Mac Lab Report

Evolution and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

- 2006.01.04

Sometimes Dan Knight, Low End Mac's publisher, lets us take off on a non-Mac tangent when the mood strikes us (he's been known to do it himself from time to time), so I thought I'd weigh in with some thoughts on the recent controversies surrounding "intelligent design".

The ongoing debate in schools about evolution vs. intelligent design once again brings the evolution controversy to the forefront of the American educational psyche.

Intelligent design (ID) is the idea that the universe (life, in particular) is so complex that an organizing deity (carefully unnamed) must have had a hand in designing it.

Evolution is the idea that changes in species are natural, random, and filtered through natural selection to wind up with what we have today.

Like any controversy, evolution vs. ID is tainted with a series of misconceptions and deliberate misrepresentations.

The ID people say evolutionists are out to remove God from the public schools. They believe this effort is hypocritical because science is about debating different ideas and selecting the best ones, and so ID should be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution. Furthermore, they say, the evolutionists are close-minded, behaving as if evolution is a fact and not a theory and refusing to let anyone present any evidence that evolution did not occur.

The evolutionists say the ID folks are trying to reintroduce creationism in the public schools, with references to God carefully removed so as not to trigger the constitutional protections that have nearly eradicated references to God in public settings such as schools. They say that attacks on evolution are actually attacks on science - in particular because the term "theory" is used in a derogatory way, as if it is an incomplete or random idea and not a tested and accepted explanation of what is seen in nature.

I believe both of these arguments have some merit, but as all partisan debates (such as Macs vs. PCs) the crux of the matter amounts to this: People like to tell each other what to do.

Creationists want to tell evolutionists what to believe, and evolutionists want to explain science to creationists so they will stop arguing about it.

Most of the debate centers around each group's lack of respect and understanding of the other group's position. Just like Republicans and Democrats, I suppose.

As a science teacher, I get asked about these issues from time to time. I have a few set responses for when there isn't much time to discuss it.

Predicatability

One point I like to make is that science and religion don't talk about the same things - miracles only happen once by definition, and if it isn't repeatable, it can't be scientific - even if it's true. This honors the beliefs of the faithful while drawing a clear line between what is scientifically valid and what is not.

Science is about usefulness, not truth per se, although these often intersect. A theory is useful if it explains past observations, predicts future observations (through experiments), and doesn't conflict with other useful theories. A theory is not useful if it doesn't meet all of these criteria. If it doesn't meet all of these criteria, it could be a hypothesis (which means it could be tested but hasn't been yet) or it could just be an interesting idea or speculation. It might be a scientific speculation or not; but what is surely is not is a scientific theory.

Theory, Doubt, and Usefulness

Science is based on doubt. There is a small, nonzero population of serious scientists who believe there may be flaws in the theory of evolution. (For the record, there are small, nonzero numbers of serious scientists who think gravity theory is wrong, redshift is not caused by the motion of galaxies, and psychic phenomena are real.)

Doubts in scientific theories lead to improved theories and the discarding of old ideas. It does not logically follow, however, that every doubt everyone has about any theory will eventually lead to the downfall of the theory.

Everyone knows that evolution theory as it exists today cannot explain how life first came to be self-replicating, at least in enough detail for us to create life from scratch in the lab. Just because a theory is incomplete does not mean it is not useful. We can use evolution theory to interpret DNA sequences of related species, design new biologically generated drugs through manipulating the production of chemicals in bacteria, and explain observations in the fossil record.

Incompleteness

Perhaps there are gaps in the fossil record, but these gaps do not disprove the theory out of hand. It merely means we do not know everything there is to know.

Ptolemy once taught that the earth was in the center of the solar system and devised a clever, complex, and useful theory of how planets moved on wheels attached to wheels to make the planets dance around the sky the way they do. This theory lasted over 1400 years primarily because it was useful. It worked.

A dramatic and fundamental change in thinking was required that allowed Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to rebuild the solar system into a model that looks like what we know today - and even their model was incomplete, for it did not account for gravitational perturbations that eventually led to even more discoveries.

Just because Kepler's model was incomplete doesn't mean the theory was fundamentally flawed. Just because there were things left unexplained doesn't mean he didn't know anything useful at all. Even the earth-centered model is so useful at explaining what we see in the sky that we still use leftover fragments of it today - every planetarium is based on an earth-centered universe.

Scientists keep the useful parts and discard the rest.

A real scientist accepts that humans are not gods and can never know all there is to know. The faithful believe this is an admission of weakness, tantamount to allowing anything to be possible (even intelligent design).

The true scientist desires to find out where the incompleteness of knowledge lies much as a moth is drawn to a flame, even to the point of seeking out (not ignoring) the unknown, to focus attention on the weaknesses of theories, fixing things that need explaining, improvement, or replacement.

This does not mean that a lack of knowledge leads inevitably to the downfall of a theory as a whole - merely its improvement until it becomes more useful than it was before.

Observation

Evolution the observation - the changing of species over time - is a well established fact. You can see all sorts of evidence for it in both living creatures and the fossil record. I was taught that a fact is an observation agreed upon by the majority of relevant experts. A relevant expert has some training in a field and does not use the word "theory" lightly as many politicians and ID advocates do today.

Evolution the theory is not as well established because there are some aspects of the observations that are not well understood or completely explained.

