To Teach or Not to Teach: Common Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (Part 1) - Evolution News & Views

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To Teach or Not to Teach: Common Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (Part 1)

[Ed: This post was written by a legal intern at Discovery Institute who has chosen to post it anonymously.]

Immediately following the publication of "Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, or Religion, or Speech?" in 2000 in Utah Law Review, multiple law review articles appeared opposing the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design (ID). It seems that the law review article by Professors DeWolf and DeForrest and Meyer hit a nerve that incited various law students to ardently defend the evolutionary theory they were uncritically taught in high school.

Once such student was Eric Shih, who published an article in the Michigan State Law Review in 2007 entitled, "Teaching Against the Controversy: Intelligent Design, Evolution, and the Public School Solution to the Origins Debate." Mr. Shih argues that "recent demands to 'teach the controversy' of intelligent design are nothing more than variations on the balanced tactics ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Edwards." In other words, ID is nothing more than a mask for creationism.

Mr. Shih's attacks are misplaced and confused. First, in real-world public policy debates, proposals proposals to "teach the controversy" have explicitly opposed requirements to teach intelligent design. As Stephen C. Meyer explained in a 2002 op-ed titled "Teach the Controversy" in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Recently, while speaking to the Ohio State Board of Education, I suggested this approach as a way forward for Ohio in its increasingly contentious dispute about how to teach theories of biological origin, and about whether or not to introduce the theory of intelligent design alongside Darwinism in the Ohio biology curriculum.

I also proposed a compromise involving three main provisions:

1) First, I suggested--speaking as an advocate of the theory of intelligent design--that Ohio not require students to know the scientific evidence and arguments for the theory of intelligent design, at least not yet.

(2) Instead, I proposed that Ohio teachers teach the scientific controversy about Darwinian evolution. Teachers should teach students about the main scientific arguments for and against Darwinian theory. And Ohio should test students for their understanding of those arguments, not for their assent to a point of view.

(3) Finally, I argued that the state board should permit, but not require, teachers to tell students about the arguments of scientists, like Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who advocate the competing theory of intelligent design.

(Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, "Teach the Controversy," Cincinnati Enquirer (March 30, 2002).)

Second, Mr. Shih forgets the fact that the sort of "teach the controversy" approach suggested by Dr. Meyer--to allow students to critique evolution--was implicitly supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Edwards ruling which held that, "We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught. ... teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 593-594 (1987).

It is only by shoe-horning ID into the category of "creationism" that Mr. Shih makes his argument. The article asserts that public schools could never teach ID as an alternative to evolution because that would simultaneously advance an "inherently religious belief system" and inhibit "a secular government activity for religious reasons" (FN 205). Thus he argues that science teachers are "under an ethical duty to present accurate information to their students and are relied upon to maintain accepted scientific standards" (FN 219). The article goes on to contend that "design theory poses a unique threat to the education system in that it relies almost exclusively on attacks on a secular school subject in order to advance particular religious views" (FN 221).

Again, Mr. Shih's arguments are misplaced. Design theory is not based upon religious views. Those who have fairly researched the theory will realize that it is actually a secular view that can be taught as a secular school subject alongside evolution without violating the Establishment Clause.

Yet despite the article's diametrical opposition to intelligent design, it does find a place for it in the science classroom -- but only where it is presented negatively:

[Once] students learn the basic tenets of the scientific method, teachers could directly address Intelligent Design theory during discussion about the naturalistic limitations of science...for example, students could be told that theories such as Intelligent Design are not scientific because every single study conducted by a design theorist relies upon an empirically unobservable and un-testable entity to explain what is being observed. (FN 234)
Under Mr. Shih's vision of education, students will learn why the scientific method cannot be used to empirically determine the existence of an intelligent being and why any claim contrary to this teaching is false. Is this a fair solution? Mr. Shih's hypocrisy should now be exposed: on the one hand he argues that ID should not be taught because it is an "inherently religious belief system," but then he argues that the taxpayer funded schools should attack that viewpoint. The government is supposed to remain "neutral" about religion (see Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (1968).), but perhaps in Mr. Shih's view, there's no problem with attacking what he calls "religion."

The genius of Mr. Shih's plan is that it creates rules that destroy the possibility of students considering any alternate theory before a fair presentation of the facts has been rendered. Why not present ID as a theory held by a minority of the scientific community that is in the beginning stages of development, and let students decide for themselves whether evolution or ID makes more sense? The last time I checked, science is not about clinging to one view and ending the investigation.

Additionally, Mr. Shih has not made a convincing case that intelligent design contradicts the scientific method. As Discovery Institute's Intelligent Design Briefing Packet for Educators states:

The scientific method is commonly described as a four step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.
It seems that Mr. Shih is creating rules to effect the result he desires, ignoring that intelligent design is a theory that makes its claims using the scientific method.