Thursday, January 27, 2005

Budziszewski, Part II

The essay I discussed in the previous post contained a link to other columns Budziszweski has written. This one caught my eye.

The essay is written as a fictional exchange between a student and a professor. The opening sets the stage nicely:


Are you busy?

I'm about to be — with you. Do you want to talk about something?

Yes, about Christianity. You're the only Christian professor I know.

What's your question?

I've been wondering if I'm stupid or something.

You did fine in my course last semester.

That was different. I'm wondering if I'm stupid to have faith.

Faith about what? Whether God is real, whether the Resurrection happened — something like that?

No. My problem isn't with faith in this or that — it's with faith in general. I feel like I'm being bombarded.


One suspects that Budziszewski is building up to some argument about why faith is a wonderful thing. One would be right. Here it comes:


Sure. The chain has to end somewhere. There has to be a Highest Standard.

Right. Something absolutely trustworthy.

Something you trust not for the sake of some still higher standard, but for itself.
THAT'S where faith comes in.

Why?

You have to accept the Highest Standard on faith, because there isn't any higher one to test it with and the chain can't go on forever.

So demanding that things be tested doesn't rule out faith after all!

Nope. In fact, it depends on faith.

I sure didn't expect that.

It is a little mind-boggling.

But faith in what?

We ought to give absolute trust only to what deserves trust absolutely.

What deserves trust absolutely?

God does. And His Word does.

But secular people don't believe in God.

No, they don't.

So does that mean they can't test things?

Not at all. They use what they trust more to test what they trust less, just like everyone does.

But for them, there's nothing at the end of their chain. They don't have a Highest Standard.

Sure they do. They just end the chain too soon.

What do you mean?

A secular person treats as the Highest Standard something that isn't the Highest Standard. He puts faith in something that can't support his faith.

Like what?

Usually something God has made. He trusts the “creature” instead of the Creator.

Could you give an example?

Sure. Let's take the T.A. in your physics class. What do you think he'd say about miracles?

He'd reject them.

And why?

He'd say they violate the laws of nature.

So his standard for testing belief in miracles is...

The laws of nature.

How does he test his standard?

I don't think he does test it. He said once in class that “nature is all there is.” When I asked him how he knew, he said, “It just is.”

So are the laws of nature his Highest Standard?

Yes.

Then that's where he places his faith.

I think he'd be surprised to hear himself described as a man of faith.

I'm sure he would.

But don't Christians believe in the laws of nature too?

Certainly we do, but they aren't our Highest Standard. The Creator is. If He made the laws of nature, He can suspend them.


And later:


Then my physics T.A. said he's an atheist because science demands proof, and there's no proof of God.

Ask him what proof he has that there isn't any.

Doesn't that reduce everything to the level of “I say, you say”?

Sure it does, if you stop there. I'm not suggesting a way to end the conversation, but to begin it. He needs to realize that he has a faith commitment too.

What about what my resident assistant said?

What did he say again?

That the difference between philosophy and religion is that religion depends on faith but philosophy depends on reasoning.

That's just nonsense. Reasoning itself depends on faith.

How could that be?

Think. What do you do to construct a defense of reasoning?

You reason.

So you defend reasoning by reasoning?

Right.

Then your defense is circular. It proves that reasoning works only if you already know that reasoning works.

So reasoning can't justify reasoning!

Right. You have to accept reasoning by faith. The only question is the one you asked earlier — “Faith in what?”


I'll never understand people like Budzszewski. This isn't some mindless fundamentalist, gleefully thumping his Bible to avoid having to think about unpleasant realities. This is someone who has invested a lot of time and effort thinking about important questions, and trying to devise good arguments to defend what he believes. Judging from his position at a good school like UT-Austin, this is someone who has been successful in an environment in which making good arguments is essential.

But for all of that the argument he is offering here is so transparently stupid a child should see through it. Does he really not understand that some leaps of faith are more reasonable than others?

It is certainly true that if you are going to reason about anything you need to start from foundational assumptions that can not themselves be proved. Any high school class in Euclidean geometry covers this point, and you will be hard-pressed to find a college student incapable of realizing it for himself.

