Teaching the “controversies”

Today’s NYT has an article about a new-ish strategy used by creationists in their efforts to influence the teaching of science in schools. According to the article, a bill in the Kentucky legislature would require schools to teach “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories.” A similar rule passed by the Texas Board of Education (see previous post for related info) requires “that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming.”

The problem with this kind of language is not that it advocates critical thinking about science as an enterprise or about the merits of specific theories. It is the ease with which the language can be bent to the end of distorting science. Teaching the “advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories” is part of the teaching of science, provided we specify the questions to which the theories pertain. For example, if the question is about the origin and diversification of life, including its adaptation to different environments, then by all means lets talk about the advantages of a scientific as opposed to, say, nonscientific account. Nonscientific (supernatural, mythological, untestable) theories have been tried, but it was not until Darwin set forth his explanatory framework that we had a way of systematically answering these questions. The problem is that teachers, school-board members, and parents who are threatened by Darwin’s account, and who don’t understand the nature and practice of science itself, will use the “advantages and disadvantages” language to promote false alternatives such as Intelligent Design or Scientific Creationism.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching “all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming.” Do that right, observing appropriate standards of scientific evidence and inference, and you wind up with an overwhelming case for Darwinian evolution or for the idea that the earth’s climate is changing at unprecedented rates under the influence of human activities. However, the “all sides of the evidence” language can be used as a Trojan horse to smuggle in arguments based on invalid evidence such as scripture, opinion polls, or distortions of scientific data.

Update: grammatical fix


About ethologist

Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University
This entry was posted in Education, Environment, Nature of science, Science and public discourse. Bookmark the permalink.

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