Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Oh, C'mon....

The Washington Post owns Kaplan, so one might expect the reporter they assign to school issues to, well, be reasonably good. Today, that reporter presents an editorial which suggests otherwise:
My biology class, sadly, was another story. I slogged joylessly through all the phyla and the principles of Darwinism, memorizing as best as I could. It never occurred to me that this class could have been as interesting as history until I recently started to read about "intelligent design," the latest assault on the teaching of evolution in our schools. Many education experts and important scientists say we have to keep this religious-based nonsense out of the classroom. But is that really such a good idea?

I am as devout a Darwinist as anybody. I read all the essays on evolution by the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of my favorite writers. The God I worship would, I think, be smart enough to create the universe without, as Genesis alleges, violating His own observable laws of conservation of matter and energy in a six-day construction binge. But after interviewing supporters and opponents of intelligent design, which argues among other things that today's organisms are too complex to have evolved from primordial chemicals by chance or necessity, I think critiques of modern biology, like Ladendorff's contrarian lessons, could be one of the best things to happen to high school science.
The initial thesis seems to be that because biology classes are uninteresting - or, more correctly, because the author found the biology class he once took in high school to be uninteresting - the answer is to introduce material which may have no basis whatsoever in science or logic, but which might be more interesting than actual science. The next argument appears to be that if introducing competing scientific theories into the classroom can have educational value and make study more interesting, the same should apply for non-scientific theories. Well, um, yeah. And watching cartoons during English class may really perk up class attention - it's not education, but darn it, it's far more entertaining.
And why stop with biology? Physics teachers could ask students to explain why a perpetual-motion machine won't work. Earth science teachers could show why the steady-state theory of the universe lost out to the Big Bang -- just as Al Ladendorff exposed the genius of the U.S. Constitution by showing why the Articles of Confederation went bust.
I'm not sure what this argument has to do with the author's advocacy of teaching "intelligent design". First, many physics teachers do discuss perpetual motion devices, and I first encountered a teacher who capably discussed the competing theories of the formation of the Universe in a 7th grade science class. But again, how does the discussion of the scientific during science class justify inclusion of the non-scientific.
The intelligent-design folks say theirs is not a religious doctrine. They may be lying, and are just softening up the teaching of evolution for an eventual pro-Genesis assault. But they passed one of my tests. They answered Gould's favorite question: If you are real scientists, then what evidence would disprove your hypothesis? West indicated that any discovery of precursors of the animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago would cast doubt on the thesis that those plans, in defiance of Darwin, evolved without a universal common ancestor.
Hm. So if I throw up any criterion, no matter how absurd, that I claim will cause me to doubt my theory, the theory magically passes "Gould's favorite question" and becomes scientific?

"I propound that the moon is made of green cheese, but I will doubt that theory if I observe Jay Mathews consume several pounds of moon rock without declaring it to be 'yummy'."

Or perhaps, "I propound that Jay Mathews hasn't given sufficient thought to these issues, but the discovery of any precursors of Jay Mathews thoughtfulness predating the Cabrian period would cast doubt on my thesis."

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