But that hardly means that one leap of faith is as good as any other. I accept on faith that my car won't blow up when I turn the key. Seems reasonable, based on past experience and on the collective experiences of ocuntless other drivers. But I do not accept on faith that the law of gravitation will be suspended for me when I step off a cliff. One leap of faith is reasonable, the other is not.

In using science and mathematics to study the world you are accepting certain unproved assumptions. But these assumptions have proven their value through centuries of progress in science. If the goal is to understand the workings of nature than the assumptions scientists make about the world have proven themselves superior to the assumptions theologians make.

To put it another way, having faith that the laws of nature will not be spontaneously violated is based on centuries of human experience. The assumption that the universe is presided over by a being capable of suspending natural laws at his whim is based on nothing at all.

Now it is possible that Budziszewski buys into various ID arguments, and would therefore argue that the assumption of a higher power does let us make sense out of certain data. I don't agree with such claims, but at any rate that is not the argument he is making here.

He might also reply that religious assumptions have proven themselves useful by all the people who have changed their lives for the better by converting to Christianity. But of course, many other people have been moved to do great evil as the result of their religious conversion, and countless others have improved their lives for the better by abandoning their faith.

Accepting certain assumptions about the world because they fit well with everyday expereince makes sense. Conjuring supernatural beings into existence for no reason does not make sense.

Finally, we can't let slide his question about proving God does not exist. Now, as it happens, I think the problem of evil and suffering is a pretty effective refutation of the idea that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists. But leaving that aside, surely the burden of proof lies with those who claim there is a God. I can't prove that unicorns don't exist, but it's the person who claims they do who has to produce some evidence.

Budziszewski, Part I

J. Budziszewski is a professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also an outspoken Christain, and sometimes he writes books with titles like How to Stay Christian in College.

He currently has this essay up over at Charels Colson's Breakpoint site. In it he provides some guidance for students afraind of losing their faith while attending a secular university.

A couple of excerpts caught my eye:


In these senses the problem does all come down to worldview. And yet in another sense it doesn’t. Christianity holds all of the intellectual cards. I am convinced that the traditions of Christian faith knock the theories and philosophies of the secular university hollow. Our heritage is not rationally inferior; it is rationally superior. Take naturalism, for example, the common university ideology that “nature is all there is.” Try asking someone who holds this view, “Why is there something, and not rather nothing?”, and he can only change the subject. Or take postmodernism, another common university ideology, which preens itself on its “suspicion of metanarratives.” This mouthful refers to its conviction that nobody ever gets the Big Story right and that every explanation of anything is merely a fiction camouflaging some group’s interest in power. Try asking a postmodernist why he makes an exception for his Big Story, the story about nobody ever getting the Big Story right. Then try asking him what grab for power his explanation of things camouflages—could it be that postmodernists have power interests, too? Though I have often asked these questions, I have yet to hear a straight answer.


I know from experience that a lot of Christians think this is a pretty nifty little argument. For me it represents the total lack of seriousness so prevalent in works on Christian apologetics. I mean, do I really have to point out to a smart guy like Budziszewski the obvious flaw in his argument?

I am a naturalist in the sense Budziszewski has in mind. Ask me why there is something instead of nothing and I will not change the subject. I will tell you simply that I don't know the answer to that question.

But what answer does Christianity offer that is any better? That something exists because God created it? That is no answer at all. You have simply pushed the question back one step. I have yet to meet the Christian who has any decent answer to the question, “Why is there God instead of no God? Where did God come from?”

I carry no water for postmodernism, but Budziszewski's silly criticism is enough to make me give it a second look. It reminds me of the old canard, “If you're such a skeptic, why aren't you skeptical about skepticism?” His caricature of postmodernism is so divorced from anything anyone actually believes that it is difficult to respond to it.

As for Christianity holding all the intellectual cards, allow me to demur. Surely that statement requires more of a defense than a brain-dead criticism of naturalism, followed by a caricature of postmodernism. It looks to me like Budziszewski is more interested in lampooning views he disagrees with, not engaging them honestly.

