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Teach the Controversy?

James R. Henderson

"Teach the controversy" is a phrase coined by Gerald Graff, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the mid-1980s.[1]At the time, Graff "argued that schools and colleges should respond to the then-emerging culture wars over education by bringing their disputes into academic courses themselves."[2]One of the real-life controversies he had in mind was whether Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was itself racist or instead a critique of racism.[3] He was "dismayed"[4] when he found his turn of phrase has been hijacked by the intelligent design movement.

Those in the intelligent design movement, and specifically those at the Discovery Institute, seek to have the "controversy" between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design taught in schools. While it is well documented that there is, in fact, no scientific controversy over evolution by means of natural selection (I will touch on this presently), I will argue that the entire "Teach the Controversy" issue (with regard to intelligent design) boils down to a misunderstanding--I know not whether real or feigned--of the scientific peer-review process. I will illustrate this process as it actually unfolded with respect to the theory that was born as continental drift and then later matured into plate tectonics. First, however, I will address an argument given by Stephen Meyer, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, favoring the teaching of the controversy in Ohio public schools on a point-by-point basis since his argument lends itself to a discussion of peer review.

In 2002, Meyer addressed the Ohio State Board of Education, which was considering revising the state's science standards, with the explicit purpose of advocating teaching the controversy in Ohio public schools. Shortly after meeting with the Board, Meyer wrote up his argument in an essay entitled "Teach the Controversy," and it is this document on which I will focus. I do not claim that his is the only argument one can make for his cause, but it is the one he chose to make. Given his status at the Discovery Institute, I see no reason not to take it as a serious effort.

Meyer starts from a position with which most, if not all, agree: "When two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects the public school curriculum students should learn about both perspectives."[5] This statement is in complete keeping with Graff's original conception of "teach the controversy." His main burden is to show that there is a real controversy to teach, though he also seeks to demonstrate that his plan is within the bounds of the law, and in fact is encouraged by federal legislation. He outlines his three-part plan in the following way:

(1) First, I suggested--speaking as an advocate of the theory of intelligent design--that Ohio not require students to know the scientific evidence and arguments for the theory of intelligent design, at least not yet.
(2) Instead, I proposed that Ohio teachers teach the scientific controversy about Darwinian evolution. Teachers should teach students about the main scientific arguments for and against Darwinian theory. And Ohio should test students for their understanding of those arguments, not for their assent to a point of view.
(3) Finally, I argued that the state board should permit, but not require, teachers to tell students about the arguments of scientists, like Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who advocate the competing theory of intelligent design.[6]

Meyer is keenly aware of his burden of proof to show a scientific controversy surrounding Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection exists, so he begins by citing "over 40 peer-reviewed scientific articles that raise significant challenges to key tenets of Darwinian evolution."[7]The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) immediately challenged the value and veracity of Meyer's bibliography. They sent a questionnaire to each of the authors represented in any of the 44 papers, and none of the 26 respondents, who represented 34 of the papers, said their work supported intelligent design or challenged evolution.[8] Even granting that all 44 of the papers listed challenged Darwinism, which they don't, 44 papers in a time period of 15 years (the papers listed by Meyer were published from 1986 to 2001) pales to insignificance when one considers that the Journal of Molecular Evolution published 50 articles in 2012 alone. In the same year, the Central European Journal of Biology published 105 research articles. These are, of course, not the only biology journals out there. A trip to the Springer publishing house website shows they currently publish 61 journals under the heading of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology;[9] Elsevier's website indicates they publish 154 journals under "Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology And Genetics."[10] Scientific consensus isn't measured purely by such statistics, but 44 articles in 15 years don't make a prima facie case for an upheaval in the life sciences when one considers the thousands upon thousands of articles published in that time frame.

Meyer also claimed "100 scientists including professors from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale and Rice, published a statement questioning the creative power of natural selection."[11] Specifically, 101 people signed a statement reading "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."[12] By 2006, the list had grown to 514.[13] However, even the Discovery Institute acknowledges that only about 25% of the signatories are biologists.[14] Since Meyer seems intent on making his argument for the existence of a controversy based purely on numbers, I will respond in kind. According to the US Census Bureau, 2.1 million people between the ages of 25 and 64 in the US held at least a bachelor's degree in biology and worked all year.[15] Even taking all of the Discovery Institute's signatories to be biologists, which they are not, apparently fewer than 600 of these 2.1 million people have a problem with Darwin. The NCSE has published its own list of scientists who support evolution. The tongue-in-cheek Project Steve, which honors the late Stephen J. Gould, amassed 1273 scientists named "Steve" who signed on as of 17 October 2008.[16] We may quibble over how many of the 2.1 million count as scientists, but I trust the point is clear. Even by the standard chosen by Meyer himself to measure the scientifically controversial nature of evolution, no controversy exists. He may as well adopt the slogan "Teach the Tiny, Lunatic Fringe Position." While this has the virtue of accuracy, I confess it doesn't have the rhetorical snap of "Teach the Controversy."

