Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Sartwell on Dover

Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College, has this interesting, but puzzling, op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times. Sartwell writes:


I DON'T BELIEVE that the universe was intelligently designed. I don't think that “intelligent design” is a scientific theory: It appeals to the supernatural and cannot be empirically tested. I think its proponents have religious motivations for trying to insert it into the curriculum.

But I also believe it should be taught in high school biology classes.


Sartwell is building up to the idea that ID should be taught as an historical curiosity, like alchemy or astrology. It should be taught as part of a broader project to present Darwin in his proper historical context.

I think that's a fine idea, and I know of nobody on my side of this who disagrees with. But that's not what the fight is about. The question is whether ID should be presented as a respectable scientific theory. The reason it should not be presented that away is that all of its major scientific assertions are demonstrably false.

Sartwell goes on to say:


To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs — that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That's how the people in this community feel.


Well said. This is the one point that gives me pause in thinking about this issue. While I find the beliefs of Christian evangelicals to be completely irrational, the fact remains that they are deeply held. So, yes, I can imagine how it feels to be forced to pay for an education that you belive puts your child's very soul in jeopardy.

However, the reason I am not more sympathetic to this view is that I don't belive the sympathy is reciprocated. Sartwell is being very high-minded and ecumenical here, but the religious zealots on the other side do not share his even-handedness. Consider the issue of having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Do you think for one second that the School Board majority that voted in favor of ID ever worries about telling atheist children that belief in God and loyalty to their country go hand in hand? Of course they don't. Quite the opposite.

Many libertarians argue that the whole idea of public education is doomed to failure because of this problem. Everything is potentially offensive to someone, after all. They argue that all education should be private, so that people pay for the education they want. But surely it's not as bad as all that. Society has a stake in ensuring that all of its citizens have a basic education in the major disciplines, especially science. And surely at some point we're allowed to say, “Believe what you want in private, but your views will not be accorded respect in the schools.” No one worries about the sensibilities of the bigoted parents when Martin Luther King is presented sympathetically in social studies class.

The bottom line is that telling high school students that ID has any scientific legitmacy is tantamount to lying to them. If you are going to teach biology then teach the real thing. You teach the basics of evolution, what it is and why scientists have so much confidence in it, without fanfare, and then you move on to the next topic.

Anyway, it's certainly a difficult question and Sartwell is right to bring it up.

Sartwell continues:


The clash between evolution and intelligent design is not a clash between two rival scientific theories. It is the latest moment in the most profound intellectual dilemma of the West: the disagreement between reason and faith, Athens and Jerusalem, science and Scripture.


Again, well said. But if ID is not a scientific theory, then why should it be presented in science classes?


Neither reason nor faith can establish itself as the exclusively desirable strategy for generating beliefs. If the question is who has the science, the answer is obvious: Charles Darwin. In fact, as far as the use of reason goes, intelligent design has been as completely destroyed as any view ever has been: The great British philosopher David Hume achieved its utter devastation in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” in the 18th century. Its current proponents have done nothing substantial to advance the argument.

But Hume was the first to admit that all of his arguments left faith untouched.


That first sentence is far too ecumenical for my taste (reason may not be the exclusively desirable strategy for generating beliefs, but it's a whole lot more reliable than faith). That last sentence is weird as well. Of course no logical argument can touch faith. Being impervious to logic is what faith is all about. But the part in between is excellent!

Sartwell continues:


Science classes typically make use of history and social context in order to, among other things, display the importance of science to human development and to make students understand science as a compelling human concern. For example, there is no reason, in an astronomy course, not to talk about the fact that Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church. If you don't put Galileo's theories in the context of the philosophical, religious and scientific beliefs of his era, and discuss Galileo's effects on the generations that followed, you cannot understand his achievement at all.

There is every reason, in giving a basic characterization of scientific method, to contrast it to medieval alchemy or astrology and so on. Whatever science may be, it is also a series of developments in human history; otherwise it cannot be understood and need not be.

