Several years ago, one of my writing assignments was for students to find an op-ed they disagreed with and write a rebuttal. One student picked as her article a letter from the editor of Nature or Science entitled, “The Logical Fallacies Creationists Make.” It was a list of about 20 arguments commonly heard from creation advocates (or “intelligent design” advocates) followed by a critique of each one. In my student’s paper, she first named each fallacy and then made it. For instance, in response to the old equivocation that “evolution is only a theory” (a scientific theory is not a “guess” in the sense that we colloquially use the term “theory”), she offered as a rebuttal, “But evolution is only a theory.” I decided, as I read her paper in horror, that I would add evolution and creationism to my list of forbidden paper topics–like “abortion,” “gun control,” and “campus drinking policies.”
Last semester, however, given that I was teaching a writing class called “Writing About Science and Pseudoscience,” it seemed irresponsible for me to avoid what is perhaps the most controversial and socially relevant pseudoscience in the U.S., intelligent design.
I also made it clear that I in no way intended to offend or comment on anyone’s religious beliefs (teaching at a public university, I was acutely aware of my responsibilities to protect the religious rights of my students). At the same time, a guiding tenet of my class was that if you make claims about the observable world and represent what you do as science, your assertions are open to scrutiny and evaluation, as all science is open to challenge. Indeed, nothing purporting to be a science can justifiably claim to be protected religious speech. So, I made it clear to students that I did not intend to critique “creationism,” but that I was looking specifically at “creation science” a.k.a. “intelligent design.”
I had selected two movies for students to watch about Intelligent Design. The first was Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The second was Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, an episode of NOVA that told the story behind the First Amendment case in Dover, PA. I had students watch Expelled first and then watch the NOVA episode. (Many students opted to watch these online or in their dorms instead of at the optional evening movie viewing sessions). Soon students started sending me emails indignantly protesting the treatment of advocates of intelligent design at the hands of “Big Science” (a term that Stein uses). One student wrote to me to ask about why people were being kicked out of labs, especially when they had good evidence and can prove it.
As you can see, one of the risks that you run when you teach using extraordinary claims is that some students may find the claims of propagandists like Stein convincing. But this is precisely why well-produced but ill-evidenced works should be addressed in an environment where all evidence is interrogated and all claims are challenged.
During the next class period, I discussed Expelled. I don’t like to simply lecture in a writing class–I find that the give and take of discussion is usually more productive–but Expelled leaves out a lot of information relative to a full understanding of the issues, including the state of evolutionary theory (very, very robust), and the status of intelligent design as a pseudoscience. In a nutshell, Stein’s argument is that Big Science is suppressing Intelligent Design, a viable scientific theory being practiced by reputable scientists, by denying ID proponents tenure, research and publication opportunities, in favor of what it knows is a failing theory (evolution) for ideological, probably atheistic, reasons. Stein argues that this is dangerous because it could ultimately lead to social abuses of the type perpetrated by the Nazis. My students agreed that this was a fair statement of the essential argument of the movie. We find in this thesis a number of testable claims, and in my lecture I took each one in turn.
It’s hardly a fair fight to put the cumulative weight of the evidence from so many scientific disciplines that suggest all life descended from a common ancestor against the bald assertion that “this animal or structure could only have been put together by an intelligence.” I sketched out the robust evidence that we have that suggests the deep, interconnected history of life on the planet, not a jot of which was mentioned in the movie. Indeed, the best argument that Stein was able to muster in the movie was a story by some supposedly maligned victim of the Big Science cabal that, after a few beers, evolutionists admit that the theory is in trouble. As we had already discussed the value of anecdote, my students asked a number of relevant questions, for instance, “Who said that and did you talk to them?” (Answers: They don’t say and probably not.)
A useful resource for teaching material like Stein’s is, as always, the National Center for Science Education. Their site Expelled Exposed is an invaluable compilation of background information, putting Expelled‘s claims in context, and satisfied most of my students, I suspect, that the claims of persecution were likely exaggerated. Another useful source about the wealth of evidence for evolution is Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.
Later in the section on evolution, I included perhaps the most eloquent argument on behalf of design, William Paley’s Natural Theology, in which he develops the famous watchmaker analogy. I included it because students deserve to be exposed to the best arguments, not merely lame and deceitful ones like Stein’s. (In class, I suspended judgment about whether or not Stein was deliberately deceitful in the movie. When students asked, I said I didn’t know. At any rate, Stein’s intent was not the point.)
The last reading I included was a chapter of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. While flipping through Dawkins looking for something suitable for the class, I found myself rejecting potential readings because of his tone, which can be, how you say, condescending and occasionally bracingly so? I did not want to offend my students, but it occurred to me that censuring Dawkins’ readings on the off-chance they would offend a student would give my students an inaccurate and decidedly biased view of the debate over the teaching of evolution, so I picked a chapter at the end of The Blind Watchmaker and ran with it.
Now, I realized that it was entirely possible that despite my best efforts to limit the scope of my lectures to creation science, a student might take offense at what I said and complain to my superiors. For this reason, I made sure to record every class and alerted my students to the fact that I was recording my talk.
Because I was especially interested in what the students thought of the talk about Stein’s movie, the first of six classes over two weeks, I used the peer-review and final project writing groups to allow students to submit their feedback anonymously. I asked them to email a paragraph to each group manager (my principle contact during the semester as they did their group projects) who would compile the responses into a single email without identifying information. The response to the lecture was decidedly positive, and I got a sense that students fell all along the religious spectrum between young-earth creationist to atheist (I didn’t ask).
Most surprising and pleasing about these responses was my students’ take on my own religion. When they ventured to interpret the lecture in light of what they perceived my religion to be, they revealed that they had no idea what my religious position was. Everybody who ventured a guess guessed differently, and that made me very happy.
Another choice I made that had an unexpectedly pleasant pedagogical outcome came about by giving a lecture about a controversial topic without taking hardly any questions–there were severe time constraints. By the next class students were bursting with questions and dying to jump in. I can say that without a doubt the most lively conversations I have ever had in my teaching career came in the period after I discussed Stein and the evidence of evolution. I played traffic cop, more or less, and let the students duke it out.
I won’t shy away from teaching evolution/ID again. It was one of the most rewarding, productive and invigorating subjects I have ever worked into a syllabus.