A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB

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Skeptical Humanities Panel at Dragon*Con

January 15, 2012

We’ve been out of commission for a few weeks. I am working on another edition of the conspiracy theory round up this evening, but to tide you over, I’d like to direct you to a video that just went up, our Skepticism and Humanities panel at Dragon*Con, featuring Eve, Massimo Pigliucci, Jenna Marie Griffith, Joe Nickell and me.

Much thanks goes to Derek Colanduno, who runs the SkepTrack, and Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media, who records every second of SkeptTrack in high-def on a minimum of five cameras.

RJB


A few moments for me, Richard Corey….

August 20, 2011

Today, I have a monumental task before me–getting past writer’s block. This has not typically been a problem for me since I started blogging. I have a feeling that writing is a skill that becomes easier when you make a habit of it.

In this particular case, I am writing about literature and technology and war and humanity. It will be a chapter in a book edited by a colleague, but it has been like extracting teeth from an elephant. Through its ear. The intended audience is high school and undergrad, so I have tried to be direct, avoid “theory-speak” (which I secretly disapprove of anyway), and look at a couple of books that are still read at those levels, including Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. My original intent was to write about them as tales of the Cold War, in which conventional aerial bombing was being used as a metaphor for atomic bombing. And both of those novels are about the Cold War, though they are either largely or entirely set during the Second World War. But that original line of questioning, while there, seems to have petered out a bit. I lost enthusiasm for that particular line of reasoning, and enthusiasm is key to keeping up momentum.

I have changed tact a little, writing about the concept of a “war machine” and its effect on free will, and I am bringing in another novel that more thoroughly examines this concept, though it is not as widely read by high schoolers.

Grumble. It’s over 2/3 of the way there. I’m on the last section, but squeezing it out has felt like having a confession of witchcraft pressed out of me.

But it’s better now. I really need to finish a draft today, so that I can get my syllabus into shape for Monday, when my class on conspiracy theories begins. I am quite excited about that and a little anxious. I’ve yet to hit upon that perfect final project that will synthesize everything that the kids will have learned. It will come to me, I’m sure, but it has not quite become obvious to me.

Any ideas for a final writing project on project on conspiracy theories? Digital or otherwise? Let’s crowd source this sucker!

RJB


WAR! Huh! Good god, y’all! What is it good for?

May 31, 2011

Growing your teaching portfolio, for one.

This semester, students in my 3 classes put together a website about World War II as experienced in Atlanta. They looked at Atlanta before, during and after the war, and we found that the war really shaped much of what Atlanta has become.

Behind the splash page, you’ll find that all of the groups have been named using the military alphabet of the day, because of my super cleverness. I need to work on that page, but other than that, it’s complete. I am immensely proud of so many students who worked very hard over the semester to produce a fantastic site.

http://wwii.lcc.gatech.edu

RJB


The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.

RJB


Steve Novella on Dr. Oz

April 26, 2011

Today we (Eve and Bob) watched Dr. Oz to see Steve Novella’s appearance. This is pretty much a journey into the Heart of Darkness for a science-based physician. All week, the episode was marketed under the title, “Why is your doctor scared of alternative medicine?”

Ung. So we were worried that Oz would edit the hell out of the interview, but as far as we could tell, the editing seemed to be fair. Sure, Novella was outnumbered 3-to-one, but he’s like Neo in a Matrix of goof:

Steve Novella (middle, flying) takes on the forces of fail.

We’ve never watched Dr. Oz all the way through before. We’ve seen clips where he is being especially irresponsible, but not an entire episode.

Apparently, Oz has been reading the blogs (or ego surfing), and he seemed surprised that bloggers were attacking his rotten use of non-science in the treatment of actual sick people. Indeed, they flashed Orac’s Respectful Insolence during the opening.

Oz begins by saying that he is taking on a controversial issue that “has everything to do with you taking control of your health. There are many doctors–including me–who are putting their reputations on the line because they are using alternative therapies in their traditional practices.” This is true. Your reputation is at stake, Oz. Unfortunately, the only thing that he says that is uncontroversial is that lots of doctors think that alt med is “junk science and potentially dangerous.” And these are two questions that he does not address in any meaningful way in the rest of the segment.

