The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Hypothetical

Here's a scenario for those who oppose the teaching of "Intelligent Design" theory in public schools (for the record, I do):
A philanthropist offers a financially strapped school district a vast sum of money. Some of it would be earmarked for physical plant expenses such as pest control and essential repairs. Much of it would be earmarked for science education costs, including chemistry textbooks, laboratory equipment, and new computers. There is one stipulation: each year, the ninth grade biology class must set aside 2 hours to discuss the problems with Evolutionary Theory alleged by leading ID proponents, and to explain the central concepts of ID theory.
As a member of the school board, would you vote to accept this offer? I think I would. Sure, I'd rather not have this taught, but the cost of saying no is just too high.

This leads me to my real point. As you might know, the recent Election Day yielded victories and defeats for ID proponents. Clearly, considerable resources were spent opposing ID efforts. Given the state of many public schools in general, and the state of science education in particular, is this fight really the best use of our resources? Sure, now students won't be lectured on pseudoscience, but does that matter when they are not learning the fundamentals of physical and life science anyway?

That so many people make the fight against the teaching of ID theory a priority in education lobbying is telling. It says to me that people are more concerned with advancing secularism than with insuring that children get the best education possible. It's not that these goals are incompatible, of course. The fact of the matter is that the pursuit of one policy goal is going to carry opportunity costs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hypotheticals aside, couldn't the opposite point be made...Namely that spending time and money teaching an already discredited theory as if it were real science further subtracts from already sub-par education in our schools and contributes to further scientific illiteracy?

Another hypothetical: if a major corporation (say Monsanto) offered your school system a wad of money on condition that you would ensure that teachers give a 2 hour segment on the benefits of allowing companies to patent crops or sell genetically altered grains without special labeling, would you take it?

School boards and City Councils face these Faustian bargains all the time. Do we allow gambling in our community and deal with the increased crime in order to get at the increased revenue? Do we give Walmart tax incentives to build here in order to have a net gain in jobs, while risking average wage drops and negative impact on small businesses.

I think the hypothetical you pose is not a good one, not just because it points to an artificial situation, but because it presupposes that the unknown detrimental effects of teaching falsehoods to children are outweighed by reducing the cost to community of schooling them.

I happen to think that it is our job to educate children to the BEST of our ability. That includes, at a minimum, not accepting that we lie to them to further some agenda.

This is especially true in science education.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Andrew Marx said...

Thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right on your first point; what I said about ID opponents can be said of its proponents. I should have said that in the post.

I also agree that there are some deals we wouldn't want to strike. I see it as a matter of weighing the costs and benefits of alternatives. Just because there are some costs we can't bear, it doesn't mean that we should always refuse to bear any cost. My hypothetical modest proposal carries a modest cost that I think we can bear.

Now, I would take issue with your statement that my hypothetical "presupposes that the unknown detrimental effects of teaching falsehoods to children are outweighed by reducing the cost to community of schooling them." The hypothetical isn't meant to posit the teaching of any falsehoods, strictly speaking, even from the point of view of the hardcore secular opponent of ID.

I should have been more specific about the "alleged problems" with evolutionary theory. ID proponents point to gaps in the fossil record as signs of weak evidentiary support for evolutionary theory. So the teacher would say that gaps in the fossil record are a basis for questioning evolutionary theory; as long as she doesn't say that scientists actually doubt the theory on this basis, she's not teaching any "falsehood."

Moreover, presenting the "central ideas of ID theory", such as irreducible complexity, doesn't amount to holding them out as factual. It would be like teaching the Ptolemaic model of the Solar System in an astronomy class to give a little historical flavor. In "explaining the theory", the teacher would not actually be claiming that the sun circles the Earth.

Now that I've clarified the term of the deal, I'd have to stand by my decision to take it.

4:38 PM  

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