The President and the teaching of evolution

21 minute read

In a roundtable interview yesterday, President Bush commented to reporters that "both sides [i.e. evolution and intelligent design] should be properly taught." This has inspired much comment in the blogosphere. For a roundup, try Instapundit (scroll down) or Pharyngula.

After reading what others have posted, I think there has been far too much foaming at the mouth, and far too little constructive thought. It's time to step back and consider the situation "on the ground." This post is long enough that it can't be scanned easily, so I include a synopsis:

ABSTRACT: Here, I argue that Bush's comments, while damaging to the cause of evolution education, are representative of most Americans' opinions. They reflect our public discourse, which emphasizes fairness. Being (or appearing) fair is much more important to the vast majority of Americans than knowing about the scientific method. Intelligent design creationism violates the scientific method in many ways, but most people neither understand nor care about this: this objection is perceived as "a technicality" rather than a fair division of content. For many years, science and religion have operated in "separate spheres" as a compromise, but the boundary between these has been greatly weakened. The best argument against including intelligent design in schools is that it simply doesn't work: it has led to no new insights, no discoveries, and no scientific results. Creationists continue to argue that this is because of widespread bias among the scientific community. I suggest the establishment of a monetary prize to find solid evidence of intelligent design, along the lines of the "X Prize" in aeronautics, or the "Millennium Prizes" in mathematics. If, as I expect, no evidence of intelligent design comes forward, it would be a solid step toward raising public awareness that ID has no place in the science classroom.

In two previous posts concerning the Kansas science standards hearings ("Has anybody read the Kansas proposed science standards?" and "Back to the drawing board"), I included some of my thoughts about the politics of evolution and intelligent design. From my core, I think that most scientists are taking the wrong approach to persuading people of their point of view.

Make no mistake; I study evolution every day. I see no value in any other way of understanding human origins. But consider the post at Pharyngula, which was endorsed in Newsweek this week as a valuable source for its critique of intelligent design:

Oh, yeah, and we also have to work to make sure that every goddamned Republican in our capitols is out on their ear in the next couple of election cycles. The root of our problem is that the know-nothings and lunatics are in power, and are trying to wreck anything that does not pander to their ideology -- and science opposes the Republican agenda.

This is what I said in May:

If scientists sincerely want to affect the science standards in public schools across this nation in the next several years, they are going to have to find more persuasive ways to communicate their values. The more scientists sound off like Democratic flaks, the more scientific positions will be confused with partisan ones.

I want to improve the teaching of evolution. Taking an adversarial position toward religious viewpoints or political parties is not the way to make education better. Sometimes such conflicts are unavoidable. Some religious beliefs are just scientifically wrong. The Earth was not created 6,000 years ago, and any scientific understanding of the past must repudiate this particular religious view. But many deeply religious people, and entire faiths, have no conflict with evolution. Even so, they may believe that alternative views should be available in schools.

Would it help to have a biology teacher call a child's parents "lunatics"? Certainly not. But parents, community members, churches, and other people that children know and respect are precisely the people that one is attacking, when one uses derisive rhetoric.

I understand the frustration that leads some evolutionists to extreme language. It seems that some people just never learn. But any teacher who has been at his work for as long as I have understands that the task of teaching always involves repetition. New year, new students, same lessons. The nature of teaching is patience, and any teenager knows how to drive a frustrated teacher insane within three minutes.

The thing is, teenagers are following this argument, both broadly between evolutionists and intelligent design, and narrowly in this episode. And they can see for themselves who looks more reasonable. And it isn't us.

What Bush said

Most sites commenting on today's story have just taken quotes from news stories. Few have posted the remarks in full. Here they are:

Q I wanted to ask you about the -- what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus intelligent design. What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?
THE PRESIDENT: I think -- as I said, harking back to my days as my governor -- both you and Herman are doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past. (Laughter.) Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.
Q Both sides should be properly taught?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, people -- so people can understand what the debate is about.
Q So the answer accepts the validity of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting -- you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.

There is no sense parsing this for deep meaning. Bush said what he probably believes: students should be exposed to alternative views, intelligent design is an alternative view to evolution, both sides should be taught, and the decision about what to teach should be made by local school districts, not the federal government. None of this should be a surprise to anyone -- as Bush pointed out, this has been his position since he was governor of Texas.

Many who have commented on the remarks have criticized Bush for his anti-science agenda. Or his pandering to the right wing of his party. Or his stupidity.

