Sunday, February 29, 2004

More From Montana Today's New York Times had this lengthy article about a recent, and apparently successful, attempt to teach creationism in a small school district in Montana. The focal point is Darby, Montana, population 754. According to the article, the trouble started when a local minister delivered an anti-evolution talk at a local school. The talk was based on talking points put together by the Discovery Institute, the Washington-based right-wing think tank lurking behind most of the recent attempts to inject creationism into the schools. As the article notes:

Partly because of the contentious dynamics of an election year, partly because of the coast-to-coast influence of the Discovery Institute, local disputes on the teaching of evolution are simmering in states from Alabama to Ohio to California. But with the help of the Internet, defenders like the group in Ravalli County are springing up all over the nation.

Defenders of evolution enlisted the aid of Jay Evans, a research immunologist in the area.

Refuting Mr. Brickley's claims, Dr. Evans said, "took me one afternoon." As soon as he had the information, it went to the rest of the citizens' committee, and from there to the wider community.

Mr. Brickley was the minister who started all the trouble. This quote is the crux of the entire matter. For professionals working in various areas of biology, the claims made by the Discovery Institute are easily seen to be false. But the lay audiences who form the target of Discovery's media blitz are not likely to know the fine points of modern biology. Instead they only know that they've never really liked the idea of having evolved from an ape-like ancestor, and here are some people with PhD's telling them they didn't.

Unfortunatly, as so often happens, ignorance carried the day:

Still, after three long evenings of often anguished public comment in late January and early February, a preliminary vote of the school board was 3-2 to add a revision to school policy suggested by Mr. Brickley.

The revision specifies that teachers "assess evidence for and against" the theory of evolution. Gina Schallenberger, the board's chairwoman, said the change was needed because evolution is "not two plus two equals four," that reputable scientists themselves disagree over whether the theory is correct.

Of course, the line "assess evidence for and against" the thoery of evolution is straight out of the Discovery Institute's playbook. The implication is that the pro-science side of the debate is trying to censor evidence supporting religion. In reality, there simply is no evidence against the evolutionary view of the world.

The article devotes considerable space to the tension this dispute has caused in the town, and I recommend following the link to the rest of the article. I do feel compelled to insert one more quote, however:

By Jan. 21, the Citizens for Science had arranged for its own professionally produced talk in the gym, featuring Dr. Alan Gishlick, a paleontologist at the National Center for Science Education. Mr. Lebowitz, the high school senior, said he was relieved when nearly as many people showed up as for Mr. Brickley's talk.

Since I attended nursery school with Dr. Gishlick, roughly 25 years ago, I can certainly vouch for his honor and integrity.


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