The theory of evolution is a scientific development, but it is also a profound transformation of the way we understand ourselves. You cannot grasp Darwin's achievement without understanding what people believed before Darwin and how they have responded to his theories The alternative views are intrinsic to the meaning of the science, and the science is intrinsic to the question of what sorts of things we human beings are.


Great stuff! I agree with every word of it. But there's one more paragraph to come, and that's where things get confusing:


Taking 30 seconds to read an innocuous statement indicating that we are not unanimous is inadequate to present the genuine and profound debate about these matters. But it's a start. And if my kids come home asking the questions such a statement raises, I will regard that as a victory for their education in the sciences.


Huh? How does that follow from anything he said previously?

Didn't he just get through saying that ID should be presented as an historical curiosity, like alchemy and astrology? Didn't he just explain, in terms as strong as what I usually say at this blog, that ID is not science and has no merit?

Why does he now support a statement that contradicts all of that? The Dover School Board isn't telling kids that ID is an outdated historical curiosity. They are saying that it's a live scientific option.

And it is not the children of enlightened, well-educated parents like Sartwell who need to be instructed in the value of respecting disagreements and learning about all sides of an issue. It is the children of fundamentalist parents, the ones who tell their kids that dissent from their views means an eternity in Hell who need a lesson in open-mindedness. Many of these kids get one shot at hearing the real thing in science. To water it down at the request of society's most scientifically ignorant people would be a shame, to say the least.

25 Comments:

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most straightforward to response to this confused Professor is that the depth to which a conviction is at the very bottom of the list of considerations. For starters, whether a belief is "deeply held" or not is Constitutionally irrelevant. The worst racists hold their beliefs very deeply. We don't give their beliefs extra consideration for that reason.

Secondly, everything is deeply held to fundamentalists. Perhaps Dover should build a monument to Mohammed Atta, man whose beliefs about the United States and Christianity appear to have been held to a depth that the people in Dover are likely unable to match.

The fact remains that the depth of the FEAR that certain citizens have relating to the impact of science on their children's well-being is THE PROBLEM --- it is not a characteristic of their religion which we should foster by coddling.

The FEAR of these citizens is the product of years of relentless preaching of lies about science by charlatans and hustlers like the bigots who fund the Discovery Institute.

This professor needs to understand this. Will the citizens of Dover have their feelings hurt if they lose the case?

Probably.

Then they will have a choice, similar to the same choice presented to racist Southerners: accept the fact that some of what you have been taught about the world is FALSE and learn to love your neighbor, even if he is an atheist or a scientist or a Jew or a Muslim; or continue to shriek and point fingers and recite the bigoted ignorant scripts handed to you by Christian Reconstructionist think tanks.

It's that simple.

 
At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason's quotation of Sartwell:

To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs — that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That's how the people in this community feel.

I think Sartwell puts it too blandly. I commend to your attention my piece last year on Panda's Thumb: http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000224.html

There I said

After thinking about it at length and talking with people in the community and elsewhere, what I am realizing is that this is not something that has anything to do with reason and science; it is about fear.

and

I am beginning to understand that the core motivation driving the supporters of such proposals is fear. Not fear for themselves — they are too strong in their faith to be corrupted by evolutionary science. It is fear for their children and in particular, fear for their children’s souls. There is a genuine belief that accepting an evolutionary view of biological phenomena is a giant step on the road to atheism, and in learning evolutionary theory their children are in peril of losing salvation. Given the beliefs they hold, this is not a silly fear. From their perspective, atheism is a deadly threat, and evolution is a door through which that threat can enter to corrupt one’s child.

RBH

 
At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RBH

"Given the beliefs they hold, this is not a silly fear. From their perspective, atheism is a deadly threat, and evolution is a door through which that threat can enter to corrupt one’s child."

Whether or not their fear is "silly" is hard to determine.

But it is worth mentioning, I think, that it is extremely hypocritical to select evolution as the door which must be targetted.

