Thursday, June 30, 2005

RTT: Teaching the Controversy by Kevin Nyberg

(About RTT.)

I recall an ironic squib a few years ago, where the term political correctness was no longer "tolerant of diversity" in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It seems as though PC had become such a pejorative, that it wasn't PC to say it anymore. Well, enter ID. The acronym for Intelligent Design has taken on so many extra negative connotations that even its staunchest proponents have abandoned it in favor of a new term, "teaching the controversy."

This is a cute way to dodge the issue. ID failed to escape being tarred with the brush of Creationism because while both "intelligence" and "design" danced around the existence of a Conveniently Unnamed Designer, it did not do so nimbly enough for the courts. So, someone hit on the bright idea of avoiding positive assertions about science entirely, concentrating instead upon criticizing mainstream science, hoping that the C.U.D. will come shining through the wreckage entirely on His own.

However, "Teaching the Controversy" carries its own baggage around, and can't escape the negative practical implications persistently communicated and practiced by its advocates:

1. The degree of "controversy" is artificially inflated by the loudness of the objections. Only a very few are trying to spin a controversy where none really exists (q.v. Project Steve), but those few inflate their significance through high-profile publicity. If I were to insist the Moon is made of green cheese, deny evidence to the contrary when it is presented, and seek publicity outlets where I may continue to insist my assertion is correct, that isn't controversy. It is an example of being obstinate, and the proponents of "the controversy" are nothing if not obstinate.

2. When asked for scientific evidence, secondary source material, even if used correctly, does not substitute. Neither does co-relating several different secondary sources. That indicates an essential misunderstanding about using sources, and often underlies those incidents criticized as 'quote-mining.' Of course, when presumably experienced scholars deliberately engage in the practice, they immediately alienate their fellow scholars, creating more rancor than otherwise might exist. This is why Dr. Walt Brown gets such a reaction over at

3. The common practice of taking the discussion out of the scientific community and appealing to non-expert authorities, alleging conspiratorial suppression of free inquiry, polarizes into partisan disputes, and does more to suppress thought than if the discussion were to remain among experts. To the body of scholarly opinion, changing the venue represents a type of cheating, especially when the venue (a political one, in this case) is prone to forces other than the sober analysis of evidence, as recent events have shown in Kansas.

4. Engaging the assistance of allies whose abilities are suspect (q.v. the Morris Letter as evidence of Connie's overall ability), whose credentials are either questionable (q.v. Kent Hovind's doctoral dissertation), or inapplicable (e.g., lawyers, student organization leaders [e.g., IDEA]), creates a discussion atmosphere which devalues the efforts experts have taken to become experts. It suggests that once the artificially created controversy (#1) is decided in a non-expert venue (#3) via questionable methodology (#2), those experts will find themselves forcibly removed from their livelihoods (unless they 'toe the new line') to be replaced by "right-thinking" slackers and morons.

5. The central issue is that a body of knowledge is being expected to produce results beyond its area of emphasis (natural science making conclusions about supernatural causes). Mainstream scientists, especially those with religious beliefs, are deeply offended when their personal faith is called into question should their professional work not line up toe-to-toe with another's interpretation of what that faith should be. Who wouldn't be? Were I to call into question the faith of a banker based upon biblical evidence questioning usury, or a lawyer because St. Paul advised against believers suing each other, might they not get tense, especially if I insisted that my religious beliefs be taught in schools?

In science, your beliefs are irrelevant. My beliefs are irrelevant. William Dembski's beliefs are irrelevant. Richard Dawkin's beliefs are irrelevant. Connie Morris' beliefs are irrelevant. Charles Darwin's beliefs were irrelevant. In science, what counts is the data, and until that data exists in sufficient quantity to justify an overall opinion (not just one side's) that a controversy exists, all the noise about there being one will remain exactly that. If you want your claim supported scientifically, then support the science necessary to demonstrate the claim, recognizing in advance that the science may not oblige you.

So, it looks like the term "teaching the controversy" needs to escape its inherent negative connotations by morphing again. Any speculation as to what it might become?