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« CNN: Your 24 Hour Dead Pope Network The RantsMore *@$&#%! Media Censorship? »

Unintelligently Designed Journalism
2005.04.07 (Thu) 16:32

Jay Mathews, apparently an education columnist (if you can believe that) for the Washington Post, was bored and frustrated in his high school biology class — and apparently, he believes this is a good enough reason to teach Intelligent Design "theory" in our high school science classes.

He loved his history class — wow, how strange and unusual for someone who went into journalism — but claims in his Washington Post op-ed:

My biology class, sadly, was another story. I slogged joylessly through all the phyla and the principles of Darwinism, memorizing as best as I could. It never occurred to me that this class could have been as interesting as history until I recently started to read about "intelligent design"...

Drop in on an average biology class and you will find the same slow, deadening march of memorization that I endured at 15.

Wait a second...so biology classes are the ones filled with rote memorization? As Mathews puts it, it seems they consist solely of memorization. This sounds funny coming from a guy who loved his history class — a class notoriously viewed by students as nothing more than an exercise in memorizing dates and events.

We're not slamming history classes here — we're just taking exception to Mathews' characterization of biology classes. We, personally, were constantly fascinated by the flow of information and logical connections presented in our science classes. Was there an element of "just memorize it" in them? Sure — you've got the periodic table in chemistry, the Krebs cycle and taxonomic classification system in biology, and a whole host of numerical constants in physics. But the same is true of any academic subject. Hello — historical dates? Hello — mathematical axioms and geometric formulae? Hello — the rules of grammar and spelling? Hello — foreign language vocabulary?

To learn any subject, there is some memorization required; but after you've started absorbing the information, it's time to move on to making discoveries and connections, using reason, intuition, imagination and creativity. That's the learning process. Jay Mathews may think he's above all the "needless" memorization of facts, but judging by his articles, we would disagree strongly with his self assessment.

So what's Mathews' point in bringing all this up? Obviously, that introducing Intelligent Design to our science classes would be a step in the right direction.

Many education experts and important scientists say we have to keep this religious-based nonsense out of the classroom. But is that really such a good idea?


...after interviewing supporters and opponents of intelligent design, which argues among other things that today's organisms are too complex to have evolved from primordial chemicals by chance or necessity, I think critiques of modern biology...could be one of the best things to happen to high school science.

...Why not enliven this with a student debate on contrasting theories? Why not have an intelligent design advocate stop by to be interrogated? Many students, like me, find it hard to understand evolutionary theory, and the scientific method itself, until they are illuminated by contrasting points of view.

The sheer volume of ignorance and misconception represented by Mathews' words is staggering. As always, the bottom line is that Intelligent Design is not, repeat not — and one more time for the cheap seats, NOT — a "critique of modern biology," as Mathews likes to believe. It is, on the contrary, an ever-so-thinly veiled attempt to infiltrate state-funded science classes with religious opinions. Intelligent Design offers no productive or constructive criticism of any biological theories. It goes from the Observation stage of the scientific method to the Hypothesis stage — and stops dead right there, unable to continue the journey through Prediction and Experimentation to become at all useful to scientists, science teachers, or science students.

Mathews wants us to "teach the debate," but he is blissfully unaware of the fact that there is no debate. On one side, we have a number of heavily tested scientific theories with abundant and accurate predictive contributions to our always-finite knowledge of the universe. On the other side, there are a bunch of agenda-driven powermongers saying: "Oooh...we don't know how this happened...it must have been a spooky ghost man who lives in the sky!" That's not a debate; that's genuine curiosity and reasoning vs. total ignorance and assumption.

If Mathews isn't a paid shill for the far right, he's doing a remarkably good imitation of one.

Addressing the suggestion that high school students and teachers can't handle this "explosive topic," Mathews says:

But how do we know if we keep paying expensive lawyers to make sure the experiment is never conducted?

