By Sean Carroll | December 3, 2005 7:23 pm

Steven Verhey, a biologist at Central Washington University, had an idea: try to teach his Basic Biology class a little bit about how scientists actually think, by presenting arguments both in favor of evolution (as embodied in Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker) and creationism/intelligent design (as embodied in Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution). Verhey is no creationist himself, but thought it would be a good way to teach the students some critical-thinking skills along with some biology. Interesting discussions at The Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula.

As far as whether or not a discussion of creationism/ID is a smart thing to have in an introductory biology course, there are good arguments on both sides; it is a nice example of the difference between real science and ideology, but on the other hand it takes a lot of time that could be spent teaching the actual core material. I have no strong feelings either way.

But I couldn’t help but highlight two sentences from Verhey’s description of one event in his class. The Discovery Institute, main propaganda machine for ID, is located in Seattle, not far from CWU. So Verhey actually invited Jonathan Wells to come talk to his class, and Wells agreed.

Since Ellensburg is just 1.5 hours east of Seattle, home of the Discovery Institute, that first time I also invited Jonathan Wells to speak to my class and to give a special university-wide seminar. He was accompanied by a handler from the PR department at DI, who passed out DVDs.

You know, I give lots of talks about various scientific topics, and in all honesty, it has never even occured to me to be accompanied by a handler from the PR department at my university. Do you still wonder why we keep insisting that there is no science going on here, just public relations?

On the other hand, I’m open-minded and willing to learn. Maybe I’ll start showing up at talks accompanied by my own PR person. Those DVD’s aren’t going to hand out themselves.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society
  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Hi Sean!

    Maybe you can have a PR person handing out copies of your book instead? :)

  • Maynard Handley

    I would like to point out just one more issue regarded to ID which I have never seen advanced on the internet.
    The ID’s make a big deal, of course, about how blind chance could never evolve anything complex, even with lots of time.
    OK, that’s an empirical question. Do we have an answer?
    Let’s look at the work of David Fogel, one of the foremost researchers today in evolutionary algorithms.
    You can hear what he has to say here
    (Yeah, the web UI here suck. I’m sorry, blame the morons at podscope.)
    (This is a very easy to listen to talk about 30 minutes long.)

    What he discusses is about “teaching” a computer to play checkers using a genetic algorithm that had pretty much bugger-all intelligence built-in. All that was done was the usual genetic algorithm stuff — create random programs, “put them into the evolutionary environment” (ie have them play checkers), score them as either winners or losers, and have the winners breed more fecundly than the losers. And, of my, it actually works. The programs can play checkers well against humans — and they have strange, unexpected and stupid quirks, just like life.

  • Elliot

    To follow Maynards point, I encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with the work of Stuart Kaufmann of the Sante Fe Institute. He makes a very interesting case for the potential ubiquity of life in the universe without resort to “the man behind the curtain”.

    Interesting stuff.


  • http://evolgen.blogspot.com RPM

    The ID’s make a big deal, of course, about how blind chance could never evolve anything complex, even with lots of time.

    The question of whether blind chance can or can’t do anything is irrelevant because biologists do not make such claims. Anyone who has taken any biology courses should know that there a stochastic (blind chance) evolutionary forces such as mutation and drift, and there are deterministic forces (NOT blind chance) like natural selection. Evolutionary algorithms use selection to create the most fit program, so this is not “blind chance”.

  • Troublemaker

    Does it bother you, even a little bit, when Clifford pushes you down the main page with forty-seven consecutive ADHD-symptomatic posts?

  • Dissident

    I’d say Clifford’s posts are ADSL-symptomatic.

  • http://www.cosmik-debris.net MobyDikc

    A better idea, instead of loading the issue with something like evolution vrs creationism, is to take a much more general approach to teaching America’s youth critical reasoning skills. I’ve been writing about this for a while:

    The first is adding “critical reasoning” to the curriculum in
    elementary schools. We do not need a rigorous course on logic, but I
    suggest that we add a course to the 4th Grade curriculum that describes
    basic logical fallacies. As simple as how to detect bandwagon, slippery
    slope, and strawman arguments in every day life.

    This is of course an effective tool for a child in a society bombarded
    by marketing and mass media piped in to the young ming through
    television and the internet, but there is another reason to require
    this course at such an age. Identifying fallacious reasoning requires
    the understanding of what was communicated, or in other words,
    encourages thoughtfulness. If the child who is encouraged to think
    about what has been commnicated applies this skill to the rest of their
    school work, all of our efforts and resources as educators will result
    in a higher return.

    Right now the public education sector in the US thinks its just fine to wait until freshmen year of college to introduce you to logical fallacies and basic critical reasoning.


    Does anyone wonder why private schools do this much earlier on? I don’t. It seems pretty obvious.

    Public education ignores the concepts of critical thinking until way too late.

    Those in acadamia should be clammoring for their local school boards to add critical thinking to elementary curriculums.

  • Dissident

    MobyDikc wrote: “Public education ignores the concepts of critical thinking until way too late.”

    And now for the ten million dollar question: can you guess why?

  • Pingback: Cycle Quark » It’s Intelligent Design Day()


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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