Faint praise for antievolutionists

May 24th, 2005 — Wordman

Kansas (a few miles from my birthplace physically, light years philosophically) is considering changing their definition of science from:

Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us

…to…

Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena

Started by proponents of intelligent design (ID), this has raised a huge outcry (mostly from those in other states) who view it as an attempt to inject religion into schools. While I can’t find much wrong in the suggested definitional change, those who fear the creationists have legitimate grounds to do so, given the release of the wedge memo into the wild. This memo “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” by creating a scientific-sounding basis for God and brainwashing people with it (instead of the Bible). The creation of ID is “phase I” of the strategy in this memo. The activity in Kansas is phase II.

While I have as much use for creationism as I do for the African myth of Bumba vomiting up the sun, my reaction to the events in Kansas, even if they do make this change, is fairly indifferent. This is for three reasons. The first is that I don’t think the wedge strategy will work. In fact, I think it will actually make creationism weaker. Right now, some evidence exists that evolution isn’t taught that much even now, particularly before high school, because creationists raise a ruckus about it. The semi-parody Evolution Outreach Project, for example, offers “gifts for science teachers” that include bullet-proof vests and stun guns. The wedge strategy seeks to replace the ruckus with a presentation of both ID and evolution. While the balance of such presentation is likely to vary widely (as per the wedge strategy), it seems to me that any mention of evolution in school (even negatively) is better than none. I suspect that most people who have chosen to teach science tend to lean more towards evolution anyway, some of whom will jump at the opportunity to openly teach rationality. Some teachers are already figuring out ways to do this:

There’s no question that if science teachers had their druthers, they wouldn’t be teaching intelligent design or gratuitously criticizing evolution in their classrooms. But they do. They can whine or refuse or resign. How much better for them to take this opportunity to teach their students while exasperating their school boards with the power of thoughtful investigation. And have a whole lot of fun doing so.

That ID embraces this “thoughtful investigation” seems even better for evolutionists. In a true stand-up comparison between evolution and ID, evolution completely crushes ID as a rigorous, scientific theory. Granted, you might not get that impartial comparison everywhere, but my guess is you’d see it more than you do now.

I’d rather have kids in conservative Christian parts of the country learning about a semi-sensible, though flawed, concept of “irreducible complexity” rather than “it’s true because it’s in the Bible”. At least the former follows some semblance of active logical thought, rather than passive surrender of cognition to vauge authority.

Secondly, I think the power of a school to influence thought on this subject is overrated. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that people, even kids, rarely change their opinion because of facts. More often, an opinion is formed first, then “facts” are found (or disgarded) in order to justify it. Regardless of what they hear in school, kids who want to believe in a creator will likely continue to do so and kids that don’t, likely won’t. For many of them, it won’t particularly matter what the curriculum is.

Lastly, as flawed as intelligent design is, both it and the political tactics that back it are significantly healthier than previous religious objections to science that dissagreed with dogma (which usually involved setting people on fire). Those who oppose evolution are, dare I say it, evolving.