Because, you fucking moron, the "experiment" isn't meant to be conducted by high school students, but rather by people who know what they're doing. If (hoo boy, that's a big "if") the Intelligent Design folks can come up with a solid, testable, falsifiable hypothesis, then real scientists — not your typical American high school students — will figure out if it holds water. When there is something to teach — as opposed to just "God...sorry, I mean an Intelligent Being or Beings designed it all" — then it is time to introduce it to the students.

Mathews is quite taken with the ID folks:

But they passed one of my tests. They answered Gould's favorite question: If you are real scientists, then what evidence would disprove your hypothesis? West indicated that any discovery of precursors of the animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago would cast doubt on the thesis that those plans, in defiance of Darwin, evolved without a universal common ancestor.

Sure we can look up information on the Cambrian explosion and related issues, but that actually goes far beyond our point. That point is: just how far do we have to go until the ID folks stop moving the goalposts? Would discoveries such as those described above truly "disprove" the Intelligent Design hypothesis? Why? It seems to us a simple matter of saying, "Well, okay, so these creatures evolved from those creatures...but those creatures were designed!" There's no way to win against such obstinate and irrational arguments.

Mathews is either awfully gullible, terribly ignorant, or totally loyal to the ID camp. We give him the benefit of the doubt — we believe it's a combination of the first two. There's one glaringly obvious tell-tale sign, repeated throughout his piece:

I slogged joylessly through all the phyla and the principles of Darwinism...

I am as devout a Darwinist as anybody.


John Angus Campbell...has been trying to coax more of them into letting their students consider Darwin's critics.


Turning Darwin into an unassailable god without blemishes, Campbell said, doesn't give student brains enough exercise.

[our emphasis]

Anybody who refers to evolution as "Darwinism," ignoring the fact that the modern theory of evolution has far surpassed the nineteenth century ideas of Charles Darwin, has no fucking clue about evolution or the development of scientific thought.

Thankfully, plenty of people called Mathews to task on this bullshit, as he freely admits in a follow-up to his op-ed piece:

Well, the minute the op-ed appeared the e-mails started popping up on my computer, right under the coconut ape with a ball and bat that sits atop my IBM. At last count there were about 400 of them. Most said they had the unfortunate duty to tell me that I was an idiot.

Go ahead and read some of what his readers have to say; they certainly hit the right points. For example:

Like most imbecilic do-gooders, you think it's about creating a forum for intellectual discussion -- give and take. You think they'd accord the same respect for diverse opinions? They have no such intentions.
— Christian Iffrig
What happens if you do present a fair debate and religion loses? What does the teacher do in Kansas when the parents clamor for revenge?
— Anthony Joern
If I'm reading correctly then in order to make classrooms more "fun" we should consider junk science or introduce false information. No we shouldn't. Would you encourage denying the Holocaust and giving that argument any credence just because it would get the students more involved? Just because you personally were bored by biology, I don't think we should "jazz" it up to make it fun.
— Jim Wilson

But not all his readers disagreed with Mathews, as he relates:

...I was stunned to discover that many e-mailers (a generous estimate would be about 30 percent) agreed with me, and they had had the same idea long before I did.

Wonderful — so if a whole mob of people thinks Intelligent Design is a worthy scientific line of reasoning, that makes it so? Wrong. And take a look at the first supporter Mathews quotes:

"I, like you, am a strong believer in Darwinism and, also like you, think that critical debate should be injected into the classroom whenever possible," said Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, a Washington, D.C., senior research analyst who just earned a doctorate in political science.

Ah, another "Darwinist" — of course we can trust her opinion on issues of evolution. And hey, she's got a degree in science! Er, actually, political science. So maybe she can explain exactly how the Republican party evolved into a power hungry totalitarian regime with dreams of theocracy.

Mathews — it's not a question of intellectual exercises and debates when it comes to Intelligent Design. The ID lobbyists bring nothing to the table scientifically; therefore, their material should not be presented in a science class.

