Will “Santorum Language” Save Us From Scientific Fundamentalism?

Originally published at National Catholic Register

One combustible controversy is raging in Ohio school districts right now. It’s over science education and, soon enough, will flare up in all fifty states.

To get to the heart of it, the controversy centers on how to teach evolution – not whether to teach it, mind you, but how.

It all began with the passage of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, a federal education act that, in part, directs states to set up academic standards. An important interpretive paragraph of that Act, called the “Santorum language” after the interpretation’s author, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, states:

“The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

Things are hot now in Ohio simply because it happens to be the first state to approach the question of educational standards since the federal education Act (complete with Santorum language) was passed. What is happening now in Ohio, will soon enough happen in every state.

Why is this of any concern to Catholics?

Catholic education will either follow the public schools, lead the public schools, or part company with them in regard to the question of how to teach evolution. So the sooner we Catholics start thinking seriously about the question, the better off we’ll be.

To return to the education Act, the “Santorum language” does not (as has been reported) forbid the teaching of evolution; in fact, quite the contrary. Evolution must be taught, but it must be taught in accordance with the actual evidence both for and against it.

Thus, the “Santorum language” is a two-edged sword, disallowing both religion being taught as science, and science being taught as religion. One edge of the sword cuts religious fundamentalism out of consideration in any science curriculum. The other edge cuts out what might be called scientific fundamentalism.

Scientific fundamentalism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Yes, indeed. That’s just the point. Protecting scientific theories in general, and Darwinism in particular, from scientific criticism is unscientific.

Just as religious fundamentalists often (consciously or unconsciously) overlook, reject, or distort scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs, so also Darwinian fundamentalists often (consciously or unconsciously) overlook, reject, or distort scientific evidence that contradicts their belief in the Darwinian account of evolution.

And so, contrary to the desire of some religious fundamentalists, “Santorum” declares that evolutionary theory must be taught, and the strongest available scientific evidence for it must be presented.

But wherever scientific evidence contradicts expectations of the Darwinian account of evolution, that evidence should also be taught as part of the science curriculum, and students should know why this evidence is so problematic for Darwinism. As it is, such evidence is almost never mentioned in biology textbooks or is glossed over with little or misleading comment.

For example, I open my Raven and Johnson, Biology (3rd edition, updated in 1995) to chapter four, “The Origin and Early History of Life.” There I find that “It is odd to think of life originating from a dilute, hot, smelly soup of ammonia, formaldehyde, formic acid, cyanide, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and organic hydrocarbons. Yet from such an ocean emerged the organisms from which all subsequent life-forms are derived. The way in which this happened is a puzzle and may forever remain so.”

The question is not whether this brief account of the evolutionary rise of life from pre-biotic soup clashes with religion, but whether it clashes with science. According to the “Santorum language,” students have a right to know that the Miller-Urey experiment (which the text cites as evidence) is scientifically flawed.

They have a right to know that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection cannot operate prior the existence of living, reproducing organisms and so cannot be used as an explanation of how the first living organisms were produced in the first place.

They have a right to know that the various conjectures offered by some Darwinists about the origin of the first replicating cell (such as the theory that the first proteins formed on silicate clays) are contradicted by other scientific evidence. They have a right to know that if the rise of complex life “is a puzzle and may forever remain so,” then we cannot assume that it has occurred by evolution alone.

In short, students have a right to all the scientific evidence, a right to hear the strongest scientific arguments for the Darwinian account of evolution, and a right to hear the points at which the scientific evidence calls that account into question.

Fifty-two scientists in Ohio felt so strongly about this, that they issued a statement in support of the “Santorum language.” Predictably, they were branded as fundamentalists disguised as scientists. By whom? Those who wish to censor scientific evidence against Darwinism. Who, then, are the real fundamentalists?

Stay tuned.

Ben Wiker teaches philosophy of science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).

Benjamin Wiker

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Benjamin Wiker holds a PhD in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville.