Thursday, November 18, 2004

Teaching evolution II

Brian Ulrich responds to my previous post on this topic. Brian thinks "Dave's argument is weak in that he doesn't actually say what he sees as the purpose of a high school biology class." He also says, "Class time dedicated to science should be used for science," which I interpret as a tautology, so there must be some miscommunication here. I shall make my argument more explicit.

I believe that parents should decide the purposes of high school biology classes for their children. If they want to devote time to unscientific theories, then so be it. Brian doesn't have a "constitution-based problem" with putting such theories like intelligent design "somewhere in the curriculum," and to me the most obvious place to put them is in the biology class, though if parents want to put them elsewhere or nowhere, that is their prerogative. There's a lot of hand-wringing about how children don't learn enough science in America, to the point that even a few days can't be spared. However, there's plenty of hand-wringing about how kids don't learn enough civics, enough history, enough math, enough morals, enough writing skills, or enough, period. Parents should have the final say on how to budget classroom time, excepting the wrinkle that for public schools, the voters may override them. If the relevant elected representatives want to budget time for intelligent design in public schools (or not), then so be it. As I wrote in my previous post, the best solution is a diverse menu of privately runned schools, as this can accommodate diverse views on curriculum controversies like this one.

The above paragraph is pretty much libertarian boilerplate, which is not a bad thing; in many situations the libertarian boilerplate is right. However, like much libertarian thought, I find it unsatisfying, in some ways question-begging. Sure, the parents should decide, but which decision is best? I was sorely tempted to end this post with the above paragraph. It would have been a crisp argument about which I'd expect to hear relatively little disagreement. But that would have been taking the easy way out. No, I shall stand on my electronic soapbox a bit longer.

Were the issue on the ballot (likely indirectly through a school board election), I would vote to allocate a few days of a public school time to teaching intelligent design. For most career paths, understanding evolution is not a prerequisite for good citizenship or for high economic productivity. A few days spent on intelligent design will at most marginally detract from the understanding of a theory that most students don't need to understand, while simultaneously sharpening students' philosophical thinking about evolution. In fact, I expect there would be a net increase in understanding of evolution. If you believe intelligent design is a dangerously wrong idea, then I can understand why you might vote differently, but I'm currently agnostic about intelligent design, and think it an idea worthy of consideration.

Influenced by reader request, I might write more about my views on intelligent design in the future; for now, I just want to say that intelligent design is not the same thing as creationism, and that although it's not scientific according to the subjective definition I gave last time, there's a real philosophical debate to be had over whether it's objectively scientific. (What is the objective definition of "scientific"? Is there one? You see why I don't want to open this can of worms at the moment.)

Getting back to my libertarian boilerplate, I still maintain it would be best to replace the public school system with a competitive private system (with something like vouchers to help the poor), so that you don't have to worry about my public vote affecting your children's education in ways you consider harmful. Whether or not such school choice ever becomes a reality, if I someday have children, I will certainly send them to a private Christian school, so I won't have to worry about your public vote harming my children's education.


Blogger Brian said...

What do you mean why "What scientists do?" The topics they study, or how they study it? To me, a discipline is defined by methodology, but that might be the perspective of a humanities person.

11/18/2004 3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason U
Speaking as a biologist and someone who tends to lean towards the notion of intelligent design I must respectfully disagree with your stand. Science classes are (or should be) about teaching our understanding of the universe that we have gathered through experimentation and observation. I know of no way to empirically measure God, and personally find such a notion blasphemous. I do believe that high schoolers need an outlet to develop their critical thinking abilities, perhaps in a philosophy/religious studies class, where a discussion of intelligent design/creationism/natural selection would be more appropriate. Teaching what is in essence a metaphysical question that cannot be tested or demonstrated in a science class, to me, would be like teaching Numerology in a math class. Of course I think a lot is made over nothing as those who ferverently believe in evolution by Darwinian means will never buy into creationism and vice versa.

11/18/2004 6:28 PM  
Blogger Dave Milovich said...

Brian: by "what scientists do," I mean just that. For your purposes think of this as a list of ordered pairs, (topic(1), methodology(1)),...,(topic(n), methodology(n)) where, for i=1,...,N, topic(i) is a topic scientists study and methodology(i) is a methodology scientists use to study topic(i).

11/18/2004 7:06 PM  
Blogger Dave Milovich said...

Jason: I don't think that just because a course is titled "biology" or "math" or "physics" it therefore must be emptied of philosophy. (Indeed, any attempt to assign meaning to the calculations done in quantum physics begins with philosophy.) Why must we always segregate into separate courses what we know from "experimentation and observation" and our other forms of knowledge? To my mind, the topics of evolution and intelligent design cry out to be taught side by side.

I also reject your numerology analogy. A better analogy would be to a discussion of the philosophy of math (formalism vs. realism vs. intuitionism vs. ...) in a set theory course. Just as evolution concerns the foundations of life, set theory concerns the foundations of math, and in both cases I think the philosophy is important. To quote Leibniz:

"Without mathematics we cannot penetrate deeply into philosophy. Without philosophy we cannot penetrate deeply into mathematics. Without both we cannot penetrate deeply into anything."

11/18/2004 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason U says:
Dave, its true that philosophy needs to be an integral part of our understanding of science. Many of the big boppers of the past have been rather philosophical when discussing their work as you alluded to. I do feel, however, that high school students need to have a firm grasp of rather established principles before getting into the philosophical side of things. I attended a liberal arts university and I'm a big fan of the liberal arts education system. However, I never saw it as my biology professors' job to discuss the philosophy of his subject, but rather the students' job to integrate the varying course materials into a whole body of understanding.

11/18/2004 10:21 PM  

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