»  National Review Online

August 30th, 2005

  Teaching Science

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Catching up on back news this past few days — I was out of the country for the first two weeks of August — I caught President Bush's endorsement of teaching Intelligent Design in public school science classes. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," President Bush told a reporter August 2, "so people can understand what the debate is all about."

This is Bush at his muddle-headed worst, conferring all the authority of the presidency on the teaching of pseudoscience in science classes. Why stop with Intelligent Design (the theory that life on earth has developed by a series of supernatural miracles performed by the God of the Christian Bible, for which it is pointless to seek any naturalistic explanation)? Why not teach the little ones astrology? Lysenkoism? Orgonomy? Dianetics? Reflexology? Dowsing and radiesthesia? Forteanism? Velikovskianism? Lawsonomy? Secrets of the Great Pyramid? ESP and psychokinesis? Atlantis and Lemuria? The Hollow Earth Theory? Does the President have any idea, does he have any idea, how many varieties of pseudoscientific flapdoodle there are in the world? If you are going to teach one, why not teach the rest? Shouldn't all sides be "properly taught"? To give our kids, you know, a rounded picture? Has the President scrutinized Velikovsky's theories? Can he refute them? Can you?

And every buncombe theory — every one of those species of twaddle that I listed — has, or at some point had, as many adherents as Intelligent Design. The Hollow Earth Theory was taken up by the Nazis and taught, as the Hohlweltlehre, in German schools. It still has a following in Germany today. Velikovsky's theories — he believed that Jupiter gave birth to a giant comet which, after passing close to earth and causing the miracles of the Book of Exodus, settled down as the planet Venus — were immensely popular in the 1950s and generated heated controversy, with angry accusations by the Velikovskians that they were being shut out by closed-minded orthodox astronomers determined to protect their turf, etc., etc. Lysenkoism was state doctrine in Stalin's Russia and was taught at the most prestigious universities. Expressing skepticism about it could get you shot. (Likewise with the bizarre linguistic theories of Stalin's protégé N.Y. Marr, who believed that every word in every human language derived from one of four basic elements, pronounced "sal,"  "ber,"  "yon,"  and "rosh." I tell you, the house of pseudoscience has many, many mansions.) Dianetics was rebranded as Scientology and is now a great force in the land — try criticizing it, and you'll find out.

Nor is any of these theories lacking in a certain appeal, as Martin Gardner, from whose book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science I compiled that list, is charitable enough to point out. Of Lawsonomy — "The earth is a huge organism operating by Suction and Pressure …" — Gardner says generously: "This makes more sense than one might think." Pseudoscience is in fact a fascinating study, though as sociology, not as science. Gardner's book, now fifty years old, is still an excellent introduction, and great fun to read.

What, then, should we teach our kids in high school science classes? The answer seems to me very obvious. We should teach them consensus science, and we should teach it conservatively. Consensus science is the science that most scientists believe ought to be taught. "Conservatively" means eschewing theories that are speculative, unproven, require higher math, or even just are new, in favor of what is well settled in the consensus. It means teaching science unskeptically, as settled fact.

Consider physics, for example. It became known, in the early years of the last century, that Newton's physics breaks down at very large or very tiny scales of distance, time, and speed. New theories were cooked up to explain the discrepancies: the Special and General Theories of Relativity, Quantum Theory and its offspring. By the 1930s these new theories were widely accepted, though some of the fine details remained (and some still remain!) to be worked out.

Then, in the late 1950s, along came your humble correspondent, to study physics to advanced level at a good English secondary school. What did they teach us? Newtonian mechanics! I didn't take a class in Relativity Theory until my third year at university, age 21. I never have formally studied Quantum Mechanics, though I flatter myself I understand it well enough.