That distinction between the observations of evolution and the theory of evolution is all but lost in the noise of the debate we see playing out in courtrooms around the country. If we were doing our job as educators, this debate would not be happening, because in both cases - the observations and the theory - the concept of evolution never addresses the hand of an intelligent designer one way or another.

That is because the concept of having supernatural intervention is untestable. Therefore it is not useful because you cannot use the knowledge there was a designer to do anything.

Intelligent design may be comforting to believe, but it isn't useful. How could you do an experiment, make a prediction, or learn something about the mind of God from the conclusion that you are too stupid to figure out how God created life and made it evolve?

Intelligent Design Is Faith, Not Science

A scientist sees something he or she doesn't understand and can accept that as a natural part of the universe. "I may not understand that now, but someday I will - or someone will."

An advocate for intelligent design sees something he or she doesn't understand and draws the conclusion, "Because I cannot figure out how this occurred naturally, a Higher Power (that would be God for those of us reading between the lines) must have designed it."

This is not inferential logic, as there is no evidence for this conclusion. It could be used to explain anything and everything. "How did the killer get out of the locked room?" "I don't know - some higher power must have plucked him into the 4th dimension."

If you check the two references at the bottom of this article, you'll see what I mean. The evolution site is packed with specific examples of evidence used to build evolution theory: real examples of natural selection, fossil evidence, and evolution of isolated communities of creatures are explained. (Remember, theories must explain past observations.)

On the other hand, the vast majority of the content on the IE site (with self-referring references to articles on the same site, for the most part) deals with the conspiracy to prohibit the teaching of IE. There are multiple references to the "clarity of the scientific evidence of IE" and lots and lots of terms in "quotations", but finding the evidence itself is tricky.

I zeroed in on a brochure that purports to explain the evidence for the theory, but all it said was that scientists use design-compatible language and that inferential logic is some sort of rule that is used to suppress ID. The entire argument is, "We can't figure this out, so it must have been designed."

The Role of Evidence

I am often asked if I "believe" in evolution or the big bang theory. These theories are not items of faith, so I view this question as nonsensical.

I am so convinced by the evidence and explanations that I hear that I come to the conclusion that these theories are, for the most part, correct. I am so convinced in the theory of gravitation and centripetal force that I will occasionally ride a roller coaster or fly in an airplane when neither seems like a rational thing to do on the face of it.

However, presented with an anti-gravity machine making things float around in a room on the earth, I would be willing (however painfully) to reconsider my opinion and learn some new things.

This is the essential difference between science and religion. Science requires evidence. Science accepts evidence. Religion does not (by definition the faithful must ignore evidence to the contrary of faith!)

The Role of Faith

Many years ago, I had some substantial and even angry arguments with my mother. She claimed that if she did not plant potatoes by the sign of the moon, they would wither and die. Being an astronomer, I told her there was no way a full moon could affect potato growth and spouted off about radiation intensity and magnitudes and so forth, which of course made no difference whatsoever. It just made my dear mother angry because she felt I was not respecting her point of view.

Every time she was in a hurry and had not planted by the sign of the moon, her potatoes failed. Wasn't that enough proof for a skeptic? I believed that if she was aware she hadn't planted by the sign of the moon, the potatoes would die because she wouldn't tend them properly - a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my later years, as I grew more appreciative of my mother's efforts raising me (a concept commonly referred to as wisdom), I came to realize that as a legitimate scientist it was entirely possible that there was some sort of effect on plants from moonlight, even if I personally didn't understand the mechanism.

The Role of Respect

I still don't think there is, but I became willing to admit that I don't know everything. So I decided to be more useful than controversial and explained phases to my mother with flashlights and tennis balls,. I told her how many days there were between one major phase and the next, and how tides of earth and air were caused by the moon as well as in water, and allowed as how there could be an effect on the growth of potatoes and the timing of their planting, even if I didn't understand it. Then there was peace between us.

Her beliefs weren't scientific, but they were part of her, and I loved her, so I respected her interpretations and respected them. Mind you, I am not saying I was persuaded by her ideas - and I won't be until I see a scientifically controlled study that shows a correlation - but I learned that I could respect them and her and stop arguing about it. Her ideas were not generally useful in the sense they could be widely used, but they were comforting, and there are some things science has no business interfering with.

ID and Evolution in the Classroom

Of course, that's a two-way street.

So what am I saying with respect to ID? I think I can respect the religious beliefs of people while not believing them myself. I can respect ID as a concept. I could even believe it to be true myself (gasp!), but since it is not scientific it has no business being taught as an "alternative theory" to evolution.

On the other hand, as long as it is not represented as science, I have no problem discussing the concept of ID in the classroom - even a science classroom.

Science will not win this argument by suppressing discussion. If scientific thought is to stand on its own, it has to stand against all comers, regardless of whether or not those challenges are scientific in and of themselves.

I am an advocate for individual professionalism in teaching. My personal opinion is this: As long as there is no coursework depending on one's beliefs, a teacher ought to be able to discuss any idea in the classroom if it helps students learn how to think. I'd rather have my kids taught by an ID "believer" who could teach evolution competently than an incompetent person who sleeps with a copy of Darwin under his pillow.

It's a poor commentary on the state of our schools that both sides of this debate believe that they have to legislate or mandate their way into this debate (with stickers on books for crying out loud!) because they think the teacher in incapable of handling the debate in a competent way in the classroom.

In other words: I like to think most of us in the classroom are more concerned about what you know and can do with that knowledge than if you believe exactly what we believe. At least I hope that's true.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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