Politics & Policy

Intelligent Discussion

It's what's been missing in the debate over ID.

Cable-news talking heads and political cartoonists neatly summarized the Intelligent Design controversy: The well bred and enlightened are courageously defending science and public education from mouth-breathing neanderthals charging schoolhouses with torches and Bibles.

This was to be expected though; cartoonists and talking heads get paid to prepare tough, flavorless news stories in spicy, chewable bites. The surprise was that the ID discussion among policy types and the education community was equally vacuous and one-sided. When the federal judge’s decision banning ID from the science classroom came down, it was roundly hailed by just about everyone with a pen, microphone, or blog, cementing the perception that objectivity and good sense had carried the day. Even the Education Gadfly, the on-line vehicle of Checker Finn (the sharpest and most independent-minded conservative education reformer around) dismissed, insulted, and mocked the other side.

You don’t need to be a card-carrying creationist to feel cheated by the way this played out. Anyone interested in fair debate had the right to quietly mutter the equivalent of Galileo’s “It still spins” in the wake of the court’s ruling and the intelligentsia’s cheering: Yes, the debate’s over, but I’m unpersuaded.

With a little reflection, it’s not hard to see that we were denied a complicated and fascinating debate. In fact, many of the “obvious” reasons that critics allude to when charging that ID is unquestionably incompatible with public education are actually, well, questionable.

To be clear, I’m emphatically not an apologist for any ID teaching that’s contradicted by empirical evidence. So, for example, I have no sympathy for those who argue that the world is 5,000 years old or that humans have no genetic ties to other hominids. I’m also not advocating that any variation of ID replace evolution, a theory to which I subscribe. My contention is that it is at least arguable that teaching that a higher, inexplicable power may have played a role in the world’s creation, development, and infinite complexity is consistent with common instructional practices and the principles of public education.

The first charge usually made by ID critics is that it’s speculation and can’t be tested so it has no place in the classroom. But many regularly taught concepts are speculative and untestable. Their place in the classroom is secure because they provide valuable insights and/or fill in holes in the fabric formed by available evidence. Take for example the concept of “dissonance and resolution,” which contends that, in the arts, humans enjoy and are attracted to tension or conflict that is eventually released to produce stability or peace. It can be seen in all forms of Western music, plays, novels, sketch comedy, and on and on. Clearly, it’s impossible to quantify amorphous terms like “tension” and “stability.” Even if it were possible, it would be impossible to test whether they actually resonate with the human brain or spirit. But that doesn’t stop teachers from introducing the concept while discussing why a dominant fifth chord leads back to the one chord or why Jim and Huck’s escape leads to the reunion at Aunt Sally’s. Teaching about dissonance and resolution doesn’t replace lessons on scales and arrangement or dialogue and characterization; it supplements them. It provides context and leads to insights that wouldn’t have come otherwise.

The social-science concept Homo Economicus is the same. It’s an attempt to generalize how humans react in given situations so projections can be made about markets and societies. Now, it would be ludicrous to suggest that all humans behave the same way, much less that their thought processes can be summarized by graphs or equations. But by seeking to explain why complex systems work the way they do, this speculative, untestable concept has proven invaluable to researchers. It’s also worth noting that as new evidence has accumulated in economics and sociology, this concept has evolved to become more robust.

These types of concepts can be found in every academic field. An intellectually honest version of ID–one that is adjusted over time according to advances in the field–might be able to do the same: serve as caulk to fill in evolution’s holes, help investigators know what questions to ask, and offer potential explanations for the most intriguing questions in the field.

This final point is worth extra attention. Some critics contend that schools’ teaching of ID would be extra dangerous because it plays to students’ preconceived notions–their biases, intuitions, what they’ve learned in church–which is contrary to the way science should be studied. But preconceived notions are typically the gateways to further study. Today’s journal-reading professors were once starry-eyed teenagers captivated by a parent’s, a neighbor’s, or a preacher’s anecdote. Moreover, good teachers have never been hesitant to make use of students’ preconceived notions to get them engaged in and informed about a subject. My 9th-grade history teacher wisely turned my intuitive defense of John Brown’s tactics into a strong commitment to democratic action. We shouldn’t be shy about using the majesty inherent in ID to get kids interested in big scientific questions, as long as ID is part of a larger curriculum grounded in the scientific method.

For many critics, the concern is that ID allows God to sneak his nose under the tent of public education. But religion is tangled up with much of what students already learn–the reigns of Constantine, Charlemagne, and Mohammed; the Crusades; the Renaissance; the printing press; the Reformation; the founding of the American colonies and Israel. Principles derived directly from religious texts also form the framework of our society. Should the Declaration of Independence be off-limits since it’s built around God-given rights? Should courses on law and citizenship be scrapped since the Ten Commandments are in their pedigree? Should the Golden Rule be kept away from kindergarteners because it has roots in many religions? No. In all of these cases, an event or concept isn’t disqualified from the classroom because of religion. Instead, its implications are highlighted, its religiosity is downplayed, and it’s allowed to play a supporting role in a curriculum dominated by secular material.

The final major argument of ID critics is that the science classroom is special: While ID may have ethical contributions to make, these don’t belong in the sacrosanct world of hypotheses, tests, and evaluations. But it’s equally reasonable to argue that this is precisely where they belong. Every major scientific advancement has moral implications, today as much as ever. Teaching the mechanics of stem cell research, cloning, or fetal surgery without some ethical framework seems not only arbitrary and unnecessary but also potentially harmful. Similarly, adding a moral dimension to the teaching of evolution–given its enormous implications–seems sensible if not preferable.

Furthermore, the science classroom has never been reserved wholly for empiricism. Like every other field, science affects and is affected by other subjects, and teachers cross-pollinate liberally. In 2nd grade, I was taught about different types of trees and the story of Johnny Appleseed (mixing science and civics). In 4th grade, I was taught about electricity and Benjamin Franklin’s kite (science and American history). In 7th grade I was taught about DNA, RNA, and the evils of eugenics (mixing science and ethics). In 9th grade, I was taught about different planetary models and Galileo’s battles with the Church (mixing science and religion!). In 10th grade, I was taught about atoms and how they were used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki (mixing science and world history). In all of these cases, teachers linked science lessons with “softer” material to make the science more interesting and meaningful. Given our nation’s interest in developing more scientists, we shouldn’t build more walls around the subject; we need more breezeways into it.

Lest anyone think me a mouth-breathing neanderthal, I’ll show my hand. I’m not at all convinced that teaching ID in public schools is the right thing. I’m not sure that it’s possible to teach ID in an intellectually honest way. I’m also highly skeptical of many of the people pushing ID.

The problem is, I bet my bias against ID and its proponents is at least partially a function of the way they’ve been portrayed. I only got interested in the subject when I realized that just about all critics used the same tactic: ID isn’t worth discussion and its supporters are deluded. But if I–no expert on science, I assure you–am able to cast a little bit of doubt on the anti-ID case, I have to wonder what someone who knows what they’re talking about could do. For the time being, this issue is largely resolved, but it’s likely to materialize again down the road. When it does, let’s be a bit more rigorous–or should I say “scientific”–in the way we address it.

Andy Smarick is an education reformer based in Washington, D.C.

Andy SmarickMr. Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where his work focuses on education, civil society, and the principles of American conservatism.


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