The segment was 15 minutes long, and he opened with the statement that over 40% of ‘you’ (Oprah fans, presumably) are using alt med, like chiropractic, acupuncture and herbs, to treat everything from stress and insomnia to chronic pain to “cancer symptoms.” This seems like a bandwagon appeal to us: although he does not say it’s efficacious because so many people use it, but that’s clearly the implication.

He goes on to say that he has “showcased” a number of these treatments, which cost his viewers some $35 billion dollars a year (out of YOUR pocket–the appeal to YOU is very strong here). It strikes us that someone like Novella could easily cite that number to emphasize the magnitude of the problem. So, the stat sounded out of place. He brags about giving opportunistic quacks like Deepak Chopra (depressingly the most respectable of the bunch), Andrew Weil, and Joe Mercola free advertising time and unearned respectability.

He says that some the most stubborn holdouts against alt med are doctors (hm…) who ask whether these treatments are effective and safe. He addresses the doctors’ concerns in a rather accusatory manner. Presumptuous doctors, being concerned about the safety and efficacy of treatments!

“YOU’VE shown you are not afraid of testing the time honored traditions of alternative medicine,” he says as a woman lying on a teetertotter gets flipped upside down, presumably for health reasons. Doctors, however, are afraid.

Have you noticed how, so far, Dr. Oz has been describing the patient doctor relationship as adversarial? This is not fair, generally true or productive. Of course, it does establish him, by process of elimination, as an authority who is “on your side,” even if the premise is completely bogus. At the same time, it shifts the burden of expertise from the doctor to the patient. This is dangerous.

Oz starts the interview with Novella by asking “Why are there so many doctors out there, doctors of our viewers,” he emphasizes, “who don’t like alternative therapies? Why don’t you want me to talk about these?” Since Steven Novella has made an avocation out of addressing just these issues, this is essentially a straw man. Now if Oz had said “promoting this ” it would have been a fair question, but Oz makes it seem as if Novella and others like him want to stifle the quacks’ freedom of speech. Steve adresses what he has against alternative medicine, saying that alternative medicine is an “artificial category” used to sell treatments that are not subject to the same standards of evidence as medicine.

Novella is arguing to ensure standards of efficacy and safety of treatment, a concern to which Oz referred slightingly in his introduction. Oz ensures that these standards will not apply to certain treatments merely by placing them in the “alternative” category.

Oz then turns to his other guest, Dr. Mimi Guarneri (3:40), a cardiologist who uses alt med in her practice, who equates prayer and meditation with exercise and nutrition for heart patients, and smugly says that it is wrong to suggest that nutrition and exercise are alternative medicines. Of course Novella is too classy to yell “STRAWMAN!” or “Can I see your medical license?” but there are so many holes in this argument that I’m afraid no number of little Dutch Boys could ever plug them. She makes it sound as if Novella is against nutrition and exercise. Novella agrees that these are not alternative treatments. They are part of standard medicine and have been for some time. They are real medicine, the kind that works, the kind that has been shown to be safe and effective. But, as she just demonstrated, nutrition and exercise are being lumped in with…wishing you were better (prayer) as a form of “alt med.” This is unfair to the known practice of preventative medicine, or at least it lends unearned respectability to prayer.

Then Oz deploys what for him is a major rhetorical gambit, that alt med is “customized.” I’m not sure how medical decisions reached by a patient and doctor together, taking into consideration the needs and desires of a patient, are anything but already customized health care. All medical responses should be tailored to the needs and symptoms of the patient, and no action is taken without their consent. Right? This is what untested treatments avoid. When herbs aren’t held to quality control, for instance, can a patient be assured that they are making a wise, informed decision about what they are putting in their body? No. Cure-alls are non-specific and generic and not necessarily relevant to the individual patient’s needs.

Of course, Oz does not actually ever respond to the points that Novella makes. He merely changes the topic.

Oz then makes up 3 categories of alt med, things you put in your mouth, things that are done to your body, and the mind-body connection.

Novella is like, “yeah, whatever. Sure” (paraphrase). He is probably busy wondering why Oz is not commenting on his substantive points.

Regarding the first type (supplements and vitamins, etc.): Oz says there is a study showing that 50% percent of people use some sort of dietary supplement, as if that fact were in itself evidence of … anything: “Here is what “YOUR” doctor [as portrayed on film by Dr. Clifford Bassett, allergist and asthma specialist] has to say. What Bassett says is that, while herbs can be powerful and effective, he has some MAJOR reservations, especially about dosage, quality control, toxicity and drug interactions, when the products are outside of the purview and requirements of the FDA. He also mentions the problem of the appeal to nature. Yay!

At this point you can predict that Oz is going to ignore these real problems…again…Novella will say something reasonable, and Oz will reply, “I hear what you are saying, but what your are really saying is…” and then not let Novella answer. Let’s see how good we are, eh?

Novella reinforces Bassett’s point, saying that in 1994 Congress let down consumers by suspending evidentiary requirements concerning efficacy and safety for producers of supplements. Oz, “totally disagrees” about whether or not these products have been studied (of course, Novella has just said that echinacea has been studied and found not to work. Hell, Oz used the “they don’t work” part of that statement in his promos for the show!). Oz, also disagrees with the idea that no evidence has been found to support these treatments.

But he goes on to concede a point that Novella didn’t ask him to concede, a point, indeed, that he didn’t even make. In any way. He says that Novella’s (and others’) underlying concern is that patients are not telling their doctors what alt med they are trying. He is reinforcing the adversarial relationship (Hmmm, I wonder who is going to get the blame here). Novella could be (and likely is) concerned that this discussion is not happening, but Oz happily dismisses the real problems of efficacy and safety backed by evidence, the overlying–one could almost call it the “overarching”–concern. And he does not let Novella answer. Instead, he asks a pharmacist who works on PubMed…I’m sorry, I meant the “Natural Standard,” which reassuringly declares itself as “The Authority of Integrative Medicine” and has that twit Weil on the editorial staff. We are rather annoyed that in this context, Oz referred to her as “Doctor.” Hell, both of us (Eve and Bob still) could legitimately be referred to as “doctor,” but we think that it is important in a medical context that “doctor” refers an MD. Maybe this is niggling, but we think it is slightly deceptive.

They show Novella nodding, perhaps expecting to be asked to reply to what the pharmacist claims is a large amount of high-quality data. But we don’t hear a peep. They move on without allowing him to answer, again. Damn it.

Speaking of manipulation, Oz moves on to “body manipulations.” Specifically acupuncture. Now, YOUR doctor is played by Audrey Halpern, MD, a neurologist. She says that body manipulation can be effective, but that such treatments are often time consuming and expensive and have not been studied well enough. (Have you noticed how YOUR doctor is being generous to these therapies while still pointing out their weaknesses? Have you noticed that YOUR doctor’s concerns are being ignored?)

Dr. Guarneri, professor of Non Sequitor Therapy, then discusses how she began to use acupuncture after putting a stent in one of her patients. She does not say that she is using acupuncture to put in stents, but when her heart patients start to exercise again, they often ache. She hesitates to give them drugs, and so she uses a mixture of acupuncture, physical therapy and stretching, which reduces her anecdote to complete and utter irrelevance. How do you isolate the effects, if any, of acupuncture from those of the proven therapies of PT and stretching? It’s like claiming a miraculous healing on someone who has had the best possible medical care because someone prayed for the patient while they were in the hospital. (Pay attention Catholic Church!)

That fallacy was so painful, I need to put some acupuncture on that.

She’s very pleased with herself that she is doing no harm. Then Novella says, reasonably, that if it doesn’t work and there is risk involved, no matter how slight, yes, you are potentially doing harm.

Then, regarding acupuncture, Oz sticks it to Novella: “THERE ARE BILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD WHO USE ACUPUNCTURE AS THE BASIS OF THEIR HEALTH CARE, AND IT’S THE BASIS OF ANCIENT CHINESE MEDICINE.” Yeah, says Novella, for centuries people used leeches as the basis of their healthcare.

