Dover, Darwin and The Assault on Science

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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There was more at stake than legal or constitutional quibbles over church-state separation in that federal court ruling handed down last week in Pennsylvania, barring the pseudo-science known as Intelligent Design from public-school biology classes. Read carefully, the judge’s decision was a ringing defense of science itself, and of the empirical method of reasoning that makes science possible. More than that, it was a call to arms to defend science and reason against the efforts of “religious fundamentalists” who openly seek to change “the ground rules” and replace empirical inquiry with faith-based certitude.

Science is, as Judge John E. Jones III wrote in his ruling, “the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.” For 400 years, “since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries,” it has been the portal through which we seek to understand the world around us.

Consider where it has led us. Our reliance on science, with its rigorous rules of observation and testing, has allowed us in these past centuries to conquer disease, explore the ocean floor and send messages around the globe in an instant. Each new discovery has built on the ones before it, always testing and confirming what is known in order to discover what is not yet known. Today we can transplant damaged hearts and fly from Chicago to Seattle — not because someone had a hunch or believed an unprovable insight, but because facts were observed and tested.

Judge Jones’s 139-page decision is a searing narrative of the events last year in Dover Township, Pa., where religious activists took over the local school board and managed, by a combination of persuasion, deception and bullying, to impose their views on the local high school and its biology staff. The immediate goal, the judge writes, was to require biology teachers to cast doubt on the validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, a fundamental building block of modern science, and to recommend to students the alternative “explanation” of Intelligent Design, which the judge shows to be a thinly veiled restatement of biblical creationism.

Where science seeks to verify what can be proved, Jones writes, Intelligent Design teaches that certain things can’t be known. “ID is reliant upon forces acting outside of the natural world, forces that we cannot see, replicate, control or test, which have produced changes in this world,” he writes. “While we take no position on whether such forces exist, they are simply not testable by scientific means and therefore cannot qualify as part of the scientific process or as scientific theory.”

Most of the Dover activists, the judge shows, had scant notion of or interest in the meaning of science. They were driven by a religious faith in biblical literalism. Standing behind them, though, were a handful of national groups that are working actively around the country to promote their faith-based “alternative science.” The most prominent of these, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, openly acknowledges in its literature that it seeks to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

That is the real issue at stake in this culture war: not merely freedom of speech or religion, but the ability of our society to continue building on the structures developed through 400 years of science and innovation. We’re deciding whether we want to prepare the next generation of Americans to pick up the battle against disease and begin solving the puzzles of the ecosphere, or we’d rather train them to accept what they’re handed, secure in the faith that some puzzles aren’t for unlocking.

Dover Township isn’t the only battleground. Efforts are under way to restrict the teaching of evolutionary science in Ohio, Kansas and Georgia. In California, the state university system is defending itself against a lawsuit by private Christian schools that accuse the state of “viewpoint discrimination,” because it deems parts of the schools’ faith-based curricula to be inadequate preparation for university study. The Christian schools argue, in effect, that they’re entitled to decide for themselves what does and doesn’t constitute knowledge. By trying to decide for them, they say, the state university system is infringing their freedom of speech.

That argument — that imposing objective standards infringes on believers’ freedom of speech — is a common one among opponents of science and their conservative defenders. This week, in response to the Pennsylvania ruling, the nation’s editorial pages were filled with libertarian-sounding arguments that Judge Jones’s decision amounts to an assault on intellectual pluralism and denies parents the right to teach their children their own way of seeing the world.

It’s an odd argument for conservatives to make. For three decades they’ve been calling for standards, railing against the possibility of multiple realities and blaming woolly-headed liberals for spreading the notion that knowledge is relative. It turns out that the greatest single threat to intellectual standards comes from their own backyard.






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