November 2010

Parrying the Attacks of Creationist Culture Warriors

To get creationism into textbooks and classrooms, the scientific method itself must, inevitably, be devalued or distorted if this fallacy is to be maintained. Thus, the need for engaging the public is more acute than ever. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of some of the more counterproductive approaches we sometimes take in parrying the attacks of creationist culture warriors. (Titled "The Perils of Counter-dogmatism" in print version.)


Long before the Scopes’ Monkey Trial signaled the escalation of the ongoing debate over evolution, Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus and others had felt the scorn of state or church.

How Go the Culture Wars?

The tension between science and authority, political or religious, is as old as science itself. It is inevitable in the course of scientific discovery that some popular ideas and legends will be proven erroneous or even fabricated. Long before the Scopes’ Monkey Trial signaled the escalation of the ongoing debate over evolution, Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus and others had felt the scorn of state or church.

It is gratifying to know that science has persisted and even thrived despite periodic surges of public skepticism. However, one cannot help but wonder if the Internet age has so magnified the reach and influence of today’s creationists as to render it possible that the scientific community may experience real pushback. The political power of religious fundamentalists can be seen in the attempts by elected school boards to mandate placing stickers on textbooks proclaiming that evolution is “just a theory,” to teach creation (aka “creation science” or “intelligent design”) in K-12 science classes, or— more recently— to dictate the content of science texts purchased by the state of Texas. Although the courts have thus far recognized and upheld the line between science and religious belief, the steady accumulation of culturally conservative judges may, sooner or later, allow the semantic legerdemain of the Intelligent Design Network and the Discovery Institute to win a place for intelligent design in science classrooms and textbooks.

To get creationism, however artfully labeled, into textbooks and classrooms, the scientific method itself must, inevitably, be devalued or distorted if this fallacy is to be maintained. Thus, the need for engaging the public is more acute than ever. Is the purpose of this article to reveal the secret for proving that evolution is right and intelligent design lacks scientific credibility? Unfortunately, no. Instead, my purpose is to raise awareness of some of the more counterproductive approaches we sometimes take in parrying the attacks of creationist culture warriors and to suggest some alternatives for your consideration.

Beware the Metaphor

If the scientific community is to rebuild and enlarge the bridges connecting it with the general public, those bridges cannot be one-way. This means rejecting the seductive metaphor of soldiers in a culture war, for the ways of war are not the ways of reason or respect but those of absolutism and polarization. Yet, many of our choices with regard to both goals and tactics betray the adversarial “us-or-them” mindset of a combat general.

Instead of working toward enhancing mutual understanding, all too often, our op-ed pieces and letters to the editor seek to somehow “win” the debate by exposing the fallacies of creationism and/or discrediting its adherents. All too often, we cast the debate in absolutist terms, seemingly designed to alienate rather than persuade. And, all too often, we portray the adherents of creationism and its derivatives as ignorant, intolerant and irrational.

Perhaps our most frequent error comes when we ascribe differences in viewpoint to differences in education and training: “If only you had the benefit of our advanced degrees and extensive scientific training, you, too, would realize the strength of the evidence on behalf of evolution.” By suggesting that evolution and other scientific concepts lie beyond the understanding of “ordinary” people, we strip away everything about science that makes it stimulating, dynamic and rigorous— in other words, everything that might induce someone to examine it more closely or give it a second look. Instead of an exciting and challenging process of exploration, frequently we portray science as a static, dogmatic collection of facts, laws and theories generated and interpreted by qualified experts. Instead of highlighting the many ways in which ordinary people apply scientific tools and principles in their daily lives— quantitative measurement, logical deduction and experimental testing— we portray it as something distant and alien to persons lacking a doctoral degree.

What Is Our Objective?

EvolutionIf our objective is to convince the general public that evolution is “right” and creation science is “wrong,” we have set a nearly impossible task. Having grown up in a city with two major league baseball teams, I can tell you that, despite years of vigorous debate, I have yet to see a Cubs fan convinced to become a White Sox fan, and vice versa. Point out that the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, whereas the Cubs have known nothing but frustration since 1908. So what? Point out that Wrigley Field is a thing of beauty, a landmark whose history and ambiance far outshine the modern sterility of U.S. Cellular Field. So what? It is difficult to change long-held beliefs through logical debate. The more we press the issue, the more likely we are to slip into the kind of dogmatic language that alienates rather than illuminates.

So what should our goals be? To get students, friends, parents and teachers excited about science. To do so, we must show people that science is, at its core, a fundamentally human endeavor; that the scientific method was devised by people trying to satisfy our universal craving to know and understand. We need to illuminate for them the impact that science has on their daily lives. We must show how they use scientific methods and principles every day. And, we must demonstrate our respect for their choice of belief system. Not only must we cease denigrating Genesis, we must be careful to dispel the notion that we seek to silence their views altogether.

I expect few people to respond by either recanting their faith or rejecting the biblical story of creation. However, I do expect that people possessed of a basic appreciation and understanding of science will understand why, to be included in the biology curriculum, intelligent design must first be subject to scientific investigation. Note that I did not say that they would understand why intelligent design does not belong in the science text or classroom, because it is the nature of the evidence and not the nature of the subject that qualifies something as being scientific.

If You Can’t Beat Them…

How often have you muttered, “How can we get our students interested in science?” or “How can we get them to understand the scientific method and its application?” One tried-and-true way to stir up interest is via controversy, and here is one ready-made. Imagine, for a moment, if the faculty members in a science department somewhere decided to take up the fundamentalists’ call to “teach the controversy.”

Imagine a series of classes and discussions leading students on a journey to where early man confronted his desire to make sense out of the world in which he lived, classes that would integrate the physical and natural sciences with history, philosophy, religion and sociology. When asked to imagine how primitive man might first began to apply the tools of science, perhaps students would describe keeping records of time to keep track of and predict the seasons and phases of the moon. Done in a dispassionate manner, away from television cameras and bombastic pundits, imagine what a rich learning experience this could be. Perhaps someday…

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.


First Name:
Last Name:
Email:
Comment:


Comment on this item:
Rating:
Our comments are moderated. Maximum 1000 characters. We would appreciate it if you signed your name to your comment.


  


There aren't any comments on this item yet. Tell us what you think!

0 Comments

Page 1 of 1

found= true1038