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The trouble with 'teaching the controversy'

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  • Nils K. Oeijord
    (Posted by Nils K. Oeijord:) Essay 1 March 2005 Creationism, pluralism and the compromising of science The trouble with teaching the controversy . by Joe
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2005
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      (Posted by Nils K. Oeijord:)


      1 March 2005

      Creationism, pluralism and the compromising of science
      The trouble with 'teaching the controversy'.

      by Joe Kaplinsky

      The rise of creationism in the USA is taken as evidence that
      fundamentalist Christianity has become a powerful force in
      society. But scepticism towards science does not just come from
      traditional Christianity. Liberal relativism has been important
      in creating a climate in which creationism is tolerated.

      Many Americans, not just scientists, now worry that the teaching
      of biology will be replaced by religious indoctrination. The
      spread of fundamentalist Christianity is seen by many to be a
      force for a renewed far right political agenda, and in
      particular to be responsible for the election victory of George
      W Bush.

      There is reason to be concerned. There have been a series of
      challenges to evolution in schools. The most recent have been in
      Dover, Pennsylvania, where a school board has ruled that
      children should be made 'aware of gaps/problems' in evolutionary
      theory; and Cobb County, Georgia, where a school board has
      decided to appeal a ruling by a judge that disclaimers stating
      that evolution is a 'theory, not a fact' must be removed from
      textbooks. These challenges have pushed the teaching of
      evolution into mainstream debate, with critics of evolution
      appearing everywhere from the conservative Fox News to the
      liberal New York Times op-ed page.

      The recent round of controversy has been building for some time.
      It started in Kansas in 1999, when the board of education voted
      to drop evolution from state test standards. This was followed
      by high-profile challenges to evolution in Ohio in 2002 and
      again in 2004. In both Kansas and Ohio, after temporary advances
      the creationists lost. Despite that, there are ongoing
      challenges, and others including in Wisconsin, South Carolina,
      Missouri, Montana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Disclaimers similar
      to those under dispute in Cobb County have been required in
      Alabama since 1996.

      According to a CBS poll on 22 November 2004, just 13 per cent of
      Americans believe that humans evolved without divine
      intervention, and 35 per cent favour replacing evolution with
      creationism in schools. But the even more worrying figure is the
      65 per cent of Americans who favour teaching creationism
      alongside evolution (1). Unlike old-fashioned biblical
      literalism, this position has majority support. While it is a
      small group of old-fashioned Christians who have been most
      active in promoting creationism, it is likely to be a more
      post-modern liberal pluralism, which refuses to elevate any one
      viewpoint to 'truth', that ultimately poses the greater threat
      to science. This is a scepticism towards our ability to know the
      world, which has become influential in both secular and
      religious circles on what were the old right and the old left.

      It is important to understand what is behind the recent attacks
      on evolution, and to keep the supposed rise of the Christian
      right in perspective. The recent attacks on evolution have been
      coordinated by a small group of well-organised and moderately
      well-funded Christians, whose 'wedge' strategy sees questioning
      of evolution as the first step on the road to a theocratic

      But in historical terms creationism is weaker than ever before.
      Christianity has long been a powerful force in US culture. It is
      hard to make the case that it exists today in a more
      fundamentalist, or a more right-wing, politically influential,
      form. The intelligent design activists play off widespread
      Christian faith, but they also play off a wider culture that is
      sceptical of the claims of science.

      It is here that the broader political discussion among liberals
      is profoundly misguided. Unlike many scientists who have engaged
      in a defence of evolution, many liberals have adopted a
      contemptuous caricature of the Christian 'Bush voter'. The
      Village Voice demonstrated its superior understanding of human
      evolution in a cartoon captioned 'Gap-toothed, missing link
      Troglodytes delighted by presidential election outcome' (2).
      Less crudely, the idea of a division between religious 'Red' and
      rational 'Blue' states has become fixed as an excuse for failing
      to develop convincing political arguments.

