignorant people are dangerous”—so how do we lift them out of ignorance? By making them confront their own ideas, that is what a debate does. As I said in the piece, despite evolution’s monopoly in the classroom, many students are not buying it. Something is wrong, and it has to be faced squarely. (but thanks for kind comments on my book, The Goddess and the Bull—in which I deal extensively with the limitations of the scientific method, as applied to archaeology.)

Tim says “the religious right does not really want an open debate”—if that is true, then they will expose themselves when called upon to do so. Could it be that they are even more afraid of a debate than scientists are?

Rosedog says religion doesn’t belong in the public school system—rosedog, I’m a big fan of your posts here, but as I say in the piece, religion is already in the schools. If you want to counter its influence, you have to go to where it is, rather than remaining above the fray.

I look forward to seeing more comments, and many thanks to everyone for their interest in this topic.

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