Monday, January 24, 2005

Faith-Based Science and the Automagical Creationist Conspiracy

You may have read recently about the controversy in Cobb County, Georgia, over a sticker attached to science textbooks. Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the stickers removed. The stickers read: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

Judge Clarence Cooper of the Federal District Court in Atlanta stated that a reasonable observer "would interpret the sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders."

Really, Judge Cooper? Read that sticker again. It states that evolution is a theory -- which it is -- and that as a theory it should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered, which is the essence of science. Now, certainly there are unreasonable observers who see the sticker as an endorsement of religion. For example, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said "These textbook disclaimers are part of a national campaign to undercut the teaching of evolution in public schools in accordance with fundamentalist Christian beliefs." But unless you're going to start spouting off about "penumbras, formed by emanations," a reasonable observer can see that there is no violation of the establishment clause inherrent in these stickers.

I don't know what it is about challenging evolution that causes people to lose composure and start yammering about separation of church and state. Yesterday in an editorial, the New York Times called the stickers a crafty attack on evolution, and "an insidious effort to undermine the science curriculum," reading intent into the statement on the stickers in ways far beyond Judge Cooper's "reasonable observers."

The first sentence sounds like a warning to parents that the film they are about to watch with their children contains pornography. Evolution is so awful that the reader must be warned that it is discussed inside the textbook.

To repeat, the first sentence merely says "This textbook contains material on evolution." Is the New York Times overreacting? (Is the Pope Catholic?)

The second sentence makes it sound as though evolution is little more than a hunch, the popular understanding of the word "theory," whereas theories in science are carefully constructed frameworks for understanding a vast array of facts.

Now let me get this straight. The New York Times is complaining about the use of the word "theory" on a science textbook for fear that students studying scientific theories might not understand the meaning of the word "theory." The mind boggles. But if it's true that students in a science class don't know what a theory is, then the problem lies in science education, not in a benign little sticker.

The third sentence, urging that evolution be studied carefully and critically, seems like a fine idea. The only problem is, it singles out evolution as the only subject so shaky it needs critical judgment.

Well, perhaps presenting a theory as a fact is rather unscientific, and a little critical judgment is in order.

Every subject in the curriculum should be studied carefully and critically. Indeed, the interpretations taught in history, economics, sociology, political science, literature and other fields of study are far less grounded in fact and professional consensus than is evolutionary biology.

Let's take one textbook at a time here. But perhaps you're right. I think literature anthologies should carry warnings like "This textbook contains material written by Sylvia Plath. The question of whether Sylvia Plath is an accomplished writer worth studying should be approached with an open mind and critically considered."

Although the sticker makes no mention of religion and the school board as a whole was not trying to advance religion, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that the sticker amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because it was rooted in long-running religious challenges to evolution. In particular, the sticker's assertion that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" adopted the latest tactical language used by anti-evolutionists to dilute Darwinism, thereby putting the school board on the side of religious critics of evolution.

The New York Times, whether meaning to or not, correctly identifies the problem here. The problem is not the language of the stickers. The problem is that the stickers satisfy religious conservatives. And if you side with religious conservatives, you and your positions become suspect. You are tainted. Guilty by association.

An article in Time Magazine this week carries the same message.

The intellectual underpinnings of the latest assault on Darwin's theory come not from Bible-wielding Fundamentalists but from well-funded think tanks promoting a theory they call intelligent design, or I.D. for short. Their basic argument is that the origin of life, the diversity of species and even the structure of organs like the eye are so bewilderingly complex that they can only be the handiwork of a higher intelligence (name and nature unspecified).

All the think tanks want to do, they insist, is make the teaching of evolution more honest by bringing up its drawbacks. Who could argue with that? But the mainstream scientific community contends that this seemingly innocuous agenda is actually a stealthy way of promoting religion. "Teaching evidence against evolution is a back-door way of teaching creationism," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

Note that both the New York Times editorial and this article in Time contain the same sort of language. Who could argue with bringing up the gaps in Darwin's theory, asks Time. New approaches to life's origins "seem harmless to a casual observer" says the New York Times.

But both Time and the New York Times see any challenge to Darwinism as part of a vast fundamentalist conspiracy to force creationism on unsuspecting students, even if that challenge is a completely secular one. In the view of die-hard Darwinists, the only people who could possibly reject evolution are Bible-thumping creationists. (This would come as a surprise to biochemist Michael Behe, whose 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box" was one of the foundational texts of Intelligent Design. Behe is a Roman Catholic but did not consider himself a strict creationist. He believed evolution was simply God's way of creating.)

Time's article makes it plain that we are to take a dim view of anyone who would dare challenge the theory of evolution. The way the article's writers, Michael Lemonick, Noah Isackson, and Jeffrey Ressner, write about I.D.'s proponents is clearly intended to be disparaging.

Kansas is a key flashpoint in this struggle. Back in 1999, a conservative state school board attempted to downplay the importance of Darwinism by removing from the required statewide science curriculum references to dinosaurs, the geological time line and other central tenets of the theory. Evolution, they argued, is "just a theory" and should not be favored over other theories, such as I.D. In the next election, Kansas voters gave moderates an edge on the school board, which promptly dropped the effort to revise the curriculum. In the 2004 election, however, conservatives retook the board, and while a curriculum advisory committee kept the science standards intact, a group of conservative educators is again trying to weaken evolution's place in the classroom. When public hearings begin in February, this group hopes to push through a more critical view of Darwin's theory, highlighting evolution's perceived flaws.