      But even on a seemingly clear-cut issue such as creationism, the
      division is not so sharp. Liberals have often been at the
      forefront of questioning the authority of science. It is
      liberals who have argued that science education should respect
      cultural differences and that the curriculum should be
      immediately relevant to everyday life of students. Creationists
      have leapt at the opportunity presented by educational theories
      to put the knowledge of pupils on the same level as that as
      scientists, by putting forward the demand to 'teach the

      Christian fundamentalism is a small part of the problem. It is
      far weaker than many fear. Bush himself, for example, is a
      flip-flopper on evolution. The New York Times reported in 2000
      that he 'doesn't care much about that kind of thing'. His
      official policy is that while educational policy should be made
      locally, his preference is that 'children ought to be exposed to
      different theories about how the world started'. This contrasts
      to Ronald Reagan's 1980 statement that he had 'a great many
      questions about evolution', not least that 'recent discoveries
      down through the years pointed out great flaws in it'.

      Reagan's statement is at least as sympathetic to creationism as
      Bush's, but it is also less relativistic. Reagan's statement is
      motivated by a concern to teach the one truth about the world,
      and even to look at the evidence. Bush, on the other hand, seems
      happy to accommodate all points of view (3).

      The intellectual vapidity of intelligent design

      One obvious place to look to explain the new popularity of
      creationism is the propaganda of its proponents. But on
      examining these ideas, it quickly becomes apparent that in
      intellectual terms, creationism is on the defensive.

      The newest manifestation of creationism is a theory called
      'intelligent design'. According to intelligent design theory the
      complexity of the living world is evidence that it was
      deliberately designed by a Creator. The novelty lies in the
      false claim that the evidence of design is scientific evidence
      and that it can be studied scientifically.

      Intelligent design contains no new ideas about our origins. The
      'argument from design' in its most basic form goes back at least
      to Aristotle. It was taken up by Christian philosophers and
      eventually disposed of by the Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel
      Kant and David Hume, who pointed out that there was no necessary
      link between puzzling complexity in the world and supernatural
      origins, let alone Christian theology.

      On examination intelligent design's only novelty turns out to be
      not a grounding in science, but a promotional strategy. Its
      supposed scientific legitimacy rests on the work of biochemist
      Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski. However, neither
      Behe nor Dembski (nor anyone else) have published on intelligent
      design in peer reviewed journals. This is unsurprising, since
      their work is nothing but rehashes of old creationist arguments.

      Behe's work is just an updating of the old creationist complaint
      about biological structures like the eye: they cannot imagine
      how evolution could have progressed through a sequence of
      intermediates to produce a final working eye. 'What use is half
      an eye?', creationists used to challenge. In an eye the various
      parts - the lens, cornea, retina, and so on - all need to work
      together. Creationists thought that meant the various parts had
      to appear at the same moment, which is impossible for evolution.

      It turns out that creationists had not thought carefully enough
      about the ways in which complex interdependent structures can be
      built using small steps. Nowadays biologists have discovered the
      steps involved in the evolution of many different sorts of eye,
      so Behe likes to sound modern by asking 'what use is half a
      biochemical pathway?'. Picking on the most recent biological
      discoveries also has the advantage that biologists have not yet
      traced the evolutionary pathways in such detail. But even in the
      decade that Behe has been promoting his ideas, scientists have
      made a wealth of advances showing the details of how such
      pathways may have, and in certain cases actually have, evolved.

      Dembski's contribution is a reworking of another creationist
      hobby horse, the second law of thermodynamics. Creationists have
      long, and wrongly, claimed that the second law of thermodynamics
      rules out evolution by forbidding an increase in order, or
      complexity. Their confusion is an elementary one of ignoring a
      crucial input to living systems, namely low entropy sunlight. If
      they were correct then we would never see an organism develop
      from embryo to adult as this, too, is process that increases

      Dembski has updated the idea by rewording it in terms of
      information. He claims to have developed a mathematical formula
      to detect the presence of complexity that could only have arisen
      through design. But his work has been described by David
      Wolpert, on whose theorems Dembski claims to have based his own,
      as 'written in jello'. Coming from a mathematician, this is no
      small criticism. Dembski's mathematical symbols are arranged on
      the page to bamboozle non-scientists, not to express a chain of
      logical reasoning.

