Creationism, pluralism and the compromising of science

The trouble with 'teaching the controversy'.

The rise of creationism in the USA is taken as evidence that fundamentalist Christianity has become a powerful force in society. But scepticism towards science does not just come from traditional Christianity. Liberal relativism has been important in creating a climate in which creationism is tolerated.

Many Americans, not just scientists, now worry that the teaching of biology will be replaced by religious indoctrination. The spread of fundamentalist Christianity is seen by many to be a force for a renewed far right political agenda, and in particular to be responsible for the election victory of George W Bush.

There is reason to be concerned. There have been a series of challenges to evolution in schools. The most recent have been in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a school board has ruled that children should be made ‘aware of gaps/problems’ in evolutionary theory; and Cobb County, Georgia, where a school board has decided to appeal a ruling by a judge that disclaimers stating that evolution is a ‘theory, not a fact’ must be removed from textbooks.

These challenges have pushed the teaching of evolution into mainstream debate, with critics of evolution appearing everywhere from the conservative Fox News to the liberal New York Times op-ed page.

The recent round of controversy has been building for some time. It started in Kansas in 1999, when the board of education voted to drop evolution from state test standards. This was followed by high-profile challenges to evolution in Ohio in 2002 and again in 2004. In both Kansas and Ohio, after temporary advances the creationists lost. Despite that, there are ongoing challenges, and others including in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Missouri, Montana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Disclaimers similar to those under dispute in Cobb County have been required in Alabama since 1996.

According to a CBS poll on 22 November 2004, just 13 per cent of Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention, and 35 per cent favour replacing evolution with creationism in schools. But the even more worrying figure is the 65 per cent of Americans who favour teaching creationism alongside evolution (1). Unlike old-fashioned biblical literalism, this position has majority support. While it is a small group of old-fashioned Christians who have been most active in promoting creationism, it is likely to be a more post-modern liberal pluralism, which refuses to elevate any one viewpoint to ‘truth’, that ultimately poses the greater threat to science. This is a scepticism towards our ability to know the world, which has become influential in both secular and religious circles on what were the old right and the old left.

It is important to understand what is behind the recent attacks on evolution, and to keep the supposed rise of the Christian right in perspective. The recent attacks on evolution have been coordinated by a small group of well-organised and moderately well-funded Christians, whose ‘wedge’ strategy sees questioning of evolution as the first step on the road to a theocratic society.

But in historical terms creationism is weaker than ever before. Christianity has long been a powerful force in US culture. It is hard to make the case that it exists today in a more fundamentalist, or a more right-wing, politically influential, form. The intelligent design activists play off widespread Christian faith, but they also play off a wider culture that is sceptical of the claims of science.

It is here that the broader political discussion among liberals is profoundly misguided. Unlike many scientists who have engaged in a defence of evolution, many liberals have adopted a contemptuous caricature of the Christian ‘Bush voter’. The Village Voice demonstrated its superior understanding of human evolution in a cartoon captioned ‘Gap-toothed, missing link Troglodytes delighted by presidential election outcome’ (2). Less crudely, the idea of a division between religious ‘Red’ and rational ‘Blue’ states has become fixed as an excuse for failing to develop convincing political arguments.

But even on a seemingly clear-cut issue such as creationism, the division is not so sharp. Liberals have often been at the forefront of questioning the authority of science. It is liberals who have argued that science education should respect cultural differences and that the curriculum should be immediately relevant to everyday life of students. Creationists have leapt at the opportunity presented by educational theories to put the knowledge of pupils on the same level as that as scientists, by putting forward the demand to ‘teach the controversy’.

Christian fundamentalism is a small part of the problem. It is far weaker than many fear. Bush himself, for example, is a flip-flopper on evolution. The New York Times reported in 2000 that he ‘doesn’t care much about that kind of thing’. His official policy is that while educational policy should be made locally, his preference is that ‘children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started’. This contrasts to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 statement that he had ‘a great many questions about evolution’, not least that ‘recent discoveries down through the years pointed out great flaws in it’.

Reagan’s statement is at least as sympathetic to creationism as Bush’s, but it is also less relativistic. Reagan’s statement is motivated by a concern to teach the one truth about the world, and even to look at the evidence. Bush, on the other hand, seems happy to accommodate all points of view (3).

