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.