June 1, 2008

Is teaching creationism only being fair to the children?

[Note that I originally published this essay on Feb. 28, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of. This version has been very slightly edited with a few word changes.]

In regard to teaching creationism in public school science classes, when creationists say things like, "It's only fair (to the children) to teach both theories," what they really mean is that since they don't like the science, because it contradicts their religious beliefs, they want to teach their religious beliefs to children. "It's only fair to teach both viewpoints."

There are two serious problems with this. One is a category problem, and the other is a fundamental legal problem.

The category problem has to do with the fact that in science classes you're supposed to be teaching... well, uh, science.

Creationism isn't science. When creationists use the term "both theories," they're using a false comparison based on a semantic ambiguity of two different meanings of the word "theory." Look up "theory" in the dictionary.

A scientific theory is "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.). Creationism is only a "theory" in the sense of "An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture," and a faith-based conjecture, at that. These two meanings are almost the opposite of one another. The first is based on extensive scientific examination and testing. The second is basically an initial hypothesis, or just a guess.

These are not the same thing at all. There is no comparison. The scientific theory of evolution has been repeatedly tested, experimentally refined and verified by scientific research, and is fruitfully used to guide further scientific investigation. The "theory" (i.e., the religious doctrines) of creationism is none of these things. It's religious doctrine believed on faith.

Religious doctrine is not science. Anti-evolution rhetoric based on religious belief is not science. Pseudoscience claims, motivated by religious belief, and used to pretend creationism is scientific, are not science.

Thus, to teach children "both theories" is to seriously confuse them, even fundamentally mislead them, about science. It is not at all fair to children to tell them, "We're going to teach you about science," and then teach them sectarian religious concepts as if they are science, or teach them false claims about science based on religious motivations and call it science. When something isn't science, we shouldn't be misleading children by pretending it's science. Creationism doesn't belong in science classes because it isn't science. Attacks against evolution based on creationist beliefs don't belong in science classes because they aren't science.

The legal problem has to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In numerous court cases it has been determined quite consistently that the idea of teaching creationism as if it's science in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment. (Because it's sectarian religious belief, not science.)

In particular, in the 2005 case in Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), it was determined that the current popular form of creationism called "intelligent design" is simply another tactic of the creationist strategy of trying to get religious beliefs into public school science classes by falsely pretending that sectarian religious beliefs are science. (The case didn't determine anything we didn't already know about this creationist tactic, it's just that the case is an example of arriving at the same conclusion through a formal legal process.) Again, this is a violation of the First Amendment.

Creationist opposition to the teaching of evolution in public school science classes is simply one major skirmish of a culture war going on in the United States between people with conservative religious beliefs and everyone else. We are where we are at now as the result of our cultural history, and in this case it's the result of religious traditions in the United States that have opposed evolution and other areas of science for over a hundred years. The current threads of anti-evolution thought began with the backlash against the promotion of science education that started in the late 1950s, most notably from the movement started by the young earth creationist Henry M. Morris. The young earth creationists virtually singled-handedly created the idea of a "scientific creationism," by generating a significant body of pseudoscience literature misrepresenting and distorting science, filled with false "scientific" information.

To this very day we are still dealing with the false "facts" and fallacious arguments that young earth creationists put out in the 1960s and 1970s, still dealing with the fallout of a whole generation (almost two now) of conservative religious people brought up being taught all these false claims about science that are not actually scientific at all. In discussions with creationists that are about specific areas of science, the problem is not what creationists know, but what they think they know that just ain't so. Creationists will often say that their disagreement with scientists isn't about the facts, but about the interpretation of the facts. Yet in actual discussions with creationists, when dealing with the specific details about specific areas of science, we find that creationists dispute the facts all the time. (Most often they're simply unaware of the facts, but when you bring them to their attention they deliberately and defiantly ignore them.)

The solution to this particular skirmish in the culture war is to meet it head on. The reason the problem has become as extensive as it is right now is precisely because in the past when people with certain religious beliefs attacked science, we've had the general social tendency to "turn the other cheek" and give space to them - out of a misplaced respect for religious belief. If people want to believe things on the basis of faith, and they do this privately, more power to them. But when people speak out publicly, attacking science, using pseudoscientific claims that are factually wrong and using arguments that are logically fallacious, they need to be confronted head on just as publicly, specifically addressing their erroneous claims and explaining why they are wrong. They should not be given undue respect for publicly proclaiming manifestly false claims about science merely because their false claims are motivated by religious belief.

It's because those who came before us did not meet creationists head on as openly, forthrightly, and explicitly as should have been done, that the problem has festered and grown so that now we have the even worse problems we're having. So now it's up to us to deal with it, and now we know we cannot shy away from this because we see what shying away from the problem in the past has led to. If we do not meet these creationists head on, and deal with them with all the forthright critical scrutiny they deserve, they really will sabotage science education in this country, as has been their objective for almost 50 years.

And that's the only thing that's fair to the children of this country.

Relevant online references

2005 Creationism Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial documents

Decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III (12/20/2005)

1987 Creationism Trial (Edwards v. Aguillard)
Edwards v. Aguillard
U.S. Supreme Court Decision

1981 Creationism Trial (McLean v. Arkansas)
McLean v. Arkansas Documentation Project

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education
Decision by U.S. District Judge William R. Overton (1/5/1982)

1975 Creationism Trial (Daniel v. Waters)

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