sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
In a series of posts, Nathan Newman argues that progressives should execute a "strategic retreat" on the whole creationism-in-the-high-school-science- classroom issue and stop using the courts to keep it out (as in the Cobb County sticker case). He worries that a liberal reliance on judicial decisions (for this and other issues) has fueled a powerful fundamentalist backlash and kept secularists from making a convincing case to the public. Matt Y. backs him up in part, while Kevin Drum and PZ Myers of Pharyngula are rather more doubtful.
I usually agree with Nathan, but I'm really not sure about this. I don't have any real background in either politics or law, and this sort of tactical maneuvering goes right over my head. Subtle is in my vocabulary, but that's about as far as it goes. I don't grasp why we shouldn't use what is, after all, a legitimate branch of government to do the job it's supposed to do (we can argue about the merits of individual cases), When you consider that we're facing a longlasting and ever-more-organized opponent which, in one of its current incarnations, seeks nothing less than the destruction of "scientific materialism" (read: Enlightenment science) and its replacement with the "theistic understanding" of Intelligent Design, it seems downright silly.
But perhaps there's something to this after all. Susan Jacoby (author of the interesting and informative Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism) has an op-ed in today's New York Times claiming that a judical victory for evolution really did trigger an disasterous backlash. Thing is, the court case in question was the 1925 Scopes case, the "monkey trial" dramatized in Inherit the Wind - and, she argues, the backlash is still going. It's a piece that provides some useful information missing from Matt and Nathan's posts.
Matt makes the optimistic claim that simply giving creationists what they want takes the wind out of their sails while mobilizing liberals - a sort of political survival of the fittest:
When Kansas, not exactly a hotbed of blue state liberalism, took the constitutionally permissable, but substantively wrongheaded, step of simply stripping evolution from the curriculum and replacing it with nothing, evolution advocates mobilized, won seats at the next election, and got the rule reversed. That not only restored decent policy on the question at hand, but also got some serious wingnuts out of office.
However, as Jacoby points out, that reversal may be about to get reversed right back:
Kansas, where evolution opponents regained control of the state board of education in November, is likely to be the first battleground. Proposals to modify the state's recommended science curriculum with alternatives to Darwinian evolution will be an issue at statewide public hearings scheduled in February.
Education has more than its share of pendulum swings, but this is more like ping-pong - and not conducive to providing students with a quality education.
Drawing on recent polls showing that 55% of Americans don't believe in evolution, Nathan takes this as evidence that the current strategy has failed, that "[m]any secularists have become so fixated on a tactical goal--getting evolution into the classroom--that they have ignored the larger goal of actually convincing the population of its truth." It would seem that the things are a little more complicated. Jacoby points out that in the wake of the Scopes trial, political pressure from fundamentalists virtually drove the teaching of evolution underground (at the secondary level) through both formal and self-censorship. Indeed, she says, this chilling effect has lasted into the present day: "[r]ecent surveys of high school biology teachers have found that avoidance of evolution is common among instructors throughout the nation." In a sense, we haven't entirely suceeded even in getting evolution in the classroom - or at least out of the back of the book (although textbooks are getting better in this regard).
Alternately, one could argue that all this only emphasizes the need to convince people, in order to bring about a welcome pedagogical thaw. Regardless of the judicial role, pro-science folks can agree that we need to work more on this aspect. It's one that Intelligent Design Creationism had largely mastered, as Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross show in the introduction to Creationism's Trojan Horse. So what do we do? Seriously. I'm open to suggestions - and I finally got the comments working again. I would guess that instead of "actually convincing the population of the truth" we might want to focus on convincing people that science class is for teaching science, that evolution belongs there and - so far - suggested alternatives don't (not very catchy, though). What d'you think?
posted by Dan S. on 9:25 PM | | link
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