Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Intelligent Design, Democracy, and the Scientific Division of Labor

So President Bush has explicitly endorsed the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, according to this article (via Pharyngula). My first reaction to that is, "Wow, big surprise!" The man who endorsed the teaching of creationism as governor (not ID creationism, but hardcore 6 days and a smoke break creationism) is now endorsing the watered down version. Who'da thunk it? If there's any surprise in this, it's that he didn't throw in any comments about young earth creationism being taught too. I'm sure there are some on the religious right who see this as Bush wussing out. Really, Bush's endorsement of teaching ID, by itself, seems unimportant to the supporters of science. I doubt it lends any more legitimacy to the ID movement among any of its detractors, and those who will be heartened by the endorsement were already firmly in the ID camp anyway. I don't even think it represents a troubling political maneuver. The people who would be likely to vote for a candidate because he or she endorses the teaching of ID or creationism in public schools were probably going to vote Republican anyway. It just doesn't seem like a very big deal.

But, and that's a big but, there does seem to be something somewhat disturbing going on here, of which Bush's remarks are only a symptom. What's disturbing is where, and how, the Intelligent Design community is promoting its ideas. They've avoided the scientific literature almost without exception, and gone straight to the public. The idea behind this, which I have seen expressed on occasion, seems to be that if they convince the public, then they can get it taught. This implies that in a democracy like ours, the views that the majority wants to be taught in public schools should be taught. And there's some intuitive appeal to this idea. I mean, public schools are publicly funded, by our money, so why shouldn't those of us who are paying for the schools have a say in what gets taught in the biology classroom, or any classroom? If most of us think Intelligent Design should be taught, then shouldn't it be? This is a democracy, after all!

The answer, of course, is no. In most cases, majority opinion shouldn't determine what is taught in science classrooms, or pretty much any classroom. For one, there are all sorts of things that are publicly funded, but about which the public should have no say. We shouldn't have a say on the interpretation of classified intelligence reports, for instance, even if the majority of us would disagree with the official interpretation. The reason is, interpreting intelligence requires a certain degree of expertise, and it's better for all of us if we leave it up to the people who possess that expertise. The same goes for most areas of education, especially science education. It's best for all of us if our schools teach the best knowledge we have, and the best knowledge we have about scientific issues comes from scientific experts. There is such a thing as a scientific division of labor. People who spend their entire adult lives studying something are simply better prepared to determine what is currently the best knowledge available in their fields than people who learned about evolution from the Discovery Channel or the Discovery Institute. Of course, experts will disagree, but science itself is a lot like a democracy within a democracy. The best knowledge available is determined by a consensus among the experts. The consensus will often be wrong, but that is, after all, what science is: better and better wrong ideas. But it will be closer to right than any idle speculation or propaganda-induced skepticism.

What's disturbing about Bush's endorsement, then, is that he feels justified in giving it because in doing so he is representing his constituency. This is exactly what the Intelligent Design public disinformation campaign is designed to do. The scary thing is that it might make other elected officials, particularly those who can directly influence public school curricula, feel that they too can endorse the teaching of Intelligent Design to represent those who elected them. But deciding what should be taught based on public opinion not Bush's job, and it's not their job either. Their job is to provide our children with the best possible education, and that means going with the experts, not the people who elected them, on issues of course content. Hopefully, enough of the men and women on school boards and in state legislatures will realize this and keep Intelligent Design, and other scientific nonsense, out of our children's science classrooms.


Brandon said...

Well, I agree about the disturbing way in which IDers have gone about things, and about the absurdity of teaching ID in the classroom. I'm less inclined to agree with your point about democracy. While I agree that majority opinion shouldn't decide what is taught in the classroom, majority opinion as such never decides anything in a republic-style democracy; the deciding factor is the judgment of the representatives who are held accountable by the majority (this frees things up from majority rule, since the public is forced to prioritize). So I think the issue about majority opinion is a red herring. The real issue is whether we can afford not to have the people holding accountable the representatives who do decide the issue. And I think this issue has shown precisely that we can't -- otherwise there would now be a lot more places teaching ID in biology. It's ridiculously easy to bully a curriculum change by way of legislatures and school boards; the hard part is always preserving it in the face of combined parental opinion. And sooner or later what's being taught is going to have to come down to an act of a governing body like this. In other words, there's no way to get around the fact that either a group of people will be deciding these issues under the watchful eye of the public, or else they'll be deciding it immune from any correction. And the latter would be far and away more dangerous.