Oz builds his argument on embarrassingly shaky ground, a double appeal to tradition and popularity. He also suggests that science may not know how it works. (Begging the question and just ignoring the fact that science has failed to find compelling evidence of these treatments’ efficacy.) Mega sad. He also seems not to notice that the people who are stuck with acupuncture as their sole treatment (pun only slightly intended) would love to have a dose of chemotherapy.

It’s seems to us that both Dr. Guarneri and Dr. Oz are advocating complementary medicine as opposed to “alternative” medicine, essentially charging patients for useless therapies in addition to the stuff that is actually helping. That’s really cheeky and dishonest.

Regarding mind-body connections, YOUR doctor is played by Mark Melrose, DO, emergency medicine. (I wonder how often he tells his his mangled glider accident victims that they will be better if they just meditate.) Mark says that maybe, maybe it is effective, but there is stuff we know works, why not use that?

So, Oz asks if Novella disagrees with mind-body treatment because it is “soft and fuzzy, or do you think that it is just unproven and worthless?” It’s the false dichotomy fallacy, and Novella calls him out on it. “Neither,” he says. Relaxing and meditation are fine, he says. Just don’t tart it up in mystical language or claim that it can cure cancer.

At this point, Oz…freaking loses it. He complains that Novella is dismissing the patient’s knowledge of his or her own body by calling it mysticism, thereby standing two arguments away from what Novella is saying. And, you know, dismissing it. The subsequent rant is not loud, but it sure as hell is not rational or organized. We reproduce it here, verbatim:

“But here is where the big disconnect that we have is on this point. Because I think I that when people begin to study their bodies, and you call it mysticism, which again I think is a bit dismissive of the process, it’s people inuitively understanding what’s happening in their body beginning to examine it, and you know what? maybe we can harvest our immune cells so that they can kill cancers, neither you nor I know that, that’s darn hard to study, so my advice to everybody is, customize therapy for yourself. Figure out what makes sense for you. Do drugs and surgery work? Yeah, they often work pretty well, and they have side effects as you [Novella] acknowledge and we all talk about them all the time. But the difference for me is a bow and arrow, a stealth [he probably means “targeted”—do you want your health care to sneak up on and pounce you?] approach to getting exactly what you want to get that works in you versus the ballistic missile approach that we have so often become comfortable with [this is specifically a chemotherapy argument, which he does not explain]. Now, there have been lots of other findings from the National Institutes of Health that have been very positive, I think, in regard to alternative medicine. And the majority of schools in this nation now are offering programs that teach students so that we are more understanding ’cause you know what I think the big problem is? You know why people aren’t talking to their doctors? Because they don’t think that their doctors know anything about it. [To audience] Is that close to on target, folks? [mumbling yeah]. So if I can give you my take, alternative medicine, I think, is at the grassroots level, and because of that nobody owns it. Now, that stated, I think that we have our homework to do, but alternative medicine empowers us. And that’s the big message for all of ya, but only if you know more about it, all right and if it does work for you, trust me,don’t let anyone take it away from you. Dr. Novella, thank you very much….”

TIGER BLOOD!

Steve does not get to reply, of course. And, really, how could you? It’s Oprah-flavored incoherent. There is empowerment, and people trying to take away your bows and arrows and shoot you with missiles. It’s a long, rambling, populist non-thought. He throws in immune cells for some reason. It sounds like he is saying, “Perhaps the mind does have some effect on cancer [Novella had just mentioned that meditation can relax you, but it cannot cure cancer], and you can’t know that it doesn’t. Neener neener.” This is a classic appeal to ignorance. He goes so far as to mention how hard it is to study things. Uh, yeah, we know. So let’s redirect some of that $35 billion dollars being flushed down the alt med toilet to do some actual research on cancers.

Good job, Steve! You have the stomach of a concrete elephant.

RJB/ES


Creation “Science” in the Writing Classroom

February 1, 2011

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.

RJB