I’ve written on the subject of scientific controversies several times in the past, and have even highlighted this particularly disgusting piece of nonsense (“teach the controversy”) more than once. But state legislatures are coming back into session, and already the push for ideology over inquiry is becoming manifest. Because right-wing ideologues devoid of any particle of intelligence or integrity insist on pushing this piece of manipulative idiocy, I am going to stand here in my little corner of the world and push back.
I find the rhetoric behind this phrase especially monstrous. This is because the people who produce this nonsense have no interest in teaching, only in indoctrination; no grasp of controversy, only of ex cathedra declarations; no capacity for inquiry, only for the regurgitation of tediously fatuous twaddle. So let us explore for a moment what it is about this particular meme, “teach the controversy,” that is so singularly despicable.
I’ll work backwards, so as to quickly dispose of a subject I’ve already covered in some detail: Namely, what qualifies as a genuine scientific controversy? Well, it is a mistake to suppose there is always and only a single, particular answer to that question. But we can identify various heuristically useful clues (and I’ve previously mentioned a few of these) that can help us zero in on a generic basis, until we can isolate such unique particulars as will frequently give us workable leverage on any specific question. But here’s the really, truly, unbelievably, obvious elephant in the room that is not mentioned often enough: even if it made sense to “teach” the controversy (more on that in a moment), first there would have to be a controversy. Just because some ranting ideologue carries on about an absence of “demonstrative evidence” or complains about how unfairly her/his preferred piece of childish nonsense is not given the same attention and respect as legitimate science (and there are a great many such individuals demanding attention which they are incapable of earning), it hardly suffices to show that such yammering is possessed of even a particle of cognitive content or logical force. The donkey braying in the barnyard might be convinced it has a great deal to say, but that opinion does not put it on the same footing as Yeats or Shakespeare, regardless of the emotional force with which it is expressed.
So I’ll not rehash what I’ve already said on the subject of genuine vs. specious “controversies” – click on the above links for the details. Let’s get to the really vicious and offensive part: the talk about “teaching.”
The role of education in a democratic society is to cultivate the habits and interests that are the basis for an intelligent understanding of the world, as well as the capacity for logically cogent inquiry. (Here, the writings of John Dewey are particularly to the point, and worth the study.) To achieve such a goal, one must both possess some baseline of knowledge, but one must also have the reasoning skills that allow one to (1) draw valid and appropriate conclusions from that knowledge, and (2) leverage that knowledge and reasoning in such a way that one can continue to learn on one’s own. (In this regard, the fetish for standardized testing that has consumed primary and secondary education throughout this country is arguably the very worst approach to education one might imagine.) The science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once quipped that, “The 3-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with those three you can learn anything you want to learn.” (The quote actually finishes with, “But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots.” But that’s a tad snarkier than I want to go.) Heinlein’s list is not a bad starting point, and depending on how broadly one construes the categories (does “history” include the history of ideas? Does “languages” include literature and philosophy, or does it stop at conversational French? Mathematics is not one thing, so which areas ought be developed?) one could make the case that it is adequate for high school graduates.
However the “teach the controversy” advocates want to undermine even so basic an education as this, making the “teach” in the phrase less a matter of grotesque hypocrisy so much as a bald-faced lie. Keeping in mind that “teaching” “the controversy” to kids in high school, who are incapable of evaluating the evidence, is not teaching them anything at all. Moreover, “teaching” “the controversy,” when there is (as a matter of readily and repeatedly demonstrated fact) NO CONTROVERSY, is not a matter of “teaching’ anything at all: it is indoctrination by obfuscation. This is the exact same, infantile stunt pulled by the tobacco companies with regard to the well-established health risks of first-, and later, second-hand cigarette smoke. These same techniques were then picked up by the fossil fuel industry and their willing (and, typically, well-paid) propagandists to deny the obvious facts of global warming.
These people do not want to “teach the controversy,” they want to fabricate the pretense that there IS a controversy, and then force-feed that fabrication into young minds that lack the experience and the critical thinking skills to evaluate the lies they are being instructed to accept as having the same standing as well-established scientific fact. If you cannot forcefully erase the facts, then manufacturing the lie that those facts aren’t facts at all, predicated on your standing as a “teacher” (regardless of your lack of real authority on the subject in question) is hands down the next best move to make. It is the move of manipulative con-artists, devoid of conscience or integrity.
The latest sham these people are spewing wraps itself in the empty flag of “academic freedom.” Academic freedom is a real – indeed, essential – issue, but the liars and their enthusiastic stooges do not actually care about “academic freedom,” only about posturing in whatever way is necessary to give themselves a daub of legitimacy. Academic freedom was always only about protecting those who were doing legitimate research from the ideological vindictiveness of those interested in power. High school teachers (and others) certainly deserve the protections of tenure, but they are not in a position to present original research, only to summarize the best consensus of existing research. Also, academic freedom should not be confused with tenure, and important form of job protection for those who teach at all levels. But tenure is not a justification to engage in ideological spew. Tenure at the research level (college and university) is a shield against pressure from those who would strangle legitimate research for political, ideological, and economic reasons. Tenure at the primary and secondary school level is a shield against pressure from those who would strangle legitimate teaching, to protect teachers against such political, ideological, and economic pressures in the teaching of established research. It is not, and has never been, an open invitation to regurgitate any nonsense whatever, and pretend it has the same standing as logically sound inquiry.
There are facts in the world, and only those with ideological agendas seek to ignore, debase, or deny those facts. Those facts – insofar as they are within our grasp – have been established by logically valid means as opposed to predetermined by dogmatism and wishful thinking. “Teach the controversy” cares nothing for logical means, nor valid – much less rigorously validated – inquiry.