The intellectual vapidity of intelligent design

One obvious place to look to explain the new popularity of creationism is the propaganda of its proponents. But on examining these ideas, it quickly becomes apparent that in intellectual terms, creationism is on the defensive.

The newest manifestation of creationism is a theory called ‘intelligent design’. According to intelligent design theory the complexity of the living world is evidence that it was deliberately designed by a Creator. The novelty lies in the false claim that the evidence of design is scientific evidence and that it can be studied scientifically.

Intelligent design contains no new ideas about our origins. The ‘argument from design’ in its most basic form goes back at least to Aristotle. It was taken up by Christian philosophers and eventually disposed of by the Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel Kant and David Hume, who pointed out that there was no necessary link between puzzling complexity in the world and supernatural origins, let alone Christian theology.

On examination intelligent design’s only novelty turns out to be not a grounding in science, but a promotional strategy. Its supposed scientific legitimacy rests on the work of biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski. However, neither Behe nor Dembski (nor anyone else) have published on intelligent design in peer reviewed journals. This is unsurprising, since their work is nothing but rehashes of old creationist arguments.

Behe’s work is just an updating of the old creationist complaint about biological structures like the eye: they cannot imagine how evolution could have progressed through a sequence of intermediates to produce a final working eye. ‘What use is half an eye?’, creationists used to challenge. In an eye the various parts - the lens, cornea, retina, and so on - all need to work together. Creationists thought that meant the various parts had to appear at the same moment, which is impossible for evolution.

It turns out that creationists had not thought carefully enough about the ways in which complex interdependent structures can be built using small steps. Nowadays biologists have discovered the steps involved in the evolution of many different sorts of eye, so Behe likes to sound modern by asking ‘what use is half a biochemical pathway?’. Picking on the most recent biological discoveries also has the advantage that biologists have not yet traced the evolutionary pathways in such detail. But even in the decade that Behe has been promoting his ideas, scientists have made a wealth of advances showing the details of how such pathways may have, and in certain cases actually have, evolved.

Dembski’s contribution is a reworking of another creationist hobby horse, the second law of thermodynamics. Creationists have long, and wrongly, claimed that the second law of thermodynamics rules out evolution by forbidding an increase in order, or complexity. Their confusion is an elementary one of ignoring a crucial input to living systems, namely low entropy sunlight. If they were correct then we would never see an organism develop from embryo to adult as this, too, is process that increases order.

Dembski has updated the idea by rewording it in terms of information. He claims to have developed a mathematical formula to detect the presence of complexity that could only have arisen through design. But his work has been described by David Wolpert, on whose theorems Dembski claims to have based his own, as ‘written in jello’. Coming from a mathematician, this is no small criticism. Dembski’s mathematical symbols are arranged on the page to bamboozle non-scientists, not to express a chain of logical reasoning.

The interested reader can find the ‘arguments’ of intelligent design demolished in great detail elsewhere (4). For now, it is worth emphasising their defensiveness when compared to Christian apologetics of the past. Intelligent design is a ‘God of the gaps’ argument. It gives us no positive reason to believe in God - only a gesture at complexity of the world and a shrug of the shoulders. More broadly, the innovations made by intelligent design are all concessions to science. It accepts an ancient age for the earth. It even accepts the process of ‘microevolution’, or small evolutionary changes, trying to hold out only against what it calls ‘macroevolution’.

So why have the creationists adopted such a weak argument? And if their ideas are so flimsy, why do they still get a hearing? To understand this it helps to look at how we arrived at this point.

The evolution of creationism 

Writing in the New York Times, Susan Jacoby warns that: ‘Many liberals mistakenly believe that these controversies are largely a product of the post-1980 politicisation of the Christian right. In fact, the elected anti-evolutionists on local and state school boards today are the heirs of eight decades of fundamentalist campaigning against Darwinism through back-door pressure on textbook publishers and school officials.’ (5) While this is a point worth noting, it is important to understand that today’s controversy over creationism takes place in very different circumstances to those of 1925.

