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Sunday, March 7, 2004

Don't let dogma censor teaching



By Benjamin Wiker
Guest columnist

On Tuesday, the Ohio Board of Education will vote on final adoption of a model science curriculum that includes a lesson plan on the "critical analysis of evolution." The lesson plan is intended to implement Benchmark H of Ohio's science standards, which requires students to know "how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."

But now shrill voices claiming to speak for science are trying to pressure the board to drop the lesson plan, which was developed with input from citizens, science educators and scientists from around Ohio.

Rather than honestly debate the merits of the new model curriculum, opponents are trying to prevail through use of a classic red herring. They allege that the proposed lesson on the critical analysis of evolution is merely Intelligent Design (ID) theory in disguise. If so, it's a pretty good disguise. Intelligent Design proposes that some features of the natural world are best explained as the product of intelligence rather than an undirected natural process. The lesson plan in question doesn't even address this topic, let alone discuss it.

What it does do is explore several recognized problems facing evolutionary theory, such as the fossil record and the need for an adequate mechanism of macroevolution, that are currently the subject of debate in the mainstream science community.

When I testified before the board recently, I offered to supply board members with a large stack of scientific papers (over 40) that critique key aspects of evolutionary theory. Each of these articles comes from top peer-reviewed scientific journals and document many problems with contemporary evolutionary theory, including some that are treated in the model curriculum. Not one of these articles is authored by an advocate of Intelligent Design, nor are any that I know of sympathetic to ID theory.

I also told the board about a book just published by MIT press, The Origination of Organismal Form. This book critically analyzes many of the key claims of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the standard textbook theory. Its two lead authors, the Viennese biologist Gurd M¸ller and Yale biologist Stuart Newman, conclude that the problem that Darwin set out to solve in 1859 - namely, how fundamentally new forms of life arise - remains unsolved.

M¸ller and Newman list four tables of open questions and unsolved problems in evolutionary biology. As it happens, many of these questions and problems are addressed directly in the model curriculum's lesson plan on the critical analysis of evolution. M¸ller and Newman have nothing to do with Intelligent Design. I doubt they have even heard of it.

Should the board prevent students from knowing about current scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory when those criticisms are found in the peer-reviewed scientific literature? Should the board censor the fact that Darwin himself recognized that the fossil record was a serious problem facing his theory? Should it keep students from knowing about the way that real science works, where critical analysis is considered healthy?

Those who demand that the board censor such material are undermining the accurate and invigorating presentation of evolution in the model curriculum. In all the sciences, not just in biology, knowledge advances when scientists are free to analyze evidence critically, to offer competing accounts of how best to interpret data, and to evaluate competing hypotheses. That is how real science works, and students can understand this best if they are immersed in rather than shielded from current scientific debates and discussion.

Darwin-only activists, and spokesmen for "official science," are now pressuring the board to "let the scientists determine the curriculum," as if only committed neo-Darwinists constituted real scientists. But plenty of scientists question aspects of contemporary evolutionary theory. Over 300 scientists from institutions such as Yale, the Smithsonian, M.I.T., Rice and Ohio State have signed a statement expressing skepticism about the sufficiency of the neo-Darwinian mechanism.

If the Ohio Board of Education removes the critical analysis lesson plan, it will be misrepresenting the current scientific discussion about evolutionary theory. The critiques addressed in the lesson plan exist in the current peer-reviewed scientific literature. Ohio students should have the right to learn about these currents of scientific thought, free from threats of censorship by rigid defenders of an aging scientific orthodoxy.

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Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a senior fellow of Discovery Institute, whose Center for Science and Culture is a leading think tank examining scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution.




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