The fact is that EVERY observation anyone makes about the world which doesn't include the phrase "praise Jesus" after it is a threat to the fundamentalist world.

If the fundamentalists were honest about that, it would be much easier to deal with them or at least the public would know how seriously to evaluate their grievances.

And to be fair -- some fundamentalists ARE that honest and even the Discovery Institute morons have been that honest on occasion, although maybe not in so little words (they refer to the "tyranny of materialism" and crap like that).

 
At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Jeff Chamberlain said...

I think you put a finger on an important point but then let it go. You say (by implication) that you are sympathetic to the creationists' objection to having their children taught doctrines which contradict their most cherished beliefs. This is the important point. They may be wrong, or irrational, but this is what they believe, and so of course they will object.

But then you say that you can't be "more" sympathetic because the sympathy is not reciprocated. How, exactly, would you expect a creationist to reciprocate? And just what is it that you'd expect them to be sympathetic to?

You've recognized that to them, teaching evolution in the schools jeopardizes their children's souls. You surely cannot expect them to compromise on that. It's not OK to these parents to put their children's immortal souls at risk -- and given their premises how could it be otherwise? And if it's immortal souls that are in jeopardy, why (or how) do you expect them to be sympathetic to a view which they believe does just this? What sort of "even-handedness" can you realistically demand, given the starting point and the perceived stakes?

 
At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

The question of how much sympathy to extend to the fundamentalists is an interesting one, but I don't think it's quite the point. Certainly it's not hard to sympathize with their fears for their children, but there's no way you can make any concessions on that basis when it comes to science curricula.

The only practical upshot of the sympathy you feel, then, would be that you'd try to be polite about telling them you're only going to teach real biology in biology classes. They're free to home school their kids if they don't like what the public schools have to offer.

(And yes, I do think their tax dollars should still go to support public education if they pull their kids out. Everyone benefits from living in an educated society, so everyone needs to share the costs.)

 
At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

Oh, hell, who am I kidding? The people I was so high-mindedly sympathizing with a minute ago are the same people who think wives are the property of their husbands, Janet Jackson's nipple is a greater threat to America than George Bush's lies, and homosexuals are destroying Western civilization. The only reason to even pretend to take them seriously is that there are so freaking many of them. If they want to live their whole lives based on fear and bigotry, that's their problem. They can't expect the rest of the world to rearrange itself to conform to their fantasies.

 
At 7:30 PM, Blogger Ahab said...

Sorry, but you don't base public policy or public education on the fears that some people may have that their children's souls are going to end up in hell.

That's the same kind of reasoning that leads to things like the Spanish Inquisition. After all, what is a little physical pain compared to the eternal torments of hell?

 
At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ahab wrote

Sorry, but you don't base public policy or public education on the fears that some people may have that their children's souls are going to end up in hell.

If that's aimed at me, I don't disagree at all. But in my years in this debate (starting with essays published in 1987-1991, before blogs existed and that thin crinkly stuff called "paper" was the preferred medium), I've struggled to understand the opposition. I was for most of that time blinded by my faith that humans could be persuaded by reasoned arguments and evidence. Now, finally, I'm past that, and understand that it is an unreasoning fear that drives (most of) the opposition to evolutionary theory.

That in turn I hope will lead to more effective strategies and tactics for blunting their efforts to subvert and pervert education in the U.S.

RBH

 
At 8:42 PM, Blogger orrg1 said...

Some of these folks opposing evolution may be sincere, but if they truly are, they should trade in their SUVs in for Amish horse and buggies, and dispense with medicine, electricity, and all of the other necessities and comforts provided through scientific discoveries. I think they will rapidly discover that they have more immediate worries than their childrens' souls, as crass as this may sound.

 
At 9:08 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

Why don't you take the scientific fact of evolution and detach it from the belief that random mutation and natural selection account for it in toto.

There is a extraordinarily strong case that evolution is real.

