Monday, August 21, 2006

The Evasive Rhetoric of NCSE

The National Center for Science Education is the leading organization in the United States that defends the teaching of evolution in public school biology classes against creationists and proponents of intelligent design. I agree with the NCSE position that the evidence and arguments for the theory of evolution support this as strongly as any theory in science. I also agree that both young-earth creationism and intelligent design theory lack the support that would justify treating them as a plausible scientific theory.

I disagree with NCSE, however, in that I see nothing wrong with allowing students to study this debate and decide for themselves whether the weight of the evidence and arguments favor evolution over creationism and intelligent design. Although I believe that evolution can be compatible with religious belief, because it is quite reasonable to be a theistic evolutionist, I understand that some people who interpret the Genesis story of creation as a literal six-day creation cannot accept Darwinian evolution. So why shouldn't students with creationist beliefs be permitted to at least discuss this in a biology class? After all, Darwin himself framed his theory as an alternative to the theory of "special creation." So if students were reading Darwin, they could examine his reasoning and consider the implications for biblical religion.

The folks at NCSE are horrorified by my proposal. They insist that both creationism and intelligent design are positions of religious faith that have no place in a science class, because we need to keep religion and science clearly separated.

But in taking this position, NCSE has to employ an evasive rhetoric. On the one hand, they insist that the Darwinian theory of evolution is not contrary to religious faith. On the other hand, they implicitly concede that the theory of evolution really does deny some kinds of religious faith--such as the biblical literalist faith in a six-day creation.

This evasive rhetoric can be seen in the latest "evolution education update" at the NCSE website. They quote from Lawrence Krauss's New York Times op-ed column about the recent state school board elections in Kansas. According to Krauss, "the battle is not against faith, but against ignorance." Teaching the truth of evolution is simply a matter of overcoming ignorance, and this does not deny religious faith at all. But then in the story about the SCIENCE magazine article about "the public acceptance of evolution," it is noted that a substantial portion of the American public does not accept the idea that human beings developed from other animal species. The explanation for this is that they believe in a literal six-day creation by God, in which God created human beings separately. But here it is clear that there really is a conflict between the creationist faith and the theory of evolution. Biblical literalists cannot believe in human evolution by natural means from other animal species without denying their version of biblical faith. So here, contrary to the rhetoric of NCSE, the battle is against faith, not just ignorance.

The fundamental problem is the naive assumption that science and religion can be kept absolutely separated. It seems clear to me that while Darwinian science is compatible with some kinds of religious belief, it denies a biblical literalist belief in special creation. To refuse to face up to this problem in the biology classroom is dishonest and evasive.


Schebel said...

I would say that the NCTE is not battling faith per se. They're battling faith presented as science. Including creationist arguments next to evidence for evolution in a science classroom is implicitely presenting creationism as science.

However, even if that were not the case, the kind of philosophical and theological arguments that would be spoken in such a debate are much more appropriate to a comparative religion or philosophy class. Practically, a biology class does not have enough time to debate the creation/evolution argument, let alone confuse students into thinking that creationism is a science because it's being presented in a science classroom.

Previous statements from NCTE have indicated that they would have just as many problems with teaching that God uses evolution as a method for creation as they would with teaching the 6-day creation idea. Neither is science, therefore neither should be taught in the public high-school science classroom.

That's not rhetoric, that's simply distinguishing between what is science and what is not. I think that this distinction is necessary and poses a reasonable limitation on curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Students have every right to ask any questions they want about evolution in public schools. When I was in high school some creationist students would openly argue "well this is jus a theory right" and would jump forth with what sounded almost like a script they were given from their parents or preacher. Never did the students make a decent arguement. If a student can make a decent arguement against evolution then approach the teacher after class. Students are always free to question anything, but allowing a debate to occur in the classroom will not work and will potentially lead to lawsuits. Creationists love to play the "martyr card" when shown that evidence shows them to be wrong, and many creationist students would say "Well I was humiliated in class and told my beliefs were wrong...I'm sueing.." The lack of mentioning of any beliefs is the best way to go. We have evolution, probably the most well founded theory in all of science, so we should teach it. Nothing disproves evolution, and all the evidence confirms it. Creationist students will always have AIG and Hovind for the education that their religion wants them to have in terms of "science." No need to bring it into the classroom only to show it to be wrong. In college however I remember consistent questions on course evaluation questionaires that asked "How does ____ not substantiate an arguement for design" Even a few times in lecture my professor would say "Well people like Behe will claim ____ is evidence for design, can anyone explain to me why it is not?" These thought experiments typically went well. Even many of the more religious students in the class would be the one's answering why certain aspects weren't evidence of design.

Anonymous said...

There is no hypocisy in the position taken by the NCSE. Evolution does not in itself threaten anyones religious beliefs. If there are those who feel it does, then the real issue lies in their failure to adapt and evolve in those beliefs in the light of new understanding of the world.
Their failure do so is entirely their own problem, not organizations like the NCSE that point out that the scientific evidence need not be a threat to religious identity.

Matt said...

I think the last comment nicely elaborates Larry's point.

There is no hypocisy in the position taken by the NCSE. Evolution does not in itself threaten anyones religious beliefs. If there are those who feel it does, then the real issue lies in their failure to adapt and evolve in those beliefs in the light of new understanding of the world.
Their failure do so is entirely their own problem,

In the first line it states no ones religious faith is threatened by evolution.

The second part then goes into a tirade about how people who have religious objections to evolution need to adapt and change their beliefs.

Saying that evolution is neutral with regards to all religious beliefs oh and by creationism is a religious position which contradicts evolution and is false. Is pretty evidently to contradict oneself.