The classified documents issue I think is a good parallel, because while the public has no say on how the experts interpret the documents, the public does have to have a say on how the interpretations play into public policy, if at all; otherwise no one is held accountable. Likewise, people do have to be able to hold their schools accountable for what is taught in the classroom (as this very issue shows), and, for better or for worse, that requires (1) that they make a judgment call about what standards to use, and (2) that they have power to put those standards into action.

So I think the bind is a bit more serious than you are making it out to be; the democratic mechanisms have actually done much more to keep ID out of the classroom than to put it in (e.g., in the cases when school board officials who have tried to put it in were not re-elected). It's the various levels of government that keep trying to put it in; and you can't eliminate their involvement without eliminating the entire public school system.

Chris said...

Brandon, those are great points. I think we agree more than we disagree on this, though I haven't expressed it well (I wrote the post in about 10 minutes just before leaving the lab). What I worry about is represenatives feeling like, because they were elected by people who want ID or creationism taught, or because they want it taught and believe that because they were elected, they have a license to legislate its teaching. I'm all for the majority determining how we use science in public policy, as long as it doesn't infringe on individual rights or education (which I see as largely an issue of rights -- everyone has a right to the best possible education).

It's definitely true that you can't elminate government involvement in education without eliminating the public education system, but since I don't see that as a feasible alternative (I don't know how universal education would be possible without public education), I think that we have to work with the system we have, and that means that we have to work hard to avoid the dangers that I mentioned. Hopefully, we will continue to be able to do so.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know how universal education would be possible without public education"

Can I be the zillionth libertarian to point out that this is analogous to saying "I don't know how complex organisms can be possible without a creator"?

If the entire public school system were shut down tomorrow, the market for private schools would explode. And if your concern is that some people wouldn't be able to afford it, that's easily fixed with vouchers.

-- Matt McIntosh

Anonymous said...

Well, since someone beat me to it, I'll have to settle for pointing out the inconsistency of a mere citizen arguing that mere citizens have no authority over this subject.

Chris said...

anon, well, it is true that I am not an expert in biology, but I am an expert on expertise. Furthermore, I'd say the same thing if people were trying to legislate what gets taught in psychology courses based on popular opinion.

Anonymous said...

Well, I wasn't arguing about expertise. Almost everyone recognizes the utility of expertise. This is demonstrated when you take your car to the mechanic instead of the oncologist.

When you said that experts should make decisions instead of the taxpayers it reads like a moral argument without support. That probably wasn't your intention.

Chris said...

Well, it is a moral argument, but with a limited scope. It's not meant to say that experts should determine everything for us. It is, however, meant to say that in areas where expert knowledge is the best we have available, e.g., in science or the interpretation of intelligence information, we should defer to the experts.

I think we have a moral obligation to teach our children the best available knowledge, and I think we have a moral obligation to protect ourselves from foreign aggression. That means that we have a moral obligation to defer to the experts in these areas.

Anonymous said...

Yet who has the authority to determine that limited scope? You cite yourself as your own authority regarding your obligations, a practice I commend, but how does that charge any one else with those responsibilities? You don't own them.

(Love the cog psy articles, by the by. Awesome stuff.)

Chris said...

I suspect that you have more of a libertarian perspective than I do. I will say this: I am coming from the perspective within which education is a universal right, and it is from there that I derive the moral argument. Naturally, not everyone has to agree with me, but it's my perspective, and I'll voice it.

If the majority decided that education was not a universal right, I would fight them. To me, when they decide to limit or otherwise make public education inferior, the majority is stepping beyond its bounds and is infringing on the rights of the minority.

Brandon said...


I think you're right that there's more agreement than disagreement here. I think what we find in this sort of situation is one of the interesting paradoxes of representative government: the representatives may make judgments in light of majority opinion, but the public itself usually doesn't (because there are other factors that have to come into play for the public to act directly on an issue). So if there are reasonably good mechanisms for disseminating accurate information, the public itself is actually a very good trustee for this sort of thing -- to name just one possible scenario, even if the majority is inclined to accept the Discovery Institute's view at face-value as a general opinion, they still can be persuaded that any particular proposal goes too far, crowds something important out, puts their children at disadvantage, etc. Democracy itself is actually very favorable to a stable and reasonable education system -- it may be fooled here and there, but it usually does a good job, precisely because majority opinion is not enough for it to act. I think you're right that the problem is that it is often enough for politicians of various sorts to act.

Right now we seem to be in an unstable place: the public is really what's keeping ID out of the classroom, and the only thing that effectively can; but as a matter of majority opinion alone, it is often inclined otherwise, and without better dissemination of accurate information, I don't think this can last forever. One big issue I think it brings up is that our society has been too reliant on journalists for the dissemination of information about scientific issues; the school system itself is good for establishing a basic core, but only until people get out of school. After that everything depends on the journalists to be getting it right. Which is very scary. I think one of the problems here may be that the Discovery Institute has been fairly successful at confusing the public about what the experts are saying, and even about who the experts are.

