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Turn out the lights, the “Teach the controversy” party’s over

Robert Camp

February 25, 2006

Introduction

“The clarion call of the intelligent design movement is to “teach the controversy.” There is a very real controversy centering on how properly to account for biological complexity (cf. the ongoing events in Kansas), and it is a scientific controversy.”1

This comment from William Dembski demonstrates the use of what must be the most ubiquitous sound bite offered by “Intelligent design” (ID) advocates. “Teach the controversy” has been employed throughout the breadth and depth of the ID movement both as an attack upon the “academic unfairness” of an evolutionary monopoly on origins instruction, and as a call to arms for those slighted by such perceived persecution. As both a declaration and a shibboleth, it is one of the lashings holding together, if tenuously, the “big tent” of creationism.

“Controversy” rhetoric has likely floated around this debate for as long as individuals have noticed the difference between scriptural and scientific explanations of the natural world. But for the purposes of discussion of ID, we can look to a piece written by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute (an ID think tank in Seattle) for its modern codification as a political strategy. During public discussion of education standards in the state of Ohio, Meyer presented his ideas by way of a brief essay entitled “Teach the controversy.”2 His piece begins,

“When two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects the public school curriculum students should learn about both perspectives.

In such cases teachers should not teach as true only one competing view, just the Republican or Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. Educators call this “teaching the controversy.”2

Of course what everyone has known since Meyer launched this line of argumentation, and several (including myself 3) have addressed in print, is that Meyer’s controversy is a false construction. Assured that one can always find a PhD who will express support for any particular notion, and trusting that all he needs to do is sow the seeds of doubt, Meyer builds his argument upon the idea that “two groups of experts disagree” as if there is an equivalence of opinion on the issue.

But the false definitions have been obvious from the beginning. Meyer was not outlining a professional controversy between groups of experts on evolution. He was merely renaming the conflict that already existed between biologists and creationists, as did his colleagues who wrote the ID text Of Pandas and People (wherein the word “creationism” was crossed out and “intelligent design” substituted), and hoping to summarily qualify this long-running debate for inclusion in educational curricula 4.

Critics argue that the controversy to which ID proponents refer is political in nature and thus, by definition, prohibited from the scientific educational curricula. ID proponents, however, simply ignore this argument and continue to lay claim to a “scientific controversy.”

What is needed is an overt demonstration of the truth or falsity of their assertion. Should such a development reveal no dispute, it would force the recognition of “teach the controversy” as a marketing ploy, and further place ID as a political movement. Is there, then, a way to determine the unvarnished truth of this claim? Is there a voice of authority on the issue? In fact, there is.

The Question

“If you want to know how old the earth is, go ask a geologist” 5

Accepting this ironic bit of advice from a Discovery Institute fellow, the way to determine the truth of “teach the scientific controversy” seemed obvious. If there are authoritative voices on the purported existence of a controversy among biologists regarding mechanisms of evolution, they belong to those individuals who are well aware of the most current scholarship in their field and are in touch with daily discussion of that scholarship. This effectively describes the heads of prominent research university biology departments.

Needing, then, a fairly comprehensive list of such institutions I consulted The Top American Research Universities, an annual compiled and released by The Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance out of the University of Florida 6. This document gathers data regarding the amount and type of research investments and collates the information so as to be useful from several different perspectives. For my purposes a table entitled “Research by Major Discipline (Institutions with over $20 million in federal research, alphabetically)” served nicely. This table broke down expenditure by discipline, enabling me to remove from my list universities that devoted less than 5% to the life sciences.

After compiling the list of schools, I set about gathering the names and email addresses of the relevant department heads. In the case that I could find a Chair/Dean etc. of a College or Department of Biological Sciences I chose this option. In some cases no such position existed - Sciences is often part of a College of Arts and Sciences for which the dean or chair may not be a biologist (and therefore not a suitable subject for my investigation). Often the Biology part of the Sciences college is broken down into smaller departments, each with its own chairperson. Thus, in the case of finding no general biology department head, I looked next for a chair of Cell Biology or Molecular biology or Biochemistry. I did this for two reasons. First, although it is well understood that the great bulk of ID “theory” consists mostly of complaints about gaps in current evolutionary understanding, those few substantive biological arguments that have been advanced all exist in the realm of the cell and its components. I reasoned that individuals involved with this type of work would be more likely to be familiar with the most current information. Secondly, I did not wish to be seen to bias the question by primarily asking individuals from Evolutionary Bio (usually Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) departments although I was, in a very few cases, left with only this option.

