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Teach the Controversy

Published in The Cincinnati Enquirer

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.”

Recently, while speaking to the Ohio State Board of Education, I suggested this approach as a way forward for Ohio in its increasingly contentious dispute about how to teach theories of biological origin, and about whether or not to introduce the theory of intelligent design alongside Darwinism in the Ohio biology curriculum.

I also proposed a compromise involving three main provisions:

  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.

There are many reasons for Ohio to adopt this approach.

First, honest science education requires it. While testifying before the state board, biologist Dr. Jonathan Wells and I, submitted an annotated bibliography of over 40 peer-reviewed scientific articles that raise significant challenges to key tenets of Darwinian evolution. If students are to be required to master the case for Darwinian evolution (as we think they should), shouldn’t they also know some of the difficulties described in such scientific literature?

Shouldn’t students know that many scientists doubt that the overall pattern of fossil evidence conforms to the Darwinian picture of the history of life? Shouldn’t they know that some scientists now question previously stock Darwinian arguments from embryology and homology? And shouldn’t they also know that many scientists now question the ability of natural selection to create fundamentally new structures, organisms and body plans? Last fall 100 scientists, including professors from institutions such as M.I.T, Yale and Rice, published a statement questioning the creative power of natural selection. Shouldn’t students know why?

Second, constitutional law permits “teaching the controversy” about scientific theories of origins. In the controlling Edwards v. Aguillard case, the Supreme Court made clear that state legislatures (and by extension state boards) already have the right to mandate teaching scientific critiques of prevailing theories. Interestingly, the 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.” Our compromise proposal requires teaching existing scientific critique of Darwinism, and permits discussion of competing theories, just as the Court allows.

Third, federal education policy calls for precisely this kind of approach. 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.”

Some have dismissed this language as irrelevant to Ohio’s deliberations because it appears in the report accompanying the federal education act, not in the act itself. But 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. In this case, as Ohio’s John Boehner, chair of the House education committee, has advised the Ohio Board, the report language makes clear that “science standards not be used to censor debate on controversial issues in science including Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

Fourth, voters overwhelmingly favor this approach. 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.”

Finally, good pedagogy commends this approach. Teaching 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 as they see why it matters to a big question. This is not only good teaching; it is good science. As Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Yet, the 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. But that theory is not the issue in Ohio. The issue is whether students will learn both sides of the real and growing scientific controversy about Darwinism, and whether a 19th century theory will be taught dogmatically to 21st century students.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.