Skip to comments.Teach the controversy ['lawsuit-proof' balanced approach to teaching evolution]
Posted on 07/13/2007 2:28:17 PM PDT by Zender500
For 15 years Doug Cowan has taught the scientific evidence for and against Darwinism to biology students at Curtis High, a large public school several miles southwest of Tacoma, Wash. Over that time, the popular teacher and athletic coach has drawn periodic criticisms from community activists and local media. But he has faced no lawsuits and never worried over losing his job.
Students in Cowan's classes praise his balanced presentation. And parents rarely, if ever, raise objections. "I haven't heard a thing," he told WORLD. "Parents think it's really neat that I'm allowing kids to weigh the evidence from both sides and make their own informed conclusions."
Throughout the country, many other attempts to teach evolution critically have faced stiff opposition. Educators and school board members have lost legal battles and even their jobs. What makes Cowan so different?
"I don't teach alternative theories, because that's not part of the curriculum," he explained. "There aren't a whole lot of alternative theories other than design theory, but that's not in our curriculum. So unless a kid asks specifically about it, I don't deal with it."
Instead, Cowan deals more thoroughly with Darwinism than most existing biology textbooks, adding reading materials from outside the standard evolutionary syllabus: Darwin on Trial, Icons of Evolution, Darwin's Black Box, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Cowan says these extra texts engage his students, challenging their ability to analyze and discern truth from competing sides of a controversial issue.
This fall, the 34-year teaching veteran will restructure his evenhanded presentation around a new textbook from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and Against Neo-Darwinism (Hill House Publishers, 2007) does not address alternative theories of origins but succinctly lays out the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the most critical elements of Darwinism. "It's made my work a lot easier," Cowan said.
Explore Evolution encapsulates a "teach the controversy" paradigm that the Discovery Institute has advocated for the better part of the past decade. Over that time, the institute has advised school boards against the inclusion of Intelligent Design in their science standards. Some boards have heeded that counsel; others have not.
In 2005, a now famous board in Dover, Pa., attempted to mandate the inclusion of ID in ninth-grade biology classes. Backed by the ACLU, parents sued and won a landmark decision in which a federal judge ruled that ID was religion, not science. The shockwaves of that decision reverberated nationwide and have quieted other efforts to push ID into schools.
But the Dover lawsuit also highlighted the effectiveness of the Discovery Institute's approach. State school boards in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Minnesota along with local boards in Wisconsin and Louisiana have adopted science standards that encourage critical analysis of Darwinian Theory. To date, not a single lawsuit has challenged such standards.
"This is an approach that if I were a Darwinist I would be particularly frightened of," said John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. "The policy that we've recommended turns out to be the precise common-ground approach we said it would be. It reduces the decibel level; you don't get sued; you get good education; and the Darwinists don't have a leg to stand on."
In the wake of the Dover ruling, many committed Darwinists declared victory for an uncritical approach to teaching evolution. But, in fact, the ruling has worked to galvanize a previously disjointed movement. Whereas many teachers and school boards might previously have shunned the "teach the controversy" strategy in favor of the more bold step of introducing ID, those groups and individuals are now more willing to listen.
John Calvert, managing director of IDnet, praises Explore Evolution as "enormously important." Since 2005, his organization has focused its efforts on bringing critical analysis of evolution into classrooms, not ID.
In past years, groups like IDnet might have rallied around another new textbook scheduled for publication this fall: The Design of Life, a rewrite of the ID-advancing classic Of Pandas and People. Like Explore Evolution, this 360-page text presents the scientific weaknesses of Darwinism, but it also goes further in outlining the case for ID. Authors William Dembski and Jonathan Wells lay out such noted design arguments as irreducible complexity and specified complexity.
The Design of Life publisher Jon Buell, president of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, has no illusions of his textbook cracking public-school curriculums in the wake of the Dover ruling. "Our book, we fully expect to be taught in university courses," he said. "We will not market to public schools."
Prior to the Dover case, Of Pandas and People broke into public biology classrooms in 22 states over its two-decade run. Now, Explore Evolution offers the latest real hope for a text critical of Darwin to repeat such success. West told WORLD that one state school board has already expressed interest in using the new textbook, though discussions remain in the preliminary stages.
"We expect a lot of teachers to use it, including public-school teachers, to help them teach evolution better," he said. "In fact, we already know some of those where the school may not be purchasing 30 copies, but the teacher is using it to build their lesson plan."
Despite not mentioning ID, Explore Evolution has received sharp criticism from the Discovery Institute's usual opponents. PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, and author of the highly popular Darwinist blog Pharyngula, rails against the text as "a dirty, dishonest book in a slick package."
In a cursory review of the 159-page volume, Myers charges that it fails to represent the case for Darwinism accurately and presents complex subjects superficially: "The biology part is shallow, useless, and often wrong, and the critiques are basically just warmed over creationist arguments."
