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In Science, a Factually and Logically Challenged Letter Decries ID and Discovery Institute

In its September 1 Letters section, Science offers a communication from Professor Heslley Machado Silva, complaining that “Intelligent design endangers education.” He is writing in the most distinguished science journal in the United States. Silva himself is identified as being affiliated with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at U.C. Irvine. Yet his letter, only three paragraphs long and with 11 footnotes, is mistaken in both fact and logic.

Silva states, “In the United States as of 2014, public or taxpayer-funded schools in 13 states and the District of Columbia were permitted to teach creationism alongside evolution.” In a footnote, he cites a Slate article to this effect. The claim, however, and the Internet article it’s based on, are incorrect.

In its 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism is a religious belief and thus unconstitutional to teach in public schools. So in zero U.S. public schools is it “permitted,” in the sense of being constitutional, to teach creationism.

Silva tries to associate the theory of intelligent design with Turkey’s recent action in banishing evolution from its public schools. Wrong again. In fact, Discovery Institute has roundly condemned Turkey’s removal of evolution from textbooks. We did so back in June. As I wrote here the other day:

This development will not serve Turkish students well. At the Center for Science & Culture, we hold that teaching the scientific controversy over evolution is the sound approach for biology education. There should be more, not less, on the subject. Allowing a free competition of ideas will only benefit a nation’s future scientists and scholars.

Discovery Institute emphatically recommends against teaching intelligent design in public schools. Instead, we urge that students be acquainted with the controversy over evolution taking place at the highest levels of mainstream science. For example, students should learn about questions such as those raised by Austrian evolutionary theorist Gerd Müller at the Royal Society’s 2016 meeting on “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology,” and more recently in a Royal Society journal. Teaching more about evolution, more objectively, is the opposite of banning it or inserting “creationism.”

Silva prefers a more dogmatic approach. He notes:

The global scientific community must work to ensure that only science is taught in science classrooms….In an increasingly interconnected world, a scientifically educated population in any one country benefits us all. Scientists should speak out against the recent science education setbacks in Brazil and Turkey.

By “science” he evidently means teaching that pretends legitimate challenges don’t exist. That’s not really science, though – in a school setting, it’s indoctrination. The Brazilian “setback” he refers to, meanwhile, is the launch of a new institute at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo to support intelligent design research, and the surrounding media coverage.

Obviously, scientific literacy benefits all, and only science belongs in science instruction. Scientists should speak out against Turkey’s recent action. But Brazil? Don’t condemn scientists like Brazilian Academy of Sciences member Marcos Eberlin as embracing unscientific ideas if you disagree with intelligent design. Debate them instead!

Wouldn’t that be more scientific? Debate is, after all, an expression of free inquiry – the epitome of science — over censorship.

Image: “Young Man Writing a Letter,” by Gabriël Metsu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.