Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An intelligent approach to intelligent design

Michael Balter*
International Herald Tribune

January 31, 2007

In January, Britain's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority issued new guidelines for teaching about science and religion. They include some excellent ideas. For example, the guidelines encourage teachers to stage historical debates between science and religion, with students taking the roles of Charles Darwin, Galileo and even Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University scientist and outspoken atheist.

In another exercise, students are asked to write an essay on the following topic: "The world is very complex. Does this mean that it must have been the work of a creator God?"

These suggestions, which are designed for 14-year- old students, are intended only for religion classes, and not the science curriculum. That is a pity, because a confrontation between scientific and religious views of the universe would be an ideal way to teach science — especially a subject as contentious as the theory of evolution.

So far, however, British scientists and their supporters have managed to keep creationism out of the classroom, along with its latter-day incarnation, intelligent design (the "thinking man's creationism," as Science magazine put it recently.)

In the United States, despite strong pressure from religious groups, a 1987 Supreme Court decision banning classroom teaching of creationism has held up.

Given the theory of evolution's monopoly in the classroom, one might think that it has gained a steady stream of converts over the years. But a recent poll taken for the BBC found that the British public was split on the issue: Only 48 percent of respondents thought evolution best explained the development of life on earth, while 22 percent chose creationism, 17 percent intelligent design, and the rest said they did not know.

As depressing as those figures might be to scientists, they are pretty good compared to the results of similar surveys in the United States. A Gallup poll in November 2004 found that only 13 percent of respondents thought that God had no part in the evolution or creation of human beings, while 45 percent said they believed that God had created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.

To be sure, this chronic skepticism about evolutionary theory reflects the continuing strong influence of religion. Yet it also implies that scientists have not been persuasive enough, even when buttressed by strong scientific evidence that natural selection alone can account for life's complexity.

Could it be that the theory of evolution's monopoly in the classroom has backfired?

For one thing, this monopoly strengthens claims by creationists and intelligent-design proponents that scientists don't want to be challenged. More importantly, it shields Darwinian theory from
challenges that, when properly refuted, might win over adherents to evolutionary views.

A few years ago, a biology instructor at a university in Washington State set out to test this idea.

First-year biology majors were divided into four sections. Two groups were assigned portions of Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker," a pro-evolution book, as well as a book advocating intelligent design called "Icons of Evolution." These groups also viewed a short animated creationist film and read an online rebuttal of creationist ideas, as well as materials on the nature and history of science. The other two groups read only evolutionary materials.

At the end of the course, the students were invited to take a voluntary, anonymous survey about possible changes in their outlooks. The results, published in the November 2005 issue of the journal BioScience, found that 61 percent of students exposed to both creationism and evolution changed their outlooks, while only 21 percent of students exposed only to evolution did so — and nearly all of the changes were from the creationist to the evolutionist direction.

The instructor concluded that directly and respectfully engaging with students' beliefs, rather than ignoring them as most science teachers are forced to do, could be a more effective way to teach evolution.

Soon after this study was published, I got into a ferocious debate with commentators on a pro-evolution blog, who argued that this approach was all fine and dandy for university students but too advanced for high school students.

Yet the first-year students in Washington were just out of high school, and the new British guidance for religion classes — which uses a similar strategy — is aimed at 14-year-olds.

The polls show that scientists and science teachers have little to lose and everything to gain by bringing creationism into the classroom, where it can be critically debated and its merits compared to those of evolutionary theory.

The history of the theory is one of bitter debates between science and religion. In "On the Origin of Species," Darwin refuted the arguments for intelligent design put forward by the 18th century English philosopher William Paley, who had greatly influenced Darwin until he visited the Galapagos Islands and saw natural selection at work. Over the ensuing decades, Darwin's theories were rigorously tested and criticized before they won over even the majority of scientists.

The best way to teach the theory of evolution is to teach this contentious history. The most effective way to convince students that the theory is correct is to confront, not avoid, the continuing challenges to it.

*Michael Balter writes for the magazine Science. The views expressed here are his own.