Louisiana Confounds the Science Thought Police

Neo-Darwinism is no longer a protected orthodoxy in the Bayou State's pedagogy
John G. West
National Review Online
July 8, 2008
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To the chagrin of the science thought police, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has signed into law an act to protect teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues such as global warming, human cloning, and yes, evolution and the origin of life.

Opponents allege that the Louisiana Science Education Act is “anti-science.” In reality, the opposition’s efforts to silence anyone who disagrees with them is the true affront to scientific inquiry.

Students need to know about the current scientific consensus on a given issue, but they also need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which that consensus rests. They need to learn about competing interpretations of the evidence offered by scientists, as well as anomalies that aren’t well explained by existing theories.

Yet in many schools today, instruction about controversial scientific issues is closer to propaganda than education. Teaching about global warming is about as nuanced as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Discussions about human sexuality recycle the junk science of biologist Alfred Kinsey and other ideologically driven researchers. And lessons about evolution present a caricature of modern evolutionary theory that papers over problems and fails to distinguish between fact and speculation. In these areas, the “scientific” view is increasingly offered to students as a neat package of dogmatic assertions that just happens to parallel the political and cultural agenda of the Left.

Real science, however, is a lot more messy -- and interesting -- than a set of ideological talking points. Most conservatives recognize this truth already when it comes to global warming. They know that whatever consensus exists among scientists about global warming, legitimate questions remain about its future impact on the environment, its various causes, and the best policies to combat it. They realize that efforts to suppress conflicting evidence and dissenting interpretations related to global warming actually compromise the cause of good science education rather than promote it.

The effort to suppress dissenting views on global warming is a part of a broader campaign to demonize any questioning of the “consensus” view on a whole range of controversial scientific issues -- from embryonic stem-cell research to Darwinian evolution -- and to brand such interest in healthy debate as a “war on science.”

In this environment of politically correct science, thoughtful teachers who want to acquaint their students with dissenting views and conflicting evidence can expect to run afoul of the science thought police.

The Louisiana Science Education Act offers such teachers a modest measure of protection. Under the law, school districts may permit teachers to “use supplementary textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The act is not a license for teachers to do anything they want. Instruction must be “objective,” inappropriate materials may be vetoed by the state board of education, and the law explicitly prohibits teaching religion in the name of science, stating that its provisions “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.”

The law was so carefully framed that even the head of the Louisiana ACLU has had to concede that it is constitutional as written.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from denouncing the bill as a nefarious plot to sneak religion into the classroom. The good news is that the disinformation campaign proved a massive failure in Louisiana. Only three members of the state legislature voted against the measure, which attracted nearly universal support from both political parties. Efforts to prevent local scientists from supporting the bill also failed. At a legislative hearing in May, three college professors (two biologists and one chemist) testified in favor of the bill, specifically challenging the claim that there are no legitimate scientific criticisms of Neo-Darwinism, the modern theory of evolution that accounts for biological complexity through an undirected process of natural selection acting on random mutations.

Fearful of being branded “anti-science,” some conservatives are skittish about such efforts to allow challenges to the consensus view of science. They insist that conservatives should not question currently accepted “facts” of science, only the supposedly misguided application of those facts by scientists to politics, morality, and religion. Such conservatives assume that we can safely cede to scientists the authority to determine the “facts,” so long as we retain the right to challenge their application of the facts to the rest of culture.

But there are significant problems with this view.

First, the idea that a firewall exists between scientific “facts” and their implications for society is not sustainable. Facts have implications. If it really is a “fact” that the evolution of life was an unplanned process of chance and necessity (as Neo-Darwinism asserts), then that fact has consequences for how we view life. It does not lead necessarily to Richard Dawkins’s militant atheism, but it certainly makes less plausible the idea of a God who intentionally directs the development of life toward a specific end. In a Darwinian worldview, even God himself cannot know how evolution will turn out -- which is why theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller argues that human beings are a mere “happenstance” of evolutionary history, and that if evolution played over again it might produce thinking mollusks rather than us.

Second, the idea that the current scientific consensus on any topic deserves slavish deference betrays stunning ignorance of the history of science. Time and again, scientists have shown themselves just as capable of being blinded by fanaticism, prejudice, and error as anyone else. Perhaps the most egregious example in American history was the eugenics movement, the ill-considered crusade to breed better human beings.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the nation’s leading biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford, as well by members of America’s leading scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were all devoted eugenicists. By the time the crusade had run its course, some 60,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will in an effort to keep us from sinning against Darwin’s law of natural selection, which Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin dubbed “the great law of evolution and progress.”

Today, science is typically portrayed as self-correcting, but it took decades for most evolutionary biologists to disassociate themselves from the junk science of eugenics. For years, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditionalist Roman Catholics, who were denounced by scientists for letting their religion stand in the way of scientific progress. The implication was that religious people had no right to speak out on public issues involving science.

The same argument can be heard today, not only in Louisiana, but around the country. Whether the issue is sex education, embryonic stem-cell research, or evolution, groups claiming to speak for “science” assert that it violates the Constitution for religious citizens to speak out on science-related issues. Really?

America is a deeply religious country, and no doubt many citizens interested in certain hot-button science issues are motivated in part by their religious beliefs. So what? Many opponents of slavery were motivated by their religious beliefs, and many leaders of the civil-rights movement were members of the clergy. Regardless of their motivations, religious citizens have just as much a right to raise their voices in public debates as their secular compatriots, including in debates about science. To suggest otherwise plainly offends the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

It is also short-sighted. The history of the eugenics crusade shows that religiously motivated citizens can play a useful role in evaluating the public claims of the scientific community. It is worth pointing out that unlike such “progressive” states as California, Louisiana was spared a eugenics-inspired forced-sterilization statute largely because of the implacable opposition of its Roman Catholic clergy.

So long as religious citizens offer arguments in the public square based on evidence, logic, and appeals to the moral common ground, they have every right to demand that their ideas be judged on the merits, regardless of their religious views.

This is especially true when the concern over religious motives is so obviously hypocritical. In Louisiana, for example, the person leading the charge against the Science Education Act was Barbara Forrest, herself a militant atheist and a long-time board member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association. At the same time she was denouncing the supposed religious motivations of supporters of the bill, Forrest was seeking grassroots support to lobby against the bill on the official website of Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins.

Conservatives should not support such anti-religious bigotry. Neither should they lend credence to the idea that it is anti-science to encourage critical thinking. In truth, the effort to promote thoughtful discussion of competing scientific views is pro-science. As Charles Darwin himself acknowledged, “a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

- John G. West is the author of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.