No Mock Trials Without Preconditions

Inside Higher Ed this morning has a story about a mock trial to be held at Northern Kentucky University:

The trial centers around the termination of fictitious biology teacher Susan Scott (a traditionally trained evolution adherent), who according to her complaint, encouraged students to “explore creation theories.” Scott, who will be played by Simon Kenton High School teacher Heather Mastin, is suing the fictitious Chandler County School Board for wrongful termination and seeks reinstatement, compensatory damages and a judicial declaration that the school board violated her First Amendment rights.

Scott will be represented by local attorney Phil Taliaferro, who will argue that teaching creation theory is not only permitted in Kentucky, but legally protected. The defendant, Chandler County School Board, will be represented by local attorney Margo Grubbs, who will argue that Scott’s termination was justified under existing law.

Sounds like a great idea for a mock trial event, right? It’s got that “ripped from the headlines” quality that will draw people in, and some good meaty legal stuff to provide academic content. It’s even got community connections, which is always good for town-gown relations.

So, why is this written up in Inside Higher Ed?

James C. Votruba has received hundreds of e-mail messages this week telling him that he should call off a campus event at Northern Kentucky University, where he is president. Has the institution invited Bill Ayers to speak? Actually, the conservatives aren’t complaining — scientists are.

[...] [T]o many scientists at Northern Kentucky and elsewhere, the university has oversimplified the questions. These critics would never question the right of a creationist to speak at the university, whatever his or her views. But for the university to create a special forum in which evolution and creationism will be presented on equal terms is in fact to take a side, they say. Creationists want the public to believe that their views and those of scientists are two competing opinions, both of equal scientific merit — and this forum will advance that view, they say.

That’s just fantastic.

Essentially, this is John McCain’s foreign policy, applied to creationism. According to this line of thinking, the whole creationist/ “Intelligent Design” crowd is so bad that even talking to them is out of the question. Actually, it’s even worse– this is a mock trial. This is like the McCain campaign denouncing the Northern Kentucky Model UN chapter because the student playing the US ambassador sat down and talked with the student playing Iran’s ambassador.

It pains me to be associated with these people, in even a minor, peripheral way.

(If you agree with what I wrote above, let me note that we’re currently in the middle of a DonorsChoose fundraiser, and nothing says “thanks for writing” like a donation to help education. It’s a noble cause.

(If you disagree with me, and would like to punish me for my views, let me note that if my DonorsChoose challenge passes $6,000, I will be forced to dance like a monkey, and post video of it on YouTube. It’s within $1,000 of that, so just a small donation can force me to suffer humiliations galore. Now that’s a noble cause!)

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    October 22, 2008

    Chad, you’ve got your analogy wrong.
    A more accurate analogy would be the US President sitting down to negotiate with a completely random Iranian who has no connection whatsoever with the Iranian Government.
    To say the term creationism makes it sound like its one single theory with some sort of agreed consensus model.
    In reality the term is usually meant to refer to Southern Protestant Christian Creationism and not the thousands of other possible creationism ‘theories’ that exist.
    The real debate should be between these competing theories and only then should the agreed winner can debate the scientists.
    Is that not fair?

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    October 22, 2008

    A more accurate analogy would be the US President sitting down to negotiate with a completely random Iranian who has no connection whatsoever with the Iranian Government.

    No, that’s terrible. It creates the illusion that Science is some monolithic thing, and that any individual scientist speaks for the whole.

    Scientists are individuals, and Science is always in flux. There is no President of Science to negotiatie with random religious people.

  3. #3 Mike West
    October 22, 2008

    Chad, I agree that science is always in flux and there isn’t (and rightly so) a President of Science. However, the Theory of Evolution is what’s being directly attacked by Creationism. Though evolution is constantly being investigated and therefore revised in some form or fashion, the root ideal that the theory is constructed upon isn’t so malleable as Creationism is. I agree that it should involve specialists from all genres of science but how can it be useful to fight an enemy who cannot get out of their own way?

  4. #4 Moshe
    October 22, 2008

    Here is another place where the analogy fails. Iran is an independent and powerful country, it is in everyone’s interest to engage with them. The creationist movement is marginal, it’s very existence depends on publicity (and in the US, the odd way education is managed by local school boards), and you can’t fight a PR campaign with scientific arguments.