(As a complete side issue, it has always puzzled me why people find the 'Teach the controversy' slogan appealing. Teaching the basics makes much more sense. But I suppose part of it is that people are always tempted to settle for the compromise that sounds like it will involve the least disruption.)

Chris said...

Brandon, once again, great points! Which is not to say that the other commenters haven't made great points. I think they have, actually, they just happen to be points with which I disagree.

As you probably know, I agree 100% about the media's representation of science. When they're not misrepresenting science, they're doing it a disservice by presenting nonscientific views along side science's under the guise of being balanced or objective. I wish mainstream media outlets were more inclined to let scientists, many of whom write quite well, report on science. I'm sure there are plenty who'd be willing to take the time necessary to do so, and do so well.

Clark Goble said...

My inclination is that few ID proponents (or critics) actually know what ID is. For instance ID buys into most of evolutionary theory except for chance. So it frankly is surprising how many very conservative or fundamentalist Christians buy into it.

My guess is that most see it as a way of getting Creationism into schools. Which is why I'm opposed to it. (I like Bush, but this along with stem cells are issues I strongly disagree with him over)

At the same time, however, I tend to think IDers get shafted by the scientific community. I mean I'm opposed to ID, but I think that the notion has been treated so pejoratively that even if there was a strong rigorous paper it would never have a chance of getting published because of the political issues. It is seen somehow as a battle between rationalism and irrationalism. Unfortunately so.

Chris said...

Clark, I was thinking about your points about science's treatment of ID when I wrote this. I worry that if ID proponents ever actually do any real research, it won't get published, even if it is methodologically sound. This would be a shame, because the best way to critique research is to do so through the literature.

another orphan said...

Well, there's not much evidence of IDers trying hard to penetrate the refereed literature. There was a study done several years ago that looked at traditional scientific creationists, finding that (despite their complaints about being locked out of the literature) they never actually submitted papers in the first place.

Experience shows that most journals err in on the side of letting questionable material through. Remember Nature publishing Benveniste's article on homeopathy? Or Proceedings of the IEEE publishing Targ and Puthoff's paper on ESP?

Still, if the IDers have a problem with the literature, they could do what Darwin and friends did: start their own. After one failure, Huxley et al. were able to get a journal of their own started as a secure place to publish on evolution and natural selection. It's still around - Nature.

Anonymous said...

Clark -

ID is a generic label given to a variety of thinkers who are united by the view that some aspects of organisms are best explained by a designing intelligence. Its supporters vary in how much evolution in the Earth's natural history they accept. Discovery Institute fellows and people called "ID theorists" range from young earth creationists to special creation for some basic groups to divine intervention only for certain biochemical pathways, because the term generic term "ID" is neutral to those more detailed positions. The most consistent feature among modern ID is an appeal to evolution not being able to explain some feature (hence the volumes of antievolution writing), followed by some inference to design. Exactly what evolutionary theory as a collection of undirected processes allegedly can't or is not good at explaining does vary, though.

When you say, "ID" to you mean Micheal Behe's ideas specifically? Do you have a more specific argument in mind?

Anonymous said...

"evolutionary theory as a collection of undirected processes"

A better way for me to say this is a collection of processes not requiring intelligent direction.

Clark Goble said...

My understanding of ID is basically the Behe class of theories that basically reject macro-evolution but accept most of the rest. I'm aware that the term has, especially the last year, become more contaminated in meaning. But all ID people I've encountered taking it more seriously just critique the ability of macro-evolution given chance and note the lack of robust empirical evidence for the same. (There are some evidences that are pretty close, IMO, including computer modeling. But they are right to point out the flaws in taking that too far.)

Creationists, recognizing their bad name, have lept upon the ID name to try and give them more of a reputation. The effect has been to make the instinctive rejection of ID by the scientific community that much stronger. This also shows up in surveys of people who accept ID like notions, such as the recent one about doctors. What isn't clear is what they mean by ID.

Take my own position which is God was involved in making sure certain outcomes arrived, but only by making environmental changes. (i.e. plunge an comet into the earth to effect a major change) Yet the mechanism of evolution is accurate. So am I an IDer? I don't think so. Indeed I don't think there's any way to realistically see involvement by God.

What the whole debate has done is simply to muddy the water and make the debate much more difficult to have.

Anonymous said...

"The classified documents issue I think is a good parallel, because while the public has no say on how the experts interpret the documents, the public does have to have a say on how the interpretations play into public policy, if at all; otherwise no one is held accountable."

