Teach the Controversy

young earth creationism

Teach the Controversy‘ is the name of a campaign by the Discovery Institute (a conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle) to promote a variant of traditional creationism, intelligent design, while attempting to discredit evolution in US public high school science courses.

The central claim is that fairness and equal time requires educating students with a ‘critical analysis of evolution’ where ‘the full range of scientific views,’ evolution’s ‘unresolved issues,’ and the ‘scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory’ will be presented and evaluated alongside intelligent design concepts like irreducible complexity. The overall goal of the movement is to ‘defeat [the] materialist world view’ represented by the theory of evolution and replace it with ‘a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.’

The scientific community and science education organizations have replied that there is no scientific controversy regarding the validity of evolution and that the controversy exists solely in terms of religion and politics. A federal court, along with the majority of scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, say the Institute has manufactured the controversy they want to teach by promoting a false perception that evolution is ‘a theory in crisis’ due to it being the subject of purported wide controversy and debate within the scientific community. A 2005 ruling in ‘Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District,’ concluded that intelligent design is not science and ‘cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.’ The Dover ruling also characterized ‘teaching the controversy’ as part of a religious ploy.

The term ‘teach the controversy’ originated with Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois, as an admonition to teach that established knowledge is not simply given as a settled matter, but that it is created in a crucible of debate and controversy. To the chagrin of Graff, who describes himself as a liberal secularist, the idea was later appropriated by Phillip E. Johnson, Discovery Institute program advisor and father of the Intelligent Design movement. In his book Johnson proposed casting the conflicting points of view and agendas as a scholarly controversy. While Graff advocated that a comprehensive understanding of what are considered to be ‘established’ concepts must include teaching the debates and conflicts by which they were established, Johnson appropriated the phrase to cast doubt upon the very concept of established knowledge.

The roots of the intelligent design movement’s strategy are found in the past attempts of creationists to force religious views into public school science classes. The most recent of these had been creation science, which sought to provide a scientific veneer for the biblical account of ‘Genesis.’ The characteristics of the intelligent design movement are a direct response to the tactical and legal failings of earlier creationist movements. Intelligent Design proponent’s strategies represent a natural evolution of the ‘creation science’ movement, proceeding still further in the direction of claiming the mantle of science while denying their religious intentions in argument. Comparisons of the drafts of the intelligent design textbook ‘Of Pandas and People’ before and after the 1987 ‘Edwards v. Aguillard’ ruling showed that the definition given in the book for creation science in pre Edwards drafts is identical to the definition of intelligent design in post Edwards drafts; cognates of the word ‘creation’ – ‘creationism’ and ‘creationist,’ which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ‘intelligent design’; and the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes.

The campaign was devised by Stephen C. Meyer and Discovery Institute founder and President Bruce Chapman as a compromise strategy in 2002. They had come to the realization that the dispute over intelligent design’s (lack of) scientific standing was complicating their efforts to have evolution challenged in the science classroom. This strategy was designed to move the focus onto an approach that stresses open debate and evolution’s purported weakness, but does not require students to study intelligent design. The intention was to create doubt over evolution and avoid the question of whether the intelligent designer was God, while giving the institute time to strengthen their purported theory. Another advantage of this strategy was to allay teacher fears of legal action for teaching Intelligent Design.

The Discovery Institute’s strategy has been for the institute itself or groups acting on its behalf to lobby state and local boards of education, and local, state, and federal policymakers to enact policies and/or laws, often in the form of textbook disclaimers and the language of state science standards, that undermine or remove evolutionary theory from the public school science classroom by portraying it as ‘controversial’ and ‘in crisis’; a portrayal that stands in contrast to the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that there is no controversy, that evolution is one of the best-supported theories in all of science, and that whatever controversy does exist is political and religious, not scientific. The Teach the Controversy strategy has benefitted from ‘stacking’ municipal, county, and state school boards with intelligent design proponents (as alluded to in the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy).