Later he writes:


The reasons students find it difficult to keep faith in college are much the same as the reasons other Christians have found it difficult to keep faith in other times and places. These temptations are endemic to a fallen world, and the university is no exception.


He goes on to list three reasons:


The first such reason is the search for sensual pleasure, and college provides no shortage of time to seek it.



The second reason many students lose their faith is the distraction of possessions—of “stuff” and the desire to acquire it.



The third reason many students lose their faith—and the one with which I am most familiar—is what John’s letter calls “the pride of life.” We don’t want God to be God; we want to be God ourselves, each of us the center of his universe. Paradoxically, the students most in danger from this infection are the ones least in danger from the other two—we call them “the best and the brightest.” Their form of pride of life is pride of the intellect. Full of intellectual pride themselves, many professors regard it as a virtue, not a vice, and think they are doing a favor by encouraging it.


Budziszewski devotes a paragraph to each of these proposed causes.

Taking reason three first, am I the only one who finds this creepy? It sounds to me like he is saying that if you give serious consideration to the various truth claims Christians make, and conclude that there is no good evidence to support them and ample reason to reject them, then it is you, and not the evidence, that is defective. This is textbook religious arrogance. It is all the evidence you need that Budziszewski was winging it before when he talked about Christianity holding all the intellectual cards.

As for the other reasons he gives, I'm sure they all have their role to play. But he has overlooked the most important reason people often lose their faith in college. It's not that they are constantly being attacked by left-wing professors. It's not they get corrupted by the party atmosphere on college campusses. And it's not that they find themselves coveting their neighbor's possessions.

The main reason is that for most students college is the first time they find themsleves interacting freely with a large group of people that is culturally and religiously diverse. And after you spend some time interacting with happy, smart people with very different religious beliefs from you, you begin to wonder about certain things. It starts to dawn on you that the only reason you profess the religion you do is because of the influence of your parents and your upbringing. And if you are possessed of even the smallest level of modesty it becomes a little hard to believe that your parents were the ones who had it right and everyone else's parents had it wrong.

Faith in irrational things can only survive in a community of believers. Budziszewski admits as much when he writes:


Like all Christians, college students need to humble themselves before God, spend time with Him in prayer, study His Word, tell others about Him, and show mercy to those in need. But it’s hard to do all those things by yourself, isn’t it? I have good news for young Christians. God has not left you all by yourself. He has provided the Church. Seek out your partners in the faith and meet with them often. Humble yourself and pray and study and tell and show mercy, yes, but don’t do it just by yourself; do it with your brothers and sisters in Christ. God made us social beings; that’s why we respond so readily to peer pressure. Peer pressure is good if it’s the right kind of pressure from the right kind of peers. Your true peer group is the fellowship of the saints, the household of God.


There you have it. Surround yourself with people who think like you do and use that as a shield against those who think differently. Intellectual cards indeed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Rudski States it Plain

The Morning Call also published published this essay by Muhlenberg College psychology professor Jeffrey Rudski. Here's an excerpt:


Should both theories be taught in science classes? After all, science progresses by comparing competing theories. The competitors need to play by similar rules. In science class, those ought to be the rules of science. And, science demands that theories be testable, transparent, and fruitful. Let's compare evolution and intelligent design using science's rules.

Testability: Darwin wrote “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not have possibly been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Countless research studies have tested evolution. With minor alterations to the theory and superficial scientific squabbles about pace of change, it has withstood every serious scientific challenge. How do you test intelligent design? We rely on faith. Does the theory break down when design is less than optimal? Should an organ like the human appendix mean that the designer isn't intelligent, and ought to be rejected?

Transparency: Evolutionary processes are transparent. Variation is produced by observable processes such as genetic rearrangement and mutation. Selection occurs in plain sight, and contrary to creationists' misrepresentations, is not random; variations such as giraffes' long necks provide advantages only where there are tall trees.