Until the twentieth century, discussion of Darwinism in America was restricted to relatively narrow circles. In the 1920s, however, the struggle between creationism and evolution first became a topic of wide public debate. The impact of world war and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had seriously shaken traditional theories of progress and morality. At the same time, the participation of wider sections of society in politics ensured that questions such as the role of religion in national life were subject to intense discussion. Social conflict over class and race could often become violent. This gave the struggle over religion, which had the potential to moderate or exacerbate these conflicts, an edge that it lacks today.

The expansion of high school education ensured that the teaching of evolution would become a flashpoint. Resulting anti-evolution laws resulted in the famous ‘Monkey Trial’ at which John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution under a 1925 Tennessee law. The Scopes trial was the high point of public discussion over evolution. While creationists celebrated Scopes’ conviction as a victory and states continued to pass anti-evolution laws, it was already possible to detect some embarrassment amongst the establishment at this rejection of science.

Through the 1930s the anti-evolution laws stayed on the books. Evolution was little discussed as a public issue, but also little taught in American schools. But in the wake of the Second World War the pragmatic compromise shifted. Science and technology were elevated to national priorities. The space (and arms) race prompted both a strong emphasis on science education and a strong cultivation of patriotic feeling. Christianity was central to 1950s anti-communism, and this allowed a co-existence with the scientism more associated with business interests.

It was as the 1960s set in that the consensus began to disintegrate. The expansion of science education created tension with the old anti-evolution laws. By the time a challenge to Arkansas’ 1924 law reached the Supreme Court in 1968, the principle of separation of church and state in public education was already becoming established. The Court’s ruling in Epperson vs. Arkansas, striking down the ban on evolution, was a blow from which creationism has never recovered.

The response of the creationists to the setbacks of the 1960s was the invention of ‘creation science’. This was designed to get around the constitutional separation of Church and state by making a scientific critique of Darwinism instead of a religious one. However, the Creation ‘science’ of the 1970s and 80s was transparently religious in motivation. It argued for a literal interpretation of the Bible and a ‘young earth’, aged less than 10,000 years (6). Laws mandating the teaching of creation science alongside evolution were subject to protracted dispute before being struck down as unconstitutional in 1987.

It was in the wake of these repeated defeats that the new ‘intelligent design’ creationism emerged. It developed not out of new thinking in either science or theology, but primarily as a legal strategy to evade the constitutional bar on teaching of religion. It was launched by a book entitled ‘Darwin on Trial’, written by a law professor, Philip Johnson (7).

This legal strategy was part of a broader strategy to re-establish Christianity in American culture. But its excessive reliance on the courts was itself a symptom of a weak base in society. No doubt its promoters are sincere Christians. But emerging as it did from defeat, the intelligent design movement was prey to wider social forces.

Intelligent design was shaped not by the social polarisation of the 1920s, but by multiculturalism. It no longer explicitly argued for the truth of the Christian world view but rather for intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution and for State neutrality between Christianity and evolution. Whatever their private beliefs, the public arguments of intelligent design advocates are based firmly on pluralism, not Christian revelation. This is illustrated by looking at the broader framework in which creationism now struggles to make its case.

The defensive strategy of intelligent design

In her book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch details the censorship of school materials, in particular textbooks by ‘bias and sensitivity’ panels (8). Her detailed study was inspired by her experience on the national assessment governing board, which was responsible for national school tests introduced by President Clinton in 1997. It reveals an interesting picture. It is true that Christian fundamentalism has had a big impact on the use of language and, for example, acceptable depictions of family life. But more important is the framework that has been developed to justify the censorship system. This system is a product, if not exactly of the left, of the multicultural-feminist mainstream that is not often associated with the Christian right.

References to dinosaurs are eliminated from school texts not because they offend against the truth of the Bible, but rather in the same way that owls are eliminated on the basis that they may upset Navajo children in whose culture owls are taboo. According to bias guidelines collected by Ravitch, all religions are to be treated equally: ‘no religious practice or belief is characterised as strange or peculiar, or sophisticated or primitive.’ Other guidelines ban the use of words ‘heathen’ and ‘pagan’, while reserving the use of the term ‘myth’ to refer to ancient Greek or Roman stories. The Educational Testing Service, meanwhile, treats as ‘ethnocentric’ any test that focuses exclusively on ‘Judeo-Christian’ contributions to literature or art.

