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Sure, “Teach the Controversy,” Says an Evolutionist – But You Know What’s Coming Next


PLOS, the “Public Library of Science,” is the publisher of a number of a high-profile open access science journals – PLOS ONE, PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine, and others. They also publish a range of blogs, including Sci-Ed, which deals with issues relating to science and education. A recent headline there caught my eye, “Go ahead and ‘teach the controversy:’ it is the best way to defend science.”

That’s provocative. But here’s the subtitle: “as long as teachers understand the science and its historical context.” Well, who could disagree?

But you can probably guess what’s coming. The author is Mike Klymkowsky, a University of Colorado Boulder Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. Klymkowsky, as expected, says teaching about the evolution controversy is fine as long as you show how absurd that “controversy” really is. In other words, you can expose students to diverse views on Darwinian theory, so long as the takeaway for them is the orthodox evolutionary one.

But I wanted to point out a comment left at the end of the article by someone identified as CWGross, who notes:

There is no good reason to believe the naturalist-materialist, Scientistic proposition that science has epistemological primacy (in fact, it is a self-contradictory axiom), so we automatically fail if we refuse to discuss the limitations of science and its inadequacies in questions of morals, politics, aesthetics, relationships, spirituality, etc. Without doing so, we implicitly teach science as an authoritarian system which WILL be rejected, as you note, when it conflicts with lived moral, political, aesthetic, relational, spiritual, etc. experience. You do it yourself, in your confession of ideological dogmatism: “Yet, as a person who firmly believes in the French motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité, laïcité, I feel fairly certain that no science-based scenario on the origin and evolution of the universe or life, or the implications of sexual dimorphism or racial differences, etc, can challenge the importance of our duty to treat others with respect, to defend their freedoms, and to insure their equality before the law.” You express disapproval over philosophies of theistic evolution while at the same time refusing to entertain the implications of a purely materialistic science for your own liberalism.

Klymkowsky wants to marshal a purely naturalistic science in the classroom. CWGross points out the conflict with Klymkowsky’s own liberal ideology. Only an “authoritarian” approach can bridge the gap, expecting students to embrace both (rigidly materialist science, liberalism) without acknowledging the contradiction.

Our preference is for a pedagogy that is much more modest, and more authentically liberal. Klymkowsky worries that students are “vulnerable to intelligent-design creationist arguments centered around probabilities.” ID isn’t creationism, and there’s a lot more to it than “probabilities,” but never mind. We oppose pushing intelligent design into public school classrooms.

Instead, we want students and teachers to be able to explore scientific controversies over mechanisms of evolution and the origin of life discussed in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific publications. Let them study these questions for themselves, and arrive at their own conclusions. Let them struggle, too, with the philosophical implications, but, of course, not in the science classroom.

On the evolution controversy, Klymkowsky would likely benefit from more study himself. His understanding of what we argue about appears to be limited. He writes, “For example, a common attack against evolutionary mechanisms relies on a failure to grasp the power of variation, arising from stochastic processes (mutation), coupled to the power of natural, social, and sexual variation.”

For a start, he should review the discussions from November’s Royal Society meeting. In fact, some of the ideas presented there would be fascinating to share with students. In the world of professional science, at the highest levels, the foundations of evolutionary theory are up for debate. That fact should not be concealed from young people.

Photo: Royal Society discussion panel, London, November 2016, by Günter Bechly.