Essay - Dodging creationist dung
[go to link for full essay]
Science and the First Amendment
by Patricia J. Princehouse
(The Nation, 5/16/2006)
People ask me, Why pour so much energy into protecting science
education? Why not fight for literacy generally or any of a thousand
other educational issues? I have two answers. One is easy: I know
about evolution, so it makes sense that I would work on what I know
best. The second is harder to grasp. And that is that freedom of
religion is the bedrock foundation of liberty in this country. If we
allow certain special-interest religious groups to co-opt the public
school science classroom, to use it as a vehicle for converting
children to religious views their parents don't hold, if we allow
them to spout outright lies about the nature and content of science,
what do we really have left? If you can lie about science and get
away with it, you can lie about anything.
Evolution is just the tip of the iceberg or, as the creationists put
it, the leading edge of "the wedge." The wedge they are seeking to
drive through the heart of American democracy. The lies about
science are not limited to evolution. Every day more lies about
science seep into public consciousness. Lies about stem cell
biology, lies about global warming, about clean air and water, lies
about sexuality, about conception and contraception, lies about the
effects of hurricanes on metropolitan infrastructure.
The war on science is a war on democracy itself. And the special
weapons and tactics are rhetorical. The enemies of democracy use the
language of tolerance to attack it from inside. Why, they ask, are
we "censoring" the evidence for "intelligent design"? Why do we deny
our teachers the "right" to use their "academic freedom" to
teach "critical analysis" of evolution. Isn't it only fair to teach
both the evidence for and against evolution? All these clever ploys
play well in the media on this issue and many, many others, and we
will see these word games more and more in coming years. I call it
the "orange is the new pink" strategy; every time the public cottons
on to a catch term like "creation science" or "intelligent design,"
they change to a more neutral-sounding term like "critical analysis"
or "evidence against." But defenders of American freedom are
learning to stand up and say no, it really is fair to forbid
teachers to lie to students, to prohibit school boards from using
the power of the state to convert children to other peoples'
religions. Tolerance requires judgment.
So the rhetorical battle is pitched and the enemy is well armed. But
it turns out that standing up for freedom and democracy is a lot
like doing science. You start with noble principles and do the best
you can, but when you get right down to it, you spend a lot of time
dodging elephant dung.
(Patricia Princehouse teaches evolutionary biology and the history
and philosophy of science at Case Western Reserve University in
Cleveland. She is president of Ohio Citizens for Science.)