Thursday, February 07, 2008

Darwinians SHOULD Teach the Controversy

I think it is wrong for our science students not to be taught the controversy surrounding Darwinian evolution in public high schools. Of course, I'm not speaking about intelligent design creationism here, but other controversies.

I'll never forget a talk I attended in graduate school by Stephen Stanley, an early adherent of the punctuated equilibrium approach which challenged the traditional gradualist picture of the development of species. Fireworks understates the red-faced passion of the discussants. It was full-contact science and, man, was it exciting.

Like stories of riots after symphonies in the last century, the idea of scientists really worked up makes no sense to many folks today and part of that is because the scientific literacy approach to teaching science focuses less on the narrative histories of why smart people disagreed about things and how the case was eventually decided. Science is like a protracted court room drama that can keep you on the edge of your seat, yet it is largely taught as something to be grasped and applied -- skills a large minority of students will ever need and which they can be trained later at the higher levels.

If we taught science as an on-going passionate argument, as a developing conversation that is continuing to develop, it might become more engaging and less opaque. That might lead to a wider understanding of why we are discussing the questions we are now discussing and why views that were prevalent at an earlier point in the conversation were held by smart people at tat point in the discussion, but are not held by any well-informed person at this point.

Perhaps teaching real controversy as a matter of course, not presenting some phony "scientific method" whereby absolute truth pops out of a flow-charted turn the crank logical machine, but showing that at every step of the way there is passionate argumentation by real scientists challenging each other on everything would enhance understanding and interest in science. Maybe teaching real controversy could lead to not having to worry so much about being forced to teach fake controversies.