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To Teach or Not to Teach: Common Misconceptions About Intelligent Design (Part 2)

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

In 2006, Martha M. McCarthy wrote an article ("Instruction About the Origin of Humanity: Legal Controversies Evolve") arguing that "concerns have been raised...that if the 'controversy' is taught and ID is actually subjected to scientific criticism, this may 'be more confrontational to students' beliefs than most high school teachers feel is appropriate.'" (FN 68) This misguided statement assumes four things. First, it assumes that students have a set of beliefs on the origin of humanity before they take biology. The second assumption is that high school teachers are the final authority on what is taught in public school science classrooms. The third is that high school students should not be exposed to confrontational ideas; her statement is boldly authoritarian. Finally, she assumes that intelligent design is a mere "belief" and that critiquing it has constitutional implications.

The first assumption, that students have preconceived opinions on origins, is probably correct. Students tend to believe what their parents believe until they decide otherwise, so it is fair to assume that students have some opinion on the issue. Interestingly, in two independent polls cited in the article, 55% and 64% of adults questioned on the issue felt that intelligent design (ID) and creationism should be taught alongside evolution. (FN 57) Other polls have shown that upwards of 75% of Americans support teaching ID. One might deduce that if students tend to believe what their parents believe, and a majority, or perhaps a supermajority, support teaching ID, then teaching these theories is not really confrontational to their beliefs. I have a strong suspicion that Ms. McCarthy objects to teaching ID because she is projecting her own views on to others: ID may contradict her own beliefs, but teaching it will not cause great controversy for most students.

McCarthy's second assumption, that high school teachers are the final authority on what is taught, is also fundamentally flawed. Public schools are funded by tax payer dollars, and therefore those who pay taxes should have the final say about the curriculum. Teachers are important and most of the time they do great work, but when it comes to issues that are divisive to society, teachers have the obligation to educate, not indoctrinate. The people should have the final say about the curriculum.

Third, given what is taught to students in other contexts, it seems incredible to hear arguments that it is too "confrontational" to expose high school students to the arguments that life may have been started by an intelligent agent. After all, in some states 4th graders are required to take sex education. I say that exposing high school students to the testable scientific idea that humans are the result of intelligent design is no more confrontational or controversial than teaching about sex to 9-year-olds.

Finally, McCarthy is wrong to call intelligent design a mere "belief." In fact, in a contradictory fashion, she admits that ID may be "subjected to scientific criticism." If ID can be scientifically critiqued, then it can be scientifically supported, meaning that it is not mere "belief" but a testable scientific hypothesis.

McCarthy's article goes on to argue, "[S]ince critical analysis is the ongoing testing of all scientific knowledge most scientists argue that singling out one concept for such critique is not appropriate..." (FN 81) Yet at least two courts have concluded that it is acceptable to "single out" evolution or biological origins for special treatment due to the unique form of controversy these subjects can cause when taught. (See Selman v. Cobb County Board of Education, 390 F. Supp. 2d 1286 (N.D. Ga. 2005) vacated and remanded 449 F.3d 1320 (11th Cir. 2006) and Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1251 (2000).) Ms. McCarthy's arguments have a weak legal basis.

Articles like this and the one by Mr. Shih make it clear that the larger scientific community would rather advocate evolutionary indoctrination than an unbiased presentation of scientific knowledge. Hopefully the next generation of law students will not fall for this threat to scientific progress.