May 22 2015

Creationist Talking Points

Yesterday I wrote about our struggle to promote and defend the teaching of evolution, and good science in general, in the public school science classroom.  My overall point was that, while we are winning on the legal battleground, we are not making much headway in the broader cultural context, and perhaps we need to step back and think about our strategy.

To my delight, Michael Egnor made an appearance in the comments, and it seemed he truly wanted to engage (at least for a while). Dr. Egnor, if you recall, is a neurosurgeon who rejects what he calls “Darwinism.” He blogs on his own blog and for the Discovery Institute, and we have occasionally crossed swords on our respective blogs.

I was also pleased that the conversation remained polite and civil, allowing us to drill down to the core issues. I want to summarize our exchange here and expand on my responses in the comments.

Dr. Egnor summarized his opinion of evolution as:

I use Darwinism because I don’t disagree with evolution, understood as a natural process by which populations change with time. I see the process as teleological–secondary causation in theological jargon.

So I make it a point to clarify just what it is that I disagree with–I disagree that evolution is adequately explained by random heritable variation and natural selection. RHV+NS is most succinctly written as “Darwinism”.

He is upset that this view is not getting a fair hearing in the scientific community, and he feels scientists are trying to censor debate using the courts. He writes:

As for curriculum in public schools, I support the normal channels for curricular development. Teachers, school boards, state education officials etc properly make curricular decisions, with input from parents, scientists, scholars of various sorts, etc. But federal courtrooms should not be a part of curricular development. If the folks in Augusta Georgia want to teach the kids about ID, and the folks in Cambridge Mass don’t, both are fine.

He further argues:

I don’t believe that belief in God can be taught as fact in school from a Constitutional standpoint, because that would be an establishment of religion. Same goes for teaching disbelief in God. So teaching creationism–meaning the view that the God of the Bible created heaven and earth–in public schools is unconstitutional. Also, teaching that atheism is true is unconstitutional for the same reason.

However, teaching students various critiques of evolutionary theory, including the critique that Darwinian evolutionary theory neglects the evidence for design or teleology in biology–is perfectly constitutional, and is good science education. It is an obvious inference, and even if you believe that it is not scientifically true, it is good education for students to be acquainted with it and to understand the scientific arguments advanced for and against it.

On the bright side, we have some common ground here. We both agree that the teaching of religion in the public schools is unconstitutional. I also largely agree with his summary of how school curricula should be determined (the devil, of course, is in the details of implementation, but the broad brushstrokes are fine). I specifically agree that the courtroom is not the venue for hammering out school curricula.

I further agree with the premise that science should be open, that it depends greatly on open debate, and that ideas should not be censored. I have specifically in the past expressed my support for minority opinions in science, even ones with which I disagree. They serve a vital purpose of shaking things up, keeping the process honest, and forcing scientists to continuously challenge their ideas and be forced to defend them. It’s all good.

I have also specifically endorsed teaching science by (ironically) “teaching the controversy.” That is essentially what skeptical outreach is. We teach science and critical thinking by confronting pseudoscience head on. I think it is a great way to learn science – how do we actually know what we know, and how do we deal with competing ideas? How has our thinking changed over historical time? Why are the ideas that have been rejected by science probably wrong?

So where is the disconnect? As is often the case, the devil is in the details.

First, and most obviously, we disagree about the science of evolution. That actually was not the focus of the discussion. It was taken as a given that we disagree. For the record, I think that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion evolution occurred, that natural selection acting upon random mutations is a major (not the only) driving force in evolution, and that there is no evidence for nor plausible mechanism for teleology or direction in evolution. This is the scientific consensus. I do not expect my personal opinions to be taught in the public science classroom, but I do expect an accurate reflection of the current scientific consensus.

I will also point out that this battle was fought within the scientific community in the 19th century. Lamarck, for example, started out believing in direction in evolution, but after a career of looking at the fossil evidence he changed his mind, and felt that evolution was directionless and involved simply adapting to the local environment. Teleology had its hearing in the arena of science, and it lost. Creationists (I’m using that term in the broadest sense, for convenience) want to refight that battle over and over again, endlessly. That’s fine; knock yourself out. But don’t expect time in the classroom.

