October 26, 2008

The Expelled review is in the works (short version: it sucks), but until that’s finished I direct you towards this fascinating essay about the Discovery Institute’s attack on materialism.

The Academic Freedom Petition

September 30, 2008

When I was studying biology in secondary school, I used to enjoy the extra elements my teacher brought into the classroom far more than anything in the textbook. None of it ever came up in an exam, but I wasn’t in it just to pass the Leaving Cert; I just wanted to know as much as I could about biology. Unfortunately, not even my very dedicated teacher had time to get into the scientific debates going on at the time, for several reason. The most obvious is that those debates require a level of education far higher than what any secondary school student will have, but there’s also the issue of those exams I mentioned – like it or not, he had to cover a certain amount of material in a limited amount of time.

I bring this up because of the latest move by Creationists (under the guise of Intelligent Design proponents, of course) to get their psuedoscience into American classrooms. Meet the Academic Freedom Petition. What is it? ‘Teach the Controversy’, basically, but dressed up in the garb of ‘freedom’ and (surprise, surprise) further from religious funamentalism than any previous push to get ID into schools. From the website:

Across America, the freedom of scientists, teachers, and students to question Darwin is coming under increasing attack by self-appointed defenders of the theory of evolution who are waging a malicious campaign to demonize and blacklist anyone who disagrees with them.

This seems pretty innocent at first glance – after all, everyone should have the right to question whatever they like. Of course, it’s not that simple, and I’ll explain why.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is very obviously a Creationist initiative. The Petition website contains links to (which itself seems to be a product of the Centre for Science and Culture, the science branch of the infamous Discovery Institute) and, of all things, the Expelled website. If you think advocating Stein’s ‘documentary’ should be enough to destroy any credibility this movement may have had, you’d be wrong. The people behind this latest ploy do have a point, but (as always) they’re twisting it out of shape to further their own agenda.

It is true that most high school teachers either can’t or won’t discuss Creationism in their classroom, for a variety of reasons. As Airtightnoodle has pointed out, the laws preventing Creationism from being taught are something of a double-edged sword, in that they also prevent teachers from refuting it. Even where this isn’t explicit school policy, a teacher can put his or her job in danger by discussing what everyone knows is a religious topic. In high school, Creationism is a no-go area. I wish this wasn’t the case, if only to silence claims that biology teachers are incapable of replying to Creationist myths (again, Airtightnoodle goes a long towards debunking that one, but at the moment those are the rules that teachers must play by.

The Petition goes further than that, however, by implying that everyone involved in education or science is being prevented from questioning evolution. This goes hand-in-hand with the implication that the arguments presented in the likes of Expelled are actually valid and worthy of being taught to students. This is obviously not the case (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever heard Stein trying to talk about science), and the Petition falls apart when you realise that they’re backing the same refuted arguments that ‘evolutionists’ have been fielding for decades.

If there actually was significant scientific debate over the validity of evolutionary theory, and if Creationists actually did have something meaningful to say on the subject, then I might be more sympathetic to projects like this. As it stands, ‘academic freedom’ is a dressed up phrase for ‘psuedoscience, delivered to students by teachers’. Letting biology teachers point out imaginary weaknesses in evolution would be like letting history teachers point out weaknesses in the idea that the Holocaust was a real event, or that the moon landings were genuine. Rather than strengthening academic freedom, it would make a farce of academic integrity, at a stroke lowering the standards for what should and should not be allowed into a classroom dramatically. Creationism is laughed out of third-level institutes because it’s wrong, and it’s banned from high schools because it’s blatantly religious.

It’s also interesting that evolution is the only theory being targeted here – if this is a genuine push for better education, why does it only focus on what has historically been the whipping boy of the Creationist movement?

As always, the Discovery Institute and its ilk are attempting to smuggle their myths in through the back door. Having utterly failed to make any headway in the scientific community (this is what they mean when they whine about being ‘censored’ or unfairly ignored), they’re bypassing the whole bothersome process and going straight for legislation – again. Which leads to the disturbing question of how many times they have to throw their crap at the wall before some of it sticks.