Two years ago, there was quite a brouhaha in the media when Serbian minister for education decided to kick Darwin out of schools. The whole affair lasted only a few days – the public outrage was swift and loud and the minister was forced to resign immediately. I blogged about it profusely back then and below the fold are those old posts:
I Take This Personally (September 09, 2004)
Serbia vs. Darwin
No, that’s not fair. It really should be “the current Serbian government vs. Darwin”.
“The law has been redrawn. So, our kids still learn Darwin, and Educational Comitee (or something like that, I’m really not much into all that) is going to think about taking disciplinary measures against Colic.”
Hmmm, I went to school in Belgrade in the 1970/80s. Darwin was hammered into our heads all the time in school. He belonged to the holly trinity of idols we had to know every little biographical detail about, the other two being Tito and Marx.
Church was weak at the time. I remember seeing little blue books, translations of Duane Gish stuff, sold in church stores, as well as in houses of elderly farmers out in the country. It is an Orthodox church, after all, never-changing by definition, so it is to be expected that it would not give Darwin a second look.
I understand that Colic is being investigated now, and that her decision has been retracted. I am pained to see that kids in my fatherland are force-fed religion in school these days.
I am so proud of rigorous scientific education I got there in my time – something the US educational system cannot begin to match. After finishing high school I had more biology under my belt than kids who graduate in biology from ANY U.S. College. In grades 1-2, we had “Understanding Science and Society”, in grades 3-4 that was split into separate subjects: “Understanding Nature” and “Understanding Society”. By the time I graduated from high school I had behind me 8 years of physics, 7 years of chemistry, 6 years of geography (including basics of cosmology, geology, oceanography and meteorology), 8 years of history, 6 years of technical education, 12 years of math, and 8 years of biology (plus also stuff like 12 years of PE, 10 years of music and art, 12 years of Serbo-Croatian language and world literature, 12 years of English, 4 years of French, the inevitable 2 years of “Defense” and 2 years of “Marxism”, etc.). Being a biology major in high school, I also had a year of botany, a year of zoology, a year of microbiology, a year of ecology, a year of biochemistry, a year of molecular biology, a year of general biology lab, and a year of biochemistry/molecular biology lab. Many college graduates here do not have that much science.
I guess the good old days of Eastern European superior education are gone….
Saga Continues (September 11, 2004)
BELGRADE – Serbia’s Education Minister was ridiculed in cartoons and pelted with resignation demands on Thursday for ejecting Darwin from school classrooms in favour of Old Testament ‘creationism’.
The minister, Ms Ljiljana Colic, had forecast some opposition to her order to stop teaching evolution theory this year, but it triggered a deluge of protest, casting doubt on her position.
The Social Democratic Union youth party asked President Boris Tadic to have her removed from office for a step that ‘takes us centuries back by putting an equal sign between the scientifically founded Darwin theory and church dogma’.
The Civic Alliance political party demanded Ms Colic resign. The Centre for the Rights of the Child said she was breaking the law as she had not consulted the National Education Council. – Reuters
BELGRADE — Friday – Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is to be returned to the eighth grade syllabus in Serbian schools after a week in limbo, Deputy Education Minister Milan Brdar has said.
“That means that I’m here to confirm that Charles Darwin is still alive,” Brdar told journalists, adding that he was making the announcement because Minister Ljiljana Colic was away on business.
Colic stunned the world last week by declaring unilaterally that Darwin’s work was hypothetical and no more valid than creationist theory.
Because of this, she said, evolution would no longer be taught. She has been the butt of satirists and cartoonists in Serbian media since the announcement was made.
Colic is a member of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia.
After ridicule, government reinstates evolution theory
Darwin’s theory of evolution is dominant in the scientific world
The Serbian government has reversed an order to ban Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution from schools, following widespread criticism from scientists.
“I have come here to confirm Charles Darwin is still alive,” said deputy education minister Milan Brdar.