My schoolmasters did the right thing. Newton's mechanics is the foundation of all physics. "But it's wrong!" you may protest. Well, so it is; but it is right enough to form that essential foundation; right enough that you cannot understand the nature of its wrongness until you have mastered it. (Along with some college-level math.) Furthermore, it is consensus science. By that I mean, if you were to poll 10,000 productive working physicists and ask them what ought to be taught in our high schools, I imagine that upwards of 9,900 of them would say: "Well, you have to get Newtonian mechanics into their heads …" No doubt you'd find the odd Velikovskian or adherent of the Hohlweltlehre, but Newtonism would be the consensus. Intelligent high school seniors should, I think, be encouraged to read popular books about Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Perhaps, nowadays — I couldn't say, I am out of touch — teachers have even figured out how to make some of that higher stuff accessible to young minds, and are teaching it. If so, that's great. The foundation, though, must be consensus science, conservatively taught.

I think intelligent teenagers should also be given some acquaintance with pseudoscience, just so that they might learn to spot it when they see it. A copy of that excellent magazine Skeptical Inquirer ought to be available in any good high school library, along with books like Gardner's. I am not sure that either pseudoscience or its refutation has any place in the science classroom, though. These things properly belong in Social Studies, if anywhere outside the library.

And what should we teach our kids in biology classes, concerning the development of living things on earth? We should teach them Darwinism, on exactly the same arguments. There is no doubt this is consensus science. When the Intelligent Design people flourished a list of 400 scientists who were skeptical of the Theory of Evolution, the National Center for Science Education launched "Project Steve," in which they asked for affirmation of the contrary view, but only from scientists named Steve. (Which they estimate to be about one percent of all U.S. scientists.) The Steve-O-Meter stands at 577 as of this July 8, implying around 57,000 scientists on the orthodox side. That's consensus science. When the I.D. support roster has 57,000 names on it, drop me a line.

And Darwinism ought to be taught conservatively, without skepticism or equivocation, which will only confuse young minds. Darwinism is the essential foundation for all of modern biology and genomics, and offers a convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences. It may be that, as we get to finer levels of detail, we shall find gaps and discrepancies in Darwinism that need new theories to explain them. This is a normal thing in science, and new theories will be worked out to plug the gaps, as happened with Newtonism a hundred years ago. If this happens, nobody — no responsible scientist — will be running round tearing his hair, howling "Darwinism is a theory in crisis!" any more than the publication of Einstein's great papers a hundred years ago caused physicists to make bonfires of the Principia. The new theories, once tested and validated, will be welcomed and incorporated, as Einstein's and Planck's were. And very likely our high schools will just go on teaching Darwinism, as mine taught me Newtonism fifty years after Einstein's revolution. They will be right to do so, in my opinion, just as my schoolmasters were right.

If you are afraid that your children, being confronted with science in school, will turn into atheists and materialists, you have a wide variety of options available to you in this free nation. Most obviously, you should take your kids to church regularly, encourage them to pray, say grace before meals, and respond to those knotty questions that children sometimes ask with answers from your own faith. Or you could home-school them, or send them to a religious school, and make sure they are not exposed to the science you fear so much.

You really shouldn't be afraid of science, though. Plenty of fine scientists have been religious. The hero of my last book, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century, was a very devout man, as I took pains to make clear. The same can be said of many Darwinists. I am currently researching the life of the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley, who was a keen naturalist, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Darwin, and also a passionate Christian, who preached the last of his many fine sermons from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. (The last words of that sermon were: "Come as thou seest best, but in whatsoever way thou comest, even so come, Lord Jesus." I suppose this man would be considered impious by the Intelligent Design merchants.)

A great deal of nonsense is being talked in this zone recently. Science is science, and ought to be taught in our public schools conservatively, from the professional consensus, as settled fact. Religion is quite a different thing. It is not entirely unconnected with science. Many scientists have believed that in their inquiries, they were engaging with God's thoughts. Faraday certainly thought so; probably Newton did, too; possibly Einstein did. This has even been a strong motivation for scientific research, and it is probable that in a world with no religion, we should have much less science than we have.

Those are matters psychological and motivational, though. They don't — they can't — inform the content of scientific theories, because those theories are naturalistic by definition. Whether miracles happen in the world is a thing you must decide for yourself, based on your own faith, study, and life experiences. To admit miracles into a scientific theory, however, turns it into pseudoscience at once; and while pseudoscience can be fun, it is not science. Nor is it religion, except in the widest and loosest possible sense of that word, a sense that includes every kind of supernatural baloney that any clever crackpot can come up with — a sense I personally will not accept.