Ok, when I was at school, after a biology class on evolution I went up to the teacher and the word “Lamark” came out of my mouth. The teacher went apoplectic, shouting and raving, as though I had blasphemed. I was amazed, and decided that he had a “problem” . Years later I read “The Case of the Midwife Toad”, and came to the conclusion that Evolution in the usual meaning was a theory, and open to discussion. So I know you are having a go at the creationists, who are the least scientific of all humanity, but if you are going to draw the line, where is it to be drawn? Try Replication of DNA. Some observations, many inferences and a large amount of speculation. Also Global warming appears to have evolved into Climate Change.
Gary Herstein said:
Per the last part, the change in terminology is being driven by communications, not by the science itself, and the choices behind that change are themselves at least arguable. “Climate Change” was advocated by professional propagandists on the political right, because it was a less scary term than “global warming.” People in the science community suggested using “climate change” because so many people were incapable of even grasping THAT there is a difference between *global* warming and “my back yard” warming, much less WHAT the difference is. There are a variety of other terms also in play (“climate disruption” is popular), but global warming (I prefer Anthropogenic Global Warming, AGW) is both correct and widely employed.
“Evolution in the usual meaning was a theory” is the kind of phrasing that suggests you might be unclear on what the word “theory” means. An idea or opinion is any old thought one happens to entertain; an hypothesis is an idea that is well enough formulated that it offers the chance for significant and rigorous testing; a theory is an hypothesis that has been so tested, and now sits at the pinnacle of scientific confidence. Of course evolution is a theory, that’s why the creationist nonsense is so objectionable — they haven’t even got an hypothesis.
Your science teacher’s reaction was unfortunate but (psychologically, anyway) understandable. I’m guessing this was some decades ago, as talk of Lamarck hasn’t been much in fashion since I was in high school. Interestingly enough, it is coming back in a way, but only because some intelligible, testable hypotheses have finally been produced that suggest a path where something like Lamarckian change is possible, through epigenetic modifications to an adult creatures DNA that turn into inheritable traits for the off-spring: http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/03/end_the_hype_over_epigenetics__lamarckian_evolution.html. Mentioning epigenetics in a science class is a legitimate thing to do because it is backed by legitimate science.
Other, more foundational issues, arise with regard to the model of nature that is employed (for example, my review of Nagel from a couple years back: https://garyherstein.com/2014/07/19/book-review-thomas-nagel-mind-and-cosmos/). However, while there are issues that get raised by scientists themselves (see the link to Chorost toward the end of the Nagel post) these are more of a philosophical character, and don’t really challenge any of the more “internal” workings of evolutionary biology.
Finally, the question, “how do you draw the line,” strikes me as the wrong question to ask, since it seems to presuppose a sharply drawn line is possible. One does not need to truck in absolutes to have effective distinctions, however. There has been nothing that could be reasonably mistaken for a genuine challenge to the science of climate change in over 35 years; with evolution that number is well over 100. First there has to BE a (*scientific*) controversy before you can teach it, and then it has to be reasonable to teach that controversy to people who are not yet sufficiently deep into the relevant discipline(s) to understand it. (Mentioning where some of the actively researched difficulties are still to be found is different from “teach the controversy,” as the latter is just Fox News style “he said/she said” talking head obfuscation.)
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Scientific theory is based on solid data, but remains forever falsifiable. Any new confirmable data that doesn’t agree with said theory as stated is accepted, and the theory is modified to accommodate whatever changes the new data impose.
Unfortunately, the word ‘theory’ is commonly assumed by the uninformed to mean something far less than it does, and is most often said — by those who fear that science, when accepted, may overturn a particular ‘popular’ belief-based bias — to be little more than a ‘wild guess’ in re whatever its topic. That premise is totally inaccurate, and false.
Example: There is the FACT of evolution — proven by confirmable scientific data — and there is the THEORY of evolution, the assemblage of confirmable data facts that accommodate evolution’s complexity, makes clear the ‘holes’ that remain unfilled, and is ready to be modified to accommodate any NEW and confirmable data which may serve to fill one or more of the “holes” in the theory.
That’s the way science works. It is the search for PROOF. Confirmable. Nothing more, nothing less.
As opposed to, say, religion, the sole basis for which is ‘faith.’
Gary Herstein said:
Per religion, I’d be more inclined to say that the basis is religious experience (here I’m obviously hearkening back to William James: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/621). Faith comes into play with the situating of the ontology and the interpretation that is given to that experience.
My problem with ontology in the religious context is that its interpretation of the nature/origin of all that exists is not — cannot be — fact based. Likewise with faith alone. Reduced to the simple level that “God” did it, that “God” is responsible, eliminates even the prospect that fact, that confirming data, might one day appear. It can’t, because the mystical concept of “God” disallows any level of ‘proof’ via pursuable/obtainable data, and unless “God” exists somewhere beyond the imagination, beyond the myth, supporting data that is confirmable of existence won’t — can’t — be found.
Seems mistaken to raise Genesis against Darwin to a “controversy”. We might not be certain how, exactly how, evolution has worked, but that it has worked seems clear enough. For a discussion of the “how” by a smart guy, there is Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love”, an essay in which he also describes “The Gospel of Greed”…which we see all around in pledges of allegiance to Ayn Rand. Isn’t Rand running for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party?
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Gary Herstein said:
“Seems mistaken to raise Genesis against Darwin to a “controversy”.” Hence the scare quotes. The people who are doing this are not making an error, they are deliberately obfuscating matters in the name of political and religious dogmas. These “ideas” are actually being pushed in various state legislatures (Oklahoma is the one I read about most recently.)
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