Saturday, January 15, 2005

Role reversal: suppressing heresy

CNN.com - Evolution ruling gets cheers from scientists.

On one side are the ACLU, "scientists and teachers"; on the other are "some parents and religious conservatives... fundamentalists". Once side is arguing for open-mindedness and critical thinking; the other wants their viewpoint to be the only one that stundents are exposed to. As one of the lawyers put it:

"This is a great day for Cobb County students," said attorney Michael Manely, who represented the parents who brought the lawsuit. "They're going to be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma."

Sounds like the same ole same ole: modernity vs. those who want a return to the Dark Ages, science vs. religion. The roles are reversed though.

At issue is whether Cobb County, GA biology texts contain a sticker with a disclaimer on the theory of evolution. The "religious conservatives" want the stickers included while those scientists and teachers (who were asked) did not. So what does the sticker say that is so controversial? Here is the text:

"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."

One of the authors of one of the texts objects:

""What it tells students is that we're certain of everything else in this book except evolution."

No wonder science education needs improvement! Science texts are being written by people who either misunderstand or misrepresent the nature of scientific enquiry. Scientific conclusions are inductive, which means that they are never 100% certain. Yet the author seems to believe that they are all certain; at least the ones in his text. Meet the new boss: same as the old boss. Yesterday's "rational skeptic" is today's enforcer of dogma. Now it wouldn't do for scientists to look like inquisitors of the Church of Darwin, so this rationale is offered:

"Scientists, several of whom testified in the case, say the sticker confuses the scientific term "theory" with the word's common usage and inappropriately combines science with personal religious belief."

Oh, so that's it. The textbook writers have done such an abysmal job of explaining in their texts what the meaning of "theory" is within a scientific context that they are afraid students will misunderstand the use of the term in the stickers.

The statement in the stickers is perfectly legitimate from a scientific perspective. Indeed, given the abysmal scientific epistemology used by the authors, the message ought to be expanded to include something along the lines of, "All scientific conclusions are tentative, and open to being modified or discarded as future discoveries warrant." Apparently it's a point that isn't being addressed, and this represents a detriment to students learning what science is about.

What this amounts to is that science textbook writers and public school administrators, who can always find a few fellow ideologues in the scientific community whom the mainstream media is happy to depict as speaking for scientific consensus, are attempting to teach kids philosophical materialism, the denial that there is a Creator, under the guise of science, even though science is wholly inadequate to address this and despite the logical impossiblility of proving a universal negative. All the sticker calls for is that evolution be understood in a truly scientific way (as opposed to dogmatically) and that students ought to examine the facts and exercise critical thinking. That, obviously, is unacceptable.

Now, there are those who try to put a fig leaf of open-minded diversity over this forced indoctrination by saying that it's OK to teach alternatives to evolution (really, to philosophical materialism), just not in biology classes; comparative religion classes are a suitable place for that. Now, no such a class was offered when I was in high school, and I don't know where if anywhere such a class is offered. So this "concession" amounts to saying that alternatives to philosophical materialism can be taught in underwater basket-weaving classes. I guess the public is assumed to be too stupid to see through this. Also, this suggestion misses the point that it is in science classes that a fringe philosophical position is being promoted as scientific "certain[ty]".

Yes, there are fundamentalists whose dogmatism is harming education. They misrepresent science and resort to the coercive power of the state to silence dissent because their position cannot stand up in open, reasoned debate. And no, they are not the creationists.