This relativistic approach to knowledge and truth is the outcome the culture wars that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is sensitive to the risks associated with experimentation. It is fragmented, allowing everyone their own interpretation of truth. It labels people as members of groups, but on the basis of shared history rather than collective endeavour. The individual for whom it demands respect is intensely vulnerable, so that respect becomes interpreted as protection from offence or harassment.

So while Christian fundamentalism can have a censorious impact on education, this does not reflect the strength of fundamentalism as such. It reflects the weakness of the secular, scientific belief system in our present culture.

The changing framework within which Christians are forced to make their argument is well illustrated by Amy Binder in her study Contentious Curricula. Binder made a study of challenges to school curricula between 1980 and 2000, through a comparison of Afro-centrists and creationists. Her work showed that while ultimately neither group was able to win lasting changes, there was far more sympathy from within the school system for the Afro-centrists. While the Afro-centrists argued for separatism and cultural superiority of Africa, it was still the case that their arguments were far closer to the multicultural consensus than were those of the creationists. The charge of racism also proved more effective than appeals to discrimination against religion, let alone a shared belief in Christianity. According to Binder:

‘When confronted by creationists, educators came out with their fists swinging. There was no initial accommodation, which was then blunted by a watering down process. Professional educational leaders were simply unwilling to accommodate their creationist critics. Despite the fact that the Christian conservative reformers, too, were making claims of bias and discrimination, in all four of the creationist cases studied in this book, the education establishment - by which I mean professional educators in positions of authority - lined up far more forcefully against their creationist challengers than their counterparts did against their Afrocentric challengers.’ (9)

In addition, Binder shows just how far the creationists have not just compromised their truth claims, which now exist in the watered down form of intelligent design, but also their claims to social recognition. ‘Creationism has changed significantly from the 1920s to the 1980s. But the degree of change that has occurred in its rhetoric over the past two decades is equally astonishing,’ she notes. ‘By removing the obviously religious from the challenging rhetoric, while also adopting the language of pluralism (even multiculturalism), creationists in Kansas [in 1999-2000] made it more difficult for school systems to fight back against the challenge with the might that they once had.’ (10)

The marginality of creationism in American society can be seen in the strategy they have adopted to promote intelligent design. This strategy is known as the ‘wedge’, and in March 1999 a Discovery Institute document detailing the strategy was leaked on to the internet. The wedge strategy is subject of a detailed study in Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross. The Discovery Institute explained its strategy as follows: ‘If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.’ (11)

Forrest and Gross’ study goes on to document exhaustively the network of individuals, institutions and funding behind the promotion of intelligent design. But while the backers of intelligent design have scored some PR successes, their weakness is more striking.

William Dembski, better known for conveying the impression that, unlike old-fashioned creationists, he is a mathematical scientist engaged in a disinterested study of nature, has written:

‘Within late twentieth-century North American Christianity, heresy has become an unpopular word. Can’t we all just get along and live together in peace? Unfortunately, no. ... There is an inviolable core to the Christian faith. ... This is the essence of heresy, and heresy remains a valid category for today. ... The Christian apologist is a contender for the faith, not merely a seeker after truth. Seeking after truth certainly seems a less combative and more humble way of cashing out apologetics. Unfortunately, it is also an inadequate way of cashing out apologetics.’ (12)

Forrest and Gross present such uncompromising Christianity as evidence that the threat of intelligent design is more alarming than it appears. But though they have established that the individuals associated with the intelligent design network are motivated by sincere Christian faith, they don’t engage with why it is that the creationists cannot publicly argue on that basis.

The obvious barrier presented by the Constitutional separation between church and state is not sufficient explanation. After all, it needs to be explained why it is that the constitutional rule has only made itself felt since the late 1960s, and why the legal setbacks of the creationists have become steadily worse.

The formulation of the intelligent design strategy as the thin end of a wedge itself recognises the creationists’ current weakness. They recognise that they cannot openly admit their full Christian programme. Such an attempt could not make headway in contemporary American culture. The wedgers may dream of a theocratic United States, but there is no chance of this coming about.