Mindful of the constitutional dangers, the Kansas dissidents have not called for bringing God explicitly into the classroom. Instead, anti-evolution activists and I.D. advocates are making what appears on its face to be a perfectly reasonable request. Evolution has not been proved with 100% certainty, they say. Some legitimate scientists think I.D. is more persuasive. So, in a frequently repeated I.D. catchphrase, "teach the controversy."

Note that the critics of evolution are "trying to weaken" the teaching of evolution in the classroom. They are described as "anti-evolution" (attaching an "anti" label is a common method of injecting the writer's own opinion about that group), and the very notion of teaching the controversy surrounding evolution is "a frequently repeated catchphrase" -- in other words, it's an illegitimate position.

That's the position of John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. A nonpartisan but generally conservative think tank, the institute was founded in 1990 by George Gilder, a Nixon speechwriter turned technology evangelist (TIME in 1974 called him the U.S.'s "leading male-chauvinist-pig author"), and his Harvard roommate Bruce Chapman, director of the Census Bureau during the Reagan Administration.

Thank you Time for making sure you frighten readers into understanding that the Discovery Institute was founded by a person you consider beneath contempt, and raising the dark specter of Nixon and the not-quite-as-dark-but-still-pretty-scary specter of Reagan.

Discovery has received funding from Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., an ultraconservative savings-and-loan heir. While it does a wide variety of public-policy research (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave Discovery $9.35 million, for example, to come up with new transportation ideas for the Pacific Northwest), it is best known as a major center of research and advocacy for I.D.

Egad! Well-funded conservatives all over the place! Hide the children! Scare the masses!

Putting God in the classroom is clearly illegal, but Discovery Institute strategists believe that even a push for I.D. might run afoul of zealous judges--as it has in Georgia. So the institute advocates that schools should continue teaching evolution but also present what West calls "some of the scientific criticism of major parts of the theory."

And this is a bad thing . . . why? If science is science then it will not shy away from scientific criticism.

But many scientists--and science teachers--don't think there is any valid criticism. Sure, some 350 scientists have signed a declaration challenging evolution. But many tens of thousands of scientists reject I.D.'s core argument--that evolution can't produce complex structures.

Please note the slight of hand here. Time is comparing two different things. Challenging the current theory of evolution does not automatically equate to accepting I.D.

A look at where the Discovery Institute gets much of its money and at the religious beliefs of many scientists who support I.D. makes it reasonable to suspect that Scott's assertion is correct: intelligent design is just a smoke screen for those who think evolution is somehow ungodly.

There, near the end of the article, is Time's argument in a nutshell: follow the money and note whether the proponents of I.D. go to church, and you have an automagical creationist conspiracy. To Time, I.D.'s got to be a smokescreen because these people are religious conservatives. They couldn't possibly have a valid argument, of course.

To Time, The New York Times, and plenty of others, evolution is more than just a "well-grounded theory," it's an article of faith that must not be questioned (certainly not by those disgusting religious conservatives!). But an unproven scientific theory that can never be challenged is, in essence, "faith-based science."

Do you think Darwinists understand the concept of irony?

More: The Washington Post joined in the fun as well. (Tip o' th' Hat to Stand Up and Walk.)

With their slick web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of "intelligent design" -- a "theory" that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution -- are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. Rather than attempt to prove that the world was created in six days, they operate simply by casting doubt on evolution, largely using the time-honored argument that intelligent life could not have come about by a random natural process and must have been the work of a single creator. They do no experiments and do not publish in recognized scientific journals. Nevertheless, this new generation of anti-evolutionists, arguing that children have a "right to question" scientific truths, has had widespread success in undermining evolutionary theory.

Hmm. Are they suggesting that children do not have a right to question scientific theory? Sounds like it.

This, too, by the way, is President Bush's fault.

Perhaps partly as a result, a startling 55 percent of Americans -- and 67 percent of those who voted for President Bush -- do not, according to a recent CBS poll, believe in evolution at all. According to a recent Gallup poll, about a third of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true. . . .

[T]he breadth and extent of the anti-evolutionary movement that has spread almost unnoticed across the country should force American politicians to think twice about how their public expressions of religious belief are beginning to affect education and science.

Sal at Stand Up and Walk sees this as yet another example of the media warning Americans that "The Fundamentalists are Coming! The Fundamentalists are Coming!"

(Scared yet?)


At 4:29 PM, Blogger Pixy Misa said...

The problem is, that sticker is wrong.

Evolution is both a theory and a fact.

Evolution happened. That much is clear; the evidence is utterly overwhelming.

The Theory of Evolution is our best attempt to explain the Fact of Evolution. It's probably wrong in some details; it certainly has changed since Darwin's time (Darwin knew nothing of genetics, for example).

So yes, the sticker is a deliberate attack on Evolution (and on science in general); a carefully worded fraud.

At 8:17 PM, Blogger Drew said...

You're divining intent from a three-sentence sticker. You're deconstructing it so that it means what you think it means. But on the face of it, there's nothing on that sticker that has anything to do with religion or creationism. Judge Cooper had to call up the ghost of Derrida for this one.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Jim said...

You make some excellent points about the TIME article. I suppose it's saying that we should no longer follow the truth wherever it leads, but instead only accept the facts until they smell religious, and then get the next-best facts. Following the facts where they lead is one thing. Following the facts only when they go in the direction we think is non-religious is quite another! That was quite an article.


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