Cato on creationism

Cato defends children's liberty to be wrong. This is not the first time that Andrew Coulson has advanced this line of argument. Essentially, his claim is that the only way to end the wars over creationism would be to let children learn whatever they want in schools that their parents pay with other people's tax dollars. Doing otherwise, he insists, would be "illiberal, undemocratic, divisive, ineffective, and counter-productive." That "someone who agrees wholeheartedly that a natural process of evolution is the best explanation of how human beings came to be" finds this argument compelling is very odd, and his consistent treatment of evolution as if it were anti-religious by its nature suggests that his views are more … nuanced than he's letting on.

Below the fold, I take on each adjective quoted above. Coulson is wrong on each, and in the process displays a disregard for liberty and limited government that is surprising coming from a libertarian think tank.

To claim that teaching about evolution is illiberal, he argues that teaching only evolution in science class somehow reduces children's liberty to believe as they like (or, critically, as their parents might like). Yet, as he and his colleagues note, a parent who does not want a child to experience science as scientists practice it is free to home-school, or to send their children to a school that doesn't teach science as it is practiced. And knowing about evolution does not forbid anyone from believing as they choose, even if they choose to believe counterfactuals. As Dr. Myers points out in a related context, it is profoundly illiberal to say that "if someone follows a religion that says the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, you are not allowed to hand them a compass and take them outdoors early in the morning." There is no Constitutional right not to have your beliefs challenged by empirical evidence.

Teaching evolution does not imply that "that government is in possession of absolute truth, and that this truth is derived from the application of scientific methods to natural observations." All teaching evolution means is that we teach science as scientists practice it. When and if science produces a new consensus on that or any other matter, the content presented will change as well. That's how schools adjusted as new evidence emerged regarding the Big Bang and continental drift. None of this has any implication about parents' ability "to pass along any religious views at all to their children."

Coulson introduces a red herring by arguing:

If it is the government’s role to impart a secular scientific explanation of human origins to all children, why would we not also instruct them that their parents’ religious beliefs are unsupported by scientific evidence and should be discounted in favor of natural explanations of historical religious figures? Doing so would clearly be government as Orwell’s “Big Brother” rather than the government envisaged by our Founding Fathers.

He handily answered his own question there; teaching empirical results of our shared reality is different from imposing untestable beliefs on others. Teaching empirical results of the scientific method does not prevent anyone from having beliefs in the supernatural, and the only liberty it takes away is the liberty to believe things that are false, or to treat nonscience as science. In short, to lie. Teaching creationism (including IDC) in science classes would force teachers to lie, and would force children to learn lies.

Coulson then proceeds to make the most foolish argument possible, that teaching evolution is undemocratic because "the majority of Americans do not subscribe to our view of human origins." This is true, but irrelevant. Free speech and a free press also poll poorly, but we don't consider it undemocratic to defend those rights. Science is not determined by polls, it is determined by the evidence. Coulson argues "if we chose to mandate what is taught about human origins, and we are true democrats, we should mandate equal time for creationism and evolution." Would it be undemocratic to teach that antibiotics kill viruses? NSF polls show that the public generally believes that, but it is false, and believing it can lead to abuse of antibiotics which in turn produces drug-resistant bacteria. The issue isn't democracy, it's accuracy. Parents who prefer for their children not to learn accurate science are free to homeschool or to pay someone else to lie to their children. There is no reason that public funds should be spent on teachers who lie, and that is what vouchers would do.

Coulson is right to observe that the issue of creationism is divisive, but that doesn't mean that advocates of teaching science in science class ought to surrender. His argument could just as easily be used to argue that the creationists should give up, and that argument would at least be supported by the empirical scientific evidence. His subsequent argument that teaching only evolution has been ineffective is undermined by his observation that divisive culture wars have meant that many science teachers don't actually teach it. It's true that many students don't learn the material, but the people promoting division over evolution bear the blame for that, not evolutionary biology. He argues that we should fund schools that don't teach evolution (or do teach creationism) because "[a]fter well over half a century during which natural evolution has been the sole official explanation for human origins in the nation’s public schools, the American public’s beliefs on the subject" are negative. This makes as much sense as saying that the persistence of murder is an argument against police, or that the number of houses that burn down every year is an argument against fire departments. People don't know or agree with the scientific evidence, so let's stop teaching it? Please.

Similarly, he points to political pressure to create national science standards, and pressure on federal officials to insert creationism into bills like No Child Left Behind, and argues that the solution is to back off of the fight against creationism. I find that no more compelling than an argument that we should abandon the fight for first amendment protections just because they poll poorly.