How does intelligent design explain its inner workings? Well, the designer's strategy has been described as “moving in mysterious ways.” Indeed, many religious traditions actively discourage trying to understand the designer's motives.

Fruitful: The theory of evolution has guided progress in science and medicine, frequently generating new discoveries. Intelligent Design has not revealed anything new or testable about life's origins or mechanisms, or spawned a single research study or discovery related to biology. Books and opinion pieces aren't the same as scientific research.


Exactly right. Go read the whole thing.

Santorum Hits the Talking Points

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) tells us what he thinks about evolution and ID in this essay for The Morning Call, a newspaper published out of Allentown, PA. Let's consider a few excerpts:


Why is there such a controversy as to how science education policy should require students to learn about evolution? For one, biological evolution, the theory that all living things are modified descendants of a common ancestor, relies heavily on the sensitive philosophical belief that evolutionary change can give rise to new species, and can explain the origin of all living things. Furthermore, evolution is a theory that deals with ancient and unrepeatable events. This should warn us to teach Darwinian evolution or any theory of origins with proper modesty and humility, since we'll never really be certain about the cause of many events in the history of life.


The delicate, philosophical belief that evolutionary change can give rise to new species? Ahem. There's nothing philosophical about it. It is a simple, observable fact that known genetic mechanisms can lead to the production of new species. Even Phillip Johnson concedes that much.

And, actually, evolution has very little to say about specific events in the distant past. Having confidence in the assertion that any pair of modern species have a common ancestor does not require that you be able to say exactly when and where that ancestor lived. Nor does it require you to be able to specify the precise, genetic events that caused the ancestral species to evolve into its modern descendants. You need only follow the circumstantial evidence left to us by the fossil record, modern studies in anatomy and genetics, the findings of molecular biology, and all the other branches of science that contribute to our picture of natural history.

I'm sure Mr. Santorum is perfectly happy to send people to death row based on circumstantial evidence. Think he'd be sympathetic to the idea that if no one saw suspect X commit the crime, we should approach the question of his guilt with proper modesty and humility?


Charles Darwin wrote about his theory of evolution at a time when evidence was weak. In recent years, evidence of the complex circuits, miniature machines, sophisticated feedback loops, and digital information inside the cell has enabled scientists to poke holes in the principle evidence used to support evolution and therefore, more and more respected biologists are entering the debate as to the plausibility of evolution.


Pure nonsense, of course. What is especially galling about this is that you just know that Santorum, for all his talk about modesty and humility, hasn't really made any effort to research the current state of scientific understanding regarding the formation of complex systems. He objects to evolution for religious reasons, and that is enough. Having come to that conclusion, everything else is just rhetoric and talking points. As Stephen Jay Gould once noted, the truth is only one weapon, seldom the best, in a debater's arsenal.


For these reasons, Darwin's theory of evolution should not be taught as absolute fact in the science classroom. Instead, it should be taught as the leading and dominant scientific theory explaining the origin of species, but also as a theory subject to significant limitations, failed predictions and important criticisms. We should encourage schools to teach better science and to teach more about evolution, including the gaps and controversies surrounding evolution. We should not be afraid to teach children what we know and what we have not yet discovered in science, and we should certainly not deny our children the truth about controversies surrounding science. By teaching the controversy, we remain true to science and yet sensitive to the ideas and interests of parents and children.


Hard to disagree with that, except that there are no good arguments against the major assertions of evolutionary theory.

Santorum blathers on in this manner for many more paragraphs. It's the standard martyr pose ID folks are so fond of. As long as people are determined to remain ignorant of the basic facts of science, it will be an effective rhetorical tool.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Welcome to My World

For a little comic relief after that last post, here is an anonymous mathematican blogger describing some especially annoying sorts of students. My personal favorite:


Part III: The Student Who For Some Reason Thinks That it is Acceptable to Sit in the Front Row and Assemble, in Class, a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich From its Constituent Parts and Then Consume it: No, really. What the hell was this one all about? And he wasn’t using those little tiny packets of peanut butter and jam that you get in cafeterias, either. This kid had, in his bookbag beside his textbook and binder, a JAR OF PEANUT BUTTER. And a jar of jam. And an ENTIRE LOAF OF BREAD, which he opened and from which he proceeded to extract and place on the table two slices for assembly.