Like most Americans, Bush is no expert on any scientific issue, certainly not biology. A biologist making these statements would be rightly pilloried by evolutionists, because he ought to know better. And in detail, Bush's idea to "teach both sides" fails since one side has utterly no support from science. A good follow-up question to Bush is suggested by Carl Zimmer:

Mr. President, I would ask, how do you reconcile your statement that Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution with the fact that your administration, like both Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has supported research in evolution by our country's leading scientists, while failing to support a single study that is explicitly based on Intelligent Design? The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and even the Department of Energy have all decided that evolution is a cornerstone to advances in our understanding of diseases, the environment, and even biotechnology. They have found no such value in Intelligent Design. Are they wrong? Can you tell us why?

We might say, if he were to look dispassionately at the data like any good scientist, surely he would see that Intelligent Design has no support at all, certainly not a good thing to be teaching our students about science.

But as good scientists, we should consider another source of data: sociological data.

What exactly do average Americans think about evolution? Let's consider the facts. According to this CBS News poll, 65 percent of Americans favor teaching both creationism and evolution in schools, including 56 percent of Kerry voters and 71 percent of Bush voters. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form; 47 percent Kerry voters, 67 percent Bush voters. Thirty-seven percent of Americans want evolution to be replaced by creationism; this number includes 24 percent of Kerry voters.

I'm not here to defend Bush. He may have an anti-science agenda, for all I know. But his remarks aren't evidence of it. To the contrary, most Americans find them eminently reasonable.

Bush is hardly pandering to the right wing with this position. He has staked out a position that a large majority of Americans share -- from both parties. If voters decided the presidency on this single issue, it would be madness for any candidate to side with the evolutionists.

If evolutionists want to change this public, they are going to have to change their strategy.

The root of the problem

Americans fundamentally believe that hearing both sides of a debate is fair. Our public discourse takes for granted that all disagreements have two sides, and that neither should be silenced.

This is true even in cases that have multiple facets, as many complex public problems have. It is very rare for a newspaper story to include more than two points of view, and television programs never do. We live in a binary nation.

Public understanding of science is no exception. Science reporting unfailingly includes two sides to every story, even when their "opposing view" is well known to be a marginal nutcase. And what scientist has not watched "science education programs" on television and noticed the conspicuous absence of many of the best-respected scientists and the conspicuous inclusion of blowhards who represent a contrarian view? (Hey, nothing against blowhards; I'm trying my best to be one here!)

People can judge science by its record, at least as far as they know it. Science put people on the moon. It thinks that some dinosaurs had feathers. It has found the full sequence of the human genome, but hasn't yet found much to do with it. Last week, it told us that echinacea would prevent cold; this week it tells us all those echinacea supplements are worthless. It tells us that saturated fat will kill us, but our uncles ate four eggs and bacon for breakfast every day and lived to be 93. And so on. Scientists say a lot of things they can't prove, and a lot of those things turn out to be wrong.

People who think intelligent design should be heard have a healthy dose of doubt in their minds. They doubt that science can provide all the answers. They doubt that their deep faith is misguided. And they increasingly doubt that scientists are telling the whole truth.

The task of science education should be to explain scientific failures as well as successes, by explaining how science leads to changes in ideas. Right now, science education does a really bad job of this.

So people turn to common sense. Common sense expects fairness. It is usually more important to people than correctness. And rightly so: most people will never be judged by their knowledge of the scientific method, but everyone is judged by whether they are fair in their dealings with other people. Advocates of creationism -- including intelligent design -- have had their greatest successes by arguing that presenting a critique of evolutionary theory is fair in a way that science classes presently are not.

Up to now, many evolutionists have argued against intelligent design creationism by making strong claims about what science is, or ought to be. According to this argument, science just is a naturalistic account of the world, or a method demanding the most parsimonious answer, or a method devoted to testable hypotheses. It doesn't help their case that scientists seem not to be able to agree which of these conditions is fundamental. To ordinary non-scientists, this just sounds like sophistry. There is no way to tell whether scientists are giving a true account of their discipline, or whether instead they have formulated an account specifically to exclude creationist ideas. To many, it seems like science is excluding intelligent design "on a technicality", and there is no way for a non-scientist to be sure that the technical reason for that exclusion is actually true. It seems unfair.

The problem of separate spheres

There are two approaches to the evolution-creation issue that emphasize fairness in a commonsensical way. The first is the "separate spheres" argument, the notion that religion and science both apply to different aspects of understanding. The physical world is the domain of science, while morality, divinity, the existence of life after death, and other metaphysical matters are the domain of faith.