The only schools from the annual list not contacted in this survey are those that allotted less than 5% for life science, and those for which no email contact could be found.

I then set about composing an email and phrasing the question. In doing so the goal was to be brief, non-provocative, and very specific. I tried to set up my query in such a way as to recognize and separate personal from professional perspectives. The initial email contact, then, included a brief introduction and the following,

Survey of Biological Sciences department heads regarding “Teach the controversy.”

Q: Regarding the issue of “Intelligent Design theory” vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution - is there a difference of professional opinion within your department that you feel could be accurately described as a scientific controversy?

  1. No
  2. Yes

Comments:

I assured each individual that comments were not necessary but welcome should they feel so inclined, and let them know that neither their words nor names would be used without permission. I was to regret not having asked for this permission up front.

The Answer

Of the 158 initial query emails sent over two days I received 73 responses, 45 of which included comments (Table 1). Both of these numbers far exceeded my expectations. Although I’d planned to send a second email thanking the respondents for their time and asking (what I expected to be) the few who sent comments for their permission to quote, I had not expected such an extended second round of emails. Of the 45 responses with comments, 27 allowed me their use, only two of those asking that I withhold their name. Considering the vicissitudes of email, the extra bother to very busy people, and the natural desire not to cause any potential distraction for an employer, I found the overall response to be instructive.

Over 97% of the responding Bio dept. heads answered in the negative — affirming that there is no scientific controversy at their institution (Table 1). Just one individual (1.4%) hedged by allowing that there was one faculty member who publicly supports ID (see Comments), but this observation was followed by the assertion that the “vast majority” do not consider ID scientific and thus see no scientific controversy. And one individual (1.4%) responded with a positive recognition of a scientific controversy. It must be noted that this lone “Yes” response came from a theological medical university.

Survey of Biological Sciences department heads regarding “Teach the controversy.” # %
Queries Sent 158
Responses 73 46.2
Responses - negative (There is no scientific controversy) 71 97.3
Responses — equivocal (No scientific controversy, but...) 1 1.4
Responses — positive (There is a scientific controversy) 1 1.4

Table 1. Tally of respondents (biological department heads) to the question: “Regarding the issue of “Intelligent Design theory” vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution - is there a difference of professional opinion within your department that you feel could be accurately described as a scientific controversy?”

In trying to anticipate possible protests about the methodology of this study I can think of only the following,

  1. “Teach the controversy” is proposed as an alternative to teaching “Intelligent design.” The survey question advances a false dichotomy.

    This is likely to be the most prevalent rejoinder to the paper. However it is nearly as disingenuous as the “Teach the controversy” slogan itself. The controversy rhetoric is virtually indistinguishable from that which proponents advance as the substance of “Intelligent design.” Both are collections of grievances about gaps in evolutionary theory and the lack of details regarding particular mechanisms. They do not offer an alternative, other than the label. “Teach the controversy” is simply the rebadged incredulity of “Intelligent design.”

  2. Department heads may not respond forthrightly for fear of losing their jobs or affecting their institution’s endowments.

    All comments received were straightforward and without guise or artifice, including the equivocal and positive responses. And in my initial email I made it clear (and have followed through on this) that no names would be released without expressed permission.

    One might also turn that protest around to suggest that the lone “Yes” response came from an institution in which it might serve individuals to act as if they accept the possibility of ID when in fact they do not.

    But the most important point is this — if individuals are keeping their true opinions under wraps how then can anyone infer that there is a “scientific controversy” in play? For this to be the case there would have to be unreserved support for, and active discussion of, such conflicts. If there are no vocal scientist proponents — there is no scientific controversy.