The notion that there is evidence for design has also been examined by scientists, and utterly refuted. There was no censorship. The idea, the arguments, and the evidence were given the hearing they deserve, and found to be utterly wanting. The “design inference” is getting no traction among scientists because their arguments are terrible. Of course, proponents won’t see it that way.

Let’s get to the core issue – the use of courts to determine what does and does not get taught in the public school science classroom. Dr. Egnor’s main argument is that scientists are using the courts to silence the teaching of criticisms of evolution. He cites academic freedom, teaching the controversy, the debate is never over, and science is never settled – all the current standard arguments that are being used to force creationist ideas into the classroom.

He is demonstrably wrong, however. Let me quickly review the history here to show that scientists have not used the courts to determine the teaching of science.

The confrontation between the teaching of evolution vs creationism began with a ban on the teaching of evolution (remember the Scopes “Monkey” trial?). That was censorship – an outright ban on teaching an accepted scientific theory. Laws banning evolution were deemed unconstitutional in 1968 in Epperson vs Arkansas.

Creationists then moved on to their “creation science” strategy, requiring “equal time” for the teaching of “creation science” along side “evolution science.” This strategy was struck down in 1982, in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Other cases supported this ruling, specifically that schools cannot require the teaching of creation science or prohibit the teaching of evolution, and that this does not violate a teacher’s free speech or free exercise of religion.

In 1997 the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring a disclaimer be read aloud to student prior to teaching evolution. The court ruled that by singling out evolution they were giving special treatment to creation, which is a religious belief. Further, such a disclaimer was not necessary to promote critical thinking, which is already a part of science education.

In 2000, in Rodney LeVake v Independent School District 656, et al., the court ruled that a teacher could be prohibited from teaching criticisms of evolution in the context that they went against the established curriculum. It was established that a teacher does not have the right to personally override the official curriculum.

And then finally in 2005, the Kitzmiller vs Dover case regarding Intelligent design. The NCSE give a good summary of the findings:

In his 139-page ruling, Judge Jones wrote it was “abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause”. Furthermore, Judge Jones ruled that “ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents”. In reference to whether Intelligent Design is science Judge Jones wrote ID “is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community”.

Judge Jones, I will note, is a conservative Bush-appointed judge.

Dr. Egnor characterizes this legal history as scientists censoring criticisms of evolutionary theory. This conclusion is demonstrably false. In each case, attempts to teach creationism or hamper the teaching of evolution were clearly demonstrated to be unconstitutional on the grounds that they violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment. Jones’ ruling made that very clear – ID is not science, the connection between ID and creationist religion is absolutely clear, and that is the reason it is not proper for the public school science classroom.

There is no way you can legitimately get from this history that scientists are using the courtroom to censor debate. That exact claim, however, is the current talking point of the creationist political movement (which Dr. Egnor reflects well).


To be clear, it is creationists who have consistently over the last century tried to censor a scientific idea because it conflicts with their faith. They have lost this fight in the arena of science, soundly, over and over again. This is not a scientific controversy.

Evolution deniers, like other deniers, will try to criticize this conclusion by criticizing the notion of “settled science.” Their appeals to openness and critical thinking sound superficially appealing, but they are applying them in an incorrect and biased fashion. Nothing in science is ever 100%, but the evidence can reach a point where there is such a solid consensus about a particular conclusion in science that we can treat it as an established fact. DNA is the primary molecule of heritable information. That fact is “settled science” and we don’t have to waste time and resources answering that question over and over again. We don’t have to confuse students by teaching any false controversies over whether or not DNA is really the mechanism of inherited traits.

There is a long list of scientific theories that are established facts, and it is not censorship to teach them as facts.

What the scientific community opposes is the teaching of religious ideas in the science classroom. You can disagree with the court rulings, but the fact is that thorough and elaborate cases were put on by both sides in each of the cases cited above. The creationists and ID proponents have literally had their day in court. The outcome, in every case, was not even close. It was clearly established that what creationists are doing is not promoting critical thinking or teaching scientific controversies, but rather teaching their own religious beliefs in place of science.

They can try to dress it up any way they want – but in a controlled setting where there are rules of logic and evidence, and there is adequate time to thoroughly review the evidence and arguments, it has been absolutely clear that this has all been one long attempt to ban a scientific theory that conflicts with a religious belief.

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