      The interested reader can find the 'arguments' of intelligent
      design demolished in great detail elsewhere (4). For now, it is
      worth emphasising their defensiveness when compared to Christian
      apologetics of the past. Intelligent design is a 'God of the
      gaps' argument. It gives us no positive reason to believe in God
      - only a gesture at complexity of the world and a shrug of the
      shoulders. More broadly, the innovations made by intelligent
      design are all concessions to science. It accepts an ancient age
      for the earth. It even accepts the process of 'microevolution',
      or small evolutionary changes, trying to hold out only against
      what it calls 'macroevolution'.

      So why have the creationists adopted such a weak argument? And
      if their ideas are so flimsy, why do they still get a hearing?
      To understand this it helps to look at how we arrived at this

      The evolution of creationism

      Writing in the New York Times, Susan Jacoby warns that: 'Many
      liberals mistakenly believe that these controversies are largely
      a product of the post-1980 politicisation of the Christian
      right. In fact, the elected anti-evolutionists on local and
      state school boards today are the heirs of eight decades of
      fundamentalist campaigning against Darwinism through back-door
      pressure on textbook publishers and school officials.' (5) While
      this is a point worth noting, it is important to understand that
      today's controversy over creationism takes place in very
      different circumstances to those of 1925.

      Until the twentieth century, discussion of Darwinism in America
      was restricted to relatively narrow circles. In the 1920s,
      however, the struggle between creationism and evolution first
      became a topic of wide public debate. The impact of world war
      and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had seriously shaken
      traditional theories of progress and morality. At the same time,
      the participation of wider sections of society in politics
      ensured that questions such as the role of religion in national
      life were subject to intense discussion. Social conflict over
      class and race could often become violent. This gave the
      struggle over religion, which had the potential to moderate or
      exacerbate these conflicts, an edge that it lacks today.

      The expansion of high school education ensured that the teaching
      of evolution would become a flashpoint. Resulting anti-evolution
      laws resulted in the famous 'Monkey Trial' at which John Scopes
      was convicted of teaching evolution under a 1925 Tennessee law.
      The Scopes trial was the high point of public discussion over
      evolution. While creationists celebrated Scopes' conviction as a
      victory and states continued to pass anti-evolution laws, it was
      already possible to detect some embarrassment amongst the
      establishment at this rejection of science.

      Through the 1930s the anti-evolution laws stayed on the books.
      Evolution was little discussed as a public issue, but also
      little taught in American schools. But in the wake of the Second
      World War the pragmatic compromise shifted. Science and
      technology were elevated to national priorities. The space (and
      arms) race prompted both a strong emphasis on science education
      and a strong cultivation of patriotic feeling. Christianity was
      central to 1950s anti-communism, and this allowed a co-existence
      with the scientism more associated with business interests.

      It was as the 1960s set in that the consensus began to
      disintegrate. The expansion of science education created tension
      with the old anti-evolution laws. By the time a challenge to
      Arkansas' 1924 law reached the Supreme Court in 1968, the
      principle of separation of church and state in public education
      was already becoming established. The Court's ruling in Epperson
      vs. Arkansas, striking down the ban on evolution, was a blow
      from which creationism has never recovered.

      The response of the creationists to the setbacks of the 1960s
      was the invention of 'creation science'. This was designed to
      get around the constitutional separation of Church and state by
      making a scientific critique of Darwinism instead of a religious
      one. However, the Creation 'science' of the 1970s and 80s was
      transparently religious in motivation. It argued for a literal
      interpretation of the Bible and a 'young earth', aged less than
      10,000 years (6). Laws mandating the teaching of creation
      science alongside evolution were subject to protracted dispute
      before being struck down as unconstitutional in 1987.

      It was in the wake of these repeated defeats that the new
      'intelligent design' creationism emerged. It developed not out
      of new thinking in either science or theology, but primarily as
      a legal strategy to evade the constitutional bar on teaching of
      religion. It was launched by a book entitled 'Darwin on Trial',
      written by a law professor, Philip Johnson (7).

