Averting a pedagogical disaster

Averting a pedagogical disaster McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 12, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 38: 2005-2006 > January 12, 2006 > Averting a pedagogical disaster


Averting a pedagogical disaster

Intelligent Design vs Evolution - Brian Alters on the importance of the U.S. Federal Case Kitzmiller vs Dover

Illustration of evolution

Everyone's talking about it - U.S. presidents, senators, and governors, and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders. It made worldwide news in thousands of newspapers and TV/radio shows, was splashed on the cover of most major news magazines, and was named the No. 3 science story of the year by The Scientist. Leading scientific associations made official statements about it, and fictional TV shows such as The West Wing, Boston Legal, and The Daily Show had episodes about it. A representative from Paramount Studios attended the trial for a potential film production. United States constitutional lawyers even came to Canada to recruit a McGill University science education professor as an expert witness (me). Why all the fuss about a court case; why did it warrant my travelling to Pennsylvania?

The intelligent design federal case is controversial because it involves religion, biological evolution and the characterization of science. It is important because it determines what students will learn concerning the origins and relatedness of all life on the planet in their science classrooms. It has to do with everyone's ancestry. It has to do with differentiating religious versus scientific explanations. This landmark case and its potentially precedent-setting verdict could affect the education of millions of students across a nation and beyond for innumerable decades.

The six-week trial was watched closely by school districts across the United States and worldwide. The school district on trial was Dover, Pennsylvania, which had a new policy of making students aware of intelligent design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution in biology class. The policy involved reading a four-paragraph statement about intelligent design and evolution to students, encouraging students to seek out intelligent design textbooks in school libraries, and requiring teachers not to answer student questions concerning intelligent design, about which they had just learned. Dover's school board contended the policy was good.

The intelligent design policy lost big. But what would have happened if the intelligent design side had won? A signal would have been sent to every public school board, school, principal and teacher. The signal: that it is okay for schools to teach that supernatural explanations are possible scientific explanations for natural phenomena; that this is how science works; that evolutionary theory is scientifically deficient compared to intelligent design "science"; that the occurrence of evolution is only a theory; and that various forms of life appeared abruptly through an intelligent agency - fish suddenly appeared with fins and scales already intact, and birds suddenly appeared with feathers, beaks and wings.

Such ideas have adherents. A large number of Canadians and Americans agree with this "science" and believe that it should be taught in schools. More than half of Americans are sympathetic to intelligent design, while a recent Globe and Mail poll indicates that over a quarter of respondents would like to see intelligent design taught in Canadian public schools. Many people think that intelligent design advocates are essentially uneducated, so the trial was characterized as the educated versus the uneducated. However, many leading intelligent design advocates have doctoral degrees from leading institutions in science, mathematics, philosophy, and law; some even hold professorships at major universities. So what's wrong with intelligent design?

First, intelligent design is not a natural science. Its major concept, "irreducible complexity," was dismembered in court by evolutionary scientists. Furthermore, intelligent design was shown to be untestable. The scientific community looks for natural explanations for natural phenomena; intelligent design proponents introduce possible supernatural causation. If a scientific theory currently does not supply an explanation of every point, then scientists work to find a natural explanation; they do not render an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion.

Second, intelligent design is a religious theory with creationist antecedents. The court concluded that a student would view the intelligent design policy as "a strong official endorsement of religion or a religious viewpoint." Intelligent design as a religious idea should be respected, but not as science in public schools.

Third, the intelligent design policy was educationally bad (I spent hours on the witness stand explaining why). The effects would be to: (1) require science teachers to use poor pedagogy; (2) require science teachers to disregard findings of the scientific community and the recommendations of the national professional science teachers associations; (3) contradict teachers' professional preparation and professional development; and (4) improperly prepare students for postsecondary science education at secular schools.

The judge concluded that juxtaposing intelligent design with evolution would make an objective student view intelligent design as an endorsement of religion or a religious viewpoint (evolution neither supports nor denies the existence or agency of a supreme being). Furthermore, making students "aware" in a science course that intelligent design is an alternative science to evolution and that a serious scientific debate exists about evolution's occurrence, and then effectually muzzling teachers so they may not answer student questions, is pedagogically irresponsible.

Intelligent design advocates pushed hard to be heard. They claimed there were clearly advantageous scientific and pedagogical reasons why intelligent design should take its place alongside evolutionary theory in the nation's public school science classrooms. Intelligent design advocates had their day in court - a fair opportunity for them to present their side. The court found intelligent design to be a religious theory, not a science, and pedagogically undermining. Sure, I had to travel to Pennsylvania but intelligent design travelled down the biology class drain.

Tomlinson Chair in Science Education & Director of the Evolution Education Research Centre, Faculty of Science

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