Intelligent design news and discussion from the 19th of May to the 2nd of June, 2011.
Exams, exams and more exams are what’re coming up in my life soon, so understandably I’ve been a little sidetracked from blogging. But no fear! TWiID is back after a week off (I’m lucky the acronym still fits after I use the alternate multi-week title, I suppose), and I’m ready to get stuck into some ID news and discussion. The big story over the past week has been the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), the repeal of which recently (and unfortunately) failed, much to the delight of the Discovery Institute and friends, who have been lobbying to preserve the “academic freedom” act ever since it was challenged by the repeal last year. I’ll be spending a bit of time on the LSEA, as there have been two major blog posts by the DI on the topic recently, and I want to touch on some points that I think many anti-ID supporters of the repeal have overlooked.
I’ll also be discussing posts on the mysterious and surprising link between mathematics and biology, and the teleology of life.
Casey Luskin wrote the first post about the Louisiana Science Education Act repeal. Let’s see what he had to say:
Yesterday the Louisiana State Senate Education Committee voted 5-1 to kill SB 70, a bill intended to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The LSEA was originally adopted in 2008 by an overwhelming bipartisan majority (Louisiana House: 93-4; Senate: 36-0). It is the first Academic Freedom law passed in the nation to protect public school teachers who teach students to think critically (read: scientifically) on controversial scientific topics like Darwinian evolution.
Before voting down SB 70 the Committee heard testimony from both sides. Predictably, opponents of the LSEA who wanted it repealed repeatedly talked about “creationism,” “creationism,” and also “creationism.” LSEA-critics didn’t quote from the law, and completely ignored the fact that the law prohibits any advancement of religion in the science classroom.
Ah yes – “academic freedom”, my old friend. I’ve written about it before and I really need to solidify my thoughts on it into an essay or two on this site in the near future. But for those not in the loop, “academic freedom” is a buzz-phrase used by intelligent design proponents (and some creationists, albeit rarely) to describe a situation in which teachers who are “skeptical”1 of evolutionary theory are allowed to teach their students that:
- “neo-Darwinism” has many minor and major flaws, which are increasing in number as biologists discover that its mechanisms are both implausible and unable to explain the nature of biological complexity and diversity we see in the world, and/or
- intelligent design (ID) is a viable scientific hypothesis that is being seriously considered by a significant proportion of biologists as an alternative to “neo-Darwinism”.
ID proponents, such as those from the Discovery Institute, have in recent years (ever since the Dover trial in 2005, in which ID was ruled unconstitutional) focused only on the first half of the term, preferring “academic freedom” lobbying that leaves out the inclusion of ID in the curriculum. Naturally, the LSEA was an example of such an ID-free state education law, leading to Casey’s comments that it was “the first Academic Freedom law passed in the nation to protect public school teachers who teach students to think critically (read: scientifically) on controversial scientific topics like Darwinian evolution.” No mention of ID, and for good reason. They don’t want to get their hands dirty with the stain of unconstitutionality, not again – or at least, not for the moment.
But are ID-free “academic freedom” laws scientifically and educationally justifiable? I’m of the strong opinion that they are most certainly not. In essence, laws like the LSEA subvert the proper role of the curriculum in determining what should and should not be taught in high school science classes, allowing teachers to insert content that is not vetted through the proper educational channels into their lessons.
To look at this from another angle, let’s use an example of biology classroom-insertion that is a little less controversial than criticism of evolutionary theory. Consider a hypothetical situation in which a science teacher wanted to teach to their high school students extremely complex signal transduction pathways. Such material is usually reserved for third-year undergraduate and graduate students of cell biology, and is obviously inappropriate for students at a high school level, who lack an appropriate grounding in both basic biology and chemistry to understand and comprehend the ideas that are involved in signal transduction pathways. Should the teacher be allowed to teach this to their students, through the application of “academic freedom”? Obviously not. There are topics and concepts that are inappropriate for a high school level and these need to be regulated through an overarching curriculum, such as the one that already exists in countries like the US.
Clearly there are no lobby groups trying to get laws passed to allow high school teachers the “academic freedom” to teach incredibly complex biological concepts to their students – why would there be? – but it’s a scenario analogous to the one currently formed around the teaching of criticisms of evolutionary theory. Now, I’m not saying that such criticisms are necessarily complex or even that hard to understand (although some of them most certainly are), but simply that material that is to be taught in classrooms needs to be regulated by the curriculum to ensure that it is both accurate and appropriate in the context of the educational level the students are currently at. These criticisms of evolution that are readily tossed around in pro-ID circles are not accurate and are widely disputed amongst evolutionary biologists and biologists in general. So why should the curriculum just stand aside and allow teachers, who may not have formal training in the area of evolutionary biology, to teach them to students as if they carry any intellectual weight? The idea astonishes me.
Science education needs standards. If ID proponents and others who are critical of evolution think that their ideas should be taught in school science classes, they need to go through the proper, official channels, instead of trying to sneak their ideas over the fence at the back of the school oval via a legal leg-up.