      This legal strategy was part of a broader strategy to
      re-establish Christianity in American culture. But its excessive
      reliance on the courts was itself a symptom of a weak base in
      society. No doubt its promoters are sincere Christians. But
      emerging as it did from defeat, the intelligent design movement
      was prey to wider social forces.

      Intelligent design was shaped not by the social polarisation of
      the 1920s, but by multiculturalism. It no longer explicitly
      argued for the truth of the Christian world view but rather for
      intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution and for
      State neutrality between Christianity and evolution. Whatever
      their private beliefs, the public arguments of intelligent
      design advocates are based firmly on pluralism, not Christian
      revelation. This is illustrated by looking at the broader
      framework in which creationism now struggles to make its case.

      The defensive strategy of intelligent design

      In her book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch details the
      censorship of school materials, in particular textbooks by 'bias
      and sensitivity' panels (8). Her detailed study was inspired by
      her experience on the national assessment governing board, which
      was responsible for national school tests introduced by
      President Clinton in 1997. It reveals an interesting picture. It
      is true that Christian fundamentalism has had a big impact on
      the use of language and, for example, acceptable depictions of
      family life. But more important is the framework that has been
      developed to justify the censorship system. This system is a
      product, if not exactly of the left, of the
      multicultural-feminist mainstream that is not often associated
      with the Christian right.

      References to dinosaurs are eliminated from school texts not
      because they offend against the truth of the Bible, but rather
      in the same way that owls are eliminated on the basis that they
      may upset Navajo children in whose culture owls are taboo.
      According to bias guidelines collected by Ravitch, all religions
      are to be treated equally: 'no religious practice or belief is
      characterised as strange or peculiar, or sophisticated or
      primitive.' Other guidelines ban the use of words 'heathen' and
      'pagan', while reserving the use of the term 'myth' to refer to
      ancient Greek or Roman stories. The Educational Testing Service,
      meanwhile, treats as 'ethnocentric' any test that focuses
      exclusively on 'Judeo-Christian' contributions to literature of

      This relativistic approach to knowledge and truth is the outcome
      the culture wars that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is
      sensitive to the risks associated with experimentation. It is
      fragmented, allowing everyone their own interpretation of truth.
      It labels people as members of groups, but on the basis of
      shared history rather than collective endeavour. The individual
      for whom it demands respect is intensely vulnerable, so that
      respect becomes interpreted as protection from offence or

      So while Christian fundamentalism can have a censorious impact
      on education, this does not reflect the strength of
      fundamentalism as such. It reflects the weakness of the secular,
      scientific belief system in our present culture.

      The changing framework within which Christians are forced to
      make their argument is well illustrated by Amy Binder in her
      study Contentious Curricula. Binder made a study of challenges
      to school curricula between 1980 and 2000, through a comparison
      of Afro-centrists and creationists. Her work showed that while
      ultimately neither group was able to win lasting changes, there
      was far more sympathy from within the school system for the
      Afro-centrists. While the Afro-centrists argued for separatism
      and cultural superiority of Africa, it was still the case that
      their arguments were far closer to the multicultural consensus
      than were those of the creationists. The charge of racism also
      proved more effective than appeals to discrimination against
      religion, let alone a shared belief in Christianity. According
      to Binder:

      'When confronted by creationists, educators came out with their
      fists swinging. There was no initial accommodation, which was
      then blunted by a watering down process. Professional
      educational leaders were simply unwilling to accommodate their
      creationist critics. Despite the fact that the Christian
      conservative reformers, too, were making claims of bias and
      discrimination, in all four of the creationist cases studied in
      this book, the education establishment - by which I mean
      professional educators in positions of authority - lined up far
      more forcefully against their creationist challengers than their
      counterparts did against their Afrocentric challengers.' (9)

      In addition, Binder shows just how far the creationists have not
      just compromised their truth claims, which now exist in the
      watered down form of intelligent design, but also their claims
      to social recognition. 'Creationism has changed significantly
      from the 1920s to the 1980s. But the degree of change that has
      occurred in its rhetoric over the past two decades is equally
      astonishing,' she notes. 'By removing the obviously religious
      from the challenging rhetoric, while also adopting the language
      of pluralism (even multiculturalism), creationists in Kansas [in
      1999-2000] made it more difficult for school systems to fight
      back against the challenge with the might that they once had.'