Similarly, writers on the influential evolution blog The Panda's Thumb have dismissed Explore Evolution as a "creationist textbook" that seeks to hide its true enterprise of "religious apologetics."
Most of the book's five authors are not unfamiliar with such charges. Stephen Meyer, Scott Minnich, and Paul Nelson are fellows of the Discovery Institute and well-known advocates for ID. Ralph Seelke, a professor of microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, is an outspoken critic of Darwinism. The fifth contributor, Jonathan Moneymaker, provided technical writing assistance.
Without a Darwinist representative, that panel has drawn predictable questions as to the textbook's objectivity. How can skeptics of Darwinism be trusted to represent faithfully the strongest evidence for a theory they oppose?
But Explore Evolution does not purport to provide comprehensive outlines of Darwinian arguments, leaving that up to most every other biology textbook on the market. The preface to this new text explains that its summary accounts of the case for Darwinism are meant to recap briefly what students have already learned elsewhere. The focus of the book is to present new information as to why the theory of evolution remains scientifically controversial.
Though supportive, IDnet director Calvert does not share the Discovery Institute's optimism that this new textbook and the approach it embodies will significantly dent the uncritical Darwinist dogma currently taught in most public schools. In February, he emerged from a long political battle in Kansas where attempts to mandate the critical analysis of evolution fell short.
Opponents of the new Kansas science standards argued that any criticism of Darwinism amounts to thinly veiled ID, which according to the Dover ruling amounts to thinly veiled religion. The state school board agreed, effectively determining that any scientific challenge to Darwinian evolution violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause.
That blow to the "teach the controversy" approach has left Calvert skeptical: "I don't think the Discovery Institute's textbook is going to have any traction until we get the Dover court decision reversed. Until we get a legal decision on our side, things will keep getting worse."
Doug Cowan disagrees: "The schools want to have critically thinking kids. And you can't be a critical thinker if you hear only one side of the story."
Its a matter of teaching students the scientific method; so that they will be able to evaluate things themselves or, perhaps even go on to a career in science, and make new discoveries.
I am all for teaching the scientific method. I think we do a very poor job of teaching it currently and we will regret it by and by--as other nations still teach it.
But you must realize that religious belief and divine revelation are not a part of the scientific method.
Are you really in favor of teaching the scientific method? The article leading this thread is all about finding a challenge-proof way of teaching religion in place of science in public schools. Where is the scientific method there?
And do you really want the scientific method applied to the religious beliefs behind creation "science" and ID? The global flood, the idea of a young earth, creation at about 4004 BC, and the tower of Babel will be the first ideas to be challenged, and they will fail the test of science because they are religious beliefs. Is that really what you are advocating? Or will it be required that those ideas get special treatment?
Perhaps it would be best to leave science alone, eh?
Or that the book is being almost universally panned by scientists.
But I doubt if he will mention that. That's not the goal of the exercise.
That's true, but the folks who use the term "Darwinist" (99.9% of the time) are creationists who are intent on denigrating the sciences in general and the evolutionary sciences in particular.
When I see that term I don't have to search too deeply to see where the article is coming from. And I have never found a scientific article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that was littered top to bottom with "Darwinist" this and "Darwinist" that.
Nor have I ever heard scientists or students in the broad fields that make up the study of evolution use that term to refer to each other--and I spent six years studying in those fields in grad school.
No, "Darwinist" is the creationists' new "D" word, used with about as much reason and logic as the earlier "N" word.
Review of the book in question - excerpts will follow.
If science is just another faith-based belief system; then scientists are the priesthood, and lab coats their vestments.
Students need a basis for making rational decisions — they cannot simply be told to believe what their teachers are telling them, but to disbelieve what their priests are telling them. If the clergy says the same thing in reverse — how are students supposed to know what to believe?
The best way to make those rational decisions is by following the scientific method.
Again, I agree.
What I am asking you is were you would draw the line between religion and science.
Scripture and divine revelation?
And what method would you use to distinguish among these? If you use the scientific method, the religious-based arguments fall by the wayside pretty quickly.
So what would you have taught to our children in science classes, and why?
If you still want religious-based arguments taught, do you want them taught as examples of what we should believe in spite of the scientific method? Or as examples of where the scientific method discards religious belief when it can't produce scientific evidence.
You seem to be arguing that we should teach the scientific method in schools, but that we should also teach religious-based beliefs and objections as a part of that.
You can't have it both ways.
But The Origin of Species is exactly that - the origin of species. Darwin was not talking about the origin of life, he was observing how living things developed different physical appearances in response to environmental changes. Once he pointed it out, it was obvious.
It was never intended to explain the origin of life on earth, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t explain how lightning strikes or volcanic plumes might have reacted the right elements to form RNA precursors, and it doesn’t explain how those might become something that can have a cellular structure, find nutrients, and reproduce.