His boss, Ljiljana Colic, who had announced the controversial policy, had gone “away on business”, he said.
She had proposed banning the evolution theory this school year, until creationism could be taught alongside.
Both Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Old Testament view on the beginning of life were equally dogmatic, the minister had said.
After a deluge of protest from scientists, teachers and opposition parties, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called Ms Colic in for a meeting.
They agreed to drop the move, Mr Brdar said.
Biologist Nikola Tucic described the original ruling as “outrageous” and said it showed Serbia’s Orthodox Church was interfering in politics.
“We are slowly turning into a theocratic state and in the 21st Century we are going back to the Book of Revelations,” he said.
However, an influential figure in the Orthodox Church, Bishop Ignjatije, acknowledged Darwin had a place in schools.
Darwin “spoke about ways that humans and the rest of the nature are connected. The connection must not be ignored by anybody, not even by us theologists”, he said.
Creationism accepts the Old Testament account of the beginning of human life, in which God created Adam and Eve.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is the dominant explanation of man’s origins within the scientific community.
His theory is that life evolved over billions of years through natural selection, from microbes to man; with man and modern apes sharing a common ancestor.
Serbs like Darwin, after all (September 13, 2004)
So, the saga seems to be over for now. I am proud of my old country, of course. The outrage was swift and loud, and the government acted fast. I read through the Serbian press, whatever of it is online, and the level of outrage and ridicule is absolutely huge. Cartoons are funny and devastating. I believe Mrs.Colic is about to be sacked. I have not seen a single voice in her defense anywhere in the Serbian media.
Now, think of similar cases we had here in the USA. Was there a universal outrage? No. Was there a swift response by the government? No. Was there political consequence for the Creationist? No, of course, Reagan and Bush are openly Creationist and they still got elected.
Can you imagine letters to the editor in your local paper? Three for Darwin, three against. Nobody knows how many really came in for each side, but the editor, in his misguided effort to be “fair and balanced” will make sure that both sides of the issue will be presented by the equal number of letters, thus giving teh appearance that the population is evenly divided on this and every other issue.
For 50 years, and several generations, religion was ridiculed in Yugoslavia. It was not banned as in other communist states, but over the years, only a few very elderly people remained religious. We were brought up on Marx and Darwin. Secularism, science and rationality. Church was dying off. My father, an atheist himself, sang in the church choir every Sunday because he loves the church music. I went with him a couple of times. I do not know that music, but I have formal musical education so I could read from the music sheet and sing with them. Most of the members of the choir were very old people. The church was empty except for a couple of very old people.
I met only a couple of young people who were religious and they were some VERY troubled souls. Peer ridicule made them even more troubled.
So, what happened? Apparently, during the 90s, church gained a large influence for several reasons. First, it became fashionable in about 1988 for young people to go to church on Easter and Christmas as a reaction to the rise of the Catholic church in Croatia, associated with the neo-fascist nascent regime in Croatia. It was a way to reassert one’s Serbian national pride. Second, the wars, sanctions, poverty and the Milosevic’s regime left a moral void. People in search for answers about moral choices, about right and wrong, did not know where to turn to. Church swiftly moved in to fill that void.
Not confirmed, but I heard that the Serbian Orthodox church ex-communicated all the women who had an abortion. Isn’t that illegal? Cathechism is now taught in schools. I could not find the official church response to this Darwin debacle, although one of the articles quotes a bishop who seems to be fine with Darwin. Perhaps it was just in Mrs.Colic’s imagination what the church really wanted and how she was going to pander to it.
Eric, over at Total Information Awareness, writes a nice post on the religion vs. science controversy here (thanks for the plug, Eric):
Scanning the Serbian media, I see several repeated issues at stake there:
First is the obvious: struggle between rationality and superstition, empiricism and dogma, science and religion. The question is framed in a manner similar to the ways Creationist efforts are discussed in the USA. Some Serbian papers actually quote at length translations of the (U.S.) National Academy of Science conclusions on Creationism in schools, some court decisions from the U.S. cases, as well as the Pope’s statement that evolution is a well-supported scientific truth. The outcry was massive and coming from all quarters, which in turn reassured everyone that the country is still generally sane – a big question for the past decade or so.