      The marginality of creationism in American society can be seen
      in the strategy they have adopted to promote intelligent design.
      This strategy is known as the 'wedge', and in March 1999 a
      Discovery Institute document detailing the strategy was leaked
      on to the internet. The wedge strategy is subject of a detailed
      study in Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent
      Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross. The Discovery
      Institute explained its strategy as follows: 'If we view the
      predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy
      is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively
      small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.'

      Forrest and Gross' study goes on to document exhaustively the
      network of individuals, institutions and funding behind the
      promotion of intelligent design. But while the backers of
      intelligent design have scored some PR successes, their weakness
      is more striking.

      William Dembski, better known for conveying the impression that,
      unlike old-fashioned creationists, he is a mathematical
      scientist engaged in a disinterested study of nature, has

      'Within late twentieth-century North American Christianity,
      heresy has become an unpopular word. Can't we all just get along
      and live together in peace? Unfortunately, no. ... There is an
      inviolable core to the Christian faith. ... This is the essence
      of heresy, and heresy remains a valid category for today. ...
      The Christian apologist is a contender for the faith, not merely
      a seeker after truth. Seeking after truth certainly seems a less
      combative and more humble way of cashing out apologetics.
      Unfortunately, it is also an inadequate way of cashing out
      apologetics.' (12)

      Forrest and Gross present such uncompromising Christianity as
      evidence that the threat of intelligent design is more alarming
      than it appears. But though they have established that the
      individuals associated with the intelligent design network are
      motivated by sincere Christian faith, they don't engage with why
      it is that the creationists cannot publicly argue on that basis.

      The obvious barrier presented by the Constitutional separation
      between church and state is not sufficient explanation. After
      all, it needs to be explained why it is that the constitutional
      rule has only made itself felt since the late 1960s, and why the
      legal setbacks of the creationists have become steadily worse.

      The formulation of the intelligent design strategy as the thin
      end of a wedge itself recognises the creationists' current
      weakness. They recognise that they cannot openly admit their
      full Christian programme. Such an attempt could not make headway
      in contemporary American culture. The wedgers may dream of a
      theocratic United States, but there is no chance of this coming

      Dembski is not wrong when he claims that heresy has gone out of
      fashion amongst many Christians. Similarly, writing with Jay
      Wesley Richards, Dembski complains that 'feel-good pop
      psychologies' are corrupting Christianity with their implication
      that we will all be saved. Their error lies in placing blame for
      these developments, along with all else from abortion to rock
      and roll, on Darwinism. But their observation that the cutting
      edge of Christianity is a therapeutic ethos incompatible with
      damnation and hell is sound (13).

      Indeed, intelligent design feels the need to wedge itself even
      in to seminaries, where one might have thought that creationism
      could show its face more openly. It is this wider weakness of
      traditional Christianity that is key to understanding the
      evasiveness of intelligent designers about their Christian

      The failure of intelligent design can be seen in recent disputes
      over school standards. After the Kansas Board of Education
      dropped evolution from state standards creationists were voted
      out and a newly elected Board reinstated it at the first
      opportunity in 2001. Subsequent creationist ventures in Kansas
      have failed. More recently, in Ohio the creationists have been
      forced to back off even from using the term 'intelligent
      design'. The new demand is simply for the study of 'objective
      origins'. That 'objective origins' is a euphemism for
      creationism is clear only from the detailed arguments
      surrounding it, and the preoccupation of its advocates with the
      supposed weakness of evolution. There is not even a residue of
      the idea of a designer left in the public debate.

      Why creationism still matters

      So, if creationism appears to be on the retreat, should we still
      be concerned? Yes, and for several reasons. Creationism is on
      the retreat in large part because of the dedicated vigilance of
      those like Forrest and Gross, as well as many science teachers
      and other concerned citizens who have been fighting it.