The second leg of Meyer's argument to the Ohio Board of Education was that the US Constitution allows for presentation of alternate theories to students: "[T]he court also made clear that teachers have the right to teach students about 'a variety of scientific theories about origins . . . with the clear secular intent of enhancing science education.'"[17] There are a couple of issues here that should be addressed. First, the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision casts serious doubt as to whether intelligent design satisfies the requirement that there is "a clear secular intent" in its presentation. Indeed, the judge in this case, John Jones, stated "that the religious nature of [intelligent design] would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child"[18] (in fairness, Meyer could not possibly have known the result of a case that would not be tried for another three years). Second, and perhaps more to the point, the Constitution is consistent with many things that are not pedagogically useful. It does not follow, simply because the wearing of a clown nose by a professor in algebra class passes constitutional muster, that math professors should wear clown noses while lecturing. I do not mean to equate the two, but Meyer's point seems to be that constitutionality implies pedagogical efficacy. If he only means to state that teaching intelligent design is constitutional (and, again, the Kitzmiller decision seems to rule this out), then I question the relevance of this point to the discussion.

Meyer also argues that federal education policy calls for the teaching of competing theories:

The report language accompanying the federal education act ("No Child Left Behind") states that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of views that exist [and] why such topics may generate controversy."[19]

The flaw in this reasoning, as Meyer is well aware, is that no such language appears in the law; it only appears in the report associated with the legislation. Meyer says that "report language typically articulates Congress's interpretation of law and guides its implementation. As such, report language expresses federal policy and has the effect of law."[20] This last bit is simply untrue. Reports accompanying federal legislation do not have the effect of law (Polly Price, personal communication, 19 May 2013). That is, law has the effect of law; committee reports do not. Meyer here refers to the Santorum Amendment, the language of which was not included in the law, but was included in the committee report. Since it appears nowhere in the legislation, it has no bearing whatsoever (as it happens, "courts will look to committee reports if the statute is totally unclear or screwed up, and then only if the intent specified in legislative history is abundantly clear" [Polly Price, personal communication, 19 May 2013, emphasis in original]).

A fourth argument presented by Meyer is that voters overwhelming support teaching the controversy:

In a recent national Zogby poll, 71% of those polled stated their support for teaching evidence both for and against Darwin's theory of evolution. Only 15% opposed this approach. An even greater majority favored exposing students to "evidence that points to an intelligent design of life."[21]

This could not be less to the point. To begin with, it is a clear logical fallacy, an appeal to the masses: If most people think the controversy should be taught, then the controversy should be taught. Second, people have all kinds of opinions that shouldn't be treated as credible--50% of high school seniors, for instance, think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.[22] Teach the controversy! Meyer would undoubtedly be appalled at the idea of carefully considering the two "equally valid" notions of Sodom and Gomorrah as cities and marital partners, but he doesn't seem to realize that the overwhelming majority of scientists think no better of his scheme. The fact that a majority of Americans supports an idea in no way implies that it would make for sound pedagogy.

Finally, Meyer argues that "[t]eaching the controversy about Darwinism as it exists in the scientific community will engage student interest. It will motivate students to learn more about the biological evidence ..."[23] The trouble is that there is no controversy in the scientific community. I would leave this as it stands, but Meyer, in arguing for "sound" pedagogy, perhaps accidentally hits precisely on the problem with his thesis: "[T]he modern Darwinist lobby continues to distract attention from their advocacy of censorship by reciting a litany of complaints about the emerging theory of intelligent design."[24] Meyer falsely ascribes "censorship" to the scientific community when it (the scientific community) is only insisting on the same proper peer-review process for intelligent design "theory" that any hypothesis must go through to gain acceptance. This will take a little time to explore, but keep in mind that there are only two possibilities: Either those in the intelligent design movement are disingenuous, or they have no grasp on how the peer-review process works.