This idea has been the compromise that has kept evolution in education for most of the past fifty years. Scientists often assert this separation as a fundamental truth -- Stephen Jay Gould certainly did with his "nonoverlapping magisteria" arguments. But it is in fact a doctrine of political compromise, an argument about the nature of science that has successfully persuaded courts as well as many school boards and legislatures that intelligent design creationism cannot be fairly applied without reference to religious principles.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer expressed the idea in a column in Time, lamenting the recent abandonment of the principle by intelligent design creationists:

This conflict between faith and science had mercifully abated over the past four centuries as each grew to permit the other its own independent sphere. What we are witnessing now is a frontier violation by the forces of religion. This new attack claims that because there are gaps in evolution, they therefore must be filled by a divine intelligent designer.
How many times do we have to rerun the Scopes "monkey trial"? There are gaps in science everywhere. Are we to fill them all with divinity? There were gaps in Newton's universe. They were ultimately filled by Einstein's revisions. There are gaps in Einstein's universe, great chasms between it and quantum theory. Perhaps they are filled by God. Perhaps not. But it is certainly not science to merely declare it so.

This is true enough, but it overlooks a history or border disputes that people of deep faith must surely recognize but scientists often ignore. Certainly some religious ideas have been content within their separate sphere -- young Earth creationism is alive and well, after all.

But science has been transgressing its own sphere for over thirty years. Scientists have clearly crossed a boundary into the investigation of the moral and spiritual. Scientists actively seek rational explanations for miracles, naturalistic explanations of inspiration and spirituality, evolutionary explanations of moral principles. It is for this reason that the "separate spheres" compromise is beginning to crumble: not the observation that science cannot explain the spiritual, but the unjustified fear that religion may be left with nothing to explain.

The fear is unjustified because there is nothing wrong with a religious faith conditioned by science. Indeed, to my mind a religious faith that ignores scientific truths is worse than a lie; it is toxic. If the Shroud of Turin were real evidence of the resurrection, then it ought to be the right age; if it is not, then people should not revere it in its falsehood. Evolutionary theory does permit a moral understanding of humanity, and people do accord with its predictions. Some religions accommodate these insights.

Others are threatened by them. There is no way that a literal interpretation of the Bible can be accommodated into evolutionary theory. Nor can the Koran. Nor can the Book of Mormon. Nor can most of the creation myths of indigenous societies around the world. Science assaults creationist beliefs directly by showing them to be false. There is no avoiding this conflict: if students with these beliefs are in science education, they will be told their religion is a lie.

Intelligent design creationism may be an underground conspiracy by some religious believers, but it is not a tunnel under an impermeable border separating religion and science. Scientists blasted the border defenses long ago. Intelligent design is a rearguard defense for a retreating viewpoint.

The real solution to fairness

The other approach to fairness is much more brutal, but much more scientific. Science demands that any theory stands or falls on its empirical success or failure. Treated fairly as any other scientific theory, intelligent design creationism simply fails. It explains no empirical data that are not explained by evolution. It has inspired no research program, no new scientific discoveries, and no graduate training programs. Advances in genetics, medicine, biotechnology, or any other aspect of biology owe nothing to it. It is an intellectual dead end.

Creationists argue that this failure to produce results is a result of a conspiracy. According to this conspiracy theory, mainstream scientists don't want their evolutionist beliefs to be threatened, so they do not fund research into intelligent design. These nameless conspirators drum students out of biology if they show any interest in creation. They ensure that the editorships and reviewers of biology journals will reject any scientific paper on intelligent design. And so on.

Any practicing scientist understands that such a conspiracy is completely impossible in practice. First of all, abundant financial incentives ensure that any research into intelligent design will be supported. The government is not the only source of funding, after all -- any researcher with a claim to prove "Biblical history" is abundantly funded by private sources, money that would easily flow to any molecular biologist who could show a substantial likelihood of an intelligently designed entity. The financial considerations for any individual young scientist are also overwhelming: the defection of a young researcher to the intelligent design movement would immediately allow substantial financial opportunities in publishing books, lecturing, and -- of course -- appearing on television. And peer review is no barrier to an argument that is correct; any research can be made available on the internet and judged on its own merits.

This argument is easy to grasp but scientists rarely make it to good effect. Everyday hypothesis-testing is rarely news. New, significant discoveries are trumpeted around the world; new failures to refute a null hypothesis are ignored. As long as intelligent design creationism can continue to make public appearances while hiding its long record of failure, most people will continue to think it "only fair" that it should be taught alongside evolution.

What science needs is a high profile way to bring attention to this record of failure.

There is one proven method that has brought so much attention to repeated failures that scientists and engineers have devoted their energies to defeating it: a prize. The Ansari X Prize was founded to bring attention to the lack of commercial spaceflight research. It encouraged this research by awarding a $10 million prize to the first repeatable flight into space by a private entity. Last year, Mohave Aerospace Ventures claimed the prize with two flights into space by its Space Ship 1 vehicle. The Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a series of seven Millennium Prizes, of $1 million each, to be awarded for the first solution to each of seven significant problems in mathematics.

