Teach the controversy

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…when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.
Richard Dawkins, quoted in Scientific American[1]

"Teach the controversy" is a political astroturf campaign started by the Discovery Institute that aims to convince public schools and local Boards of Education in the United States to discuss the "non-scientific problems" religionists have found with the theory of evolution. Of course, when it comes to evolution, there isn't actually a "controversy" at all: it is a manufactroversy that exists only in the minds of intelligent design proponents and other creationists. The dumbest example of its use so far is recorded in Richard Dawkins' interview of Wendy Wright.

The argument[edit]

The argument is structured (using pseudoscience) in such a way that if one follows it through, it appears as though "Teaching the Controversy" is a reasonable and "right" thing to do for school-age children.

Correct premises are established:

  1. Scientists have disagreements about evolution; specific disagreements about the way evolution works, what factors influence it, if it proceeds at a constant or variable rate, etc.
  2. Scientists do not know everything about evolution.
  3. There are rare instances where the data (possibly incomplete data) does not fit into the current evolutionary model.
  4. Scientists have made historical and factual mistakes about evolution. They have dared to change their minds and their theories about aspects of evolution when faced with contrary data. (In other words, scientists are guilty of being not as cock-sure of their ideas as fundamentalists are of theirs.)
  5. The best education is one that encourages students to look at legitimate arguments and talk about them, forming their own conclusion. (Although even this has the potential for abuse.) Examples:
  • Who won a political debate?
  • Should the world spend more money today for a green earth tomorrow?
  • Did Native Americans cross in 1, 2, 3 or more waves?

From those correct premises, leaps of logic are then made:

  1. If scientists disagree about evolution, it must be entirely wrong, in full.
  2. If scientists do not know everything about evolution, it must be entirely wrong, in full.
  3. When any single event or fact cannot be explained, today, the theory that explains most things must be entirely wrong, in full.
  4. If a mistake is made, or a theory is changed, it proves there is a controversy in the scientific community. It also generally proves someone wants to hide that controversy.
  5. Since science is ignorant of all these things, the god of the gaps is the only answer.

These leaps of logic are then used to "rationally" reach a conclusion:

  1. Since evolution is wrong, and even the scientists agree it is wrong, then the best thing for students, and the best way to challenge students even according to liberals' own views of education is to "teach the controversy" and let students decide.

The culture of the U.S. is replete with aphorisms like "there are two sides to every story", "let the reader decide", and so on. This predisposes people who are not experts in science to agree that it is important to teach both sides. Of course, creationists don't care that creationism is not an accepted part of the game by any reasonable definition of science, and any real extant controversy would be over the exact details of how life changes (and not whether it does).

Most educational resources reinforce that the straw man controversy of "evolution" vs. "God" is not real, is not represented in any scientific literature, and should most certainly not be taught in a public school biology course.

The Wealth of Educations[edit]

[Adam] Smith observed in his day the unfortunate proclivity of some authorities to interject their views into the educational system, and unfortunately many of those views may not have been educated views – but founded in political or religious zealotry which, unchecked, were destructive to the educational processes. Unfortunately, in modern times, we seem to have no shortage of examples where such religious constraints are imposed on education. For example, “Creationism” is a religious idea that politicians have substituted into the science curriculum in a few states where religious fundamentalism is also a powerful political force. State legislatures or school boards substituting their own personal faith or political understanding, for the knowledge of the scientist is precisely the type of extraneous jurisdiction Smith warned about 230 years ago.
—Samavati 2015 et al[2]

Discovery Institute stance[edit]

The Discovery Institute has been very careful with its wording on the recent anti-evolutionary campaigns. It tries not to directly promote creationism and attack evolution, hence the "teach the evidence" and "let the people decide." However, the campaign does some strong hinting towards Intelligent Design, labelling it as a valid alternative to evolution.

Naturally, if the evidence was properly taught, ID and creationism would be laughed off the stage. This leads to the most valid criticism toward rejecting "teach the controversy", namely that if you did properly teach it, creationism would be undermined.

Yes! Teach the controversy![edit]

With all the brouhaha about evolution vs. creationism, it is clear there is a controversy — at least in some circles. However, said controversy relates not to the scientific community, but within the social science fields of politics and religion, and it is in those fields that it should be addressed. Curriculum in political science or comparative religion class, dealing with creationism and evolution, is acceptable by just about any standards, and would certainly teach the "controversy" as it exists. Teachers just need to make time in classes at all levels to teach important controversies — such as those between Young-Earth and Old-Earth creationists — alongside the significant (and sometimes many-sided) theological controversies between (for example) the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Waldensians.

And if we're making room for Creationism in the classrooms, we should go for Islamic or Hindu creationism. Oh, wait — was that a controversial suggestion? If so, let's teach the controversy! And if that wasn't a controversial suggestion, then per definition that means that we're in agreement (read: there is an absence of controversy) on teaching Qur'anic lore in American science classes. Great!

And what about sex education? It's a controversial topic that so many school districts exclusively teach abstinence in their sex ed classes, so why not "teach the controversy" there?


The phrase has since been reclaimed somewhat (if the Google search for the term is anything to go by) as the reductio ad absurdum that it denotes. If the "controversy" around evolution should be taught, then the "controversy" surrounding topics like where babies come from, whether or not climate change is caused by human activities, whether or not passive smoking is harmful, the shape of the Earth, and whether or not the Holocaust happened should also be taught — including the views of other religions on the matter.[3] The strengths and weaknesses movement is the next logical progression in that it attempts to undermine evolution without explicitly discussing creationism.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]