      Forrest and Gross are right when they warn against complacency
      about books like Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, that
      exposes supposed errors in school text books on evolution:

      'We encounter this blindness to political reality among our
      scientific peers every day. It is a grave mistake. To people who
      know little or nothing about the subject of evolution - that is,
      almost everybody - the Wells arguments can seem both convincing
      and exciting; and they have the momentum of religious fervour.
      Icons touches a raw nerve in the current war over the
      effectiveness of public education. "Here", it says, "is what
      your children are being taught in the public schools as proofs
      of evolution". "But", it insists, "they are not proofs at all,
      and some of them are outright fakery. Others are simply wrong.
      Demand a stop to the callous indoctrination of your children in
      this materialistic mythology!"' (14).

      No doubt taking up intelligent design is a dispiriting business.
      The slightest attention from scientists, no matter how critical,
      is trumpeted as proof that intelligent design is being taken
      seriously and that it is making a contribution to science. The
      more vigorously intelligent design is refuted, the more this is
      claimed as evidence that there really is an important 'debate'
      that needs to be taught in classrooms. Detailed refutations are
      met with the response that the real argument to be met is
      contained within a forthcoming publication.

      All this is bluster and noise. It is designed to convince the
      creationists' base that Darwinism is on the point of collapse
      (although strangely it never quite falls), and to convey an
      impression to the wider public that there is some substance to
      their criticisms. There is nothing else to it. It must be
      tempting to spend one's time more productively than sorting
      through this junk. Fortunately there are enough teachers and
      scientists prepared to take up the work.

      But in addition to the need to keep creationism on the
      defensive, there is a more important reason for concern.
      Creationism may not prove to be the wedge that transforms the
      USA into a theocratic state, but it can still do tremendous
      harm. It is useful to understand that the most active promoters
      of creationism are Christian fundamentalists. But that should
      not blind us to the wider social conditions that are susceptible
      to sympathising with them. If the threat of fundamentalism is
      overestimated, the threat of labelling science as 'a theory, not
      a fact' may be underestimated.

      In Cobb County, Georgia, the school board demanded that biology
      textbooks carry a disclaimer stating, in part: '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.'

      The criticism that evolution is 'just a theory' is an old
      creationist canard. But today it has acquired a new resonance.
      The criticism that evolution is just a theory is meant to key
      into the everyday association of 'theory' with speculation. But
      when science is dismissed today it is likely to be replaced by
      an eccentric personal prejudice. Whether that happens to be an
      old-style religion or a new-style diet fad is less important
      than today's unprecedented elevation of conspiracy theory and
      rumour-mongering over expert knowledge.

      Liberals who bemoan influence of Christian fundamentalism often
      point to the popularity of the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye
      and Jerry Jenkins. But at least as indicative of today's climate
      is the runaway success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, whose
      plot is premised on a 2000-year cover up by the Catholic Church
      of Christ's true message, designed to repress women and the free
      expression of sexuality. The force of the sentiments expressed
      in Brown's novel is confirmed by the recent collapse of respect
      for the Church amidst an all-too-real child abuse scandal.

      It is suspicion of all groups who claim authority rather than
      excessive respect for religion that drives hostility to science.
      As Thomas Frank perceptively points out in his book What's the
      Matter with America?, 'The real subject of the conservative
      anti-evolution literature is the "experts" on the other side of
      the battlefield and, more important, their expertise. "Should we
      'leave it to the experts?'' asks the Kansas Tornado. Obviously
      we should not.' (15)

      Frank goes on to describe his experience at a creationist talk
      on the supposedly faked evidence for evolution:

      'To everyone's relief the speaker finally yielded the stage to
      the Mutations, "three fine Christian ladies" ... to sing
      "Overwhelming Evidence", a ditty set to the pulsing beat of
      "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Comically assuming the voice of
      the arrogant science establishment, the women pretend-derided
      the audience, singing "the truth is what we say" and that, as
      professional scientists, "we don't have to listen to you!" The
      audience had plainly been bored by the preceding recitation of
      science's errors, but this light hearted persocuto-tainment hit
      exactly the right note'. (16)

