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Validity, Relevance and Courtesy:

Notes on the Ethics of Teaching "Intelligent Design"

By Timothy Chambers

Adjunct Instructor, Department of Philosophy
Rhode Island College

The relationship between teachers and students involves a host of special rights and duties. By highlighting certain ethical tenets governing this type of relationship, I hope to illuminate two timely questions: Does "Intelligent Design" deserve a place in the university? And when a teacher encounters an ID-believer, how should the teacher respond?

(1) Thanks to Michael Behe's provocative book, Darwin's Black Box, more than a few laypersons now question Evolution's fecundity. Yet Behe's work hasn't provoked a similarly sweeping skepticism among evolutionary biologists. This certainty no doubt informs most teachers' views on the ID controversy: ID makes fine fodder for debate on "The Today Show," but not the biology classroom.

Why not? Biology teachers, I imagine, could avail themselves of an argument like this: In teaching, we owe our students valid pictures of our professions; this includes, not only presenting what we know-for-certain, but also those topics which our respective professions still dispute. Thus we shouldn't sidestep genuine controversies; this would mislead by omission. Neither should we falsely present a known view as if it were controversial; this would mislead by commission. Let's call this thesis the Valid Picture Obligation.

Now, given the Valid Picture Obligation, a biology teacher can hardly be blamed for feeling wary about ID. If we teach ID in a biology class, it will be said, then this would cast doubt on Evolution-after all, why study "alternatives" to Darwin unless the scientific community is genuinely divided on the question? But in fact, scientists aren't all that divided on this question. So teaching ID would leave students under the misimpression that the scientific community is dubious on Darwin, thus flouting the Valid Picture Obligation.

(2)Yet even if the foregoing argument holds good, two bits of clarification are in order:

(a) Even if biology class isn't the place for ID, this doesn't entail that ID lacks any place in the university. The ID debate can make for a useful "case study," regarding the criteria scientists demand for properly framing, testing, adopting, or rejecting, a theory. Such issues are standard fare in philosophy-of-science courses. Hence my suggestion: if philosophers of science devoted more class time to ID, not only would it illustrate the dynamics of scientific debate, it would also assuage all parties' worries.

(b) Even if ID doesn't appear on the biology-syllabus, this doesn't rule out the possibility that a student might press ID-related issues in class. "I think that the 'blood-clotting cascade' is an irreducibly complex structure," a student might say, "so there are some things which couldn't have just evolved." Do we correct the mistake? And if so, how?

Corrections should, for starters, be relevant; a teacher is invested with authority to correct only those student-errors which are germane to the course. If I'm under the illusion that human beings have only 7 pairs of chromosomes, then I'd welcome the biologist's correction. Yet the biology teacher would veering off the ethical course if s/he insisted that a student's religion is false.

This suggests an informative dilemma. On one hand, the "ethics of correction" seems to allow us to dispute the envisaged student's ID-claim, because it's germane to biology. And yet, the student's adherence to ID no doubt has a religious dimension to it; so correcting the student risks maligning his/her religious views-something which no sensitive teacher would dream of doing.

The dilemma seems soluble, though. For not only should corrections be relevant, they must also be courteous. In our corrections, we should make clear that our corrections made for pedagogical reasons, not personal ones. And so, if we exercise sufficient courtesy-showing that we're taking issue with the student's biological claim, and not its theological underpinnings-then we should be able to correct ID-students' misconceptions in an ethical manner.

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Page last updated: March 15, 2006