As you have just read, I feel there are plenty of good reasons to oppose “academic freedom” laws even if they do not contain provisions to allow intelligent design to be taught in biology classrooms – but often it feels like the rest of the anti-ID community doesn’t share my opinion. Often critics of laws such as the LSEA make charges of creationism and unconstitutional religious messages being introduced into public schools as the result of the legal changes, even when language in the laws explicitly disallows such material to make its way into classrooms. On this point I’m going to have to agree with what Casey Luskin says in his post, in that the LSEA was not a direct attempt at getting creationism into biology classes:
There’s a good reason why there have been no lawsuits over the LSEA: despite their public rhetoric and talking points, even Louisiana Darwin lobbyists know in their heart of hearts that the plain language of the law does not protect the teaching of religion. Thus, it is noteworthy that the critics of the LSEA could not bring themselves to quote from the actual law itself during the hearing.
Perhaps you can read better than the Nobel Prize winners who opposed the LSEA: In the language from the law below, can you spot where the LSEA allows religion to march into the science classroom? From the law itself:
This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.
Indeed, when pressed, not a single opponent of the LSEA could point to any instance of religion coming into the classroom under the LSEA. [Emphasis in original]
The LSEA was never about getting creationism into schools. It was, and still is, a method of unsettling the teaching of evolution, probably with the intent to allow extracurricular influences, such as churches and the Discovery Institute itself, to deliver pro-ID and pro-creationism messages to the minds of students already susceptible to learning about explanations other than evolution (which they have learnt at school is quite obviously flawed) for life’s diversity and complexity. But even though that may be the end goal of the LSEA, it’s not an easy thing to prove in a court of law, given that the argument is built up on many decades of historical analysis into the changing motivations and strategies of the creationist and intelligent design movements. I’m sure there are people out there competent enough to do the job, but even so, the courts would probably still require a direct link between the legislation and pro-ID groups’ intention to indoctrinate students outside of classrooms, something that is probably lacking. Also, keep in mind that while such an argument was being made and put forward, pro-ID groups would be trying to rip it to shreds with their impressive rhetorical abilities. Arguably, this has already happened in response to the current charges of creationism against the LSEA – just look at this post by Casey as well as numerous others on Evolution News & Views about the repeal.
All I’m saying is that efforts to repeal the LSEA and other similar ID-free “academic freedom” laws could probably be better spent promoting the stronger, more easily defendable arguments against such legislation that are based on the proper role of the curriculum in determining what students should and should not learn about. Arguments about creationism or ID being let into classrooms are, on their face, untrue, and at a more nuanced level, extremely hard to develop into a convincing legal case.
But like I said, I need to devote some time and effort into just this topic in the future in order to really sort out what I think about it all. Stay tuned. (This might be a good time to point out the RSS feed icon in the top right-hand corner of the page – the feed will keep you updated on any future posts I make about the topic.)
The second post over the past week about the failed repeal of the LSEA was by John G. West, who shared a letter written to the Louisiana Senate Education Committee by 15 Ph.D. scientists (read: Discovery Institute-affiliated persons) supporting the law and criticising the repeal. There’s a PDF if you want to read it like that, but I’ll share some interesting bits of it with you here:
May 26, 2011
To: Louisiana State Legislators
Dear Honorable Legislator,
We are Ph.D. scientists concerned about the lack of scientific objectivity in science education. It has recently come to our attention that evolution activists are trying to pressure the Louisiana State Legislature into repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), passed in 2008 by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. In particular, we have learned that a document from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Science, Evolution, and Creationism has been distributed to legislators, with the apparent intent to intimidate legislators into opposing academic freedom.
The vocal activists who oppose the LSEA are seeking to confuse the issue, since the LSEA is not about creationism. In fact, when a group of Nobel Laureates recently signed a letter calling for the repeal of the LSEA, it is noteworthy that their letter refused to quote from the law itself and instead harped upon the distraction of “creationism.” The truth is that LSEA does not permit teaching for or against any religious viewpoint.
We’ve heard this before from Casey’s post, but remember that this is a letter being sent by scientists directly to the people in charge of making a decision about the repeal of the LSEA. Notice how the points they are making here (so far) are actually valid. Rhetorically, this doesn’t look good for the repeal and its supporters. All the more reason to stop using this particular argument, eh anti-ID crowd?
If Darwin were alive today, he would urge us to teach his theory objectively. In Origin of Species, Darwin explained that “a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Likewise, leading science education theorists agree that students learn science best when taught “to discriminate between evidence that supports … or does not support” a given concept. The LSEA was adopted for the purpose of implementing such an objective approach when teaching controversial topics like evolution. Unfortunately, many modern defenders of Darwin’s ideas reject his advice when teaching evolution.
This is where the letter goes entirely off the rails. Yes, students should be taught the critical skills necessary to evaluate competing ideas, but that doesn’t automatically make criticisms of evolutionary theory valid. They need to go through the academic community and down through the channels of curriculum construction before being allowed to enter the classroom. If ID proponents think that Charles Darwin would allow teachers to give unjustified ideas such as critiques of evolution to students, they’re completely and utterly wrong.
