Thursday, February 09, 2006

Evolution in SC public schools ...

Some students from the journalism school showed up at the office today to get some feedback on a bill pending before the South Carolina legislature that would require some alternative to evolution, maybe a religious viewpoint, to be taught in public schools in the State. At least that was how it was portrayed to me. This was the first I'd heard of the idea, so I shared my thoughts, that religion and science have different areas of competence, that the scientific method has limits and doesn't describe all reality, that, from a Catholic perspective, what biology tells us about the growth and evolution of life on earth is not necessarily incompatible with divine revelation, that reason and faith are not opposed, and so on.

Nothing too terribly exciting. This is for a dry run for a new news show for the Univ's cable network, it seems. So, this particular interview won't see the light of day really. It was however quite clear that these student reporters did not expect this perspective. They thought I would condemn evolution and be supportive of such a legislative measure. Boy. I suggested they might get a more predictable reaction at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry or maybe RUF or Cru or a similar group.

Anyway, I searched the website of the SC State Legislature, and the only thing I can find is S.909, a bill dated June 2005, introduced by Sen. Fair of Greenville that says the following:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina:

SECTION 1. Chapter 5, Title 59 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding:

"Section 59-5-160. In the promulgation of policies and regulations regarding kindergarten through twelfth grade education, the State Board of Education shall implement policies and a curriculum that accomplish the General Assembly's desire to provide a quality science education that shall prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy, such as biological evolution, the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society."

SECTION 2. This act takes effect upon approval by the Governor.
Well, this is not exactly what I was told was in the bill. As it is worded, actually, I have no problem with the bill, if interpreted strictly (i.e. narrowly). Of course, I don't think that this is the intent of the bill's framers. [The larger problem, is that philosophy as such is hardly taught in the public schools. It seems a little strange to bring in a philosophical discussion when dealing just with biology.] Maybe the reporters were right in interpreting this as an attempt to teach other "theories" of evolution (such as Intelligent Design or even creationism) in the classroom? Then there's this story that appeared in the State in December.
Fair said Monday he is merely “trying to get students more engaged” in looking at the origins of life from different perspectives. He said he is not campaigning to put the teaching of “creationism” on par with evolution.

Monday’s vote enraged educators from the college and public school ranks in the audience.

“Science is not democracy,” said Jerry Waldvogel, a Clemson University professor.

“Science is not negotiated,” said Doug Florian, a College of Charleston professor.

“Science is based on evidence,” said Joe Pollard, a Furman University professor.
All that said, I found the quotes from the professors a little hilarious at first, and way too defensive. "Science is not democracy?" What a bizarre statement! I guess he means that scientific fact is not established by a democratic majority -- a majority of people believing in a flat earth won't change the scientific reality. Ok. Fine. "Science is not negotiated?" Um. I guess not politically negotiated. But negotiated, certainly. That's what peer review and reproducibility of experiments is all about, I thought. Maybe I'm misunderstanding negotiated. Anyway, one can forgive the Clemson prof. He is at that other school, ya know ... :-) Of course I'm sympathetic to the scientific crowd in this case. To a point. Sometimes, I feel, the lady doth protest too much.

[And just in case the Vatican had not made its position clear enough, outspoken head of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Coyne, repeated his earlier criticisms of creationism and Intelligent Design, at a talk in Palm Beach, FL, last week. He takes on Cardinal Schönborn's editorial from the NYT again, calling it tragic. I wonder if he's read the Cardinal's clarification that was published in a recent issue of First Things, that makes the very important claim that the use of reason is not confined simply to the scientific method, but also includes that realm of mental activity known as philosophy, whose evidence comes from the simple observation of life and reality around us.]


Heather said...

Anyone who is interested in reading an amusing new theory of intelligent design should check out this site. I must admit I was entranced by this "religion." Still Catholic though. I was really glad to know that the Catholic church supports the idea of evolution. Good interview G, sorry to hear no one will read it.

Gashwin said...

Heather, that link was hilarious. Venganza? Revenge? Hmm ... :-)

Just to be clear, the Catholic Church isn't opposed to the scientific method per se, and encourages the use of man's rational faculty (in every realm, including that of faith, one might add). It's not technically correct to say that the church "supports evolution." "Evolution" is hardly just one thing. There's many different facets to the various aspects of the biological theory. Overall, the idea of natural selection, of a long time period for the evolution of life on earth, etc., are not per se opposed to faith. However, "believing" in "evolution" is hardly a matter of Catholic faith -- the Church doesn't obligate anyone to "believe" in any scientific theory. It would be akin to saying, say, that the Catholic Church supports the idea of gravity! I hope that made sense. [And if someone, say, for whatever reason, were not convinced by the scientific arguments for evolution, that does not, in of itself, make them a "bad" Catholic.]

Gashwin said...

I should add, the problem really arises in the level of philosophy, when scientists make all kinds of grandiose claims about the cosmos, God and so on, based on biology. In such cases, they're really philosophizing. They're not really pursuing the scientific method.

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Reading from the end of S.909:
"the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist,...

My reading would be that science students need to understand the breadth of scientific analysis that has been undertaken to explain the empiricle data under discussion. That may not be what the author intended.

...why such topics may generate controversy,...

This could be the crux of the bill. I see it telling teachers: "Don't dismiss other theories and explanations; present them as what they are--attempts to impose reason on what is observed and on those processes that cannot be observed except though their effects." Sadly, that's not really what the bill's title seems to say.

...and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society."

Not sure exactly where the bill's author is taking us here.

"...accomplish the General Assembly's desire to provide a quality science education that shall prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science."

I thought the General Assembly wanted SC kids to learn to DO science--I don't think the GA really cares about philosophical knowledge, sadly.

My bet: the bill goes down (it should--it's badly composed), but it hangs around long enough to become a litmus test, hence a campaign issue. ("I voted for the evolution bill before I voted against the philosophy bill..." You get the idea...)

Gashwin said...

St. Eliz -- so true, so true, especially that last part!

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Do I win something?

(Columbia-AP) February 13, 2006 - The Education Oversight Committee voted Monday to reject curriculum standards for high school biology that deal with teaching evolution.

The school reform panel wants the Board of Education to rewrite a portion of the standards to encourage high school students to critically analyze evolution.

Scientists who support teaching evolution reject the idea of adding the phrase "critical analysis" to the curriculum. They call it an effort by evolution critics to introduce creationism and intelligent design in the classroom.

Now to sit back and wait for the grandstanding.

Gashwin said...

LOL --- nah. Just goes to show that you've been in SC a while ... :)