Mike Kueber's Blog

April 20, 2012

Re-thinking creationism

Conservative America seems to be in the mood for re-thinking controversies that I had been taught were resolved.  The best example of this is the separation of church & state.  I actually included this as a no-brainer in the first edition of my congressional-campaign brochure until one friend and many constituents said, “Not so fast.”  They suggested moving this issue from resolved to controversial. 

Other examples of this rightward tilt are abortion (Roe v. Wade), limits to federal regulation of commerce (ObamaCare), and global warming.

Just last week, a new item was added to the list – creationism.  A headline USA Today proclaimed, “Debate over evolution now allowed in Tennessee schools,” and the associated article reported that a new law – the so-called Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act (attached below) – would “reopen a decades-old controversy over teaching creationism to the state’s schoolchildren.” 

Ironically, Tennessee was also the venue for the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  Although the Scopes trial was not, as generally portrayed, the devastation of creationism as scientific theory, it was a landmark in public opinion on the issue.  As stated in Wikipedia:

  • The trial was thus both a theological contest, and a trial on the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. The teaching of evolution expanded, as fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend had failed in the court of public opinion.

The official summary of the new Tennessee law provides:

  • This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.

But the USA Today article explained that, although the new law in Tennessee was technically directed toward encouraging critical thinking, there were significant fears within the scientific community in Tennessee that it was intended to encourage the teaching of creationism:

  • Instead, it encourages students to question accepted scientific theories — listing as examples evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and cloning — and it protects teachers from punishment if they teach creationism. Proponents say it will encourage critical thinking and give teachers license to discuss holes in scientific theories if they choose to do so.

The Republican governor of Tennessee, by refusing to sign or veto the bill, seems to agree with the scientific community:

  • “I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact.  I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill.  I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers.  However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.  The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion.  My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.  For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”

Critical thinking is wonderful, but it’s troubling that scientific theories are often challenged by conservatives whenever there is any component to the theory than cannot be definitively proven, while by contrast conservative doctrines are supposed to be given deference in American education unless they are definitively disproven.  (How about this canard – to raise government income, you simply cut tax rates.) 

Many Christians argue that intelligent design should be taught in schools as a scientific alternative to evolution.  Most scientists object that intelligent design has no place in a science class because it has nothing to do with science.  Rather it is a Christian attempt to reconcile evolution with the Bible.

There is nothing wrong with reconciling the Bible to science.  The Catholic Church has been doing that for years.  But this reconciliation has no place in a science classroom.  That’s as clear as the separation between church & state.

 

Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act 

SENATE BILL 893HOUSE BILL 368

AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE:

SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, is amended by adding the following as a new, appropriately designated section:

(a) The general assembly finds that:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and

(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

(b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(e) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

June 24, 2011

Creationism and intelligent design

While driving back from North Dakota, I continually switched from listening to talk radio and CDs of the book American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips.  As I previously blogged, the former warned that cultural liberals were causing America to become a secular state while the latter cautioned that the Religious Right was producing scientifically backward country.  As an example of backward science, Phillips referred to intelligent design, which he said was a Christian attempt to provide a scientific alternative to those who refused to accept the science of evolution.

Coincidentally, shortly after hearing from Phillips on this topic, I heard talk-show host Sean Hannity being challenged by a listener who wondered how someone as intelligent as Sean could believe in God.  Sean responded by giving a heartfelt explanation that relied heavily on the concept of intelligent design – i.e., certain features of the universe and living things, such as irreducible complexity and specified complexity, are best explained by an intelligent cause, not by an undirected process such as natural selection.

The listener didn’t accept this explanation, but before he could put forward follow-up questions, Sean disconnected the call.  My follow-up question would have been how Sean’s explanation supports his view that Christianity is the only true religion.

Upon returning to San Antonio, I decided to research the issue of intelligent design to determine if the positions of Kevin Phillips and Sean Hannity are in conflict, and I concluded that they are not.

The term “intelligent design” has been used since 1847, but the concept came to the forefront in 1987 when the US Supreme Court held in Edwards v. Aguillard that a state couldn’t require the teaching of “creation science” as an alternative to evolution science.  The Court came to
this holding after reviewing supportive amicus briefs from 72 Nobel prize-winning scientists, 17 state academies of science, and 7 other scientific
organizations that described creation science as essentially consisting of religious tenets.  Therefore, requiring that creation science be taught as an alternative to evolution was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In response to the Aguillard decision, Christian groups decided to push the “science” of intelligent design, but in 2007 in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District a federal district court held that requiring the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution was infirmed
for the same reason creation science was – i.e., it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Based on these legal decisions, it appears that Kevin is correct in declaring that intelligent design is not science, but rather is a thinly-veiled effort of Christians to challenge the science of evolution.  But evolution is not inconsistent with Sean’s belief in intelligent design.  Teaching of the belief, however, should be reserved for religious instruction, not public schools.