So how does peer review work? First, after examining data, a scientist comes up with an idea, a hypothesis, that accounts for the observations made. She then tests this hypothesis to see if it holds water, very likely using some of her colleagues for input or simply as sounding boards. If it seems to work (that is, if it is predictively efficacious and consistent with other well-established theories), she will write up her idea and present it at a professional conference where other scientists will closely examine her idea. With this added feedback, she will again write up her work and submit it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The peer-review process is very demanding, and experts in the field (the journal reviewers, scientists themselves normally employed at universities) will examine her ideas and results to see if they measure up to the standards of the profession (prestigious journals have very low acceptance rates). If the journal is interested in publishing her work, there exists a likelihood bordering on certainty that more research and many rewrites will have to be done before the paper is published. After publication, the real examination begins, because only now is the paper available to the wider community of scientists. Those interested will closely review her work and attempt to replicate her results. If her results are replicable, and if the hypothesis gains a foothold and becomes part of the scientific orthodoxy, then her idea begins to appear in textbooks. If this sounds like a long and drawn-out process, Ken Miller (only half-joking) said, "See you at the cell biology meetings, see you at biochemistry, see you at the earth science meetings ... and if you are right in 10, 15, 20 years ... you'll ... be in classrooms and textbooks."[25]

Does it really work like this, and does it really take this long? An actual example from the history of science may be illuminating. The idea that the continents have not always been arranged as they are now is not a new idea. Abraham Ortelius first suggested the idea in 1596. In 1912, Alfred Wegener produced the first full-blown scientific conception of the movements of the continents; he called his hypothesis "continental drift." While it has been suggested by at least one author that Wegener's thesis was "systematically ignored" by the scientific community,[26] nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that the scientists of Wegener's day believed the continents were fixed in place and his hypothesis was not well received, but there was very good reason for skepticism. There was a large amount of geographic evidence to support Wegener's position, but

[a] fatal weakness in Wegener's theory was that it could not satisfactorily answer the most fundamental question raised by his critics: What kind of forces could be strong enough to move such large masses of solid rock over such great distances? Wegener suggested that the continents simply plowed through the ocean floor, but Harold Jeffreys, a noted English geophysicist, argued correctly that it was physically impossible for a large mass of solid rock to plow through the ocean floor without breaking up.[27]

Wegener continued to seek evidence to support his theory, and he died in 1930 on an expedition in Greenland. The controversy, however, did not die with him, and the concept of a spreading seafloor, developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, vindicated Wegener. The theory of plate tectonics became fully established in the geoscientific community in the late 1960s, and geology students were taught of large-scale movement in the earth's lithosphere beginning in the mid-1970s. Textbooks had finally caught up with cutting edge science.

To sum up, a hypothesis strongly supported by geological evidence in the form of geological formations and fossil sediments took 60 years to filter into textbooks because a mechanism of continental movement had to be discovered. Even when the key was hit on, it took another 15 years for the results to filter into the classroom because the theory (no longer a hypothesis) needed to spread throughout the field. Compare this to intelligent design, a hypothesis with no supporting evidence at all, and one thing becomes crystal clear: There is no censorship going on. The fact is that the scientific community is waiting for evidence to support intelligent design before granting it theory status, exactly like they do when considering any other hypothesis.

I have tried to establish that there is no identifiable scientific controversy with respect to evolution to teach; therefore, the slogan "Teach the Controversy" is incoherent. If there were a controversy, it would be pedagogically sound to teach it--there just isn't one. The fact that voters like the idea of teaching the controversy is irrelevant, and the notion that teaching the controversy is allowed by the Constitution (even if true, which it isn't) is similarly off point. Finally, the treatment of continental drift/plate tectonics shows that the scientific community is treating intelligent design in precisely the way it treats all novel claims. There is no grand conspiracy, no secret cabal. In fact, there is nothing at all to see here. Please move along.


[1] Graff, G. To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design? (1995)., (accessed 15 May 2013).

[2] Graff, G. To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design? (1995)., (accessed 15 May 2013).

[3] Graff, G. To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design? (1995)., (accessed 15 May 2013).

[4] Graff, G. To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design? (1995)., (accessed 15 May 2013).

[5] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[6] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[7] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[8] NCSE. Analysis of the Discovery Institute's Bibliography. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).



[11] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[12] Chang, K. Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition. (2006). (accessed 17 May 2013).

[13] Chang, K. Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition. (2006). (accessed 17 May 2013).

[14] Chang, K. Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition. (2006). (accessed 17 May 2013).

[15] US Census Bureau. (2012). (accessessed 17 May 2013).

[16] NCSE. Project Steve. (2008). (accessed 17 May 2013).

[17] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[18] The TalkOrigins Archive. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board. (accessed 18 May 2013).

[19] The TalkOrigins Archive. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board. (accessed 18 May 2013).

[20] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[21] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[22] Grossman, C. Americans Get an 'F' in Religion. (2007). (accessed 19 May 2013).

[23] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[24] Meyer, S. Teach the Controversy. (2002). (accessed 16 May 2013).

[25] Miller, K. The Collapse of Intelligent Design - Kenneth Miller Lecture. (2012). (101:40-102:05, accessed 19 May 2013).

[26] Herndon, J. Teaching Earth Dynamics: What's Wrong with Plate Tectonics Theory? (2005). (p. 2, accessed 19 May 2013).

[27] US Geological Survey. Historical Perspective. (2012). (accessed 19 May 2013).

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