A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Right to Remain Ignorant

As it did in 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education has voted (6-4) to incorporate anti-evolution teachings into science classrooms. Its actually gone even further this time, redefining science to allow for the inclusion of supernatural phenomena as explainations for natural events. Hands down, this is the worst blow to American scientific education in the last 50 years.

Here's a balanced roundup of what's being said about the decision:

John Rennie of Scientific American is unremittingly hostile to the new science standards, particularly over their redefinition of science.

It wasn't enough for them to undermine the teaching of biology by falsifying a scientific controversy over evolution. No, the Board of Education went as far as to redefine what science is: it's no longer just a search for natural explanations for natural phenomena. Now it's a search for... well, that's a bit hard to say. Any sort of explanation, apparently. Pixies, ghosts, telekinesis, auras, ancient astronauts, excesses of choleric humor, they all seem to be fair game in the interest of "academic freedom." Oh, and God, of course. The Board might not say that because it could get them into trouble with the Supreme Court, but can anyone say with a straight face that getting God into the science classes isn't the goal of the people who pushed for these changes?

AP reporter John Hanna is more objective, taking quotes from both sides of the debate and trying for a more even-handed presentation.

"This is a sad day. We're becoming a laughingstock of not only the nation, but of the world, and I hate that," said board member Janet Waugh, a Democrat.

Supporters of the new standards said they will promote academic freedom. "It gets rid of a lot of dogma that's being taught in the classroom today," said board member John Bacon.

And finally, Robert Crowther of Evolution News & Views (a website run by and for the pro-ID Discovery Institute) lauds the decision and believes it will lead to a greater diversity of ideas in the classroom.

“This is a big victory for the students of Kansas, providing them with full-disclosure of the scientific debate about Darwinism going on between scientists and in the scientific literature, so we’re very pleased” said Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

I think most of my readers know that I am a staunch evolutionist. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "belief" (since belief indicates faith) but rather with the fact that I am convinced of evolution's validity by the evidence presented thus far. I've studied anthropology, astronomy, and biology all of my life; I'm aware of the questions that evolution cannot answer as yet (dramatically touted as "gaps" and "controversies" by the Intelligent Design camp nowadays). I am also aware of the far, far larger set of questions that it can answer.

My position has always been that a proper understanding of evolution takes years of dedicated study, and you have to aquire such an understanding in order to genuinely trust the theory. Most people who don't believe in evolution simply don't understand evoltion; "God did it" (which is what both Creationism and Intelligent Design eventually boil down to) is a much simpler, easier, and more comfortable answer.

The thing is, we don't have the right to force Kansans to accept a more complex answer (even if it obviously has far more validity than what they want to believe). I wish that their school board had made a different decision, but at least the one they did make was arrived at through transparent democracy. Wrong or not, the members of that school board voted as they believe their constituents would want them to; the people of Kansas have a right to remain ignorant.

Now, of course, their new scientific standards will have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Given the public ridicule being heaped upon them already, I don't think they're going to do very well. Kansas is going to be a laughingstock, it's going to lose jobs and investment, and students from the state are going to lag behind in science education. This was a terrible decision, but one that, in a free country, Kansans had every right to make.


Update: Looks like the voters in Dover, PA feel differently. Not that I particularly like to see Democrats win elections, but in light of the Republican incumbents' anti-science position I'm glad they were ousted.