He was hungry, he explained when this activity drew attention from his classmates.

I’ve often observed that there’s a nontrivial overlap between the job of college instructor and that of a parent. Never before last class had I noticed similarities between my job and that of a field primatologist. I envision Jane Goodall observing her subjects and thinking, “They are like us in certain ways, and yet, they are quite different."Though presumably Goodall’s studies could contribute to a better understanding of human behaviour, whereas - a peanut butter sandwich? In class? The HELL?


I've never had anyone quite that bad, but I've certainly had students who can't distinguish between class time and lunch time!

Adams' Conversion

Town Hall columnist Michael Adams tells us about his conversion ot Christianity in his latest column. Long-time readers of this blog will recall that Adams has happily promoted some of the most ignorant misunderstandings of evolution through his column (see here, here, and here for a discussion of Adams' past musings on this subject).

Adams begins in typical fashion:


When I pulled into the parking lot this morning, I saw a car covered with sacrilegious bumper stickers. It seemed obvious to me that the owner was craving attention. I’m sure he was also seeking to elicit anger from people of faith. The anger helps the atheist to justify his atheism. And, all too often, the atheist gets exactly what he is looking for.


Not much to reply to here. I would simply point out that in my neck of the woods there is no shortage of people with religious bumper stickers on their cars. I suspect Adams would not describe their motives so snidely.

But he really gets going in the next paragraph:


In fact, just the other day, I heard a Christian refer to Michael Newdow as an “attention-craving SOB.” It reminded me of the time I heard someone refer to Annie Laurie Gaylor as a “b**ch.” I don’t have the same reaction towards atheists, even when I see them attacking my basic religious freedoms. When I look into their eyes I see an emptiness that evokes pity. Maybe that’s because I was once one of them.


Right-wingers are fond of this idea that you can look into someone's eyes and thereby deduce important things about the state of his soul. On the subject of pity-evoking emptiness, my experiences at various creationist conferences over the years has left me with a similar feeling about many Christian fundamentalists.

Actually, though, the part of his column I found interesting came later:


I still remember the night I publicly declared my atheism. It was April 3rd, 1992. I was a long-haired musician, playing guitar at a bar called “The Gin” in Oxford, Mississippi. The subject of religion came up in a conversation during one of my breaks. An Ole Miss Law student, who had been an undergraduate with me at Mississippi State years before, asked me whether I was still dating my girlfriend, Sally. Then he asked why I had broken up with my previous girlfriend two years before.

After I explained that my former girlfriend was too much of a fundamentalist while I was an atheist, his jaw nearly hit the ground. “Are you really an atheist?” he asked. He assured me he didn’t mean to pry and that he was merely concerned. He didn’t have to tell me that. His reaction gave him away. It was a reaction he could not have possibly faked.

That law student, whose name I have forgotten, made no effort to convert me on the spot. But he did plead with me to pick up a copy of Mere Christianity. “I’ve heard it all before,” I said. He told me I was wrong. He said that C.S. Lewis was the best apologist of the 20th century, but he didn’t push the matter. The conversation ended abruptly. I never saw him again.

Years later, I read Mere Christianity and it did have a great effect upon me. But, recently, I was thinking about what really drove me to read the book. How could I have remembered the title of a book I heard only once? After all, it was many years before at the end of a long night of drinking in a bar in Mississippi.

The answer is simple. The advice was given to me by someone who sincerely considered the matter to be urgent. And that sense of urgency was conveyed without a trace of anger. It was just a matter of one human being communicating his concern for another without being pushy and holier-than-thou.


I found this interesting because I had nearly the same experience. It happened while I was in graduate school. I was not especially secretive about my atheism, and a Christian acquaintance of mine, genuinely concerned about the future of my soul, encouraged me to read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. One of the Christian student groups on campus was handing out free copies of the book.