      The connection here to the culture surrounding alternative
      medicine, or those parts of the environmental movement whose
      distrust of big business and government becomes focused around
      the idea of a scientific establishment that is covering up the
      evidence, is clearer than a connection to old-fashioned

      Frank draws attention to the way that the Republicans have
      associated themselves with the politics of anti-elitism. But he
      misses the way that the theme of anti-intellectualism on the
      American right has drawn vigour from the critique of expertise
      developed since the 1960s by their opponents in the culture
      wars. It was radicals who pioneered the idea that children
      should educate the teachers, that doctors were no more expert
      than their patients, and that claims to expertise generally were
      little more than an excuse to assert power by marginalising the
      voice of the victim. In this picture scientists are not
      disinterested investigators of the truth so much as spin doctors
      for their paymasters in business or government. It is the coming
      together of these two strands from left and right that
      represents the real danger for science.

      The fact that the creationism controversy has bubbled up again
      is a symptom of a more general problem. What legitimacy
      creationism does seem to enjoy today comes from pluralism, not
      Christian fundamentalism. There are plenty of well-directed
      responses from professional scientists against Christian
      creationism. Yet when the Thomas Sweeney, spokesman for the new
      Museum of the American Indian, told the Washington Post's Joel
      Achenbach that the scientific hypothesis that the Indians
      entered North America via the Bering Strait had been excluded in
      favour of Indian myth, and Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant
      director, explained that 'Anthropology as a science is not
      practiced here', who dared challenge them?

      Achenbach, goes on to note that: 'This is not a typical
      government museum full of artifacts. It's not a scientific,
      secular enterprise that speaks in an anonymous institutional
      voice. It has many voices, and they are native voices. It feels
      more like a cathedral than a museum.' (17)

      The Smithsonian, of which the Museum of the American Indian is a
      branch, is (or perhaps was) at the heart of the scientific
      establishment. But here it is welcoming a new cultural role
      subordinate to politically correct creation myths and
      effectively accepting the idea that science is particularist,
      oppressive, and even genocidal. From the professional
      associations that have opposed Christian creationism there was
      not a peep.

      It is hard to imagine the National Academy of Sciences raising
      the question of why there is no anthropology department at the
      Museum. So it was left to the online magazine Slate's Tim Noah
      to describe the museum as 'like visiting Salem's Witch Museum
      and being told that Bridget Bishop, hanged in June 1692, had it
      coming.' (18)

      The influence of such a prestigious institution as the
      Smithsonian lending its authority to project such as the Museum
      of the American Indian should not be underestimated. As
      constitutional lawyer Timothy Sandefur noted: 'If Achenbach's
      description of the Museum [as a Cathedral] is accurate, it could
      serve as a pretext for other religious groups to establish
      "museums" like the Answers in Genesis Creationism Museum to
      receive official government support. That is a disturbing
      prospect, indeed.' (19)

      It is in the mainstream where there are hard arguments to be
      had. Now that intelligent design has been widely exposed as a
      front for the creationists, what guise will their arguments take
      next? The Wisconsin School Board recently approved a
      creationist-influenced lesson plan as an exercise in 'critical
      thinking skills'. The idea that creationism develops critical
      thinking skills is now widely promoted on creationist websites.

      One creationist, writing to the Columbus Dispatch during the
      2004 controversy in Ohio, showed that he had mastered the jargon
      of contemporary dumbing down: 'if Ohio's economy is going to be
      the thinking economy of the future, it is imperative that
      critical thinking skills are a fundamental part of the overall
      skills that must be taught to our children.' (20)

      Opponents of creationism are likely to reply that to accept
      intelligent design means to be very uncritical indeed. But that
      is to miss the point. 'Critical thinking skills' are part of the
      emptying-out of education that makes room for creationism.
      'Critical thinking skills' are now an accepted part of the
      curriculum, yet in practice the term is used to dignify rather
      ordinary exercises. Critical thinking may be the outcome of a
      good education. But because critical thinking requires the
      thinker to be become independent, it is not something that can
      be taught as part of a curriculum. It certainly cannot be
      reduced to a 'skill'.