Dembski is not wrong when he claims that heresy has gone out of fashion amongst many Christians. Similarly, writing with Jay Wesley Richards, Dembski complains that ‘feel-good pop psychologies’ are corrupting Christianity with their implication that we will all be saved. Their error lies in placing blame for these developments, along with all else from abortion to rock and roll, on Darwinism. But their observation that the cutting edge of Christianity is a therapeutic ethos incompatible with damnation and hell is sound (13).

Indeed, intelligent design feels the need to wedge itself even in to seminaries, where one might have thought that creationism could show its face more openly. It is this wider weakness of traditional Christianity that is key to understanding the evasiveness of intelligent designers about their Christian faith.

The failure of intelligent design can be seen in recent disputes over school standards. After the Kansas Board of Education dropped evolution from state standards creationists were voted out and a newly elected Board reinstated it at the first opportunity in 2001. Subsequent creationist ventures in Kansas have failed. More recently, in Ohio the creationists have been forced to back off even from using the term ‘intelligent design’. The new demand is simply for the study of ‘objective origins’. That ‘objective origins’ is a euphemism for creationism is clear only from the detailed arguments surrounding it, and the preoccupation of its advocates with the supposed weakness of evolution. There is not even a residue of the idea of a designer left in the public debate.

Why creationism still matters

So, if creationism appears to be on the retreat, should we still be concerned? Yes, and for several reasons. Creationism is on the retreat in large part because of the dedicated vigilance of those like Forrest and Gross, as well as many science teachers and other concerned citizens who have been fighting it.

Forrest and Gross are right when they warn against complacency about books like Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution, that exposes supposed errors in school text books on evolution:

‘We encounter this blindness to political reality among our scientific peers every day. It is a grave mistake. To people who know little or nothing about the subject of evolution - that is, almost everybody - the Wells arguments can seem both convincing and exciting; and they have the momentum of religious fervour. Icons touches a raw nerve in the current war over the effectiveness of public education. “Here”, it says, “is what your children are being taught in the public schools as proofs of evolution”. “But”, it insists, “they are not proofs at all, and some of them are outright fakery. Others are simply wrong. Demand a stop to the callous indoctrination of your children in this materialistic mythology!”’ (14).

No doubt taking up intelligent design is a dispiriting business. The slightest attention from scientists, no matter how critical, is trumpeted as proof that intelligent design is being taken seriously and that it is making a contribution to science. The more vigorously intelligent design is refuted, the more this is claimed as evidence that there really is an important ‘debate’ that needs to be taught in classrooms. Detailed refutations are met with the response that the real argument to be met is contained within a forthcoming publication.

All this is bluster and noise. It is designed to convince the creationists’ base that Darwinism is on the point of collapse (although strangely it never quite falls), and to convey an impression to the wider public that there is some substance to their criticisms. There is nothing else to it. It must be tempting to spend one’s time more productively than sorting through this junk. Fortunately there are enough teachers and scientists prepared to take up the work.

But in addition to the need to keep creationism on the defensive, there is a more important reason for concern. Creationism may not prove to be the wedge that transforms the USA into a theocratic state, but it can still do tremendous harm. It is useful to understand that the most active promoters of creationism are Christian fundamentalists. But that should not blind us to the wider social conditions that are susceptible to sympathising with them. If the threat of fundamentalism is overestimated, the threat of labelling science as ‘a theory, not a fact’ may be underestimated.

In Cobb County, Georgia, the school board demanded that biology textbooks carry a disclaimer stating, in part: ‘This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.’

The criticism that evolution is ‘just a theory’ is an old creationist canard. But today it has acquired a new resonance. The criticism that evolution is just a theory is meant to key into the everyday association of ‘theory’ with speculation. But when science is dismissed today it is likely to be replaced by an eccentric personal prejudice. Whether that happens to be an old-style religion or a new-style diet fad is less important than today’s unprecedented elevation of conspiracy theory and rumour-mongering over expert knowledge.

