Monday, February 20, 2006

Shilling for Intelligent Design

I ran across a few interesting perspectives on the nature of science education in the U.S. since the posting of my rant concerning science and cinema. The first is a classical-play-in-political-rhetoric post up at the Discovery Institute Blog concerning a Time magazine article on science policy in the U.S. There some very good comments within the article, e.g…

In fact, says Robert Birgeneau, a physicist and chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, it already exists, if only we would recognize it. "We have a different kind of war, an economic war," he says. "The importance of investing in long-term research for winning that war hasn't been understood."

The fundamental point of the article is to address policy towards science, not its instruction, and the degree to which public support of research and development is declining relative to other countries. Casey Luskin, author of the Discovery posting, quotes this passage:

Some critics have tried to put the blame for the U.S.'s scientific decline on President George W. Bush, citing ... his statements in support of ''intelligent design' as an alternative to evolution..."

Wait, let’s try that without ellipses…

Some critics have tried to put the blame for the U.S.'s scientific decline on President George W. Bush, citing his hostility to stem-cell research, his downplaying of global warming, his statements in support of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, and his Administration's appointment of nonscientists to scientific panels as well as its alleged quashing of dissenting scientists.

Certainly Discovery has a valid reason to single out Intelligent Design in the passage, but not to the exclusion of significant context. Luskin follows the block quote by stating:

Yet given that intelligent design isn't being mandated in a single district in the country, I'm pretty sure these critics are just blowing smoke. A much more reasonable observer would say, "if there's a problem in science education in America today, then wouldn't it stand to reason that the problem is being caused by the status quo?" The status quo includes the fact that in the vast majority of districts across the U.S., evolution is taught in a one-sided, pro-evolution, and dogmatic manner without any mention of dissenting views.

We might observe that the “critics” in question are not commenting upon science education but rather the popular perception of science as it impacts public financing of scientific research. We should further observe that blaming any decline in education upon the “status quo” is a logical leap for which Luskin has little justification, having failed to evaluate any particular trends in the teaching of evolutionary biology to putatively correlate with anecdotal evidence of poor education. We must finally observe that Luskin’s comment concerning “dogmatic” teaching of evolution is a grotesque strawman.

None of this should necessarily come as a surprise… Luskin goes on to imply that this decline in “education” is unlikely to be addressed by role models such as biologist Kenneth Miller, selectively quoting him thusly:

“I think the most destructive part of the disclaimer that’s on the textbooks in Georgia, is the last sentence. And it says something to the effect that students are urged to study this material carefully, critically examine it and consider it with an open mind.”

PvM over at The Panda’s Thumb quickly responded to the Luskin post, pointing out that the full quote from Miller reads quite differently:

And finally the destructive part of the disclaimer that is on the text books in Georgia is the last sentence and it says something to the effect of that students are urged to study this material carefully, critically examine it and consider it with an open mind. Now think about what this means to a student. It means to a student that you’re supposed to do this to evolution but that every other topic in that book need not be critically considered or examined with an open mind. We are telling that we are certain of everything within science except for evolution and I can’t think of a worse policy in terms of scientific education and unfortunately that is what the Intelligent Design Movement has led to. A lot of bad teaching a lot of bad ideas about science.

Luskin subsequently altered his blog entry to include the full quote and altered his comments to reflect the changes, without offering any particular explanation why the omission was made in the first place. We might hope that he simply excluded the context of the quotes and twisted their meaning inadvertently.

How did he put it earlier? “A much more reasonable observer” would conclude that eliminating the context of the Miller quote and skewing the criticism of Bush cited in the Time article to allegedly comment on education rather than economic policy are not mistakes that can be made by accident, particularly when the effect of the changes is to make ID critics appear somehow less reasonable than they are. This sort of political gamesmanship is not uncommon in policy discussion, but when Discovery passes itself off as a font of reasoned scientific debate, the deliberate omission of context speaks towards a troubling hypocrisy. The DI cannot credibly advocate open and reasoned criticism of biological science while knowingly distorting what science is or what scientists claim.

This brings to mind a thought I’ve had concerning the evolution/ID debate—those who advocate ID from a position of credulity in the truth of creationism are not going to be swayed by evolutionary science. What troubles me are those who take the DI’s attempt to appear to be reasonable at face value, and who parrot the criticisms of evolutionary biologists as if they were conventional wisdom (“Evolution education is dogmatic,” “evolution is inherently atheistic,” “irreducible complexity refutes evolution,” etc.). It seems to me that there are two approaches to resolving the acceptance of this misinformation. The first is to present the truth as clearly as possible, something biologists are doing fairly well. The second has not been put into practice as much, perhaps, as it should be: document the pervasive dishonesty of the ID messenger.


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