Propaganda and Teaching Intelligent Design

The thing about Intelligent Design is that it’s non-science masquerading as science. Its claims can’t be used to predict anything and are not falsifiable. It’s not a theory that can be improved over time. Its domain is religious and philosophical.

That doesn’t stop its ardent supporters from wishing very hard for it to be science. It was designed to supplant evolution, which is very much a scientific theory. Christian creationism was clearly religion and not science; to hide this fact, supporters filed off the serial numbers, removing explicit references to the Christian God and giving creationism a new name and a shiny science-y gloss.

William Dembski, a big proponent of Intelligent Design, is a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This summer he taught three courses on Intelligent Design. Note the requirements for the undergraduate and masters classes.

AP410: This is the undegrad [sic] course. You have three things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 40% of your grade); (2) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 40% of your grade); (3) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

AP510: This is the masters course. You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500- to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God — for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

Why the requirements that students troll science-oriented blogs and other websites? If you’re a teacher, your goal should be to help students understand the material and demonstrate mastery of it. Having students write about the class topic is a long-accepted way of doing that; maybe that’s what Dembski is after. But that’s unlikely — both classes already have an essay requirement. And these “website posts” are going to be about 200 to 300 words or so, bite-sized chunks that won’t give the students room to really develop their theses.

Maybe Dembski wants his students to show that they can handle rhetoric and discussion, and can debate their points logically. But if so, why send them to the internet? Trying to learn good debate through blog comments is like trying to learn journalism from the Weekly World News.

That leaves propaganda as the most likely purpose for the assignment, which serves no pedagogical purpose. Dembski is cynically using students to advance his cause, with no real benefit to them. At least grad students learn useful skills when they do research for their professors. Worse, he’s sending them into a hostile crowd. This will help foster an us-versus-them mentality. “See?” Dembski can say, “they don’t want to talk rationally to you. They hate the truth,” leaving aside that he sent them there to troll.

Dembski has betrayed the teacher-student pact. He’s using his position of power to further his ideological ends in a craven manner. Shame on him.

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