Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Tuesday, August 02, 2005
The watchmaker may be blind, but students should be taught to keep their eyes open.

While on one level my gut reaction is to agree with Glenn and Rick, on the other hand I actually don't think it is a worthless exercise to expose kids to a debate like this as an exercise in critical thinking. Which is what science is supposed to be: a careful weighing of the evidence and reasoning that support two different ways of understanding a phenomenon. Unfortunately, the way science is taught and discussed these days is too often too close to a sort of religious faith. Instead of "revealed truth" we have "proven theories," and instead of accepted dogma we have the current "scientific consensus." This is dangerous to science and to critical thinking in general, because it encourages the idea that unless you are a "scientist" you have no basis on which to form an opinion about certain topics and no ability to evaluate the relative merits of two "scientific" assertions. And yet we ask jurors to evaluate the competing views of opposing scientific experts, and voters to evaluate policy arguments based on competing scientific assertions of cause and effect. And well we should, unless we would place all decisions in the hands of a class of self-selected mandarins. We are all called upon to be scientists to some degree or other, and you do not train scientists by teaching them to toss out dissenting theories with a sneer rather than an argument. Intellectual authority is the death of science whether the authority is Aristotle, the Church, or the op-eds in Scientific American. Even if (as I believe it is) Intelligent Design is an inferior theory to Evolution, allowing proponents of both theories to present their arguments and critique those of the other side would be a valuable lesson, particularly because I guarantee it will make those kids understand the theory of evolution a lot better than they do now. You don't really understand a theory until you've seriously considered a counter-argument and worked through the reasons for choosing one over the other.

Note that I said ID is "inferior," not that it is "wrong." This is an important distinction, and it points to another issue that is buried in the way kids are taught to think about science. A scientific theory is a tool that serves some end, and it can be evaluated only by reference to how well it fulfills that end. The criteria for making these evaluations are not self evident, nor are they easily separable from the kinds of considerations one might well call religious. Go read the debate between Newton and Leibniz, or remember Einstein's rejection of quantum theory on the ground that "God does not play at dice." No doubt one of the reasons the ID crowd prefer their theory is that they think it more consonant with the dignity of man and his view of his place in the universe. Is that an invalid criterion? If so, is it moreso than the requirement that a theory be "elegant"? Why? I don't say there aren't good answers to these questions; I merely say that kids should be taught that they really are questions that need answers. Nor am I claiming that no theory is ever really "wrong." Sure it is, if it contradicts observed phenomena. Easy enough to say in the abstract. But in practice how do you decide how much skepticism to aim at reports of new observations that call into question theories you hold dear? That too depends in part on what ends your theory serves, and there is a margin within which all of us are willing to tolerate some sacrificed accuracy in exchange for a comprehensive worldview that we feel at home in. Easy enough to sneer at the knuckleheads who cling to ID; how many of the people doing the sneering cling to a worldview informed by Marxism?

Now, would the teaching of ID endorsed by Bush come anywhere near to what I envision as potentially salutary? I don't know, and I fear not. Worst case scenario would be that both views are simply presented as "equally valid" and left to the children to choose between as a matter of preference or faith without any serious criticism of either one. In other words, the very sort of mindless multiculturalism the right is supposed to oppose. There's also a slippery slope problem. Does every crackpot theory get equal time to be heard and refuted in school? I actually think that there is a good argument for distinguishing ID from the other competitors that Rick lists, few of which are seriously cared about by many people or deal with basic scientific issues. It's worth having somewhere in the curriculum where basic questions about the nature and validity of science are problematized rather than assumed and spoon-fed, and this is a good place to do it precisely because it implicates deep religious concerns and yet the ID people at least purport to be arguing on a playing field of reason. So let them have their say.

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