The speculation that random chance mutations and natural selection explains evolutionary history all by themselves is in real trouble. Lots of very smart people don't buy it. Sure, it's the reigning dogma of most intellectuals and scientists, because it disposes of the problem of God, but just because a lot of people subscribe to a dogma without evidence doesn't make it true.

I see a universe where evolution occurs creating designs via a creative immanent intelligence that is part of the fabric and essence of the universe.

 
At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Bobolink said...

Sartwell's key graph:
The theory of evolution is a scientific development, but it is also a profound transformation of the way we understand ourselves. You cannot grasp Darwin's achievement without understanding what people believed before Darwin and how they have responded to his theories The alternative views are intrinsic to the meaning of the science, and the science is intrinsic to the question of what sorts of things we human beings are.

Here's the 30 second statement by Dover to be read before the three chapters taught on evolution.
http://www.dover.k12.pa.us/doversd/lib/doversd/_shared/Letter%20to%20Parents%20about%20Biology%20Curriculum--011005.pdf

All Sartwell is saying is that you can't understand the brilliance of Darwin if you don't mention contemporary cultural perspective. Mention the Catholic Church's persecution of Galileo to understand the importance of Galileo. Talk about creationism to understand the importance of Darwin. Just 30 seconds will do.

Sartwell isn't supporting Galileo's persecution or intelligent design.

 
At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bobolink

I think we all agree (well, except for m.c.) that if Dover wants to say "The simple-minded alternative to the theory of evolution is similar to the alternative explanations for other phenomenon we discussed: it looks good, so our God or Gods must have created it. This is science class so we're not going to discuss the merits of that alternative, except to say that theories which invoke unknowable deities are not scientific."

Now, who are the people that will whine about that ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ACCURATE AND INDISPUTABLE STATEMENT OF FACT?

The same fundies who will raise hell if the word "gay" appears in sex ed class without the word "abnormal" in the same sentence.

Screw these primitives that are making a joke out of our country. Like white supremacists, they NEED to be FORCED into irrelevance by the rule of law, for the same reasons. If we coddle them and let them grow in power, they will fxck everything up.

 
At 11:22 PM, Blogger M.C. said...

I think this is the problem.

There is the fact of evolution and the theory of why evolution occurred.

The fact of evolution is good science. The evidence is compelling.

The theory of evolution (the "modern synthesis") is that random mutation of DNA + natural selection is the driver of evolution.

That theory may be science but if so it is bad science. In its current form it is usually stated as a tautology (survival of the fittest. Why are they the fittest? They survived!)

I'd recommend that we take the strong proposition (that evolution is real) and decouple it from the weak one (natural selection of random mutations explains it all).

 
At 1:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: "Screw these primitives that are making a joke out of our country. Like white supremacists, they NEED to be FORCED into irrelevance by the rule of law, for the same reasons. If we coddle them and let them grow in power, they will fxck everything up."

Well, Anon, I think we're stuck because probably depending on how you ask the question, a huge majority of Americans and scientists probably believe in something like intelligent design---in its broadest sense. Can you force most of America into irrelevance?

Look, even our man Ken Miller is a good Catholic, so essentially he believes there's a loving God somewhere that somehow designed you and me. Ken isn't a simpleton. He's fighting the good fight for us.

Somehow we have to acknowledge this belief system. A thirty second Sartwell & Miller-style Catholicism worded discussion of philosophy at the beginning of each evolutionary chapter in Biology just might cut off the testicles of the Discovery Institute before they can confuse the public even more.

(Or did Neville Chamberlain already try this strategy with giving away Czechoslovakia in 1936?)

 
At 1:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry for confusion...it was I, Bobolink, that left the above post. My browser appears to be having difficulties with this website---Bob

 
At 2:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

m.c.: That theory may be science but if so it is bad science. In its current form it is usually stated as a tautology (survival of the fittest. Why are they the fittest? They survived!)

m.c., you may want to avoid using arguments that have been debunked.

