Saturday, August 27, 2005

Insidious Design

Back in the 1990s when the Culture Wars appeared to be centered in English Departments on college campuses, Gerald Graff, a professor of English, urged his colleagues to “teach to the conflicts.” Graff reasoned that an undergraduate population increasingly unable to see any point in studying, say, Romantic poetry, might be energized if their professors introduced them to the competing ideologies that were roiling the pages of academic journals. By clarifying the disagreements among literature teachers we just might be able to teach our uncomprehending and uninterested undergraduates why reading and interpreting poetry was a matter that should concern them.

Now, as the front in these wars seems to have migrated to high school science classes, proponents of “intelligent design” are urging public schools to “teach the controversy” between intelligent design and evolution. But while they’ve stolen a page from Professor Graff’s playbook the differences between the two slogans are more instructive than the similarities.

By changing the key term from conflict to controversy, intelligent design proponents are doing more than hiding their debt to Professor Graff. They are, inadvertently, revealing their intent to mystify rather than clarify. A controversy involving science does not always indicate the existence of two credible scientific positions. To take one example, recall from this past spring the issue of removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube that preoccupied the nation. The case was certainly controversial. Yet from the standpoint of the medical science involved, there was no conflict. None of the physicians who examined Schiavo disagreed about her level of brain activity or about the likelihood of her recovering any significant level of brain function. Nonetheless it was difficult for many of the people who followed the public discussion in the media to find out this basic truth. Part of the intended outcome of making the issue a national controversy was to create the impression that the argument against removing Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube rested on as solid ground, medically, as the argument for its removal.

To be sure there were real ethical, social, and political matters hanging in the balance, and these were indeed matters where discussion would have proved quite useful. Unfortunately the lion’s share of the public debate centered on people’s responses to video images of an apparently responsive, smiling Terri Schiavo.

Something similar has happened with intelligent design. Plenty of controversy, but again, from the standpoint of mainstream science, no real conflict. Sure, some scientists are pushing intelligent design, but the overwhelming majority of scientists working on the origins and development of life are not spending any time whatsoever trying to repudiate the findings of intelligent design—largely because there aren’t any.

But as with the Schiavo case, focus on a largely nonexistent controversy among scientists has obscured the real conflict, which exists among those Americans who declare themselves people of faith and who have to contend with the ever-increasing power of scientific explanation. We’ve seen among these Americans a range of responses to scientific discovery, including attempts to repudiate it, to coexist with it, and, now, to reconcile it with religious belief. These are interesting conflicts and perhaps worthy of discussion, but they are debates among people of faith, and have no place in science classrooms.

In fact, the logic of the issue goes in a direction exactly opposite that assumed by intelligent design proponents: If people of faith are to understand the implications that scientific findings and methods have for their beliefs, they have to be taught science in the first place. And while our current understanding of the wall between church and state may prevent us from insisting that religious schools teach their students evolution, we can at the very least insist the public schools don’t shirk their responsibilities in this area.


Kate said...

Excellent post, Prof. Rock solid.

Guambat Stew said...

Well, they argue they are being taught the functional equivalent of science and that they are simply being discriminated against. For a frightening case study of this notion, see