Once More Into The Breach

Two weeks ago, C&EN published an ACS Comment by Bryan Balazs, chair of the Society Committee on Education (SOCED), on the society's recently revised policy statement on teaching evolution in K–12 science classes. Both the policy statement and Balazs' essay (March 23, page 48) are well worth your time to read. Balazs addresses the question of why it is important for ACS to issue a policy statement on teaching evolution. In a nutshell, SOCED pointed out, "Portraying nonscientific content as science in curriculum at any education level poses a threat to the future scientific, technological, and economic competitiveness of the nation." On the Monday Balazs' ACS Comment appeared, I was in Salt Lake City at the national meeting. Midway through the Parsons Award Luncheon, I was informed that my good friend Jack Stocker, the venerable ACS Council member from New Orleans, was waiting for me in the hallway. Jack had some unfinished business to discuss with me about a symposium essay I owed him, and then he launched into what was really on his mind: the decision of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (SICB) to move its 2011 meeting from New Orleans to Salt Lake City because Louisiana had enacted legislation that weakened the teaching of evolution in public school science classes. Jack was in favor of SICB's decision, and he said, "This is a topic you ought to think about writing an editorial on." I've been writing about the antievolution movement in the U.S. for 30 years. First it was legislation in Arkansas and Louisiana mandating that creationism be taught. After the courts struck those laws down, I thought the matter would disappear, but it didn't. It never does. Intelligent design (ID), which is creationism that doesn't mention God, appeared on the scene in the 1990s, ardently championed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Intelligent design took a beating a few years ago when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III forcefully invalidated the Dover, Pa., school board's decision to include ID in the high school biology curriculum. Now, it is legislation in Louisiana that permits local school boards to approve "supplemental classroom materials" designed to critique scientific theories, especially evolution. Even more recently, it is the decision last week by the Texas Board of Education to amend the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS) standards governing biology textbooks used in the state in a way that opens the door to creationist and ID critiques of evolution. The goal now is to discredit evolution and thereby promote ID. Don't roll your eyes. A March 27 press release from the Discovery Institute says of the Texas decision that the "new science standards mark a significant victory for scientists and educators in favor of teaching the scientific evidence for and against evolution," and quotes the Discovery Institute's John G. West as saying, "Texas now has the most progressive science standards on evolution in the entire nation." In a July 8, 2008, article in National Review Online, West wrote, "To the chagrin of the science thought police, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law an act to protect teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues such as global warming, human cloning, and yes, evolution and the origin of life." West makes clear that he believes that when scientific "facts"—he puts the word in quotes—clash with religious beliefs, the "facts" just may have to yield. "America is a deeply religious country," West wrote, "and no doubt many citizens interested in certain hot-button science issues are motivated in part by their religious beliefs. So what? ... Regardless of their motivations, religious citizens have just as much right to raise their voices in debates as their secular compatriots, including in debates about science." The problem is that there is no debate in science about evolution. All citizens certainly have the right to express their opinion on the subject of evolution. They don't, however, have the right to have their religion supplant facts in high school science classes. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. 1) Funny, didn’t the same people writing National Review Online spend the last few years trying to discourage critical thinking about things like the war in Iraq or how you could spend lots of money, lower taxes, and not go bankrupt? I guess critical thinking is only good when it questions what you don’t like.

    2) Two aphorisms NRO and LA might want to think about: “Everyone has the right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” and “Reality is that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away.” The wish of some to live in a world of their imagining does not obligate reality to cooperate – and others should not be not obligated to assist in their own destruction to assist the willfully blind in committing suicide.

    3) If one’s interpretation of religious texts is not consistent with the substance of the world which the religious texts purport to describe, perhaps neither observations of the substance of the world nor the text is wrong – maybe it’s just you. ID and its adherents want science to prove the truth of their particular belief, and when science refuses, ID and its adherents simply ignore what they don’t like. It’s as if the proponents of ID believe that they should be gods – that their interpretation of reality can’t be wrong and that their wishes should become reality. I guess they can’t even be bothered to read their own holy book, or are unwilling to listen to what it says – that pesky First Commandment thing must be a drag for them.

  2. I must take issue with ACS’ (and SOCED’s) efforts to stamp out Intelligent Design, ie Divine Creation, from being considered in public schools. I hope I speak for many chemists of faith when I ask that ACS leave room in its public education policy for the existence of things that cannot be measured with our instruments or our physical senses but yet are real.

  3. Not allowing ID to be taught as science neither prevents one from believing in God (or anything else) nor does it prevent one from teaching creationism/ID as religion.

    ID, in particular, hasn’t been developed in the way actual scientific theories are developed. Theories are generally developed based on evidence. ID, on the other hand, as depicted in the Wedge Document, appears to have been developed to support a predetermined conclusion based on the political and religious beliefs of a set of people. As such, it probably violates the First Amendment (as ID proponents spent much time and sanity to find out in the Kitzmiller decision (big PDF)). It is not the job of schools to impose their religious and political opinions in the guise of fact – at least part of what schools are supposed to (help to) teach is the ability to distinguish fact and opinion. In addition, ID doesn’t appear to ask a testable question, one whose outcome can be differentiated from its converse. If a theory doesn’t ask a testable question, it isn’t science. See the first aphorism in point 2 in the first post above. Preventing ID from being taught as science is like preventing the teaching of “2 + 2 = 5” as arithmetic. As religion (or even as Christianity), it is one belief among many, depending on a particular interpretation (which, IMO, doesn’t even appear to be internally consistent) of the Bible. As either religion or politics, it makes an interesting discussion point. It just isn’t science.

    Neither evolution nor science in general prevent me from believing in God. Science works really well in a limited purview – when I have independently observable data, it works rather well. About what it doesn’t have data, it doesn’t speak. The simplest theories that fit the existing evidence are preferred, though this is a preference (a very helpful preference), and not a fact of nature. It doesn’t eliminate the possibility or existence of God/gods (though there are others who disagree, and whose opinion I in turn disagree with). It doesn’t eliminate the possibility of things it can’t perceive, but deals only with what evidence it has. ID contorts the concept of faith significantly because it desires to use science (or its misconception) to prove a specific Biblical interpretation – while ID’s job is to compel a viewpoint on others rather than those who believe in it, it seems curious to require evidence for faith, and self-defeating.

    As someone else put it, science is an effective method to counter the ways people try to fool themselves. In that light, teaching something whose purpose is to fool people into adopting a particular religious interpretation and political stance seems grossly dishonest and counterproductive.