THE BLOG
11/05/2015 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2016

Discovery Institute Still Undermining Science

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The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, America's tiny but loud voice for Intelligent Design, is once again trotting out their thoroughly discredited argument that good science education requires that our public schools "teach the controversy." America's public schools should present the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, as well as alternative explanations for our origins. They charge that academic freedom demands that teachers be encouraged, or perhaps even required to present both sides of any scientific controversy: "At Discovery Institute, we advocate teaching the controversy about evolution. That is for several reasons. Students should learn the full range of evidence on evolution. Teaching the controversy aids in developing critical thinking. And it trains students to think like scientists."

The call to "teach the controversy," despite its appeal to intuitions about fairness, rests on an abysmal confusion about both science and science pedagogy. It is, in fact, nothing more than a calculated political strategy to hide the real agenda of the anti-evolutionists -- namely to get evolution out of the public schools.

For starters, the "controversies" they want to teach don't even exist. In their minds the possibility that the earth is 10,000 years old is an open question, even though geologists settled that one in the 18th century. They still think that Adam and Eve were real people and Noah may have rescued all the animals in the ark -- claims settled in the 19th century. But most of their energy is spent promoting the idea that Darwin's theory of evolution is implausible nonsense or, at best, a controversial theory with widespread scientific dissent.

Evolution is a remarkable theory. Its complexity and breadth guarantee that there will be ongoing debates and controversies about the details and scientific journals are filled with these debates. But these debates are not about whether evolution should be abandoned and replaced with appeals to a supernatural creative power. That question was resolved in the 19th century.

Scientists are not uneasy about evolution, and keeping quiet about its problems. Scientists are, in fact, individualistic in temperament and, as a group, are unlikely to exhibit a "herd mentality" by uncritically accepting the status quo. They often disagree. But when scientists disagree, they work energetically to figure out why -- they don't conspire to hide the disagreement. They do research and gather more data; they publish papers highlighting the disagreements and asking tough questions. They gather more data. Conferences are held to address interesting problems.

Promising young scientists generally choose specialties where they can do original work on interesting problems. Young whippersnappers brashly challenge their elders. Fogeys with their heels dug in gradually become marginalized. More data is gathered. Slowly the discrepancies begin to disappear under a mountain of fresh data until the reasons for the differences vanish and a consensus emerges. Science is data-driven and the reason why our journals do not contain papers promoting Intelligent Design is because data drove that idea to extinction in the 19th century.

The actual scientific controversies are not the ones that the anti-evolutionists want to see in America's public schools. We do our students no favor by pretending that religiously motivated objections to well-established ideas constitute genuine scientific controversies.

To understand science is to understand this process -- to appreciate just how much effort is expended over the course of a century as thousands of scientists from different disciplines, different countries, and speaking different languages, gather data and work vigorously until they all get onto the same page -- and reach a "consensus"-- about what is going on. And evolution is now the consensus -- which infuriates the Discovery Institute.

Anti-evolutionists, of course, love to ridicule the concept of "consensus" and sometimes borrow a religious sounding label to describe it: "scientific orthodoxy." Such labeling invokes images of scientific inquisitors enforcing the collective opinion of scientists who are basically just "voting" on things. Challenging "orthodoxy" is considered to be evidence of independent thinking and even courage, even when the challenge comes from lawyers, philosophers, and the other non-scientists who produce most of the anti-evolutionary literature in the country today.

The Discovery Institute admonishes us to "confront the data on our own," after being exposed to bogus "controversies." We should "make up our own minds." This sounds good in practice until you realize it means "Evaluate complex scientific claims without the relevant scientific training."

Imagine confronting scientific data "on your own" in the area of fossils, something that anti-evolutionists have been doing for a century, If you say you can interpret fossil data "on your own," for example -- as biochemist Duane Gish, legal scholar Phillip Johnson, philosopher Stephen Meyer and presidential candidate Ben Carson have all done -- I would like to give you a brief quiz on fossils: Where might you find a fossil if I asked you to go fetch one? How much of a fossil skeleton is typically present? How do you figure out the age of a fossil? What exactly is a fossil? What parts of a skeleton are most likely to be missing or incompletely fossilized? How do you decide if bones found together are from the same organism?

If you cannot answer simple questions like these then you cannot confront fossil data "on your own." And fossils are the simplest part of the evolutionary picture. Interpreting genomic data, with its complex biochemical, statistical, and historical underpinnings is not remotely possible without the relevant expertise. And yet the anti-evolutionists constantly call us to do this.

The Discovery Institute would have us believe that the "scientific orthodoxy" or "consensus" is just an opinion poll. Scientists all believe the earth is billions of years old; they all like pepperoni pizza; and they all think blue is a great color. We can be lemmings and go along with the crowd or we can courageously think for ourselves, and order sausage pizza, prefer green, and believe the earth is 10,000 years old.

Unfortunately, we need trained specialists to help us understand the world.

Thousands of scientific papers appear every month. Even if you focused on one small subfield -- say fossils from the Cambrian era -- it would take you years to get to the point where you could deal with the data directly and draw your own conclusions. Scientists typically do not handle data directly except in their own small area; they have the wisdom to defer to those who know more than they do.

Proposals for high school students to "make up their own minds" after having been "taught the controversy" are intended to undermine science not strengthen it.