      In fact, critical thinking is rarely achieved. The popularity of
      the term shows a desire to flatter ourselves rather than an
      upsurge in independent thought. The actual content of the
      thinking then becomes pretty much irrelevant. Science or
      creationism, whatever. We still get to congratulate ourselves on
      our skills. It is this sort of emptying-out of the curriculum
      with its disregard for subject knowledge that can make space for
      creationism, and the creationists have clearly spotted the

      Bad educational theory can cripple the fight against
      creationism. One of the strongest pro-science arguments against
      intelligent design is that the creationists want to
      short-circuit the process of scientific debate that is used to
      settle on the most accurate scientific theories. When
      intelligent design advocates argue for 'teaching the
      controversy' the correct answer is that even if intelligent
      design raised substantial questions (which it does not), school
      science classes are not the appropriate forum for settling
      scientific disputes.

      Scientific theories have to prove their worth by surviving the
      scrutiny of professional scientists. It is only then that they
      can be taught as science. Intelligent design doesn't deserve
      special treatment.

      Yet the theory that science students should learn by
      rediscovering for themselves is far more mainstream that
      intelligent design. When it comes to genetic engineering or
      nuclear power the idea of 'teaching the controversy' is actively
      promoted. It is celebrated as making science relevant and
      empowering pupils not to bow down to the dogmas of the
      scientists. When it comes to these more fashionable causes
      students are told that their own judgments about risk or
      uncertainty are just as valid as those of the professionals.
      Perhaps liberals should begin with the beam in their own eye.

      Christian creationism is a specific problem for some biology
      teachers, students and parents. Anybody who cares about
      elevating reason over dogma should also be concerned. But when
      creationism can come dressed up as 'critical thinking' it should
      be clear that it isn't just Christian fundamentalists we need to
      worry about - it's a whole dumbed down education system.

      Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer, and author of a forthcoming
      book on energy.

      Read on:

      spiked-issue: Education

      (1) Creationism Trumps Evolution, Nov. 22, 2004

      (2) Gap-Toothed, Missing Link Troglodytes Delighted by
      Presidential Election Outcome, Ward Sutton, Village Voice, 19
      November 2004

      (3) Quoted in George W. Bush, The Last Relativist, Timothy Noah,
      Slate, 31 October 2000

      (4) For example, Niall Shanks, God, the Devil and Darwin: A
      Critique of Intelligent Design Theory, 2004; Matt Young and
      Taner Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique
      of the New Creationism, 2004; The Talk.Origins Archive contains
      useful refutations of the whole spectrum of creationist

      (5) Susan Jacoby, Caught Between Church and State, New York
      Times, 19 January 2005

      (6) The arguments of this movement were largely derived from
      John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961

      (7) Philip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1991. The writings of the
      intelligent design movement can be found at the website of the
      Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture

      (8) Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups
      Restrict What Students Learn, 2003

      (9) Amy Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and
      Creationism in American Public Schools, 2002, p5-6

      (10) Binder, p136, 137

      (11) The Wedge Strategy, archived by Jack Krebs

      (12) Quoted in Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism's
      Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, 2004, p263

      (13) Dembski and Richards quoted in Forrest and Gross, p261-2.
      On how feel good pop-psychologies have indeed become mainstream
      in Christian America see Alan Wolfe, One Nation After All, 1998

      (14) Forrest and Gross, p99

      (15) Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with America?, 2004
      (Originally published in America as What's the Matter with
      Kansas?) p209

      (16) Frank, p214

      (17) Joel Achenbach, Within These Walls, Science Yields to
      Stories, Washington Post, 19 September 2004

      (18) Timothy Noah , The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse
      Campbell: The Smithsonian's new travesty. 29 September 2004

      (19) Timothy Sandefur, A Smithsonian Anti-Science Museum?,
      October 2, 2004

      (20) Letter to the Editor of the Columbus Dispatch, Published
      February 15, 2004

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