Just what I was thinking. And look: while too often journalists fall down on the job, if ID makes it into school science classes, the IDCers have the potential to short-circuit the process of science literacy at the school level, undermining the public's part of this division of labor.
It's hard to figure out what shape ID teaching would take. If it stuck to undermining evolution (and by extension biology), there would be potential repercussions in the public's ability to make private- and public-level decisions about antibiotic use (people or livestock - evolution of antibiotic resistant strains), GMOs (evolution of Bt resistant pests, etc), wildlife conservation (maybe), etc.. Very worst case scenario, it reduces (already shaky) public understanding of the scientific method, and acceptance of methodological naturalism in science (Orioles first baseman Palmeiro tested positive for steroid use: science says he took steroids, or the test was messed up.), leading people, over the very long run, to shift more towards methodological *super*naturalism in everyday life (evil spirits- or good ones, depending on team loyalty - made the test come up positive). That seems unlikely. Right?

Brandon said...

Anonymous, methodological naturalism is irrelevant to the question. All formulations of the position that have been given so far either reduce to triviality or can be easily shown to be false as characterizations of scientific methods; and in either case it is irrelevant. This is a point on which IDers are often wrong: that teaching x or y makes people more inclined to accept methodological naturalism, is, even if true, irrelevant to whether it should be taught. And so with all other such positions. You've bought into the ID argument enough that you're just running it in reverse; when what we actually need to do is dump this line of reasoning as illegitimate.

Anonymous said...

I am coming from the perspective within which education is a universal right, and it is from there that I derive the moral argument. Naturally, not everyone has to agree with me, but it's my perspective, and I'll voice it.

If the majority decided that education was not a universal right, I would fight them.

So not everyone has to agree with you, but if they don't you'll fight them?

yonatron said...

I'll admit to having a libertarian streak while also believing in universal education. That is, I think the state's responsibility should be mostly limited to protecting its people from, er, Bad People insteading of providing much. But providing education works enough towards protecting people's rights as to be a reasonable function of government. But I'm on the fence re: the privatization/voucher argument.

That said, here's how I've been looking at all the ID-in-schools nonsense lately: school districts have decided they need to teach science. Relatively few parents or politicians would try to publicly decry the decision to have science curricula, given the obsession with the U.S.'s competing in the global marketplace, etc. etc. But once you decide that it's science that needs to be taught, you have to defer the specifics to people who know science. I guess the folks who are clamoring to get ID into school have been duped into thinking that ID is some kind of scientific field, but in the end, they need to be told they're wrong and sent home. If they want any mention of "the controversy," they can have it for a week in Social Studies.

Ugh, I'm babbling. Main point, though: convince the public that if you want science taught in schools at all, make sure actual scientists approve the curricula. The people who don't like it can then put their kids in public school or read them Of Pandas and People at bedtime.

Then maybe we can concentrate on actually getting evolution into public schools (I never heard a word about it in 2 high-school biology classes).

Chris said...

Anon, yes, I will. Isn't that what politics is about? You don't fight for your morality?

Anonymous said...

Politics is all about usurping the will of your fellow man. Your benevolence in allowing others their opinions is trivial. It costs you nothing because they will be made to agree by men with guns.

Chris said...

Fortunately for all of us, especially me, I don't own any guns.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter. The cops do have guns. They exist to force people like me agree with people like you.

ACM said...

ok, ignoring the thread hijackings...

It's best for all of us if our schools teach the best knowledge we have, and the best knowledge we have about scientific issues comes from scientific experts.

I feel very strongly that it's bad science, bad policy, and most of all bad pedagogy to either allow the least common denominator to determine what should be taught, or to advocate for "teach it all and let the consumer choose" methodology -- grade school and high school students are in no position to assess the validity of evidence for complex concepts until they've mastered the material before them. But it seems that many people think that "common sense" or "ease of comprehension" should be the right standard for a theory -- I can't see how it would work, so it must not work that way -- and ID validates that (anti-intellectual) viewpoint.

More of my thoughts along these lines are crystallized in What We All Know To Be True.

Chris said...

Just want to note that I don't see anyone as a hijacker simply because he or she disagrees with me (and the ID discussion also seems completely relevant). Perhaps if he or she disagrees with me and advertises porn...

Anonymous said...

Getting to the root of the matter quickly is not hijacking.

This is a prime example of why my children are in private school. To have their education ultimately decided by politicians and bureaucrats is folly. As our newly-elected mayor once said on the campaign trail, he wouldn’t “sacrifice” his children to the public system.

There are very few "public" children. Most of them have parents.

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