 
At 6:41 AM, Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

When debating a political scientist, it might be proper to try to give him an analogie from his own field. Perhaps something in the order that because Islamic laws prohibit demanding interest rates on loans, it should not be allowed to talk about the effect of interest rates on economy. Or that its a valid assumption that there is no interest rates on loans in the US.

 
At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

Jason posted:

Sartwell goes on to say:


To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs — that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That's how the people in this community feel.


Except that the children are not being taught a doctrine, they are being taught a scientific theory and the evidence and inferences on which it is based. That theory has nothing to say about the existence of a God nor the moral prescriptions of Christian dogma. Furthermore, there is nothing in Christian doctrine to suggest that a child's immortal soul could be imperilled by simply learning about other beliefs and theories.

If fundamentalist parents wish to insulate their children from any conflicting views they can teach them at home, but public schools have a duty to provide the best possible education for their students regardless of whether some parents might find it offensive.

Taking 30 seconds to read an innocuous statement indicating that we are not unanimous is inadequate to present the genuine and profound debate about these matters. But it's a start. And if my kids come home asking the questions such a statement raises, I will regard that as a victory for their education in the sciences.


Except that the statement is not being read out before physics or chemistry classes, just biology classes where evolution is being taught. It is not a general warning that various aspects of all theories in science are subject to debate and possible modification, it is aimed specifically at the biological theory of evolution and that makes it far from innocuous.

Earlier, it was suggested that we should consider and be sympathetic towards the feelings of fundamentalist parents whose "cherished beliefs" were being contradicted in science classes. But what of the feelings of those parents who believe their children's education is being harmed by being denied access to information about a major scientific theory and who resent the idea that they should be proselytised by one particular faith while at school?

I have to say I tend to agree with Richard Dawkins that religious belief is being treated with an exaggerated and undeserved respect which is certainly not extended to atheist or agnostic views.

 
At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Bobolink said...

Except that the children are not being taught a doctrine, they are being taught a scientific theory and the evidence and inferences on which it is based. That theory has nothing to say about the existence of a God nor the moral prescriptions of Christian dogma.

Ian:
Unfortunately many Americans feel otherwise. They feel that evolution says volumes about the lack of God and the lack of Judeo Christian ethics.

Possibly a philosophical discussion arising out of Dr. Sartwell's 30 second statement concept will trigger a good discussion from folks like you and Ken Miller who believe evolution can coexist nicely with mainstream religion. We're not going to convince the DI maniacs, but maybe we can win back that majority of Americans who seem to question the truth of evolution.

 
At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Kevin said...

That's the same kind of reasoning that leads to things like the Spanish Inquisition

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!!

Ha HA you will now be tortured with funding grants from the Discovery Institute!!

 
At 1:22 PM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

Many folks said it, but let's reiterate:

If you don't like what they teach your children at public school, then home-school them or send them to a christian school. So simple and so easy.

Why doesn't this happen with these people? Because the whole ID thing is an attempt to bring christian dogma into public schools again, plain and simple. It really has nothing to do with their childrens souls, it has to do with OUR children's souls. Screw them and their absurdities.

 
At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think we're stuck because probably depending on how you ask the question, a huge majority of Americans and scientists probably believe in something like intelligent design---in its broadest sense. Can you force most of America into irrelevance?"

The key phrase is "depending on how you ask the question."

I'm not advocating the stamping out of religious belief. Not at all. Believe whatever the hell you want.

It's the use of propaganda to change the meaning of words like "science" so that science includes the recognition of certain deities that must be stopped.

Simple people who sit in their boats and catch fish and praise God for making this and making that ... I have no problem. Nor do I have an issue with Ken Miller and theists who enjoy a bit of deity worship in addition to good science.

It's the clueless fundies who can't tell the difference between scientific facts and their religious beliefs.

There aren't that many of those people in the US, although the Discovery Institute is doing its best to generate as many as possible.

It's these fundies that need to be shamed into oblivion. Ideally, we'd hear from them only when one of their more rabid followers blows something up or a slick preacher says something horrendous over the airwaves.