  3. This survey does not speak to the cosmological evidence, and any controversy thereof, regarding “Intelligent Design.”

    True enough. I queried only heads of Biology departments. But the world of biology is unquestionably the focus of the ID movement as regards teaching “the controversy.” Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” Dembski’s “specified complexity” and Meyer’s mystifying difficulties with the Cambrian explosion all address, and question, current evolutionary biological consensus 7.

    In any case it is simply not possible to argue that one should “teach the controversy” regarding cosmological design because this very clearly runs afoul of the establishment clause. Any designer capable of creating the universe must be considered beyond the merely natural. Both Behe and Dembski have made clear the necessary transcendent nature of a cosmological designer.

  4. The results of the survey are biased or self-selecting. Those who might answer in the affirmative were less likely to reply.

    Always a possibility. I tried to avoid provocative language and encourage as many responses, from both sides (should they exist), as possible. I made it clear that I was not neutral but included no views of my own. I tried to phrase the question so there could be no mistaking that this was about professional, not personal, opinion. And I tried to make answering the question as painless as possible.

    The emails are there for evaluation (in the unabridged paper). I cannot see the bias, however I allow that it may exist. But should this be the case one must ask - is it of such an egregious nature as to so overwhelmingly skew the results?

    In addition, I submit that if indeed there is a scientific controversy the nature of “controversy” itself implies a desire for a hearing. I would not expect those who see a controversy to demur, I’d expect their “persecuted” position to be over-represented, if only by dint of passion.

  5. Only biologists were surveyed.

    It perverts logic to propose that anyone but biologists should be asked whether there exists within the biological disciplines a scientific controversy, the protests of philosophers and theologians notwithstanding.

Conclusions

Professors from Washington to Florida and from southern California to New England responded to the question, all but two with an unqualified “No” (some even added an exclamation point). And those two divergent responses serve to point up the open and thoughtful nature of the answers. One, a “No, but...” observed that there was virtually no professional controversy within their department but acknowledged that one colleague had spoken favorably of the concept publicly (see Comments). And the only assent to controversy came from an institution dedicated to an ideological view of the world, including the world of biology. This may serve as evidence of a “controversy” in that particular university. But in the larger context, its effect is only to put the overwhelming consensus into sharper focus.

There is no party line, there are no knee-jerk responses in the comments received (though there is a good bit of candor). These results are born of the understanding, among those with authoritative opinions, of where the proper lines between scientific and religious epistemologies must be drawn. Some even teach classes that include discussion of “Intelligent Design” but they understand that it is not science, and that there is no relevant controversy.

I harbor no illusions that this information will come as a surprise to any scientist, and I suspect most clear-thinking non-scientists will have already surmised the truth of the situation. In discussion of this project I have referred to it as a study or survey, but to be candid it is really nothing more a simple canvassing of those who know. It is a blunt and unequivocal response to what has up to this point been treated, by much of the media as well as the ID movement, as an acceptable assumption.

As an attempt to put empirical weight behind that which has been well understood all along, the numbers here are unambiguous. There is no “scientific” controversy regarding “Intelligent Design theory.” It exists as a conceit of personal ideology, and persists as a political strategy. And in the case that the slogan is still employed once the user has been informed of this survey it can be considered a deliberate falsehood.

If “Intelligent Design” proponents and theorists wish to carve out space for their “controversy” they will have to earn it in the traditional fashion. They will have to do the research, submit to peer-reviewed journals, and accumulate enough evidence to be spoken of with respect, not dismissal, in biology departments across the country.

Until then “teach the scientific controversy” will remain a mendacious bit of hucksterism.

Comments

Selected remarks from department heads. (The professors quoted below have given permission to use their words and names. I have chosen not to include their university affiliations.)