The idea that we should just let people take public funds and build their own little school systems in which truth is determined by polling is so foolish and illiberal as to be laughable. Indeed, I find it odd that a libertarian think tank would be pushing that line of reasoning. It is one thing to talk about protecting individual freedoms, it is another to say that public funds should be used to allow parents to force their beliefs on their children. While no one disputes your basic right to raise your children as you will (modulo overt abuse), there is no reason that we should allow public funds to be spent on private schools or home schooling that forces children to accept a divisive religious worldview.

Teaching evolution in public schools is exactly what a liberal education should do. We present all of the theories that are compatible with the empirical data, and encourage children to explore their own religious views with people that they trust on those matters. It's how a liberal democracy should work.

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Perhaps parents should whose beliefs are so incompatible with learning main stream science should do what some of us did when I was a young - "Turn on, tune in, and drop out." (T. Leary, circa 1966)


By Guitar Eddie (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink

I suspect the Cato people have managed to confuse what's true and real with what's true and good. What's good in the social and economic sphere isn't what's true in the objective sphere (and mistakes there can't be undone).

to believe as they like

See, here's where BOTH sides are taking the wrong stance.

I personally wouldn't care if they believe evolution to be true. What I would, as a teacher, most immediately care about is whether or not they know what it is, how it works, and why its supported by the evidence. Even if they *believe* that scientists are lying, in a science class I would want them to tell me what scientists think.

In short, I don't care if they accept it. Its not required of schools standards that they accept it or believe it, only that they know it.

So really, both sides are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to how evolution itself is approached.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink

ah - sorry if i repeated what you wrote 2 paragraphs later, which was exactly that - teaching science as science knows it regardless of whether they "believe" it or not.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink

I have a good explanation for why a "libertarian" think tank would take this position.

Because Cato and all the other libertarian think tanks are just hacks. They support corporations and Republicans, not freedom and not even libertarianism. It's a pretty rare paper from these guys which doesn't just tow the party line, and it's usually coached in the same BS freedom of choice argument.

People should be free to choose to be poisoned, mistreated, abused, ripped-off, exploited etc. It's part of the social contract, apparently, that everybody should be devoid of any protection from the state, even though citizens have fought for and desired such protections for hundreds of years (and want more not less). Libertarians and their think tanks are a joke.

I had this very argument with a friend a few months back. He thought that the free market of all things would take care of the problem. Why? Because kids who are taught proper science will be more successful than kids who aren't, so they will send their kids to more schools which teach proper science, and those kids will be successful, so they'll send their kids to more schools which teach proper science...

That's certainly true in a very narrow sense; say, if the kid grows up to be a scientist. Any other occupation doesn't readily apply, though. So if you're taught evolution is a lie, and you grow up to be a stock broker or a police officer, you won't know any better, and you'll still send your kid to a school which teaches bad science.

I had this very argument with a friend a few months back. He thought that the free market of all things would take care of the problem. Why? Because kids who are taught proper science will be more successful than kids who aren't, so they will send their kids to more schools which teach proper science, and those kids will be successful, so they'll send their kids to more schools which teach proper science...

And who's the free market working for? The parents? Or the kids?

There's a flaw there that's not being addressed...

By roger tang (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink

Well done. Is there any way the term "think tank" can be taken away from these folks at Cato? I have a 'tank' of ostracods on my windowsill, and I believe there's more thinking going on in there! heh!


Roger Tang wrote, "And who's the free market working for?"

And why should we blindly trust that a free market will provide good but eschew rational analysis of the economy?

Nice take down. It may be me but I can't get your trackback address to work. I tackled the article with similar conclusions here.

The main thing I think Coulson either ignores or misses is that until (if) there is another theory that is equally as researched, observed and with as much solid science behind it as Evolution, that Evolution is the best science we have and shouldn't we be teaching the absolute best to students over the most popular?

Opinion polls do not change facts. Just because the majority of people (by the poll he cites) don't accept good science as good science it does not change the fact that it is the best science we have at this point.

It's so odd that libertarian/republicans should be the biggest pushers of postmodernist relativism.

Still, I believe there is a kernel of validity to his stance. You can't force truth on people, and schools and teachers (government or otherwise) that take that approach will meet resistance. School and education should not be in the business of transmitting truths from on high, but on giving people thinking skills so they can discern the truth for themselves. That's what educations should be in a democracy.

Why not teach that 2 plus 2 equals 6 or that Pi equals 3? For the latter, some have used the bible to claim it is true.

Penn Jillette is apparently a member of the Cato Institute. You can write to him to ask his opinion of a Cato Fellow supporting creationism.

--While no one disputes your basic right to raise your children as you will..--

Actually, Richard Dawkins does just that, quite strongly, saying that allowing a child to be taught the un-truths of any religion is tantamount to child abuse, and should be strongly discouraged.

Dawkins doesn't dispute the legal right, he just thinks it's a bad idea. He draws a fairly fine distinction on that point, but an important one nonetheless.