By 2006, the Discovery Institute sought to replace the increasingly unpopular ‘teach the controversy’ strategy with one broadened to include examples of other supposedly legitimate scientific controversies. They proposed lesson plans that included global warming, cloning, and stem cell research as further examples of controversies that are akin to the alleged scientific controversy over evolution. All four topics are widely accepted by the majority of the scientific community as legitimate science, and all four are areas where US political conservatives have been known to be critical of the scientific consensus. Members of the scientific community have responded to this tactic by pointing out that like evolution whatever controversy may exist over cloning and stem cell research has been largely social and political, while dissident viewpoints over global warming are often viewed as pseudoscience.

Richard B. Hoppe, who has a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Minnesota, described the tactic in the following way: ‘Like the attacks on evolution, the attack on climate science is driven by the sectarian conviction that ‘materialistic’ science is untrustworthy and must be replaced. As with intelligent design creationism, science-deniers’ so-called evidence takes the form of claims for the insufficiency of current scientific explanations rather than concrete, testable alternative hypotheses. As in the evolution debate, religious extremists use the clever strategy of denigrating the scientific consensus on causality (global warming is human-caused via pollution) by pretending it contrasts sharply with an alternative scientific theory that, properly-understood, is really just a more nuanced view that’s not really in opposition (current global warming is part of the earth’s natural cycle but is being exacerbated by pollution). This exaggerates the intensity of normal scientific debate in order to suggest there’s something wrong with climate science, and then uses this manufactured controversy to cloak the anti-science view and smuggle it into classrooms — sectarian religious evangelism masquerading as science.’

With the Dover ruling describing ‘teach the controversy’ as ‘at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard,’ intelligent design proponents have moved to a fallback position, emphasizing contrived flaws in evolution and over-emphasizing remaining questions in the theory what they call the Critical Analysis of Evolution. This new tactic encourages teaching all the intelligent design arguments without using the intelligent design label. Critical Analysis of Evolution continues the themes of the teach the controversy strategy, emphasizing what they say are the ‘criticisms’ of evolutionary theory and ‘arguments against evolution,’ which continues to be portrayed as ‘a theory in crisis.’ Early drafts of the critical analysis of evolution lesson plan referred to the lesson as the ‘great evolution debate’; one of the early drafts of the lesson plan had one section titled ‘Conducting the Macroevolution Debate.’ In a subsequent draft, it was changed to ‘Conducting the Critical Analysis Activity.’ The wording for the two sections is nearly identical, with just ‘debate’ changed to ‘critical analysis activity’ wherever it appeared, in the manner of how intelligent design proponents simply replaced ‘creation’ with ‘intelligent design’ in ‘Of Pandas and People’ to repackage a creation science textbook as an intelligent design textbook.

Prominent evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have proposed various ‘controversies’ that are worth teaching, instead of intelligent design. Dawkins compares teaching intelligent design in schools to teaching flat earthism: perfectly fine in a history class but not in science. ‘If you give the idea that there are two schools of thought within science, one that says the earth is round and one that says the earth is flat, you are misleading children.’ Tufts University Professor of Philosophy Daniel C. Dennett, author of ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,’ describes how they generate a sense of controversy: ‘The proponents of intelligent design use an ingenious ploy that works something like this: First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist’s work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a ‘controversy’ to teach.”

George Mason University’s Biology Department introduced a 1-credit course on the creation/evolution controversy, and Emmett Holman, an associate professor of philosophy from the university, found that as students learn more about biology, they find objections to evolution less convincing. He concluded that ‘teaching the controversy’ would undermine creationists’ criticisms, and that the scientific community’s resistance to this approach was bad public relations. Rather than being taught in a mainstream science course, it would be a separate elective course, probably taught by a scientist but called a course on ‘philosophy of science,’ ‘history of science,’ or ‘politics of science and religion.’ Biologist Tom A. Langen argues in a journal letter entitled ‘What is right with ‘teaching the controversy’?’ that offering a specific course about this controversy will help students understand the demarcation between science and other ways of obtaining knowledge about nature.

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