Liberals who bemoan influence of Christian fundamentalism often point to the popularity of the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But at least as indicative of today’s climate is the runaway success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, whose plot is premised on a 2000-year cover up by the Catholic Church of Christ’s true message, designed to repress women and the free expression of sexuality. The force of the sentiments expressed in Brown’s novel is confirmed by the recent collapse of respect for the Church amidst an all-too-real child abuse scandal.

It is suspicion of all groups who claim authority rather than excessive respect for religion that drives hostility to science. As Thomas Frank perceptively points out in his book What’s the Matter with America?, ‘The real subject of the conservative anti-evolution literature is the “experts” on the other side of the battlefield and, more important, their expertise. “Should we ‘leave it to the experts?’’ asks the Kansas Tornado. Obviously we should not.’ (15)

Frank goes on to describe his experience at a creationist talk on the supposedly faked evidence for evolution:

‘To everyone’s relief the speaker finally yielded the stage to the Mutations, “three fine Christian ladies” ... to sing “Overwhelming Evidence”, a ditty set to the pulsing beat of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Comically assuming the voice of the arrogant science establishment, the women pretend-derided the audience, singing “the truth is what we say” and that, as professional scientists, “we don’t have to listen to you!” The audience had plainly been bored by the preceding recitation of science’s errors, but this light hearted persocuto-tainment hit exactly the right note’. (16)

The connection here to the culture surrounding alternative medicine, or those parts of the environmental movement whose distrust of big business and government becomes focused around the idea of a scientific establishment that is covering up the evidence, is clearer than a connection to old-fashioned Christianity.

Frank draws attention to the way that the Republicans have associated themselves with the politics of anti-elitism. But he misses the way that the theme of anti-intellectualism on the American right has drawn vigour from the critique of expertise developed since the 1960s by their opponents in the culture wars. It was radicals who pioneered the idea that children should educate the teachers, that doctors were no more expert than their patients, and that claims to expertise generally were little more than an excuse to assert power by marginalising the voice of the victim. In this picture scientists are not disinterested investigators of the truth so much as spin doctors for their paymasters in business or government. It is the coming together of these two strands from left and right that represents the real danger for science.

The fact that the creationism controversy has bubbled up again is a symptom of a more general problem. What legitimacy creationism does seem to enjoy today comes from pluralism, not Christian fundamentalism. There are plenty of well-directed responses from professional scientists against Christian creationism. Yet when the Thomas Sweeney, spokesman for the new Museum of the American Indian, told the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach that the scientific hypothesis that the Indians entered North America via the Bering Strait had been excluded in favour of Indian myth, and Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director, explained that ‘Anthropology as a science is not practiced here’, who dared challenge them?

Achenbach, goes on to note that: ‘This is not a typical government museum full of artifacts. It’s not a scientific, secular enterprise that speaks in an anonymous institutional voice. It has many voices, and they are native voices. It feels more like a cathedral than a museum.’ (17)

The Smithsonian, of which the Museum of the American Indian is a branch, is (or perhaps was) at the heart of the scientific establishment. But here it is welcoming a new cultural role subordinate to politically correct creation myths and effectively accepting the idea that science is particularist, oppressive, and even genocidal. From the professional associations that have opposed Christian creationism there was not a peep.

It is hard to imagine the National Academy of Sciences raising the question of why there is no anthropology department at the Museum. So it was left to the online magazine Slate‘s Tim Noah to describe the museum as ‘like visiting Salem’s Witch Museum and being told that Bridget Bishop, hanged in June 1692, had it coming.’ (18)

The influence of such a prestigious institution as the Smithsonian lending its authority to project such as the Museum of the American Indian should not be underestimated. As constitutional lawyer Timothy Sandefur noted: ‘If Achenbach’s description of the Museum [as a Cathedral] is accurate, it could serve as a pretext for other religious groups to establish “museums” like the Answers in Genesis Creationism Museum to receive official government support. That is a disturbing prospect, indeed.’ (19)

It is in the mainstream where there are hard arguments to be had. Now that intelligent design has been widely exposed as a front for the creationists, what guise will their arguments take next? The Wisconsin School Board recently approved a creationist-influenced lesson plan as an exercise in ‘critical thinking skills’. The idea that creationism develops critical thinking skills is now widely promoted on creationist websites.

