30 July 2005

Balancing Act

Judge Posner has an interesting, somewhat polemical, somewhat meandering take on polarization in the news in this weekend's NYTBR. One of his most telling points is this:

Journalists minimize offense, preserve an aura of objectivity and cater to the popular taste for conflict and contests by — in the name of "balance" — reporting both sides of an issue, even when there aren't two sides. So "intelligent design," formerly called by the oxymoron "creation science," though it is religious dogma thinly disguised, gets almost equal billing with the theory of evolution. If journalists admitted that the economic imperatives of their industry overrode their political beliefs, they would weaken the right's critique of liberal media bias.

"Bad News" (31 Jul 2005).

This leads me into my own somewhat polemical, somewhat meandering take on this particular bit of nonpolarization. Part of the problem is the crappy state of education among the media. Very, very few journalists have much of a science background—and those who do are almost invariably consigned to the "science beat." In turn, that means that the journalism/media community tends to see the "(evolution versus Inscrutable Design) in the schools" argument as precisely that: an argument. "Argument" implies that there is some merit to both (or all) positions. That there is virtually no merit to the position that ID belongs in a science classroom when attempting to teach the very basics of scientific thought, process, and data tends to be ignored, usually because journalists tend to be those who ignored the "science nerds" in high school anyway. After all, without an "argument" they have little to report; it's not much fun writing a story on "Crackpots Disrupt School Board Hearings Again." (Well, I think it would be. But I have a sick and twisted sense of humor.) The ironic corollary—that the particular classrooms most apt to be disrupted by including ID in them are those most assiduously avoided by the majority of journalists, and the vast majority of those who own media—seems to have escaped just about everyone.

The ID-in-the-schools controversy has some disturbing historical parallels, even aside from the Scopes matter. Once upon a time, the Index librorum prohibitorum (I think I have the formal Latin name correct—my kids are borrowing my history references at the moment) was a list of works that Catholic laypersons were not to read. The Index did not apply to the clergy—and, of course, it couldn't; somebody had to determine that a work belonged on the Index in the first place, and for all its faults the Index was not populated solely on the basis of political opposition to particular authors! The implication for ID here is interesting but relatively obvious, in a Through the Looking Glass way.1 The trained mind (the clergy as to the Index, the adult as to ID/evolution) is capable of handling the "wrongful" views without serious damage. The question then becomes "What constitutes a trained mind in this context?" Since we're talking about a science classroom, and providing scientific training to what are clearly untrained minds (that's the purpose of schooling!), the "dangerous" material is the material inconsistent with the method and material being taught. That is, ID materials belong on the Index in the context of a basic science classroom.

Mathematics provides another example of this kind of problem. Euclid's parallel postulate is not provable. In fact, you wouldn't be reading this, or at least not on a computer screen, but for mathematics that denies the parallel postulate (certain aspects of circuit design require use of hyperbolic functions, which in turn depend upon falsity of the parallel postulate). We don't teach non-Euclidean geometry in high school, except as an example of extension beyond Euclidean geometry; and, when we do, we do so only after the students have a thorough grounding in Euclidean geometry. That's just good pedagogy: Teach the default case, then the exception. This, in turn, implies that the question is "What is the default case?" in a science classroom; as that is a rather reflexive inquiry, it leaves no room for ID.

  1. For the moment, I'm ignoring the intensely—indeed, militantly—fundamentalist Protestant nature of the ID movement. While I don't suggest that no ID proponents are Catholic, the movement's leadership doesn't seem to contain many Catholics (let alone Catholic clergy) or Jews (let alone rabbis). At the moment, in this context, I make no accusations of religious bigotry—just of unwillingness to learn from others.