Second is the more general worry over the influence of the church in Serbia. As I wrote in the previous post, this is a new thing for Serbia, and something they will have to struggle with for years to come. After several decades of secular tradition, religion is making big inroads and nobody seems to know how to deal with it.
Third worry is the effect this controversy will have on the relationship to the EU. Apparently, the Serbs gave up on the USA. They duly report (whil shaking their heads) recent wild rantings by Richard Holbrooke who, after all those years dealing with the region, still has no idea what he’s talking about. Unlike most of the world, Serbs are quite ambivalent about the US elections. On one hand, they can see what a totalitarian regime is being built by Bush, Cheney, Aschcroft et al., and do not like what they see. On the other hand, they like the way Bush left the Balkan region alone and is going after militant Islamists everywhere (still a big problem in Bosnia and Kosovo – places that are new HQ for Al Qaeida since they lost ground in Afghanistan). They like the democratic worldview of Kerry, but are deathly afraid of his foreign policy advisors – those are the very same people who drove Clinton into foolish decisions on Bosnia and Kosovo (the anti-Serb hawks like Holbrooke, Berger, Albright, Christopher, Shelton, Clark…). They are also afraid of the way Albanian, Hungarian and Croatian lobbies in the USA work together to fund now and influence later President Kerry. Not being able to do anything about the USA, the Serbs are setting their sights towards smoothing their relationship with the rest of Europe and hoping for inclusion into the EU one day in the future. Even after more than a decade of wars, sanctions and horrible mismanagement by the Milosevic regime, Serbian economy is still by far the biggest in the Balkans and it needs good relations with European countries no matter what happens in the USA or elsewhere. The fear is that the Darwin flop will have negative consequences in this regard. The country’s reputation, on a slow rise after its lowest point in history, is damaged again.
However, the greatest emphasis in the media was on the questions of PROCESS. The country is still reeling from the events of the past decade and is trying its hardest to build an efficient democratic government that the population can have confidence in. The population is very sceptical of the government and the way it conducts its business. Most of the media comments pertain to the fact that Mrs.Colic’s order was illegal (i.e., that kind of decision is not in her job description), and that the decision to reverse her order was also illegal (i.e., that kind of decision is not in the job description of the committee that did it). Thus the whole episode is seen as seriously undermining the claim of the government that it is following the word of law in the way it operates, thus greatly diminishing the confidence Serbian people can have in their government.
But back to Darwin and science/religion tensions. Of course, there are good places online to look for such stuff.
The premier science blog is Chris Mooney’s who always provides good links, too. For science/religion struggles, especially concerning Creationism, the place to go is Panda’s Thumb (http://www.pandasthumb.org/). Skeptic. com is, of course a great resource, too.
In a recent post Raving Atheist discusses the issue of Dan Rather/CBS/fake-or-not documents/typesetting controversy. Here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting from my perspective:
The networks do not yet, on their national news broadcasts, promote faith
healing over medicine, or creationism over evolution. Nor do they pretend, yet,
that there is no difference whatsoever between science and pseudoscience. But
that may all change, depending on which side prevails in the ongoing political
dispute. Make no mistake about it: if the wrong side prevails, the violence done
to the credibility of the already tottering mainstream mass media will be such
that it will be absolutely impossible to distinguish its pronouncements from
those of the 700 Club. Once authentic documents are excluded with false
evidence, or forged documents are embraced as an acceptable part of the public
discourse, or, anything goes. Every political discussion will resemble a debate
with a fundamentalist mullah.
