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When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers, Cont.

Biology Teachers

Editor’s note: This post and its headline have been updated. It originally stated that Abby Hafer is not a biologist or a biology teacher. That is incorrect. Hafer’s biography indicates that she has PhD in zoology and is a senior lecturer in human anatomy and physiology. We regret the error.

Back in August, I reported here on a Massachusetts bill, the state’s House Bill 471. The authors of the legislation explicitly wanted to discourage teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution. Recently, I received an email from a reader who referred me to a 2015 paper by one of the bill’s co-authors, Abby Hafer.

Unsurprisingly, the paper spreads misinformation about ID. It was published in The American Biology Teacher.

Let’s get back to the Massachusetts bill from this summer, though, which shows the results of Hafer’s close-minded thinking. This legislation was supposed to protect science education — basically by trying to do the opposite of laws like the Louisiana Science Education Act that promote teaching the scientific controversy over evolution and other issues. 

For Dogmatic Teaching

Now as then, Hafer advocates vehemently for dogmatic teaching of evolution. Let’s look at that 2015 article abstract:

Intelligent Design (ID) proposes that biological species were created by an intelligent Designer, and not by evolution. ID’s proponents insist that it is as valid a theory of how biological organisms and species came into existence as evolution by natural selection. They insist, therefore, that ID be taught as science in public schools. These claims were defeated in the Kitzmiller case. However, ID’s proponents are still influential and cannot be considered a spent force. The question addressed here is whether ID’s claim of scientific legitimacy is reinforced by quantified results. That is, do they have any data, or do they just argue? The ID articles that I analyzed claimed to present real science, but they rarely referred to data and never tested a hypothesis. Argumentation, however, was frequent. By contrast, peer-reviewed articles by evolutionary biologists rarely argued but referred frequently to data. The results were statistically significant. These findings negate claims by ID proponents that their articles report rigorous scientific research. Teachers will find this article helpful in defending evolution, distinguishing science from non-science, and discussing the weaknesses of ID.

This statement contains many, many inaccuracies: from the definition of intelligent design, to what major proponents believe should be taught in public schools, to the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, its reasoning and decision, to her method of determining whether ID has data to back it up. I don’t have time to rehash past responses on all of those issues, so please see the hyperlinks above. I will, however, deal with the last point: Hafer’s method of evaluating the scientific merit of ID research. She does this by searching for the root “argu” and the word “data” and counting up the instances of each. 

Hafer’s method sounds scientific, maybe. But to see how absurd it is, perform the same analysis on the 1953 article by Watson and Crick describing the structure of DNA. Is the seriousness of this work somehow to be gauged by observing that they use the “argu” root once and “data” three times? No, what matters is what the article actually says. 

Katie, Bar the Door!

We know that a significant number of scientists worldwide, such as those who attended the 2016 Royal Society meeting on evolution, question the sufficiency of neo-Darwinism in accounting for biology complexity. Yet don’t tell the biology teachers that! Because they might tell their students, and then, Katie, bar the door! 

As University of Texas political philosopher J. Budziszewski points out, some scientists modify their message on evolution when speaking to the teachers, and even justify such deception. See David Klinghoffer’s article from last week, “When Biologists Speak to Biology Teachers.” 

An example Budziszewski gives is the famous dictum of Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” which he contrasts with a much more modest evaluation by Francis Crick. Dobzhansky was writing in — guess what publication? The same one, The American Biology Teacher, where Dr. Hafer wrote in 2015.

Her article is like many — filled with misdirection. It does, however, make it easier to understand the origins of the bill in Massachusetts.

Photo: A biology teacher, by Tomwsulcer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.