Hartwig on Cobb County
ID proponent Mark Hartwig has offered these thoughts on the trial over the Cobb County textbook warning labels about evolution. We consider his remarks in full:
It's hard to imagine a more innocuous statement than the one the Cobb County, Ga., school board recently ordered pasted into their biology textbooks: “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.”
Yet this disclaimer is the subject of a nationally publicized lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleges that the wording violates the separation of church and state.
So what's the problem? After all, evolution is indeed a theory. And it seems ironic at best that calling for open-minded, critical thinking would somehow be construed as religious advocacy.
Hartwig knows perfectly well, of course, that it is neither open-mindedness nor critical thinking that is being construed as religious advocacy. Nor is it the wording that is objectionable (well, not on constitutional grounds anyway). Rather, it is singling out evolution for special treatment that should be construed as religious arvocacy.
No one objects to encouraging students to think critically about things they are taught in school. Let's stop pretending that's the issue here. The objection is to lying to school kids about the status of one particular theory for the purpose of promoting religion.
Nonetheless, there are many - folks who insist that evolution is a fact, or well-nigh to it - who read dark intentions between the lines. To them, any talk about critical thinking is simply religiously motivated rubbish.
Hartwig is so fond of that little jab, he decided to repeat it!
As is perfectly clear to anyone who pays attention to these things, and as Hartwig will effectively admit later in the column, what we were seeing from the ID side in this is an elaborate dance. The label exists because some religious parents in Cobb County see evolution as a threat to their beliefs, and therefore want to protect their children from it. They would love to have evolution removed altogether, or barring that require some sort of creationism be taught alongside it. Sadly, the courts have ruled against such measures. So, in a desperate bid to do something, anything, to persuade their children that evolution is a lot of bunk they came up with these silly warning labels.
The labels exist solely to promote religion, and the motivations of everyone who supported these labels were religious. Hartwig knows that as well as anyone else. The only legal issue is whether they some plausible sounding “secular purpose” can be concocted in defense of the labels.
We are told that the popular distinction between “fact” and “theory” - that one is certain and the other a matter of guesswork - is naive and conflicts with how scientists view the terms. In place, critics offer “more scientific” definitions of “theory” - which exorcise the notion of uncertainty. A theory is not a hunch, an educated guess or even a hypothesis, they tell us, but a well-substantiated naturalistic explanation for related facts.
Hence, evolution's status as a theory indicates strength and durability, not uncertainty. And if you want critical thinking about evolution, why not include other theories, such as germ theory or the theory of relativity? Indeed, we are told, singling out evolution smacks of a religious agenda masquerading as science.
If only everything Hartwig wrote were so sensible! Not to worry, Hartwig will return to form in the next paragraph:
To many, this is entirely plausible. But it is seriously flawed.
If you look in the science journals, you'll see that the use of the word theory often diverges from this definition. There, you can read of such things as tentative theories, failed theories, controversial theories, promising theories, and unconfirmed new theories.
Yes, indeed, the word “theory” can be used for several different purposes. Occasionally, a sloppy writer will use the word “theory” when it would be more appropriate to say “conjecture” or “hypothesis.” So what? The fact remains that in referring to the “theory of evolution” scientists intend the technical meaning Hartwig described earlier. And in no case is there some simple dichotomy between fact and theory.
Thus, contrary to the definition championed by Darwin's defenders, scientific theories vary greatly in their trustworthiness. And a school district is fully warranted in singling out such theories, especially when they have been a source of widespread, ongoing controversy - like Darwinism.
The logic here seems to be that since occasionally a particular writer will use the word “theory” to suggest something that is unreliable or unproved, it is perfectly acceptable for the school district to identify evolution as such a theory.
The simple fact is that the small portion of evolutionary theory that is being taught to high school kids is, indeed, uncontroversial among scientists. That does not mean that you can't occasionally find someone with a PhD who prefers to fold his arms and shake his head. It means, rather, that the consensus in support of evolution among scientists is as strong as it is for any other major theory. Since, again, Hartwig knows this, we can safely conclude that he is simply lying when he says there is “widespread, ongoing controversy” about the issue.
Hartwig seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable for a scientifically ignorant school board to substitute their judgment over that of the scientific community in assessing evolution's trustworthiness. Lovely.
Not only is the theory controversial at the cultural level, but some pro-evolution scientists have nonetheless expressed skepticism about Darwin's theory: The processes that produce bacterial resistance to drugs or changes in birds' beaks, they say, simply can't generate the massive diversity that characterizes the living world - much less produce the bursts of wildly disparate animal forms found in the fossil record.
Such skepticism, long evident in scientific literature, has made its way into textbooks. Indeed, one major college text, Biology, reports that “many evolutionary biologists now question whether natural selection alone accounts for the evolutionary history observed in the fossil record.”
Actually, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any scientists who believe that natural selection alone accounts for evolutionary history. If Hartwig simply wants more emphasis placed on such things as genetic drift, self-organization or symbiosis then we have no disagreement at all.
But that's not Hartwig's intention. Rather, he wants students to come away with the impression that no one has a plausible naturalistic explanation for how complex adaptations have come into being. And that is not the case. In reality, scientists are often confronted with several possible explanations, and lack the data for deciding between them.
There is thus every good reason to state that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” even in some popular senses of those terms. Of course, that doesn't mean the label's backers are free of religious motivation. But motivations notwithstanding, there's a legitimate secular purpose in urging kids to approach the theory with an open but critical mind.
That's far healthier than defining critical thinking out of the classroom. I only hope the judge agrees.
As promised, here is Hartwig tacitly admitting that what is going on is a dance.