But before you consider the experts, atheist
partisans on both sides of the aisle should consider that if Dan Rather is
forced to affirm or the documents based upon phony expert reports (or to give
equal time to phony experts), the networks may soon be at the mercy of those who
carbon-date the origin of the earth age to 4004 B.C. and the Shroud of Turin to
33 A.D. Conversely, if Rather is forced to retract the documents based upon
false evidence, we may be faced with a suppression of truth equivalent to
This gets me thinking about the whole He said/She said style of journalism, currently dominating the USA media. This issue has been recently discussed in various contexts and here is a sampling of recent links:
Rethinking Objective Journalism
The problem with U.S. coverage is not political bias but a misplaced adherence to a shallow definition of objectivity.
Campaign coverage needs to read between the lines
The media are awash in “he said/she said/we’re mum” journalism, “the practice of reporters parroting competing rhetoric instead of measuring it for veracity against known facts.”
The Campaign ’04 information war is fast, deep, and fraught with lies. The press must rethink its coverage, or drown in a toxic tidal wave
Media Bias on Climate Change
Climate scientists have long complained that when reporters cover global warming in a “he said/she said” fashion, the result is sheer inaccuracy as fringe viewpoints get the same treatment as the mainstream scientific understanding.
Think Again: False Objectivity in Science Reporting
In its most simplistic version, journalistic objectivity means that both sides on an issue should be balanced out against one another. But this definition collapses when it comes to scientific issues. Science isn’t a democracy, and in practice, one side in a scientific debate is often much more reputable than another.
So, the science “types” are saying that most scientific controversies are very lopsided and that having representatives of both sides misrepresents the issue to the viewers. If 99% of scientists believe that global warming is real and aided by human activity, while the remaining 1% are suspect for their motives anyway, having both on the TV show every time the issue is discussed is de facto misleading the public. In essence, they say: “This is not politics – there is nothing fair and balanced about scientific truths”.
On the other hand, the political “types” are saying that the political reporting should follow the example of scientific reporting. If there are news in science, they say, the TV anchor will invite an expert to explain it and there will be no opposing view aired. If the news are from biology or geology, the TV shows do not automatically invite a Creationist or a Flat-Earther to provide “balance”. Thus, if one side of a political issue is correct and the other is not, or if one speaks the truth and the other speaks talking points or outright lies, then only the “correct” side should be represented on the show. And if someone from the “other side” is on the show and starts saying nonsense, it is up to Wolf Blitzer (for example) to jump in an correct it. As a journalist, he has greater credibility with the audience than either one of his two guests, and it is his duty to tell hs audience which side is lying and which side is telling the truth. In essence, they say “Politics is like science – there is nothing fair and balanced about political truths”.
Now, if you subscribe to Lakoff’s explanations (and I do), then you believe that the conservative worldview is based on notions about the world that are scientifically proven to be incorrect. The conservatives are not crazy – they are just wrong. If you follow that logic, there should never be a conservative guest on any TV show. Actually, the GOP should not be considered a legitimate political party worthy of reporting on, worthy of being given opportunity to air its views in the media, have its candidates participate in debates etc. If the conservative view is essentially elitist and non-democratic and this is a democratic country, then conservative parties should not be seen or heard in the media at all, ever. If you do not want to see a Creationist on TV every time a new finding in biology is published, do you also not want to see a representative of the Un-Democratic Party wasting the time of the Democratic Party member who came on TV to say something about news in the world of politics and government? And if the Un-Democrats are constantly posing on TV and debating Democrats, does that very fact undermine the reputation of the media, and will this degradation of journalistic criteria in politics lead to degradation of journalistic criteria in science, thus bringing the Creationists back on TV every time a biologists shows up to say something?
More on Darwin in Serbia (September 17, 2004)
The Serbian Minister of Education resigned earlier today.
The Darwin crisis in Serbia ends. Here are several renditions:
and, from 4 years ago:
Darwin or Adam and Eve?