Saturday, February 25, 2006


Teach the controversy

While making my morning rounds on the web I came across a couple of articles that deal with the "teach the controversy" approach that's being used by the intelligent design crowd. My view is that biblical creationist begat scientific creationism which begat intelligent design which begat "teach the controversy." Same old material put in a new package in an attempt to disguise its religious origins and motivation (i.e., intelligent design is Creationism's Trojan Horse, or my personal favorite, Creationism's Trojan Panda. Frankly I think the behavior of the Discovery Institute and its Fellows has been deplorable.

The first article I read was: Turn out the lights, the "Teach the controversy" party's over by Robert Camp.

Camp contacted the heads of biology departments at universities who received more than $20 million in federal funding, and who spent more than 5% of that on life sciences (he wound up contacting 158 people). He asked them:

Survey of Biological Sciences department heads regarding “Teach the controversy.”

Q: Regarding the issue of “Intelligent Design theory” vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution - is there a difference of professional opinion within your department that you feel could be accurately described as a scientific controversy?

1. No
2. Yes


He heard back from 73 people, and only 2 of those said there was any sort of controversy. One of those 2 respondents said:

There is one faculty member in my college who publicly ascribes to Intelligent Design. No others have done so publicly, and most who have shared an opinion are opposed to ID as a scientific principle. The vast majority, then, do not see a scientific controversy, but there is a visible minority of (at least) one who does.

As Camp says in his essay, the overwhelming number of responses stating that there isn't a scientific controversy isn't surprising. There isn't a controversy about evolution within the community of professional biologists.

Camp concludes his essay with this:

Professors from Washington to Florida and from southern California to New England responded to the question, all but two with an unqualified “No” (some even added an exclamation point). And those two divergent responses serve to point up the open and thoughtful nature of the answers. One, a “No, but…” observed that there was virtually no professional controversy within their department but acknowledged that one colleague had spoken favorably of the concept publicly (see comments). And the only assent to controversy came from an institution dedicated to an ideological view of the world, including the world of biology. This may serve as evidence of a “controversy” in that particular university. But in the larger context, its effect is only to put the overwhelming consensus into sharper focus.

There is no party line, there are no knee-jerk responses in the comments received. These results are born of the understanding, among those with authoritative opinions, of where the proper lines between scientific and religious epistemologies must be drawn. Some (see comments) even teach classes that include discussion of “Intelligent Design” but they understand that it is not science, and that there is no relevant controversy.

I harbor no illusions that this information will come as a surprise to any scientist, and I suspect most clear-thinking non-scientists will have already surmised the truth of the situation. In discussion of this project I have referred to it as a study or survey, but to be candid it is really nothing more a simple canvassing of those who know. It is a blunt and unequivocal response to what has up to this point been treated, by much of the media as well as the ID movement, as an acceptable assumption.

As an attempt to put empirical weight behind that which has been well understood all along, the numbers here are unambiguous. There is no “scientific” controversy regarding “Intelligent Design theory.” It exists as a conceit of personal ideology, and persists as a political strategy. And in the case that the slogan is still employed once the user has been informed of this survey it can be considered a deliberate falsehood.

If “Intelligent Design” proponents and theorists wish to carve out space for their “controversy” they will have to earn it in the traditional fashion. They will have to do the research, submit to peer-reviewed journals, and accumulate enough evidence to be spoken of with respect, not dismissal, in biology departments across the country.

Until then “teach the scientific controversy” will remain a mendacious bit of hucksterism.

There are several worthwhile points in that passage.

1) Professional biologists overwhelmingly accept biological evolution. So does the rest of the scientific community (on a related note I know of only a handful of professional geologists who are Young Earth Creationists).

2) The controversy is between a group of people who don't accept biological evolution because it conflicts with their religious views. Through trickery and disingenuousness they are trying to have their views taught in science classes.

3) The fact that this isn't a scientific controversy is nicely illustrated by the behavior of the members of the Discovery Institute. They're not attempting to convince biologists that they're right (they go after school boards and politicians). They have a publication list that contains 37 entries. This post points out a few problems with that list (repeated entries, inclusion of non peer-reviewed material). According to the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture they have 41 fellows. The Discovery Institute was founded in 1990.

To provide some perspective I finished grad school around a year ago. My first publication was in 2003. I now have:

3 peer-reviewed articles
1 article that was submitted to a journal, but was rejected (and will be rewritten and resubmitted at some point. Bah.)
1 article that is currently in review
1 article that is part of the gray literature
2 articles that are being reviewed by my coauthors before I submit them.

In addition I am a coauthor on 3 other publications that are in various stages of preparation, and should be submitted within a couple of months. That makes 11 publications for one person in 3 years. In 16 years the 41 people at the Discovery Institute have put out 37 publications. According to this link the Discovery Institute has an annual budget of $1.2 million. All the money they spend sure isn't going toward science. I think that's a very strong piece of evidence that their claim to be motivated by science is a sham.

The second article I read was Teaching the Controversy by Stanley Fish.

Concerning the "teach the controversy" strategy he says:

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of intelligent design - away from the question, "Why should it be taught in a biology class?" - and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we're right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, intelligent design polemicists say every idea should at least get a hearing

To back up their claim that there is a legitimate scientific controversy the Discovery Institute has created a list of 514 scientists who agree with the following:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

PZ Myers reacts with this:

That's it? They can't even mention their pet guess of Intelligent Design, but instead ask people to sign off on a statement professing the values of skepticism and careful examination? Weak, man, weak. Pathetic.

Josh Rosenau also thinks the DI's statement is lacking in substance, and he links to a New York Times story about the list that points out that the signers include "… 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine…"

So the DI is flaunting a list of a bunch of generally unqualified people who signed a very vague statement (I'm not insulting anyone by saying they're unqualified – I'm not qualified to professionally comment on biological evolution). I'd really like to know why they don't ask biologists to sign something like this:

"We accept intelligent design as a valid scientific alternative to evolution."

Of course the DI is now claiming that they don't want to mandate teaching intelligent design, they just want to teach the evidence for and against evolution. Fine. Ask biologists to endorse some of these statements:

"We think the Cambrian Explosion is evidence against evolution."

"We think that irreducible complexity is evidence against evolution."

"We think that specified complexity is evidence against evolution."

And so on.

The reason they don't ask people to do this is because their "evidence against evolution" IS intelligent design, and they know that the religious underpinnings of intelligent design (and its scientific vacuity) are obvious.

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