In my case I immediately ran out and got a copy of the book, and devoured it over the next two days. No one ever accused Lewis of being a bad writer, after all.

But here is where my story diverges from Adams'. For all of Lewis' eloquence, the arguments that he was making struck me as embarrassingly weak. For example, his opening chapter attempts to prove God's existence by the fact that there are certain moral standards that are universal throughout all human societies. The fact that so many people had this innate moral sense implied, somehow, that there had to be a transcendant moral lawgiver. God.

Are you impressed by that argument? I sure wasn't. To the extent that there are moral standards that truly are universal throughout all human societies, they are precisely the ones that are necessary for a society to function at all. That suggests cultural reinforcement, perhaps with an assist from millennia of natural selection, as a more plausible explanation for this universal moral sense.

And the book went downhill from there. I emerged from the experience far more confident in my atheism than I was before. I had read the best arguments Christian apologetics had to offer, from one of the smartest and most eloquent apologists ever to write down his thoughts, and found nothing of importance.

In fairness, I should also mention that many of my Christian friends have told me that while Lewis had many interesting and insightful things to say, I should not take him as authoritative on Christian theology. Fair enough.

Over the years I have approached Christianity from a variety of angles. There was a period in my life when I set aside a chunk of time every night to pray, with every ounce of sincerity I was capable of. People had told me that they had done that, and immediately felt such a sense of relief and joy that they knew Christianity must be real. I never felt that. I never felt anything at all from all my hard work.

I have also made several attempts to read the Bible. I knew people who told me, with obvious sincerity, that by spending time in the Word (their phrase) I would see that it had to be divinely inspired. So I tried it. I found it by turns, unreadable, incoherent, breathtakingly dull, or positively disturbing.

I have read voluminously on the subject of Christian apologetics, and have yet to find an argument that wasn't easily refuted.

I learned as much as I can about science to see if there was any empirical reason for believing God existed (you may find this surprising if you read this blog regularly, but I don't consider design arguments inherently absurd). I found none.

So, I have come to the conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. Many others have come to a different conclusion. I don't understand why they have done so.

Monday, January 24, 2005

West on Miller

Not everyone liked Ken Miller's op-ed as much as I did. Over at the Discovery Institute's blog, John West has siezed on this paragraph from Miller's editorial:


The judge simply read the sticker and saw that it served no scientific or educational purpose. Once that was clear, he looked to the reasons for slapping it in the textbooks of thousands of students, and here the record was equally clear. The sticker was inserted to advance a particular set of religious beliefs -- exactly the argument advanced by the parents of six students in the district who sued the Cobb County Board of Education to get the stickers removed.


In his blog entry on this subject, West writes:


While the ACLU claimed that the Cobb County school board adopted its textbook sticker in order to advance religion, the judge rejected that claim. Instead, the judge found that the school board adopted the sticker to advance a variety of legitimate secular purposes, including “fostering critical thinking” about evolution.


The judge's decision is available in pdf form here.

Miller was indeed a bit sloppy here. Judge Cooper found that the primary effect of the stickers was the promotion of religion and they were unconstitutional for that reason. However, he also found that the School Board had legitimate secular reasons for inserting the stickers in the first place. Point to West.

We should point out, however, that Judge Copper actually found only two secular purposes behind the sticker, and not the variety West suggests. Judge Cooper wrote:


Based on the evidence before this Court at the summary judgment stage, the
Court ruled that the School Board did not act with the purpose of promoting or
advancing religion in placing the Sticker in the science textbooks. To the contrary,
the Court found that the School Board sought to advance two secular purposes.
First, the School Board sought to encourage students to engage in critical thinking
as it relates to theories of origin. Second, given the movement in Cobb County to
strengthen teaching on evolution and to make it a mandatory part of the curriculum,
the School Board adopted the Sticker to reduce offense to those students and parents
whose personal beliefs might conflict with teaching on evolution. The Court was
satisfied on summary judgment that these two purposes were secular and not a
sham.


We will leave aside the issue of whether reducing offense to those people who hold reliigous beliefs contrary to evolution really is a secular purpose.