And when that happens the overwhelming response from the media and the population should be: what a fxcking idiot.

That's the way it is in other civilized parts of the world. There is no reason it shouldn't be that way in the US. The only thing standing in the way is ignorance and a lazy corrupt media that knows that the dumber people are, the easier it is to sell them sugary drinks.

 
At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Mark Henry said...

I just wanted to comment on Jason's final paragraph:

"And it is not the children of enlightened, well-educated parents like Sartwell who need to be instructed in the value of respecting disagreements and learning about all sides of an issue. It is the children of fundamentalist parents, the ones who tell their kids that dissent from their views means an eternity in Hell who need a lesson in open-mindedness. Many of these kids get one shot at hearing the real thing in science. To water it down at the request of society's most scientifically ignorant people would be a shame, to say the least."

I think his judgement of parents and their children is overly broad and unrealistic. I am a volunteer youth worker and could make exactly the opposite case from my own experience of several years. Also, many of the comments I've read here are anything but respectful or tolerant of those who hold a non-evolution view.

I guess you'd call me a fundamentalist parent. I take the education of my children very seriously. I've made the choice to send them to a private school but not because I'm afraid of Evolution. When you look at the state of public education in this country it is a pathetic picture. The evolution/creation debate, in my opinion, pales in comparison to the myriad of other problems our schools have, where kids can barely even read. You think they really care about evolution, one way or another?

I dare say that my kids know more about evolution than the average public school student. It is earnestly taught in their science classes; and not the worn-out ideas of decades ago. They are up on cutting-edge research and data. Science has always been one of my passions, from grade school right up to now. I read an awful lot and pass along to my children books, journals and other articles that help them understand the subject in a better way. I have NEVER told my children that dissenting from my views will result in their eternal damnation. I know a lot of other "Fundy" parents and they don't talk to their children that way either. So, I don't know where Jason is getting his info, but it doesn't describe me and my family. I also don't think I fall into the category of "society's most scientifically ignorant people."

You can whine, scream and ridicule all you want about those "fxcking creationists", but that's a poor way of trying to defend your position.

Mark

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

Mark Henry said...

I just wanted to comment on Jason's final paragraph:

"And it is not the children of enlightened, well-educated parents like Sartwell who need to be instructed in the value of respecting disagreements and learning about all sides of an issue. It is the children of fundamentalist parents, the ones who tell their kids that dissent from their views means an eternity in Hell who need a lesson in open-mindedness. Many of these kids get one shot at hearing the real thing in science. To water it down at the request of society's most scientifically ignorant people would be a shame, to say the least."

I think his judgement of parents and their children is overly broad and unrealistic. I am a volunteer youth worker and could make exactly the opposite case from my own experience of several years. Also, many of the comments I've read here are anything but respectful or tolerant of those who hold a non-evolution view.


Rightly or wrongly, hard words have been used by both sides but you are right to remind us of the value of respect and tolerance.

The fact remains, however, that it is fundamentalist Christians who object strongly to the theory of evolution being taught in science classes, even to the point of withdrawing their children from the schools.

It was fundamentalist Christians who previously tried to insert their religious beliefs into the curriculum under the guise of "creation science". When the courts declared that to be unconstitutional, the response was to strip out all references to God and rebrand creation science as Intelligent Design. The religious purpose, however, is unchanged.

The crucial difference is that it is not atheists or agnostics who have gone into the churches of believers and demanded that they "preach the controversy" or teach congregations about the central tenets of other faiths. They have not asked for disclaimers to be pasted in the front of Bibles saying this is just one of a number of holy texts.

From what you have written you do not sound like the sort of fundamentalist I have alluded to above, but I put it to you that court cases such as the one in Harrisburg would not be happening if such views did not exist.

 
At 3:33 AM, Blogger zhengbin said...

Kauf und Verkauf von Gold in den thomas sabo Goldmarkt hat viel an Popularität gewonnen,

 

Post a Comment

<< Home