No

The entire biological sciences field from biochemistry to ecology is predicated on the fact of evolution. In 100 years of intensive research no facts inconsistent with evolutionary theory have ever been found. On the contrary, as we have obtained more and more detailed information, especially at the molecular and genomic levels, both the fact that evolution has occurred, creating the species currently existing on earth (including man), and the various mechanisms by which this occurs have become more and more clear. The question is not whether evolution has occurred, but which mechanisms have been most important. There is no need to invoke the supernatural or any higher power to explain life on earth. There is no controversy whatsoever among the many thousands of scientists in the field about the fact of evolution.
Tom Blumenthal

The answer is “No” . There is no scientific controversy because there is no scientific relationship between “Intelligent design (Formerly Creation Science) and Evolution. They are neither compatible nor incompatible. Members of my department are quite knowledgeable on the use of the scientific method in science while they are equally knowledgeable and tolerant of different religious beliefs. All see ID as religion and it does not meet the criteria of science. It is viewed as unintelligent to discuss the two together. Since they are based on different methodologies that are not compatible by any intellectual measure. ID is religion and should be discussed in that vein. We (biochemists) see Evolution and the phylogenetic origin of living systems at the molecular level. It is very real and determined with scientific methodology. This has no bearing on the religious belief of many scientist on their spirituality and deep personal beliefs of a superior being. Then there are those who refuse to accept the phylogenetic evolutionary organization of species as a matter of challenges to their Faith.
Earl D. Mitchell Jr.

I have not heard one faculty member in my department speak in favor of ID as a scientific alternative to classic mechanisms of evolution. In fact we have had a number of faculty who have written editorials and been interviewed on the subject and who have tried to explain the position of most biologists. Our department offers a course for non-majors entitled Evolution and Creationism and sponsors a Darwin Day. In these venues and in other seminars and discussions, we try to present both sides in a rationale way. But the message is always the same—ID is not a scientific approach to the origin of species.
A.P. Wheeler

The bottom line is that there is no controversy about Intelligent Design. Science is what it is. It has nothing to say about God or religion. It has nothing to say about Intelligent Design other than that it is an untestable concept and therefore is not science. The flip side of that coin is that Intelligent Design has nothing to say about scientific theories, Darwin’s or anyone else’s. Any “controversy” that might be invoked is an artificial one designed, in my view, to serve another purpose.
W. Geoffrey Owen

Absolutely no controversy regarding the reality of evolution in biology or its basic mechanisms. Evolution of life on earth from a common ancestor is the best supported and most important general principle in biology.
Thomas D. Pollard

No, there is no difference of professional opinion within my department that could be accurately described as a scientific controversy regarding the issue of “Intelligent Design theory” vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution. Unanimously, evolution is accepted as a valid scientific discipline and intelligent design is not. No one feels that intelligent design can be considered “scientific” or should be taught in the science classroom.
Rob McClung

There is no sense in which “Intelligent Design” is science - as logic, it is an example of the argumentum ad ignorantiam, a material fallacy, and there is no associated experimental program or testable hypothesis. Thus, there could be no scientific controversy.

What surprises me is that there is so little concern among the religious about what poor theology it is - surely people with genuine faith wouldn’t require a scientific proof of their beliefs, and wouldn’t accept a proof based on what we do not know, as what we do not know is diminishing with time.
Elliot Meyerowitz

I can state unequivocally that there is no controversy in my department among the faculty on the concept of “Intelligent Design” as a scientific hypothesis that could account for the biological world as we see it. At the end of the day, the theory of “Intelligent Design” is not a scientific theory. We all know that for a theory to be “scientific,” it must be refutable. The theory of evolution is refutable. However, after all the work focused on evolution over the past 100+ years, no study has refuted this theory. In contrast, no experiment can be designed to test the hypothesis of “Intelligent Design” that could possible refute the hypothesis.
R. Thomas Zoeller

Scientific controversies, of which there are many, arise and are settled in the peer-reviewed scientific literature — on the basis of available evidence. There is no controversy within science itself arising from the idea of intelligent design. I am not aware of anyone giving credence to intelligent design (or conversely, casting doubt on evolution) in the department. If they had such evidence, I would urge them to publish it and instantly become rich and famous!
Frank Messina

There is no controversy. Evolution is fundamental to the understanding of Biology, and the several theories by which evolution can be explained comprise a dynamic, honest discussion of scientific thought. However, of all of these, no one seriously considers “intelligent design” as an honest alternative. I will go further. Proponents of intelligent design have displayed an inordinate level of intellectual dishonesty.
Vincent M. Cassone

