Dispatches from the Creation Wars

In Utah, there is a bill in front of the state legislature to require teachers to to offer a disclaimer when teaching evolution. That disclaimer would state that A) not all scientists agree on the theory of evolution and B) the state does not endorse the theory of evolution. In Michigan, there is a bill that would encourage “critical thinking” about scientific theories, but it singles out evolution and global warming as the only two theories mentioned for such treatment. This appears to be the next phase of the ID movement’s legal and political strategy.

It should be obvious to any scientifically literate person that singling out any particular theory to mention that not all scientists agree on it is absurd. If you’re going to point out such an obvious fact, why single out evolution? There is no scientific theory – absolutely none – on which all scientists agree. Even something as basic as whether the earth goes around the sun, a subject settled some 500 years ago, continues to have detractors. So why single out evolution when the same statement could be made about every single scientific theory in existenc? Because evolution is viewed as conflicting with particular religious points of view. And that’s the only reason.

What I’d like to note, however, is that this may not work as a legal strategy either. In fact, there is Supreme Court precedent to suggest that singling out evolution and treating it differently from other well accepted scientific theories in order to protect the religious views of a segment of society from views that they deem as conflicting with those views is, in and of itself, an establishment clause problem. This is particularly true when the court is able to see the clear religious purpose of the passage of such laws.

For instance, Epperson v. Arkansas, the 1968 Supreme Court ruling that overturned state laws banning the teaching of evolution, says:

It is of no moment whether the law is deemed to prohibit mention of Darwin’s theory, or to forbid any or all of the infinite varieties of communication embraced within the term “teaching.” Under either interpretation, the law must be stricken because of its conflict with the constitutional prohibition of state laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The overriding fact is that Arkansas’ law selects from the body of knowledge a particular segment which it proscribes for the sole reason that it is deemed to conflict with a particular religious doctrine; that is, with a particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis by a particular religious group.

Clearly, then, the court considered the key fact in the case to be the singling out of evolution for special treatment for the purpose of appeasing a particular religious group that viewed evolution as conflicting with the tenets of their faith. Indeed, in the syllabus for the decision the single factual basis for the decision that was listed was the fact that “The sole reason for the Arkansas law is that a particular religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis.” The court further stated:

There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma…

In the present case, there can be no doubt that Arkansas has sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive source of doctrine as to the origin of man. No suggestion has been made that Arkansas law may be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious views of some of its citizens. It is clear that fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law’s reason for existence. Its antecedent, Tennessee’s “monkey law,” candidly stated its purpose: to make it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Perhaps the sensational publicity attendant upon the Scopes trial induced Arkansas to adopt less explicit language. It eliminated Tennessee’s reference to “the story of the Divine Creation of man” as taught in the Bible, but there is no doubt that the motivation for the law was the same: to suppress the teaching of a theory which, it was thought, “denied” the divine creation of man.

Clearly, then, this precedent strongly rules out a policy that singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, such as prohibitions and disclaimers that could with equal legitimacy be applied to any theory in science, for the purpose of appeasing the religious sensibilities of some portion of the population. Just as clearly, the mere fact that the text of the law does not explicitly mention that as a motivation does not insulate the law from this analysis.

Given the fact that the Utah bill was passed in the Senate on Friday in a debate dominated by statement after statement from legislators saying that the bill was necessary in order to take a stand for “God’s creation” and the like, there is little doubt what the real motivations were. And this is always a problem for the ID movement. No matter how much they purge the text of bills of religious language, and no matter how carefully they try and frame the issue as one of “science v science”, the legislators who vote for such bills are motivated either by their own religious views or the political desire to appeal to the religious views of others.

The legislative debate on such bills inevitably involves legislators invoking the name of God because doing so is good politics. A legislator wants to be seen as standing up for God and for the religious views of his constituents against “godless evolution”, and so he makes statements that best strike that pose for maximum effect. Thankfully, what is good political strategy for the individual politician is bad legal strategy for the anti-evolution forces and leaves no doubt, when a court examines the legislative history of a bill, what the real motivation is.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave S.
    January 23, 2006

    I wonder what the result would be if a disclaimer of the following type were inserted –

    “This book contains information on the culturally controversial scientific theory of evolution, the theory that explains how the genetic make-up of populations of organisms has changed over time. Some scientists reject all or part of this theory for reasons that do not involve accepted scientific methodology. Although students must show they understand the mainstream scientific principles of this theory, they need not personally accept it as an explanation for the development of life, if they choose not to.”

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    January 23, 2006

    I think the result would be the same. Why single out evolution for this obvious statement? Students need not personally accept anything they’re taught if they choose not to. And there are religious groups that object to virtually every aspect of what is taught in schools.

  3. #3 RickD
    January 23, 2006

    ‘They need not personally accept it as an explanation for the development of life…’

    Either the educators believe in the theory of evolution or they don’t. If they don’t, then it shouldn’t be in science classrooms. If they do, then having politically motivated caveats that appeal to the scientifically illiterate is bad politics on the part of the scientifically literate.

