January 14, 2005 [LINK]

Judge rules on Theory of Evolution

A federal judge in Atlanta has just issued a ruling that was aimed at curtailing religious meddling in public education, but which ironically strikes a blow against against scientific thinking.

In ruling that the stickers violate the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that labeling evolution a "theory" played on the popular definition of the word as a "hunch" and could confuse students.

According to The Associated Press, the stickers read,
"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."
[SOURCE: cnn.com]

To me, the innocuous words on that sticker are just straightforward common sense, a reasonable attempt to avoid friction between faith and reason. To Judge Cooper and many others, however, those words amount to a disingenuous "Trojan horse" that seeks to instill doubt about science in impressionable young minds, as part of a fundamentalist agenda of imposing Christian beliefs in schools and other public institutions. No doubt, many of the people who were behind the policy of putting those labels in textbooks are religious fundamentalists. Were they a majority among the activists? Did they say whether they really care about science during public debates on this matter? It's hard for outsiders to know. Personally, I would favor a strong reaffirmation of the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment, making it clear that no particular religious group can force its views on the general public. But to interpret the words on that sticker as being tantamount to the establishment of religion is so utterly far-fetched that it makes the idea of dinosaurs on Noah's Ark seem plausible by comparison.

Having some familiarity with education and with scholarly pursuits, this question is extremely important to me. Trying to disabuse students of the popular use of the word "theory" (cited by the Judge Cooper) is one of the most frustrating things I have had to deal with as a teacher. As I made clear to students in some of my classes at JMU last year, fossils and DNA samples are facts; evolution is a theory, that is, a generalized, testable explanation of how facts relate to each other. Calling something a theory does not mean it is lacks widespread support among experts, and anyone who disputes this is, wittingly or not, undermining scientific learning. A theory that stands up to empirical testing does not "become" a fact; it is, rather, established in the body of knowledge of a particular field until it is further refined, or until something better comes along. Hardly any learned person seriously questions the processes of genetic mutation or natural selection, or the general progression of life forms toward greater complexity and adaptive capacity over millions of years. Nevertheless, there is almost certainly some significant part of the Theory of Evolution that will eventually be found to be seriously flawed. (Otherwise, it would be called the Fact of Evolution.) Human reason and human perception are fallible, and always will be.

This should not even be an issue, but many secular-minded Americans simply refuse to acknowledge this fundamental distinction between theory and fact because of exaggerated or misplaced fear of the Religious Right. This makes me wonder whether there might be a certain nervousness or self-doubt among the secular segment of our population. How might we bridge the chasm of distrust that motivated the judge's ruling? First, by acknowledging that there are enemies of free thought and free scientific inquiry on both the Left and the Right. (The former danger should be painfully obvious to anyone who is at all familiar with campus political correctness; the latter is more subtle, usually manifested in public affairs campaigns funded by certain wealthy activists.) Second, by making sure that teachers are clear in the use of scientific terminology, resisting false popular notions. Third, by agreeing to uphold pluralism and open-mindedness in the public sphere, leaving a path open for those who, like St. Thomas Aquinas, seek to harmonize faith and reason. As long as the widespread mistaken belief that the First Amendment precludes any public role for religious faith persists, however, this task will not be easy.

January 14, 2005 [LINK]

UPDATE: Chaos or "Intelligent design"?

Today's Washington Post, reports that the co-author of one of the biology textbooks that had been affixed with the stickers in Cobb County, Georgia, Kenneth Miller of Brown University, is involved with a similar case. Parents in Dover, Pennsylvania are suing the school system over the required teaching of "intelligent design," which is apparently a new version of "creation science." That approach is -- quite obviously -- based on religion, not science. To most nature lovers like me, nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that all the wonders of the Great Outdoors and the Universe Beyond are the end result of nothing more than random events, devoid of any Higher Purpose or fundamental ordering principle. Under the conventional, common-sense scientific paradigm of Isaac Newton, there seems to be an ever-shrinking space for the role of a Supreme Being and thus, religion. Reason! Progress! Order! The depressing prospect that the universe may be a closed, deterministic realm of finite complexity, much like a jigsaw puzzle that will be completely solved one day, is one reason why Chaos theory is such an aesthetically appealing alternative, with the strong suggestion that there are yet-undiscovered principles of order in nature, which itself is continuing to unfold. A good example would be the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" as a mechanism for evolution, as elaborated by the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould. (He was a Yankees fan, if I recall correctly.) His refinement of evolutionary theory, which departs from Darwin in certain respects, may be a step toward uncovering such broader principles of order. I happen to believe that the laws of nature are an expression of God's will, but I have no problem with people who believe otherwise. As philosopher Karl Popper -- a strong advocate for an open, free society and open, free thinking -- wrote in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (1956), "the creativeness of life does not contradict the laws of physics." Amen.

In sum, as long as people keep their hearts and minds open and remember that science and religion are largely separate domains, the inherent tensions between faith and reason can be kept to within a tolerable level. Leaving behind comfortable old dogmas can be scary for some people, but the rewards of doing so can be sublime. The biggest and saddest irony about all this is that the advocates of "creationism" on one hand, and those who would shut out any consideration or discussion of religious heritage from the curriculum of public schools, on the other hand, are actually serving each others' purposes by setting up bogeymen to attack. This is a perfect example of the polarization in our fair land, leading toward an escalated "cultural war." But it doesn't have to be that way.

Just for fun, here is a suggested "secular/politically correct" alternative sticker for those textbooks:

"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a fact, not just a theory, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an compliant, obedient mind, memorized by rote, and uncritically absorbed." smile