But what West says next is a far greater mangling of Judge Cooper's decision:


The reason that the judge still ruled the sticker unconstitutional was not that the school board actually intended to advance religion, but because the judge surmised that citizens might mistakenly believe that the sticker was designed to advance religion--even though the judge admitted that it wasn't! Basically, the judge concluded that his fellow citizens were too stupid to figure out what he himself was able to realize--that the school board had legitimate secular reasons for adopting the sticker.


I don't think Judge Cooper would recognize his decision in this description. Here is what Cooper actually wrote (I have omitted the citations for ease of reading):


Thus, the Court's focus here is not on the particular views or reactions held by the Plaintiffs or the numerous citizens and organizations who wrote to the School Board. The Court's focus is on ascertaining the view of a disinterested, reasonable observer.

In this case, the Court believes that an informed, reasonable observer would
interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the
Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that
they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a
message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders. This is
particularly so in a case such as this one involving impressionable public school
students who are likely to view the message on the Sticker as a union of church and
state. Given that courts should be “particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and secondary schools,” the Court is of the opinion that the Sticker must be declared unconstitutional.


From here Judge Cooper went on to explain in great detail why an “informed, reasonable observer” would conclude that the primary effect of the sticker was to promote religion.

The idea that students were likely to interpret the sticker in the way described was backed up in the “Findings of Fact” portion of the decision:


Notwithstanding the foregoing, it appears that the Sticker 1s impacting science
instruction on evolution. Some students have pointed to the language in the Sticker
to support arguments that evolution does not exist. In addition,
Dr McCoy testified that the Board's misuse of the word “theory” in the Sticker causes “confusion” in his science class and consequently requires him to spend significantly more time trying to distinguish “fact” and “theory” for his students. Dr. McCoy stated that some of his students translate the Sticker to state that evolution is “just” a theory, which he believes has the effect of diminishing the status of evolution among all other theories.


What about the rest of West's statement? Does Judge Cooper really think that his fellow citizens are too stupid to realize what he was able to figure out?

Of course not. The judge came to his conclusions about the Board's purposes in adopting the sticker only after hearing the testimony of the individual Board members and examining the legislative history of the relevant bill. That is information most citizens are not likely to have. All the “informed, reasonable observer” has to go on is the content of the sticker itself, and some basic understanding of the history of attempts to water-down or eliminate the teaching of evolution in schools.

This is why the Supreme Court's Lemon test for Establishment Clause cases makes a distinction between the purpose behind the particular bit of government expression, and the effect of that same expression. It's not a complicated distinction, but one far beyond the reasoning powers of an ID proponent in high dudgeon.


Miller on the Cobb County Decision

Brown University biologist Ken Miller, whose book Finding Darwin's God is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject, has written this characteristically insightful op-ed for The Boston Globe:


So what's wrong with telling students that evolution is a theory? Nothing. But the textbook they were using already described evolution as a theory, and I ought to know. Joseph Levine and I wrote the biology book Cobb County's high school students are using. Chapter 15 is titled “Darwin's Theory of Evolution.” Hard to be clearer than that. So why did the Cobb County Board of Education slap a warning label inside a book that already refers to evolution as a theory? Cooper hit correctly he wrote that “by denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories.”


And later:


The forces of anti-evolution will pretend that the sticker case is an example of censorship and that the sinister forces of science have converged on classrooms to prevent honest and open examination of a controversial idea.

There is great irony in such charges. As conservative icon Alan Bloom pointed out in his landmark book "The Closing of the American Mind," one of the worst forms of intellectual intolerance is to promote a false equivalence between competing ideas. Acting as though all ideas (or all theories) have equal standing actually deprives students of a realistic view of how critical analysis is done. That's as true in science as it is in the cultural conflicts.

Judge Cooper saw this point clearly: “While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.” Does it ever. In reality, evolution is a powerful and hard-working theory used at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry in developmental biology, genome analysis, drug discovery, and scientific medicine. To pretend otherwise is to shield students from the reality of how science is done.



Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Times Gets it Right

Also weighing in on the Cobb County affair is The New York Times. In today's paper they offer up these worthy sentiments:


Critics of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution become more wily with each passing year. Creationists who believe that God made the world and everything in it pretty much as described in the Bible were frustrated when their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools or inject the teaching of creationism were judged unconstitutional by the courts. But over the past decade or more a new generation of critics has emerged with a softer, more roundabout approach that they hope can pass constitutional muster.

One line of attack - on display in Cobb County, Ga., in recent weeks - is to discredit evolution as little more than a theory that is open to question. Another strategy - now playing out in Dover, Pa. - is to make students aware of an alternative theory called "intelligent design," which infers the existence of an intelligent agent without any specific reference to God. These new approaches may seem harmless to a casual observer, but they still constitute an improper effort by religious advocates to impose their own slant on the teaching of evolution.


Congratulations to the Times for seeing the latest creationist efforts in thier proper historical context.

After reminding their readers that the sticker at issue read as follows:



This textbook contains material on evolution. 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.



they provided the following insightful analysis:


Although the board clearly thought this was a reasonable compromise, and many readers might think it unexceptional, it is actually an insidious effort to undermine the science curriculum. The first sentence sounds like a warning to parents that the film they are about to watch with their children contains pornography. Evolution is so awful that the reader must be warned that it is discussed inside the textbook. The second sentence makes it sound as though evolution is little more than a hunch, the popular understanding of the word “theory,” whereas theories in science are carefully constructed frameworks for understanding a vast array of facts. The National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most prestigious scientific organization, has declared evolution “one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have” and says it is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus.

The third sentence, urging that evolution be studied carefully and critically, seems like a fine idea. The only problem is, it singles out evolution as the only subject so shaky it needs critical judgment. Every subject in the curriculum should be studied carefully and critically. Indeed, the interpretations taught in history, economics, sociology, political science, literature and other fields of study are far less grounded in fact and professional consensus than is evolutionary biology.


Well said.

My Neck of the Woods

CORRECTION: 1/24/05. The full text of my letter to the editor is not currently available online. It turns out that the link I provided initially was not permanent. As soon as the full text of my letter is available, I will repair he link.


My home-town newspaper, The Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, has weighed in on the Cobb County decision. Here's an excerpt:


In the movie “Annie Hall,” after a fellow actor has described an odd fantasy, Woody Allen tells him, “Excuse me, but I have to get back to planet Earth.”

After Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper’s ruling that a sticker on a Georgia biology textbook stating that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” that should be “approached with an open mind, studied carefully and, critically considered,” is unconstitutional, one wonders what planet the judge is on.

So evolution — and one assumes other items in the textbook — should not be approached with an open mind or critically considered?

Judge Cooper — appointed by President Bill Clinton — said schoolchildren “are likely to view the message on the sticker as a union of church and state.” They would? Wouldn’t it be more likely that students reading the message would think it stated that they should study science carefully and critically consider items?

Besides, is what schoolchildren “likely to believe” the new constitutional standard for the courts? If so, many of the nation’s laws will have to change.


They were kind enough to publish the letter to the editor I wrote in reply. Here's an excerpt:


Contrary to the implication of your editorial (“Critical Study,” Jan. 15) Judge Clarence Cooper did not create a new Constitutional standard in his ruling in the Cobb County evolution trial.

As he documented meticulously in his 44-page opinion (which deserved far better treatment than the one, out-of-context, half-sentence you chose to use), he was simply applying the standards laid down in the relevant court precedents.

If you disagree with his ruling, your argument is with those precedents, not with his reasoning.

Anyone familiar with the background of this case would have to conclude that the primary purpose and effect of the textbook sticker was the promotion of religion. If the purpose had been the promotion of critical thinking, there would have been no reason for singling out evolution for special treatment.

As noted by Judge Cooper, the School Board rejected an alternative sticker that would have made it clear that all scientific theories, not just evolution, should be approached critically and with an open mind. The motivation for treating evolution as different is entirely religious, not scientific.