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Sunday, August 5, 2007

Intelligent design - let it be taught

Intelligent design (the theory that the animals and plants we see around us were designed by a creator and are not the result of Darwinian evolution) should definitely be taught in school and taught as part of the science class. Scientists and science teachers are just as prone as anyone to rest on their laurels; to just assume everything they teach is true and to more or less teach their subject as revealed truth - in other words as a religion. Every scientific theory needs its sceptics and sceptics are every bit as important to the advancement of science as are the advocates of a particular theory.

A good dose of scepticism for Darwinian evolution from the intelligent design advocates would make each science teacher stretch a little further; to make that little bit more effort and to think of new ways of putting across his subject. It would make him work out ways of showing the evidence to his students rather than just jaw-boning the subject.

A warning to the Intelligent Design advocates though. If they come into the science class, the kid gloves are off. Often when a science type encounters someone with strong religious conviction, he will avoid confrontation. If the religious person expresses strong conviction, the science person will back off and keep quiet. I don't know why this is. There are probably a mix of reasons. Many of us have undergone some religious education as children and have been taught a degree of respect for religion. We all are all a little superstitious and blaspheming the lord feels a bit off for the most dyed in the wool atheist. Fair play, which we learn on the sports field may even play a part. Shooting down creationism is about as challenging as shooting fish in a barrel.

Whatever the reason, if the intelligent design people want time in the science classroom, they must not expect the same consideration they usually get. If they teach that the world was created some 5000 odd years ago, the children will be taken to a museum to see an exhibit of dinosaur skeletons. They will be taken to a nearby cliff face to see petrified varves from ancient glaciers. They will be taken to a Carbon 14 laboratory and the scientist in charge will explain how we can carbon-ate back almost 50,000 years, 10 times the religion-professed age of the earth and he will show a chronology of different artifacts which show these dates.  The student might be taken to a lab that studies the bristle cone pines and be shown that even they can go back some 5000 years.

If the Intelligent Design advocate tells how Noah saved two of every living thing on the earth, the science teacher will work out the estimated total weight of two of every known animal alive today with the food to keep them alive for the required time. A calculation will show what would be the minimum sized ship necessary to hold all these and the amount of dung Noah and his sons and daughters would have to clear up each day. Did they even have wheel barrows in Noa's time or would they have to transfer the dung to the side of the ship in baskets.

He will show his students the skeletons of a whole fauna of mega-mammals which evolved since the demise of the dinosaurs and which are no longer with us. He will show his students the skeletons of the wide variety of dinosaurs and ask how these two groups fits into these theory. And if the Intelligent Design advocate relates how man was created in god's image, all the information about an ever increasingly lineage of hominids which have been been discovered, which date over quite a few million years, including Lucy, Neanderthal man, Heidelbergensis, and so forth will be brought to the attention of the students.

The students will also be informed of some of the design boo-boos in the human frame from a poorly designed eye, through vestigial organs and an as yet to be perfected back bone. The science teacher may also talk to the students about a handful of other eye designs which are superior to ours. Some comments from the intelligent design advocate on where these beings fit into the picture would be enlightening.

A good start would be to allow one class each week by an advocate of intelligent design. Science teacher present of course. A main argument against this will be the huge amount of material that must be taught in the modern science class. This is true as far as it goes but it is far more important to teach the scientific method and the willingness to always listen to a contrary argument and to examine it on its merits. This is true science. It is just unfortunate that the intelligent design arguments are so easily shot down. A more robust opponent would make for  more robust debate.

At the end of the whole procedure, when little Johny asks the science teacher if he believes that god exists, the only possible 'scientific' answer is "I don't know". The lack of evidence for the existence of something isn't evidence of the lack of that thing. Imagine trying to explain radio waves to someone in Shakespeare's time. Radio waves are hard enough to explain now when we see the results in our portable transistor radio. The science teacher might feel moved to continue his explanation by saying that God could exist but if so in what form. You have thousands of choices from the wide variety of Christian faiths, from the other monotheistic religions, from animistic religions all the way back to the earliest ways man had of explaining a puzzling and often dangerous environment.

It would be just a touch egotistical to assume that the particular vision of god that the Intelligent Design teacher holds, is the correct one. One could even make the case that religion was an early form of science - a way of explaining our universe which, with limitations, gave a survival advantage to the group that advocated one creed over a different less useful creed. Religions have undergone Darwinian evolution and the varieties which conferred an advantage survived over those that didn't.

Creationism should definitely be taught in school.

1 comment:

alison said...

Just found your blog via your post at Silly Beliefs. I totally agree with what you're saying, but also (as per the SB discussion) I can't see it happening in schools any time soon. It is, however, just the sort of thing I'd use when working with Schol Bio candidates on their critical thinking skills. Personally I think it's a real pity that we don't have classes in critical thinking (or rather, integrate it into all classes) right from the start of school!