For example, the NAS’s Science, Evolution and Creationism booklet directly works against the scientific process by unscientifically elevating evolution to the status of unquestionable dogma. The booklet asserts that the “call to ‘teach the controversy’ [over evolution] is unwarranted” because “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,” and evolution is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter” it. This is not a scientific approach.
Nonsense. The DI is manufacturing a controversy, most scientists know that. And it’s hardly unscientific to look at the facts of the matter and determine whether the particular arguments being put forward by anti-evolutionists are any good or not. They have been looked at, and they’re not very good. End of story. You don’t get to complain about how academia is unscientific if they disagree with you simply because you’re wrong. I thought that would be self-evident. Apparently not.
I could quote more of the letter, but it really is stuff we’ve all heard before. Nothing new. It’s a shame it worked, actually. Remember, the repeal was voted against, and the LSEA still remains a part of Louisiana’s educational law. Damn.
The next post this week is by the ever-busy eponymous Evolution News & Views, who wrote about mathematics and biology and their spooky connection. Ooooh~! It’s a lot of silly stuff (I mean, population genetics has been a cornerstone of biology for how many decades now?), but I only really wanted it for the last paragraph, which beautifully highlights the reasoning behind the intelligent design argument:
From a philosophical standpoint, what does it mean that these biological systems can be explained by mathematical theories (DNA and information theory, animal markings and fractals, viruses and geometry, plankton and chaos theory)? The mathematical predictability certainly implies non-randomness. It also seems to imply layers of complexity and layers of information. These layers of complexity seem to indicate something more than unguided or random processes. It seems to indicate either a front-loading of information or at least some kind of mechanism that has the end goal in mind.
Brilliant. ID is clearly based, primarily, on intuitive arguments that theists and others with teleology-detecting predispositions will readily agree with. After that, little work is needed, except to construct philosophically convoluted (yet at the same time, overly-straightforward) arguments to make it look like ID critics have a mountain of reasoning to work through. ID proponents know how to convince those already susceptible to their way of thinking, and they do it all the time, every day, with the greatest of ease.
If only evolutionary theory could do that, then science education wouldn’t be so threatened.
The last post this week is by Ann Gauger, who wrote about teleology in biology. Like the previous post, I’m only mentioning it for the last few paragraphs, which again makes a nice summary of ID thinking:
I like to show a video to illustrate the why we need to look top down as well as bottom up. It’s a real-time visualization of a living cell, with various structures (organelles) highlighted one by one. Go here to see it.
These cellular components, and many others, function in a very crowded cellular milieu, somehow recognizing the molecules and structures with which they are supposed to interact. They send and receive signals, correct errors, and adjust their activity in a dynamic way according to the needs of the whole organism.
Notice the language of intentionality in the last paragraph: ‘function’, ‘recognize’, interact’, ‘signal’, ‘correct’, ‘adjust’. Such language is common in biological writing.
Recognizing the implied intentionality in such language, several authors have called for biologists to abolish these words from their writing. According to them, anything that implies either teleology (being directed toward a goal or purpose) or agency (intelligence acting to produce an effect) is to be eschewed. After all, both teleology and agency have been discarded by modern biologists, along with vitalism. Yet teleological language persists. Maybe the reason such language is so common in biology research is because living things are directed toward a purpose. Maybe biological systems do reflect intelligent agency, because intelligent agents are the only known source capable of designing, assembling, and then coordinating so many interrelated sub-systems into a functional whole. And maybe, by acknowledging this, we can come to understand biology better.
Firstly, how exactly would biology be understood better if we found out it was all designed by some agent/s? I fail to grasp that argument fully. Not sure what she’s trying to say.
Secondly, the fact that biologists use teleological language when discussing biological phenomena is no more a reason to suggest that an agent was involved in their origin and development than the fact that chemists and physicists say that closed systems “want” to return to equilibrium, or that quantum physicists say that electrons are “unhappy” in high energy orbitals, or that geologists say that magma trapped in the Earth’s crust “needs” to be released are a reason to suggest that an agent was involved in these processes too. Humans use teleological language to help wrap our minds around a universe that doesn’t contain a lot of intelligent agency, relatively speaking. We anthropomorphise concepts in order to relate to them better, but that doesn’t point to a mind behind every scientific phenomenon, just that human psychology is a weird and wonderful place.
Rapid fire ID posts!
- Is Christian Darwinism the new eugenics? (I don’t even have to comment on this.)
- And what does objective morality have to do with the completely secular conception of ID that you believe, again?
- Pot-kettle-black, O’Leary. Except that you may have misidentified the kettle.
- Stasis? INCONCEIVABLE!
- Dear god, if you are doubting that genes have anything to do with… biology, then I really can’t help you. No one can.
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- I use the term in quotes, because they’re really not skeptical at all – more like confused and misinformed. ↩