One creationist, writing to the Columbus Dispatch during the 2004 controversy in Ohio, showed that he had mastered the jargon of contemporary dumbing down: ‘if Ohio’s economy is going to be the thinking economy of the future, it is imperative that critical thinking skills are a fundamental part of the overall skills that must be taught to our children.’ (20)

Opponents of creationism are likely to reply that to accept intelligent design means to be very uncritical indeed. But that is to miss the point. ‘Critical thinking skills’ are part of the emptying-out of education that makes room for creationism. ‘Critical thinking skills’ are now an accepted part of the curriculum, yet in practice the term is used to dignify rather ordinary exercises. Critical thinking may be the outcome of a good education. But because critical thinking requires the thinker to be become independent, it is not something that can be taught as part of a curriculum. It certainly cannot be reduced to a ‘skill’.

In fact, critical thinking is rarely achieved. The popularity of the term shows a desire to flatter ourselves rather than an upsurge in independent thought. The actual content of the thinking then becomes pretty much irrelevant. Science or creationism, whatever. We still get to congratulate ourselves on our skills. It is this sort of emptying-out of the curriculum with its disregard for subject knowledge that can make space for creationism, and the creationists have clearly spotted the opportunity.

Bad educational theory can cripple the fight against creationism. One of the strongest pro-science arguments against intelligent design is that the creationists want to short-circuit the process of scientific debate that is used to settle on the most accurate scientific theories. When intelligent design advocates argue for ‘teaching the controversy’ the correct answer is that even if intelligent design raised substantial questions (which it does not), school science classes are not the appropriate forum for settling scientific disputes.

Scientific theories have to prove their worth by surviving the scrutiny of professional scientists. It is only then that they can be taught as science. Intelligent design doesn’t deserve special treatment.

Yet the theory that science students should learn by rediscovering for themselves is far more mainstream than intelligent design. When it comes to genetic engineering or nuclear power the idea of ‘teaching the controversy’ is actively promoted. It is celebrated as making science relevant and empowering pupils not to bow down to the dogmas of the scientists. When it comes to these more fashionable causes students are told that their own judgments about risk or uncertainty are just as valid as those of the professionals. Perhaps liberals should begin with the beam in their own eye.

Christian creationism is a specific problem for some biology teachers, students and parents. Anybody who cares about elevating reason over dogma should also be concerned. But when creationism can come dressed up as ‘critical thinking’ it should be clear that it isn’t just Christian fundamentalists we need to worry about - it’s a whole dumbed down education system.

Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer, and author of a forthcoming book on energy.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Creationism Trumps Evolution, Nov. 22, 2004

(2) Gap-Toothed, Missing Link Troglodytes Delighted by Presidential Election Outcome, Ward Sutton, Village Voice, 19 November 2004

(3) Quoted in George W. Bush, The Last Relativist,  Timothy Noah, Slate, 31 October 2000

(4) For example, Niall Shanks, God, the Devil and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory, 2004; Matt Young and Taner Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, 2004; The Talk.Origins Archive contains useful refutations of the whole spectrum of creationist arguments

(5) Susan Jacoby, Caught Between Church and State, New York Times, 19 January 2005

(6) The arguments of this movement were largely derived from John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961

(7) Philip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1991. The writings of the intelligent design movement can be found at the website of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture

(8) Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, 2003

(9) Amy Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools, 2002, p5-6

(10) Binder, p136, 137

(11) The Wedge Strategy, archived by Jack Krebs

(12) Quoted in Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, 2004, p263

(13) Dembski and Richards quoted in Forrest and Gross, p261-2. On how feel good pop-psychologies have indeed become mainstream in Christian America see Alan Wolfe, One Nation After All, 1998

(14) Forrest and Gross, p99

(15) Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with America?, 2004 (Originally published in America as What’s the Matter with Kansas?) p209

(16) Frank, p214

(17) Joel Achenbach, Within These Walls, Science Yields to Stories, Washington Post, 19 September 2004

(18) Timothy Noah , The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse Campbell: The Smithsonian’s new travesty. 29 September 2004

(19) Timothy Sandefur, A Smithsonian Anti-Science Museum?, October 2, 2004

(20) Letter to the Editor of the Columbus Dispatch, Published February 15, 2004

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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