No controversy in our biological sciences department of 40 faculty. All faculty accept that mutation occurs, and that populations have changes in gene frequencies over time, some leading to changes in form and function. Many faculty hold religious beliefs, but none of the faculty challenge the validity of evolution and the general time frame that evolution has taken place on Earth (i.e., over billions of years). “Intelligent design” is viewed as a religious and social discussion, not a matter of science.
Robert H. Jones

Most of the issues raised in “teaching the controversy” are actually misconceptions about evolutionary biology or misrepresentations of current understanding. There are many unsettled questions in evolutionary biology, but these are no more controversial than any other unsettled questions in science more generally. Intelligent Design Theory is not really an explanatory theory in any sense.
Joseph F. Koonce

So far as ‘teaching’ the so-called controversy, I think that it should be discussed, but as a social science, political science, or philosophical issue because it is a ‘current event’ in our society. However, it would not be appropriate to include this as part of a science curriculum simply because there is no science behind ID, it is only an untested hypothesis. [It is incumbent on the proponents of ID to change this situation.]
Larry Forney

If any aspect of the concept of evolution turns out to be incorrect, then this will only be determined by scientific investigation. ID is a fairly untestable and unscientific hypothesis, therefore, impossible to prove or disprove. In light of this consideration, if we start teaching ID, it is hard to imagine how this can be done in the context of science. In fairness, if ID is taught in any context, then we also should include teaching of other views on the matter. In this event, would we include the views of the Raelians? This gets absurd pretty quickly.
Daniel Carson

This question has been discussed several times amongst my faculty and I can respond definitively that 100% of the faculty in my department (26 persons) support the theory of evolution and not a single person considers ID a legitimate scientific concept. Thus, there is no professional controversy. The claim by ID proponents that there is growing support for ID by trained scientists is simply not supported by the data. The lack of data, by the way, is the fundamental problem with ID as a scientific concept.
Dan Bush

The faculty in my department variously regard the ID crowd as insane, ignorant, dangerous, or the butt of jokes. Among our group, ID is considered a not-so-subtle cover for Christian fundamentalist creationism. There are ongoing controversies within the field of evolutionary biology, as in ALL intellectually vibrant scientific disciplines. However, there is no controversy among our faculty about the broad ideas of modern evolutionary biology; that evolution has occurred through processes of natural selection, isolation with genetic drift, and sexual selection. In life sciences, evolution has the same status as a “theory” as the idea that genetic information is encoded by nucleic acids, or that cells are bounded by membranes. That is to say, the evidence is so strong and comes from so many directions, that to deny these fundamental concepts is, in the Year of Our Lord 2006, to be delusional.
Stuart Dryer

No, but...

There is one faculty member in my college who publicly ascribes to Intelligent Design. No others have done so publicly, and most who have shared an opinion are opposed to ID as a scientific principle. The vast majority, then, do not see a scientific controversy, but there is a visible minority of (at least) one who does.
(Name withheld)

Yes

(I have not received permission to print this name and comments.)

References

  1. William Dembski - Teaching Intelligent Design: What Happened When? http://www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_teachingid0201.htm
  2. Stephen C. Meyer — Teach the controversy. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?program=CSC&command=view&id=1134
  3. Camp, Robert. 2004. “Teach the controversy” - An “intelligently designed” ruse. Skeptical Inquirer.
  4. Missing Link Discovered. Nick Matzke. NCSE. http://www2.ncseweb.org/wp/?p=80
  5. Pat Sherman. 2005. The Missing Link. San Diego CityBeat. http://www.sdcitybeat.com/article.php?id=3784
  6. Lombardi et al. 2003. The Top American Research Universities. University of Florida. p112. http://thecenter.ufl.edu/research2003.pdf
  7. Lombardi et al. 2004. The Top American Research Universities. University of Florida. p74. http://thecenter.ufl.edu/research2004.pdf
  8. Meyer’s Hopeless Monster. Gishlick et al. Talk Reason. http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Meyer.cfm

Robert Camp

Robert Camp is a freelance writer living in San Juan Capistrano, California. A selection of his work can be found at the Nightlight Blog.