A Rawlsian argument against ID in public schools

Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University has released a new White Paper: Intelligent Design, Science Education, and Public Reason [link is to pdf file].

One point of interests is the White Paper’s presentation of a Rawlsian argument against teaching Intelligent Design in public schools, which most people would find more congenial to Rawls than the “Rawlsian” argument for including ID, which has been discussed in an earlier post on this blog.

The 50-page White Paper presents a well-reasoned and strongly argued case in defense of “putting limits on extra-scientific speech,” at least in science classrooms. I am glad to see this argued in terms of how we should understand the purposes of public education, rather than just what is or is not permitted by the Establishment Clause.

As well as the White Paper makes its case, however, I’m afraid it misses the main problem. Large numbers who support inclusion of ID do so on the basis of believing that ID is scientific speech. They are people who find credible the arguments of those like Casey Luskin who could take the logic of the White Paper and present it as an argument for inclusion of ID. The authors extol the virtues of making and being open to public arguments on non-doctrinaire grounds, subject to the evidence. That’s exactly what ID proponents say that they are doing. Analysis that presupposes this not to be the case, rather than addressing those who believe this is the case with ID, does not clarify the central problem for those who do not already understand.

A well-done section on the idea of “teaching the controversy,” the White Paper reasonably suggests that there could be a proper place for looking at this real social controversy somewhere in the curriculum, provided it be clear that this is not a scientific controversy. While that certainly is reasonable, I question whether anyone is prepared to do a responsible job of dealing with this controversy elsewhere in the curriculum, without opening the door to the kind of teaching that apparently was going on in Lebec; for this reason, I have been concerned about this suggested resolution as I have seen it being expressed in Michigan.

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One Comment

  1. Kevin Currie
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I do agree with you, Dr. Whitson, that, while well-reasoned, the White paper misses the fundamental point that is in contention: whether or not ID is scientific. My problem, as is yours, is with the White paper’s treatment of ID as “extra-scientific speech,” when that is PRECISELY what ID’s proponents will not admit.

    A few years back, I read a book by Michael J. Perry (“Religion & Politics”) that used a Rawlsian argument to suggest an almost conflicting position – one with which I agree much more. Perry suggested that religious speech might be barred from the realm of “public reason” only if its conclusions could not be justified on secular grounds but HAD TO BE gotten by religious grounds. Thus, an argument against gay marriage might not be allowed in the public sphere if it was an irreducibly religious argumement, but could be allowed the moment its conclusion could be reached on secular grounds (utilitarian, natural law, contractarian, etc.)

    I agree much with Perry’s idea here (though I disagree with the idea that religious speech be barred from the public sphere at all as religious people have rights to agitate for their convictions as anyone else does.)

    But under this conception, it would be hard to bar most of ID from being called scientific speech. Most of ID’s case is a negative one which gives (no matter how weak) secular objections to evolutionary theory. They do not say, ‘It cannot be true because it contradicts the bible,’ but, ‘it cannot be completely true because there are areas for which evolution cannot account or has not accounted.’

    These are secular and, some may say, scientific objections. As such, the White paper does not make a case as to why these should be considered “extra scientific speech.”

    (The best it does is to explain why positing a creator is ‘extra sscientifc speech,’ but as we all know, that is only the tail end of ID’s case, which is almost exclusively a negative one.)

    A better way to make a Rawlsian argument (if that is the argument we want to make) for exclusion of ID is to argue that a Rawlsian veil of ignorance might lead to the conclusion that science classes should teach the general consensus of the scinetific fields that they study, and controverseys should be taught only when they have convinced a certain (high) number of experts.

    As with any and all Rawlsian arguments, this is speculative, as Rawlsian arguments always venture guesses on what the pubilc would or would not find permissible while wearing a ‘veil of ignorance.’

    Needless to say, I think that Rawlsian arguments are generally a mistake.


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  1. […] Tony’s curricublog Tony Whitson’s blog on curriculum-related matters « A Rawlsian argument against ID in public schools […]

  2. […] I have had a chance to read through the Poynter White Paper carefully now, which I commented on briefly here and here. While I still think (more confidently, now) that there remain deep problems with the current state of our response to the ID arguments that have not been surmounted in this White Paper (and which I won’t be able to write about until after this semester), I also feel more confident, after careful reading, in saying this is about the best treatment I have read of its length on the overall conflict as it stands today, and I am planning to assign this for my doctoral seminar next semester. This entry was written by Tony Whitson and posted on October 26, 2006 at 6:29 pm and filed under Science, blog, Evolution, Education Law & Policy, civic education. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Distinctive value of the Poynter paper on Intelligent Design […]

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