  5. #5 Harry Abernathy
    October 22, 2008

    While I’m hoping this publicity stunt done in the name of fair and balanced debate just comes and goes, I worry about the media attention this could garner if the Creationist side wins.

    It’s not so much the overall mock trial that bothers me than it is just the jury portion. The “jury” will be the first 200 people in attendance, who will be given a remote control clicker to pass their vote. Depending on how credence this event is given, either side of the equation could completely stack the deck by camping out en masse to rig the outcome. This is particularly harmful to the mock trial format since a jury is supposed to be composed of impartial adjudicators. What you’re likely to get is the EXACT OPPOSITE of a true jury: the likely jurists will have made their decision BEFORE the trial begins.

    Again, maybe too much is being made of a mock trial at some random university, but you never know how the media will spin something…

  6. #6 James F
    October 22, 2008

    I was one of the scientists who emailed President Votruba, albeit not to request that he call off the trial, merely to question the motives of its organizers. I was happy to get a reply from him in which he agreed with the points I had made (i.e., that creationism isn’t science and should never be taught as such) and that the intention of staging the trial was not a simple up or down vote. I’m curious to see what develops….

  7. #7 Kevin W. Parker
    October 22, 2008

    I think it’s worth noting that this doesn’t exactly seem to be set up to be a “fair and balanced” trial. The chief witness on the fundy side has a PhD in biochemistry, while representing the science of evolution is … an attorney!? His chief qualification for this role appears to be that he’s an atheist, which just plays into the whole “evolution vs. religion” framework that the creationists try to put this issue into.

  8. #8 Moshe
    October 22, 2008

    Let me say something more general. Honest exchange of ideas, with the purpose of learning from one another, is one thing. A public relation campaign aimed at achieving specific political goals is a completely different beast. If you recognize this as a PR battle, where your goal are presumably to preserve the integrity of the educational system, there is no shame in being strategic, in fact it is foolish not to be. Viewed this way, maybe engaging in a mock debate with a highly skilled PR professional, without devoting any thought on how you are likely to be perceived, is not the best way to achieve one’s goals.

  9. #9 Mary
    October 22, 2008

    There was a debate on creationism at Schenectady County Community College a few years ago. Local newspaper columnist Carl Strock from the Daily Gazette faced off against Dr. Jay Wile.

    Dr. Wile has a PhD in nuclear chemistry from U of Rochester and is the author of creationist textbooks on chemistry, physics, and biology. The books are extremely popular among fundamentalist Christian private schools and evangelical homeschoolers.

    Turnout for the debate was unexpectedly high.

    The SCCC auditorium held 350 people and hundreds showed up to two hours early. The debate started at 7:30 p.m. My daughter and I showed up at 7:00, half an hour before the debate, and were among the 200-plus who were turned away by SCCC campus police.

    We were able to watch the debate later on local cable-access television.

    Our impression is that those who had beat us out for spaces were primarily very large conservative Christian families, who are extremely organized and most of which include at least one adult who does not work outside the home.

    In view of this, I’m not sure that handing out clickers to the first 200 who show up will result in a balanced and representative audience.

  10. #10 Philip H.
    October 23, 2008

    “Essentially, this is John McCain’s foreign policy, applied to creationism. According to this line of thinking, the whole creationist/ “Intelligent Design” crowd is so bad that even talking to them is out of the question. Actually, it’s even worse– this is a mock trial. This is like the McCain campaign denouncing the Northern Kentucky Model UN chapter because the student playing the US ambassador sat down and talked with the student playing Iran’s ambassador.”

    No Chad, it’s not. Creationists are not just seeking an equal forum – they are seeking to dismantle a significant underpinning of modern science because it doesn’t comport with their world view. Creationists are thus a threat not just to evolution, but to science. And that means you.

  11. #11 onein6billion
    October 26, 2008

    “the whole creationist/ “Intelligent Design” crowd is so bad that even talking to them is out of the question.”

    There is a lot of truth to this statement. Talking to them in public in a “debate” grants to them a very small amount of legitimacy. And that is bad. The Supreme Court has ruled and Judge Jones has ruled and having a “jury” of the public on a Constitutional question is ridiculous.

    Not to mention that the premise of the trial was that the teacher had already taught creationism and when the evening trial was held, she denied it. Go to jail for perjury.

    And having an advertised atheist non-scientist present the evolution side? Stupid.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.