Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Monday, August 27, 2007

Scopes 2.0

I recently had a heated discussion with an evangelical Christian about the unfairness of teaching evolution, but not creationism, in the public schools. One of his claims was that evolutionists are now in the same position, and doing the same thing to creationists, as creationists were formerly condemned for doing (especially in such famous cases as the Scopes trial) namely, not letting teachers teach what they think it is right to teach. In other words, now it is the scientists and science teachers who are trying to stifle dissent through political means rather than persuasion by evidence.

Now I think this is troubling to many liberals about the case against "teaching the controversy" (as it is coyly termed by modern creationists). After all, isn't freedom of speech a basic human right? And really, who are we to tell people what they should or should not teach their children?

But I think this criticism rests on misunderstandings of the actual cases where school boards have changed the laws and of the claims of the scientists and their Democratic supporters.

First, most of the legislation (and I'm too tired right now to look up links--maybe tomorrow) that has been passed and challenged in the courts has not just said, say whatever you want, but rather, that you have to teach both sides, or present evolution and the creationist criticisms of evolution. So I take it from the beginning that the creationist isn't (or at least shouldn't be) claiming that the scientists are wrong to say that we should have political control over what is taught in public schools. Rather, they are being inconsistent to their own principles of free inquiry, especially as exemplified in the mythology of their free-thinking heroes.

But this is just wrong. Scientists (and I know some scientists disagree, but this is the view of the major scientific organizations) don't claim that people should be allowed to teach whatever they want. If someone is teaching science, then they should be teaching science properly, which crucially means something like the consensus views of most scientific experts on a particular issue. This is why there will be much more uniformity in most scientific textbooks as compared to the textbooks used in the humanities.

To make this point more clearly, the issue in the Scopes trial was not freedom of speech, (after all, teachers have a public duty to teach well, not just however they wish), but rather that scientific education should be ultimately controlled by scientists rather than by politicians, parents, preachers, amateurs, etc. And that control is what is still being challenged by modern-day creationists such as the members of the Kansas School Board, the Discovery Institute, and others. So it would be misleading for the creationists to cast themselves in the position of John Scopes being forced to teach something they think is wrong as that is not the primary issue.

This criticism relates to another mistake made by creationists. They will often point to the few biology-related scientists who criticize some aspects of evolution, generally without proposing a workable alternative--mainly just Michael Behe--as evidence that their is a real controversy on this issue and so it is in fact the scientists who are calling for change. The Discovery Institute has been particularly bad on this issue, repeatedly making strong claims about how the amount of disagreement means that we should change how we teach biology.

But this is making the same mistake as before, albeit in a slightly more sophisticated form. First of all, scientists as individuals have no more right to try to dictate how we should teach science in public schools. So even Einstein in 1915 has no right to say, hey look, Newton was wrong and so you should stop teaching him. Even though Einstein was correct in his claims, and was able to back them up with strong evidence, in order for that to matter to the public school educators it must first enter into the scientific community and be judged by them. If it becomes part of the prevailing paradigm (or replaces that paradigm), then it can be taught. But notice how it is not Einstein, brilliant as he was that legitimates this process. Rather, it is the community of scientists coming to an agreement that does so. Since the community of scientists has come to an agreement about both the scientific status of the idea of evolution and the irrelevance of the arguments offered by its critics, it would be wrong to teach as a matter of science a non-existent controversy here.

So, to me if we are to have a discussion on this issue we should be honest about the terms of the debate. I know that the idea of science is held in very high regard in U.S. culture and so no one likes to argue against science. However, it seems to me that the real issue remains what it was for the Scopes trial: Who should control science education? Those arguing against the teaching of creationism claim it should be scientists and those arguing for the teaching of creationism believe it should be some other group.

I apologize for the laziness of this post, not including links and switching at whim between normative and descriptive claims, but hopefully my point is somewhat clear.


* said...

I thought most people pushing for teaching creationism were now couching it in "intelligent design", which really gets them off the hook for having to debate science at all. I mean, if you're going to accept that the earth is actually billions of years old rather than a few thousand as traditionally interpreted in the bible, why not go all the way and say God designed everything to evolve?

I still don't think it should be taught in school, though, unless it is part of a standardized curriculum presenting other major religions as well. Learning about religion is certainly an important part of learning about the world and society and our place in it.

To say that a teacher shouldn't have to teach what they don't believe in is a mistake. Take it out of the context of religion and into, say, history. It is the teacher's responsibility to present the material as objectively as possible. While the teacher may not believe the holocaust ever happened, if it's in the curriculum, it would be their responsibility to present it. If they are getting paid by the state to teach, then it is primarily a job, not a soapbox.

Ana said...

By the way, that last post was by me. I hate when people anonymously post in my blog, need to fix my settings.

Sabina's hat said...

ana, thanks for the comment. My point about teaching creationism in public schools is this: While much of the debate has focused on showing that intelligent design and the so-called controversies it is pushing are not real science, even if it were, it still shouldn't be taught in a public school classroom. The system is made so that science education lags behind the most current science so that there is time for a consensus to arise. The Discovery Institute is attempting to subvert this process and appeal directly to the public school boards which is inappropriate whether or not they are real scientists or doing real science.