Of course, one assumption beneath a prize is that the task is not impossible. The X Prize worked precisely because it stimulated interest in a task that ought to have been technically achievable, but that private industry was simply not pursuing. But the Millennium Prizes offer no such guarantees: no one knows whether a proof of the Poincaré conjecture is possible -- that's what makes it a uniquely challenging problem.

No biologist or anyone else has yet found evidence for an intelligently designed system that cannot be explained by evolution. For such evidence, it is not enough to claim that evolutionary theory has not yet explained the system -- science has not yet explained most of nature. It must be proved that the system could not have evolved; that it must have been designed. Intelligent design creationists have often claimed that such systems exist in nature, but they have never offered a proof.

I propose the formation of a prize for the production of such a proof. The matter is of paramount importance to public education, and the prize should have a magnitude reflecting this importance. I suggest $10 million. Indeed I think the matter is so important that the prize should be offered by a public or governmental agency, as a voucher of trust in science. Naturally, a fully qualified judging committee must be formed; I would suggest the National Academy of Science. But to put to rest all question of a conspiracy, I propose that every attempted proof to be submitted should be published along with a scientific critique, if one exists.

If, as I expect, no proof arises for the foreseeable future, it would be a strong public demonstration that intelligent design has nothing to explain about the rise of life on Earth. As long as no proof is produced, there is no reason to raise the question of teaching intelligent design in schools. If its advocates cannot even show one natural system that cannot be explained by evolution, clearly there is nothing to be gained by bringing ID into the classroom.

The prize is something that most Americans understand even better than fairness. It is a dare.

UPDATE: P. Z. Myers responds. Take a look at his opinion, and the many thoughtful comments. This might appear to be a disagreement on strategy rather than substance. I disagree.

There are many in science (and not only in science) who sincerely believe that most Americans are sheep, who are easily misled into voting against their interests by narrow-minded bigots.

I think that anyone who thinks this must have grown up in a different America than I did. But then, I was raised in a small town in Kansas. I learned that the more shrill you are, the less people listen. I never found anyone who had any success in persuasion by using invective. And I learned that losing a fight doesn't mean you failed. People don't vote against their interests. They are just interested in different things than you may think they should be.

Let's review the situation regarding ID in public schools. A handful of school districts have tried to adopt it (and other evolution-doubting curricula). Not all these have yet been defeated, but all are embattled. Several state boards of education have attempted to insert ID-friendly provisions into science standards. But these are hardly significant next to the thousands of school boards who continue to promote strong science standards, and the vast majority of states that haven't been friendly to ID creationism. And no federal court has supported the notion that ID should be taught as science, nor is there any real prospect that any will do so. This does not mean there is no threat, but that our successes vastly outnumber our failures.

But these successes are far from enough. We have a much bigger job in building up education than in destroying creationism. To my mind, the biggest problem is in states like Wisconsin, where there is no substantial threat of ID at the state level (although some local districts remain vulnerable). Even so, evolution teaching is just a lot weaker than it could be -- the state got a "D" in that 2000 report on science standards. Some of this weakness is political compromise; a lot of it is apathy. This problem is related to ID, indeed it is what allows ID to spread and flourish. But it cannot be solved in court cases, it can only be changed by changing the public.

The truth is, Bush cannot control science education in America. He can, however, exert a strong influence to the extent he can persuade people to his point of view. This is an easy task, since a large majority of Americans think his opinion is quite reasonable.

Scientists cannot defeat this common sense with extremism. It does not help to call Bush a lunatic: if most people were prepared to agree, they wouldn't have elected him. This kind of invective can only persuade people of the political bias of scientists, not the correct interpretation of science. Political parties may use or abuse science, but that doesn't mean that science is partisan. Science is, and must be, an impartial search for explanations of nature. Even the best science has always been used to give a superficial veneer to socially respectable, but ultimately non-scientific positions -- from race in the nineteenth century to eugenics in the twentieth. It cannot be avoided.

Those who think that ordinary scientists have no duty to speak out are entitled to this opinion. Indeed, no citizen has an obligation to oppose what is wrong.

But scientists who choose to speak out succeed when they rise above, not when they sink below. Einstein influenced nuclear policy by using his reputation wisely. Leading up to the war, he succeeded; after it, he failed. But is there any chance that calling Truman and Eisenhower lunatics would have helped his cause? Sure, many well-thinking physicists might have cheered. But that's not success.

We don't have an Einstein to help us today. We don't even have a Stephen Jay Gould anymore. We can't afford to turn more people off. We should make evolution inspiring to others, as it inspires us.