This summer marked 16 years since the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional
to require public schools to teach creation science. That decision, Edwards
v. Aguilard, was a final blow to those seeking to have schoolchildren learn
the biblical story of creation in science class alongside evolutionary science
when studying the origin and development of life through time.
The courts decision forced evolution opponents to reassess their approach and seek alternative strategies that would not run afoul of the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. In the intervening years, two such strategies have emerged, and both were on full display in states across the nation this past summer. The first is to portray evolution as scientifically controversial and rife with weaknesses that should be openly discussed in the classroom. An example of this strategy took place in Oklahoma this May, when evolution opponents sought a measure requiring that anti-evolution disclaimers similar to those used in Alabama appear in biology textbooks; the state legislature narrowly defeated the measure. Having been beaten back once, it reappeared as an amendment to a larger bill that also narrowly lost.
The second strategy promotes teaching intelligent design, or ID, as an alternative theory to evolution. Unlike more traditional scientific theories that rely on natural explanations for natural phenomena, ID holds that biological systems contain irreducible complexities that are unattainable through undirected natural selection and thus can only represent the handiwork of an intelligent designer. Mindful of church-state separation, ID proponents are fuzzy about who the designer is (whether big D or little d). Then is ID a form of creationism? In Michigan, where two bills were introduced in the state legislature to promote the teaching of ID alongside evolution, the answer would appear to be yes. One bill specifies inserting intelligent design of a Creator wherever evolution is mentioned in state science education standards.
Across the United States, state standards are one of the key vehicles for anti-evolution
activity. In part, the heightened activity this summer reflects the fact that
many states are rewriting their standards to provide the level of (testable)
specificity called for in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In New Mexico,
the state board of education plans to vote on new state science standards at
the end of August. The standards have received high marks from the National
Academy of Sciences and educators, but ID proponents are working to defeat them.
To aid their cause, they commissioned telephone polls of several hundred New
Mexico parents and also of the states national laboratory and university
scientists and engineers. Despite a very low response rate and dubious methodology,
their results showed broad support for teaching ID along with the weaknesses
in Darwinian evolution, a phrase that is the term of choice for
evolution opponents who seek to portray modern evolutionary theory as a backwards
remnant of 19th-century thought.
In Minnesota, Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke told WCCO-TV, the Minneapolis/St. Paul CBS affiliate, that she supports allowing teachers to talk about a higher power creating life alongside evolution. A committee that will rewrite the state science standards met for the first time on July 31. Yecke has said that she is urging the committee to consider a provision inserted by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) into the Senate version of the No Child Left Behind legislation. The provision, in the form of a non-binding resolution, singled out evolution as a controversial theory that should be taught as such.
The situation in Minnesota could turn into a reprise of what transpired the previous summer in Ohio. The state board there passed standards that included evolution for the first time, but not before ID proponents sought to insert their beliefs under the rubric that federal law required the teaching of alternatives. Their viewpoint was supported by U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who inaccurately claimed that the Santorum language is now part of the law. In fact, the final version of the bill did not contain the Santorum language, which was relegated in much-altered form to an accompanying explanatory statement. But both Ohio and Minnesota demonstrate that the value of the Santorum language lies not in statutory authority but in its use as a propaganda tool (Geotimes, September 2002).
Another battleground is the textbook adoption process, in which a state or local school district decides which textbooks will be used in the coming years. In the biology textbook adoption process in Texas, ID proponents are seeking to have textbooks disqualified for failing to discuss the weaknesses of evolutionary theory and controversy surrounding it (read related story). The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that underwrites many of the leading ID proponents, produced a 41-page report giving low grades to the biology textbooks under consideration. The state school board can reject textbooks for failing to conform due to factual errors, physical specifications or a lack of adherence to the curriculum. Because Texas represents one of the largest state-wide adoptions in the country and hence one of the largest markets for textbook publishers, its decisions have an impact on what textbook publishers will offer nationwide.
Helping support the ID effort, a number of PBS stations around the country
have been airing a documentary, entitled Unlocking the Mystery of Life,
about ID and its proponents. The documentary is co-written by a senior scholar
at the Discovery Institute. After the documentary ran on Maryland Public Television,
a Howard University medical school professor aptly described it as an infomercial
for ID creationism.
While harsh, such a description is appropriate for ID proponents who have opted to take their message directly to the people and thence the nations schools, rather than to publish papers in scientific journals or to present their results to other scientists at meetings. They invest their effort in unscientific polling rather than in producing new evidence to support their theory, continuing to rely on the same small suite of examples that have long since been refuted in the scientific literature.
ID proponents are quick to point out that, as is often the case with revolutionary new theories, they have been blocked by an entrenched old guard. But what they fail to grasp is that such opposition is only part of the picture true scientific revolutions are characterized by a swelling flood of new data and findings that eventually wash away the old thinking. Instead, ID offers a trickle, and, a recirculating trickle at that.
Until an Edwards-like Supreme Court ruling settles the acceptability of ID as classroom science, these skirmishes will continue. Meanwhile, at a time when scientific literacy is at an ebb, this battle is not the one we should have to be waging. Our economic security, health and vitality as a nation depend on teaching the best science to the next generation and not hewing to a narrow ideology being promoted outside of science.
"Textbook battle over evolution," Geotimes, September 2003
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