Instead, it’s just taken as dogma that this happened. Creation science was just silly. The Bible says it is to be taken on faith, so claiming that science proves it contradicts the nature of the Christianity. ID is another issue. The origin of life is unanswerable, at least to us, and the origin of the universe is unanswerable based on everything we know about physics.
It seems like this teacher is honestly appraising the situation and listing what we know and what we don’t know. Both sides have spent years saying we know it all and anyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong. Good on him.
If students feel that they're being indoctrinated -- they'll simply rebel, and be all the more receptive to ID, or other explanations. Students will believe they're being indoctrinated when they learn that they were not allowed to be exposed to any alternative explanations.
Teach the scientific method. Show how it applies to the Theory of Evolution.
I still agree with you!
But to introduce religious-based objections to the theory of evolution, as if they were science-based objections, means addressing those objections using the scientific method.
That means they are toast! Is this what you are advocating?
As an example, what do you propose teaching about the young earth belief? Would you treat it as a serious scientific hypothesis?
If you show what the evidence is on both sides I have no objection--because there is no scientific evidence suggesting a young earth.
But if you feel obliged, for political reasons, to present religious belief as if it were scientific evidence, on an equal footing to a couple of centuries of scientific research, then I have an objection.
I'm serious about this question, and would really appreciate continued dialog.
It seems like this teacher is honestly appraising the situation and listing what we know and what we dont know. Both sides have spent years saying we know it all and anyone who doesnt agree with us is wrong. Good on him.
I disagree that science says it knows it all.
I thing the problem we are seeing is that science deals with a particular kind of evidence, and scientists do not react well to those religious fundamentalists who approach the subject with religious belief and a "certain knowledge" that science is all wrong.
We see this particularly in the evolutionary sciences, where some religious beliefs are unalterable opposed to the findings of science.
Are we to treat their beliefs as scientific evidence? What would you have us do?
Could you give one example please?
The concept of an intelligent designer shouldn't just be dismissed out of hand — to do so would be simply telling students to accept what the teacher tells them on faith, while rejecting what their religious leaders are telling them to accept on faith. If ID is treated as just another hypothesis — then you can proceed to disprove it, in a scientific manner.
ID is not scientific evidence — no more than the ToE is evidence. Observations can be evidence — and there are many things that both ID and ToE proponents observe including: the existence of a multitude of species; the complexity of multicellular creatures; the complexity of a single cell; etc.
Darwin himself made such observations. He then formulated a tentative theory that explained his observations. He (and a great many other scientists) then used the theory to generate testable hypothesis. So far, the hypotheses have not been rejected, and the validity of the ToE has increased accordingly.
Why not follow the same process with ID, and show — scientifically — how that “theory” has been disproven?
There is a problem when you are trying to apply science to the supernatural. And ID is about applying a supernatural explanation for "design" (i.e., everything).
Anything can be explained if all you need to do is assume the supernatural. And that explanation thus becomes meaningless, leading nowhere.
There are still major unknowns in the theory of gravity. Saying Goddidit does not help to explain those unknowns. Rather, it tends to prevent the research. Why do science if all questions are answered by Goddidit?
Once I saw “Neo-Darwinism” I quit reading. There’s nothing “neo” about Darwin.
At the very least, students should learn why some explanations are “supernatural”. Show them why that’s not an adequate scientific theory. Compare and contrast to the ToE. Show them hypotheses created to test the ToE. Explain that a scientific theory must be falsifiable. Ask them if there are any testable hypotheses that could falsify ID.
While we're at it -- students should also learn about Lysenkoism and Lamarck's theory of evolution. These were not "supernatural" explanations -- both laid claims to being scientific theories. Students should learn why we rejected those theories in favour of Darwin's. (Not just that we did reject the others -- but, why we rejected them.)
If students learn all that -- they're learning science -- and not being simply indoctrinated.
When you explain it that way it sounds good.
The teacher’s name is Doug Cowan and the article refers to Doug as ‘he.’ It isn’t so much the scientists pushing the one possible interpretation of the evidence view as it is zealots who view Darwin as a god beyond question.
Religion, at least Christianity, is a matter of faith, not fact. I do not agree with people who insist that they have demonstrated scientific proof of the teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s not what it’s about.
The only ones I have ever seen who refer to "Darwinism" as a religion are creationists.
They must be the ones "who view Darwin as a god" as the professors and my fellow students in grad school evolution classes certainly did not.
That must have been a big class, it had everyone who ever supported the theory of the origin of species in it. How long did it take you to get to know all of them?
Your attempt at humor is falling flat.
I studied evolution and a lot of related subjects for six years in grad school at a major university.
Darwin was not considered a deity, nor was "Darwinism" considered a religion. Those are creationists' inventions designed to denigrate science in general and the theory of evolution in particular without addressing the scientific issues.
I am beginning to suspect that creationists as a group are largely unable to address the scientific issues, and as a result have to resort either to ad hominem attacks (such as the one you made) or to scientifically unsupported statements of religious belief.