Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Some coverage of evolution
CNN has an AP piece up today on the controversies over teaching creationism in the schools. It's not tied to any specific piece of news; it's just a background piece. I suppose editors get a little desperate for something to fill the education page during the summer. The author, Ben Feller, the AP education writer, appears to have put the piece together by interviewing teachers at the National Education Association's annual meeting in Los Angeles.

As such pieces go, this one isn't too bad. Feller is sympathetic to the plight of educators trying to teach their subject in a heated political environment. The human side of his article is the best part, but when he tries to explain the underlying issue, the article is weaker.
The beliefs of creationist groups vary widely, but the doctrine's principle is that a supernatural being created the universe and living things. Biological evolution refers to the process of change in which species formed from preexisting species through the ages.

So far, so good. Feller cuts through one level of nonsense buy pointing out at the start that the opposition to evolution is religious, not scientific, though he could have done a better job explaining why that matters. He also gets points for defining evolution as dealing with change in existing life. Many creationists try to condemn evolution for being weak on explaining the origin of life. Though origins are a legitimate biological problem, they are not a necessary part of evolutionary theory.
Congress has weighed in with guidance to schools, saying in 2001 that students should be allowed to "understand the full range of scientific views" about biological evolution -- but also that students should be taught to distinguish between testable theories from religious or philosophical claims.

This is deceptive to the point of dishonest. What Feller refers to is something known in evolution/creationism circles as the "Santorum Amendment." During the debate over the "No Child Left Behind" education bill in 2001, Rick "man on dog" Santorum added an amendment to the senate version of the bill. This amendment was written by Phillip Johnson, a Berkeley law professor and one of the founders of Intelligent Design creationism, and David DeWolf, Gonzaga law professor and Senior Fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute. It stated:
It is the sense of the Senate that- (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.

As is often the case with creationist materials, the low key wording obscures the wide-ranging effects that such an amendment could have caused. Creationists wanted this amendment in the spending bill because they planned to use it to claim that their "teach the controversy" approach was required by federal law.

Though the Santorum Amendment was in the version of NCLB passed by the Senate, it was not in the House version. It was removed in conference committee and it is not in the version that became law. So, Feller is right that the congress weighed in, in the sense that the Senate expressed an opinion, but that opinion is not part of the law of the United States. This detail has not stopped creationists (Phyllis Schlafly for example) from trying to bully school boards with the idea that a discarded amendment still holds some power.

Back to Feller's article.
Religious accounts of life's creation are not permitted in public schools under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled.

He loses points again for uncritically repeating the myth that it is against the law even to mention god or religion in schools. The Supreme Court has ruled again and again over the last half-century that it is against the law to use public funds for religious indoctrination. Discussing religious beliefs in school is perfectly fine as long as it is done in the right context and the teacher is careful not to appear to endorse any one set of beliefs on behalf of the school.
Another theory fueling debate, intelligent design, asserts that some features of the natural world are so ordered and complex that they are best explained by an intelligent cause. Critics call that a rehashed version of creationism, stripped of overt religious references, a claim that intelligent design researchers vigorously dispute.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that represents many scholars who support intelligent design, is not seeking to require schools to teach the theory. Nor is it out to diminish the teaching of evolution, said Bruce Chapman, the institute's president.

Without quote marks, this paragraph is unclear. Is the first sentence part of the quote of Chapman or is it Feller making a statement of undisputed fact? If the latter is his intent, he's completely wrong. According to the Wedge Strategy, the twenty year plan for the Discovery Institute that they sent to supporters as a fund-raising letter in the nineties, getting Intelligent Design creationism into the schools is one of their explicit goals.

At best, the Discovery Institute is opposed to introducing Intelligent Design creationism too soon. Their method is to first undermine evolution by spreading confusion about what it is and how it works. They then introduce their religious alternative, which has the benefit of replacing confusion with the certainty of religious faith. Their plan doesn't stop with evolution. The Discovery Institute strategy is to eventually undermine the entire scientific method and replace it with revealed religion.

The wedge strategy document aims at destroying the scientific method because the Discovery Institute founders feel that the lowered prestige of religious truth is to blame for most of the social evils of the modern world. This anti-science, anti-modern attitude is typical of fundamentalists in all religions. It is a backward-looking dream of returning to an imaginary golden age when no doubt existed. The Discovery Institute dream includes the unspoken assumption that scientific and economic progress would continue uninterrupted without scientific knowledge to guide them.

Once more, back to Feller.
National science leaders are alarmed by these renewed questions about evolution. Bruce Alberts, a cell biologist and immediate past president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently wrote all of its members to warn of the "growing threat" to the teaching of science.

Feller loses lots of points here. Scientists and educators are not alarmed by being questioned; they are alarmed by an assault on one of the main pillars of modern biology. They are alarmed at a trend in using the law to dictate how subjects will be taught and to legislate what constitutes truth (biologists should get together with historians. They've had to fight this battle for decades). To claim they fear question is an insult to all teachers and scientists.
At the college level, the American Association of University Professors has deplored any efforts to force public school teachers or higher education faculty to teach theories of the origins of life that are "unsubstantiated by the methods of science."

This brings us back to the starting point. Feller never makes clear the division between science and religion. Since this is a background piece, and this the entire nexus of the debate, he does a great disservice to his readers by not mentioning it. Science is a method of gathering knowledge based on what we can measure, test, and predict. Religion is a body of knowledge supported by divine authority. It is a core strategy of the creationists to confuse the distinction and call both "ideas about the way things work."

I don't know anything about Feller, so I can't say whether he intentionally favored the creationist side or not. Based on his initial sympathetic tone presenting the teachers' dilemma, I would say he's not against them. But by uncritically repeating some of the claims of the creationists and passing up opportunities to blow away some of their smokescreen, he has not helped the teachers in any way.

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