Mathews compares introducing ID in a biology class to introducing perpetual-motion machines in a physics class. There is a big difference: the thinkers who came up with the concept of perpetual-motion machines were coming up with a positive assertion (that the machines could be made), which was both testable and falsifiable. Further, the idea has been subjected to true scientific scrutiny — and largely discredited. We can now teach the students what the idea was, and why it didn't work, because the actual scientific community has done the work!

In contrast, Intelligent Design (which, let us not forget, is merely creationism dressed in a fake lab coat) is primarily a negative assertion: "evolutionary theorists (and indeed, the majority of scientists) are wrong." Its only positive assertion is that an unknown sentient entity (which they'll swear to everyone except each other is not necessarily a god) had a hand in the development of life, the universe, and everything. They have offered no way to test this hypothesis or (conclusively!) falsify it; and, by their definitions of the unknowable designer, there are no ways to test or falsify it. The scientific community has not been able to explore this issue, because, by its nature, it cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny. By what right does this material belong in a science class? Short answer: it doesn't.

Mathews gives us some good news near the end of his follow-up:

I don't think I will be making any more attempts to offer my ill-informed views on evolution...

Great! Now if only we could get the Intelligent Design folks to offer the same concession. At the very least, laymen should learn from this: if you are ill-informed, try to learn something before you weigh in on the issue. There are plenty of resources on the web these days, so nobody has an excuse not to know anymore.

— • —
[  Filed under: % Creationism  % Government & Politics  % Media & Censorship  % Religion  ]

Comments (5)

Stergios Papadakis, 2005.04.07 (Thu) 21:18 [Link] »

Be Careful. You wrote:
" the thinkers who came up with the concept of perpetual-motion machines were coming up with a positive assertion (that the machines could be made), which was both testable and falsifiable."

That is not falsifiable, because you can never test all possible designs. What is falsifiable is the statement "Perpetual motion machines cannot be made." To falsify the statement, all you have to do is build one.

As you say, the ID assertion is: "Organisms were designed." That statement is also not falsifiable (all you have to say is something along the lines of "The designer made it look like it evolved without help", and all further discussion is moot). We have ample evidence that organisms could have evolved without the aid of a designer, and that it looks like they did. What is absurd about the ID people is that the above statement is not good enough for them. The ID people cannot simply believe that organisms were designed (through guided evolution for example), they desperately want the evidence to show that it is impossible for organisms to have arisen naturally. They also want it taught that the evidence does show this, but of course it does not.


The Two Percent Company, 2005.04.07 (Thu) 21:28 [Link] »

Absolutely correct, Stergios — that was our mistaken phrasing. As you say, though, our reasoning regarding the Intelligent Design position still holds.

Thanks for keeping us honest!

And you addressed the ID problem very succinctly. We agree, the primary problem with the ID folks is not that they believe their bullshit, but rather that they both lie about having supporting evidence (usually by way of evidence they believe "disproves" evolutionary theory) and try to force their beliefs on everyone else.

A Reader, 2005.04.25 (Mon) 16:33 [Link] »

I've always hated Jay Mathews' writing, whether in book, article, or column form. I find both his logic and style to be despicable. Nice job taking him to task for the idiocy he displayed.

He INFURIATES me sometimes.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.04.26 (Tue) 23:10 [Link] »

Thanks for the vote of confidence, A Reader; we know just how you feel.

Orlowski Zygmunt, 2006.08.12 (Sat) 17:26 [Link] »

Perpetual motion machines* (the latin term perpetuum mobile is not uncommon) are a class of hypothetical machines which would produce useful energy "from nowhere." The existence of a perpetual motion machine is generally accepted as being impossible according to current known laws of physics. In particular, perpetual motion machines would violate either the first or second laws of thermodynamics. Perpetual motion machines are divided into two
subcategories, referred to as perpetual motion of the first kind and perpetual motion of the second kind. There is a chance that the accepted laws of physics are wrong, but a lot of evidence is needed to regeneralize these.

Physicists may try to test their knowledge of physics by proving, without using thermodynamics, that a proposed perpetual motion machine cannot work. Also, sometimes physicists will discover "apparent" perpetual motion in thought experiments. Such "paradoxes" expose .

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