One of the common refrains we hear from creationists is that schools ought to “teach the controversy.” This is an excellent talking point, in that it manages to cast people who wish to teach science as having a dogmatic (i.e. unscientific) viewpoint. It works well because it’s full of ambiguity.
First, it’s not clear what “teach” means. If “teach” means “teach in debate class” or “teach in religious studies” or “teach in poli sci,” I don’t think anyone has a problem with it. Of course, none of the legal trials over creationism have ever been about teaching it in religious studies. They’re about whether you can teach non-science in a science class.
Second, it’s not clear what “controversy” means. If you say “there is no controversy,” all those legal trials can be cited. This is because there is ambiguity as to whether you mean “scientific controversy” or “political controversy.” That is – is it a controversy between the educated and the educated or is it a controversy between the educated and public opinion?
I believe our usual counterargument goes something like this: “What controversy? That’s like saying there’s a controversy over whether the Roman Empire existed!” I think that’s a flawed counterargument, and here’s why: It doesn’t fully capture the specific nature of the creationism argument. It doesn’t capture that there is tepid public acceptance but overwhelming acceptance of evolution among biologists. That is, in the case of evolution, there is *actual* controversy. It just doesn’t exist between people who are educated on the topic.
About a week ago, we did a podcast with economist Mike Munger. One of the segments we did was about points of consensus in the field of economics. Here, Mike brought up rent control.
Rent control is a form of price fixing in which government puts a ceiling on what a landlord can charge for rent. Mike noted that he’d never personally met an economist who favored rent control. And, according to Principles of Economics (Mankiw, 5th ed, p 35) 93% of economists agree with the proposition “A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.” I looked up a clarification, and it said 76.3 flat out agreed, 16.6 with qualifications, and 6.5 disagreed.
In any scientific discipline, especially a complex social science like economics, I think it’s safe to say 93% consensus is damn good.
However, in politics, rent control is often popular. I had trouble finding polls on public acceptance of rent control (I’m guessing it’s not a sexy issue), but I did find that many large cities, including New York and San Francisco, employ rent control.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s very analogous to the “evolution vs. creationism” controversy. In both cases, the people who study the phenomenon agree on it, but some members of the public and of the political class do not agree. However, I don’t believe that anyone would ever insist that someone teaching economics should “teach the controversy.” The economist, especially at the undergrad level, would be expected to teach the consensus among economists.
I think this is a better analogy than what we often use. Additionally, in America at least, anti-evolution people tend to come from a supply side economic perspective. So, economically, they probably agree that price fixing is not good economic policy.
Perhaps by using this more apt analogy, we stand a chance to get a few more people to comprehend why “teach the controversy” is not a viewpoint than any reasonable person should accept.