Monkeying With Science Education

The Commercial Appeal

The “Monkey Bill” now before the Tennessee Legislature is a bad means to a good end. The good end is to teach students the fascinating process by which scientific theories come to be established as “facts.” Scientific theories in general and Darwin’s in particular are human interpretations of nature which come to be accepted because they are persuasive. The public that a scientific theory has to persuade may be scientists but the professional character of the audience does not change the thoroughly political and rhetorical nature of the process.

To advance science education by understanding how science persuades is the aim of a growing academic enterprise called the Rhetoric of Science. When science is not regarded naively as a transcript of nature but as a fabric of fact, philosophic preference, and fallible interpretation, when it is seen to involve professional jealousies and competing ideas, the study of science becomes as exciting as any well taught social study — and is equally indispensable to the liberal education of the individual as student and citizen.

The first problem with the Monkey bill is that it seeks to lay down a simple rule rather than to encourage educators to open up the subject of evolution to critical analysis. As the philosopher Martin Eger has shown there is a fundamental conflict in the very model of reason now taught in the public schools in Canada and the United States. When it comes to the teaching of “values” our educators insist that our young people learn to think for themselves and hear the best arguments against established opinions. According to authorities like John Stuart Mill, the right belief held without a reason is merely a prejudice. Mill applies the same principle to science. Yet in the Arkansas Creation Science trial it was this very principle that the eminent Darwinist Michael Ruse denied — and in his book the philosopher Philip Kitcher agreed with him. Educators cannot have it both ways. If students are encouraged to question even the most well established ethical and moral precepts, why aren’t they allowed to question even the most well established scientific theories?

In light of the revolution in the philosophy and history of science of the last twenty years, it is now well recognized that there is no single “scientific method.” What the natural sciences have in common is not their methods, which vary from discipline to discipline, but rhetorical argumentation. Persuasive argument is what the sciences have in common with all other disciplines whether Law, History, English, or Ethics. To deny students the chance to debate even the most obvious received “facts” or theories betrays the liberal values that undergird every discipline. Science proceeds by debate and opposition. It is unscientific — and boring — not to teach it that way.

The second problem with the monkey bill is that it is vulnerable to legal attack because it appears to be aimed at protecting a religious doctrine rather than improving education. As the State Attorney General has argued, the religious aims of the legislators will make the bill unconstitutional. (Thank God!) The bill in its present form serves only to perpetuate the false belief that all critics of Darwinism are religious fundamentalists. Were evolution evil, were the devil himself/herself its author, he/she could not have devised a better strategy for advancing it than to propose what amounts to a rerun of the Scopes trial. By handing an easy legal victory to the most extreme Darwinists, the Tennessee Legislature through its Monkey bill insures that the anti-theistic metaphysics openly identified as Darwinism’s inescapable inference by its most distinguished and public representatives — among them Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, William Provine, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Michael Ruse — will be taught as fact. The Monkey Bill enables these gentlemen to present themselves as the victims of “there they go again” religious reaction and to define their own highly dubious bill of metaphysical goods as the simple truth of science. What an unbeatable advantage! Arguably the single greatest friend of the philosophy of scientific naturalism in politics today is the legislature of the State of Tennessee!

The only guard against metaphysics — theistic or atheistic — being palmed off as “science” is not the clumsy meat-ax of legislation but the supple probe — best demonstrated by example — of critical thought. Teaching and modeling critical thinking is the very soul of liberal education and is the philosophic and educational principle at risk in this otherwise wholly misguided debate. People who teach Darwinism as fact should not be fired; why make them martyrs? They should be awarded scholarships to study the history, philosophy and rhetoric of science at the University of Memphis. What this debate reveals is a poverty of ideas in which the educational establishment, far more than the State Legislature, has failed to serve the public interest.

If students are taught Darwin’s theory as THE SCIENTIFIC TRUTH this will guarantee a moment of silence in the classroom that will last an hour! (Where is the ACLU now that we need it?) Were students taught instead how Darwin’s theory evolved, adapted to circumstances, changed, overcame its opposition (check your watch and the calendar), and how, like every scientific theory in human history, it too is probably wrong — the metaphysical issues will take care of themselves and the big winner will be science education.

John Angus Campbell

John Angus Campbell is a retired American Professor of Rhetoric and is a Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design.