    Are we really interested in scientists that reject scientific theories for reasons other than scientific methodology? By which I mean, are we interested in the rejection in the context of science education? I admit it’s interesting as a cultural phenomenon to see scientists reject scientific theories for non-scientific reasons. But that’s hardly a reason to water down the science itself.

  4. #4 mark
    January 23, 2006

    Judge Jones, who frequently cited Epperson v. Arkansas in his Dover decision, made it perfectly clear that the suggestion of doubt about evolution (and not other scientific theories) worked hand-in-glove with the suggestion that there is a valid alternative, and this had the effect of instilling in students the notion that the demonstrably religious-based alternative was the lesson the students truly should learn.

  5. #5 Ginger Yellow
    January 23, 2006

    Dave S, if you allow a statement like that, you might as well make it a general statement: “Science reveals information on culturally controversial issues, such as how the universe works. Some scientists reject all or part of some scientific theories and even the scientific method itself, for reasons that do not involve accepted scientific methodology. Although students must show they understand mainstream scientific principles, they need not personally accept science as a model of how the world works, if they choose not to.”

    At least that would get to the heart of the matter.

  6. #6 llDayo
    January 23, 2006

    We should pass a law requiring all religious texts to contain a disclaimer: “This book contains teaching that may not coincide with real life. Approach all material with a skeptical mind and research all that is read to fully understand the message contained within. The reader is not forced to accept all contents word by word and is encouraged to ask questions. The existence of a god(s) is not endorsed by science and is in fact outside the abilities of scientists to test for such things. The views of this book are not supported by the government of these United States.”

  7. #7 Dave S.
    January 23, 2006

    I agree that such a disclaimer would still fail the sniff test. I was exploring the possibilities of further pushing back the claims in such a disclaimer, to see if maybe such a statement could be made so tepid as to pass constitutional muster while at the same time satisfying the goals of the anti-evolutionist to weaken evolution if only a little. However I think such claims that single out only evolution are inherently unfair, and motivated primarily by religious needs with no redemptive secular purpose.

  8. #8 Roman Werpachowski
    January 23, 2006

    If teachers start telling kids that they have to learn things but don’t have to think they are true, this starts approaching the level of hypocrisy present in the Communist Poland schools. It was quite the same. “You learn that the USSR is our best friend, but …”

  9. #9 Ginger Yellow
    January 23, 2006

    The only secular (or at least vaguely Lemon-passable secular) argument I can think of for singling out evolution is the supposedly “historical” nature of much of the research. Leaving aside all the non-historical work done by biologists, and the fact that all research is to a degree “historical” – “Nobody’s ever seen a proton in a quantum superposition!” – that means evolution should be lumped in with geology, cosmology, archaeology, climate science and other “historical” sciences. Of course, the creationists have issues with most if not all of these sciences, so maybe it’s not so Lemon-friendly after all.

  10. #10 Dave S.
    January 23, 2006

    If teachers start telling kids that they have to learn things but don’t have to think they are true, this starts approaching the level of hypocrisy present in the Communist Poland schools. It was quite the same. “You learn that the USSR is our best friend, but …”

    Let’s say I’m a teacher and a young lady comes up to me and objects that I teach in my geology class that the Earth is about 4,550,000,000 years old based on multiple independent radioisotope determinations of lunar and meteroic data, as well as very old ages determined directly the same way for the oldest Earth rocks. She’s a YE creationist, and so this fact offends her. Should I then demand that she must accept the “truth” that the Earth is much older than 6000 years against her religious convictions?

    I don’t think so. I would certainly mark her as incorrect should she write an essay filled with Kent Hovindesque nonsense while suggesting its legitimate science. Its totally unacceptable for instance to quote-mine, or to use arguments long known to be false like the moon dust ‘problem’ or citing Lord Solly Zuckerman as if his wasn’t a minority view refuted 50 years ago. That she might believe something is true certainly won’t prevent me from marking it wrong if it is wrong. But I can’t force her to change what she accepts as the “truth”.

    As long as she shows she understands how science works and correctly answers the questions, I can’t force her to “believe” any of it.

  11. #11 Pieter B
    January 23, 2006

    Some scientists reject all or part of some scientific theories and even the scientific method itself, for reasons that do not involve accepted scientific methodology.

    If they reject the scientific method, they’re not scientists. Better to phrase it “Some people with degrees in the sciences . . .” or “Some people who claim to be scientists . . .”

  12. #12 Ginger Yellow
    January 23, 2006

    “She’s a YE creationist, and so this fact offends her. Should I then demand that she must accept the “truth” that the Earth is much older than 6000 years against her religious convictions?”

    It depends what you mean. You can’t force her to psychologically accept any anyway, so all we’re debating is how you should tell her she’s wrong. Personally, I would explain why science thinks the earth is 4.6bn years old, why this is different from fundamentalists saying the Bible says the Earth is 6,000 years old, point out that God could have created the world to look like it was 4.55bn years old, but that accepting that proposition methodologically would mean chucking away everything we’ve learned from science and stocking up on edible berries and animal furs, because the nuclear power plants we thought were powered by fission of uranium might really be running on invisible Jesus juice that will run out tomorrow. But that’s just me.

    Actually, I’m trying to make a serious point. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. But you can explain how science reaches conclusions about the universe and that those conclusions are in turn remarkably powerful at predicting other properties of the universe. And you can explain in no uncertain terms that YECism is utterly, utterly at odds with science. If she still sticks to it, as will happen in 9/10 cases, well, it’s her problem.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    January 23, 2006

    You simply can’t pretend to young people that you don’t care about the truth. That’s a pedagogical crime.

  14. #14 Michael Bacon
    January 23, 2006

    Most scientists don’t believe in religion. I could live with a disclaimer saying that, and then going on to say not all scientists agree on the theory of evolution and the state does not endorse religion or the theory of evolution

  15. #15 Roman Werpachowski
    January 24, 2006

    But what’s the relevance of the disclaimer “most scientists do not believe in religion” to biology lessons? Why should students care? Is good basic science made by Communists different from the good basic science made by Catholics?

  16. #16 Ginger Yellow
    January 24, 2006

    And what about good science by Catholic communists?

  17. #17 mark
    January 24, 2006

    Let’s say I’m a teacher and a young lady comes up to me and objects that I teach in my geology class that the Earth is about 4,550,000,000 years old…

    Stephen J. Gould had such a student, Kurt Wise. Gould did not try to disencumber Wise of is unscientific, religion-based views; he only wanted to be sure that Wise understood (to the extent a teacher can tell that a student understands anything) the concepts that he (Gould) presented. Apparently, there are strong reasons why such a person prefers to ignore scientific explanations (which he has studied and presumably understands) and stick with the religious mythology.

  18. #18 Dave S.
    January 24, 2006

    Roman –

    Of course as a teacher you care about scientific truth, in as far as science gives us truths. And you need to impart the knowledge that a young age for the Earth is not at all a scientifically defensible position. Indeed, we want to emphasize exactly how science works and how we can come to the conclusions we do, as Ginger points out.

    But in no way may you challenge that student and insist she change her beliefs, something which you could not do even if you wanted to. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. I would not harangue her about her beliefs as long as she shows that she knows and understands the actual science.

    I posited the disclaimer above not because I think it’s a good idea, but because I wanted feedback as to how others would view it from the legal stance, since I think its more accurate and less entangling in religion. The idea was to probe the limits one needs to go before you get a disclaimer that passes constitutional muster. Ed has made the good point that merely singling out evolution for special treatment still raises the red flag in this case.

  19. #19 Dave S.
    January 24, 2006

    Stephen J. Gould had such a student, Kurt Wise. Gould did not try to disencumber Wise of is unscientific, religion-based views; he only wanted to be sure that Wise understood (to the extent a teacher can tell that a student understands anything) the concepts that he (Gould) presented. Apparently, there are strong reasons why such a person prefers to ignore scientific explanations (which he has studied and presumably understands) and stick with the religious mythology.

    Excellent example mark, and love the use of the word “disencumber”. As to why a person like a Wise or the child in my example would hold such views, contrary to all the evidence, that’s something of a mystery to me but they can believe what they will.

  20. #20 Ginger Yellow
    January 24, 2006

    “But in no way may you challenge that student and insist she change her beliefs, something which you could not do even if you wanted to.”

    As I said above, I think you should “challenge” the student. Not by insisting she change her beliefs, but by asking that she defend them. A science teacher should not only impart scientific facts, nor only a knowledge of the scientific method, but also a respect for and hopefully a love of science. A science teacher in that situation who doesn’t explain that science is far, far more successful at building models of how the physical world works than religion is failing in their duty if you ask me.

  21. #21 Dave S.
    January 24, 2006

    I think we are very much in agreement here Ginger. Kurt Wise for example says that he knows that there is currently no real scientific justification for being a YE creationist, but he holds that view anyway because that is the way that he understands scripture to teach. Apparently, from a 2003 e-mail (note: accuracy of quote could not be directly checked), “I am a young-age creationist because the Bible indicates the universe is young. Given what we currently think we understand about the world, the majority of the scientific evidence favors an old earth and universe, not a young one. I would therefore say that anyone who claims that the earth is young for scientific evidence alone is scientifically ignorant.”

    I think we need to be aware of the difference between believing nonsense like YE creationism constitutes acceptable credible science, which I agree we absolutely should challenge, and believing it simply based on a particular scriptural exegesis while recognizing there is no scientific validity.

    People of the last category seem to be rare indeed, so the question is largely academic. I personally do know such a person though, so they do exist.

    I agree that as teachers, the goal is to impart the best scientific knowledge we have at the present time, and even more importantly to teach how science works and emphasize its success in explaining nature. And that its pretty cool too. Creationist “explanations” have no role to play here as they are vacuous as explanatory models and rely on deception and ignorance.

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