I was sobered while watching a recent conversation on HuffPost Live about America's troubled conversation over origins. Nominally about recent attempts in Louisiana to get creationism into the public schools, the wide-ranging conversation shines a remarkable light on the country's century-long battle over creation vs. evolution.
All of the strategies developed by the anti-evolutionary leadership to rally support for their cause are on display. Significantly, however, the individuals in the conversation are not the leaders of the movement promoting their standard arguments, but ordinary conservative Christian leaders who have absorbed the anti-evolutionary message. Their confident claims and responses to challenges testify to the rhetorical power of this message. They are true believers.
The great power of the anti-evolutionary message embraced by so many Americans comes from the following, all of which are on display in the conversation:
- Appealing to America's democratic impulse: At a time when we constantly hear that lawmakers should heed the voice of the "90 percent of Americans who want more gun control," on what basis do lawmakers ignore the "vast majority of Americans who reject evolution?" Does this constituency have no right to be heard? Must their children be forced to learn ideas in the public schools at odds with their family's values and rejected by most of the voters?
- Demanding fairness and tolerance: Isn't America all about being fair? And what could be fairer than giving voice to other viewpoints with widespread support? At a time when most Americans are demanding gay marriage in the name of fairness, why are we being so unfair to the creationists, excluding their ideas about origins?
- Promoting freedom for our students: Must education be coercive on the topic of origins? Why can't teachers present "both sides" and let our "bright high school students" make up their own minds? Will this not encourage critical thinking in our science classes? What is this need to restrict science teaching to just one viewpoint when there are others in play?
- Appealing to authority: A popular anti-evolutionary website contains the signatures of hundreds of credentialed academics who "Dissent from Darwin." This is a lot of intellectual firepower. Surely such a large crowd of anti-evolutionary scholars can't all be wrong.
- Deflecting criticism: Much has been made of the failure of the creationists to publish in scientific journals. But their ideas are blocked from those journals by editorial and peer referees whose allegiance is to the scientific status quo. New paradigms, like Intelligent Design, are rejected out of hand.
- Currying sympathy: Anti-evolutionists in secular universities or other scientific institutions are forced to hide their views from their colleagues. I was once in a gathering that including several such individuals and they insisted that nobody take any pictures, lest they be identified. If they "come out" they run the risk of losing their jobs, run off by intolerant peers who object to their ideas without considering them. Ben Stein exposed this abuse of Intelligent Design scholars in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
This rhetorical strategy contains great synergistic power; polls show that Americans are not coming around to accept evolution, even as its scientific credibility has grown to point of certainty. The conservative Christians in the video above have heard and embraced all of these arguments. In their view, they have a strong case and every right to press it.
Dismantling these arguments takes more time than assembling them. And the process often sounds like little more than special pleading and self-serving prejudice. Science, of course, is not a democratic process -- and it shouldn't be -- but explaining why is a bit tricky to an audience that values democracy so highly. High school students are not capable of adjudicating the validity of anti-evolutionary arguments -- they have enough challenges simply learning the material and taking time to put fringe ideas in their heads is not reasonable. Restricting education to well-established knowledge is certainly not intolerance, but you can't tell that to someone who rejects well-established knowledge.
The "Dissent from Darwin" list disintegrates when you look at it closely: The signers are largely non-biologists or even non-scientists. Many are retired academics, trained long ago before evolution became so established. Virtually none are experts in the sense of being evolutionary biologists active in the field. Ben Stein's movie is riddled with falsehoods that have been exposed. (No creationists have even submitted papers to scientific journals, much less had them rejected. The few cases of people losing their jobs turn out to far more complicated than simply anti-creationist prejudice.) And on it goes.
Science education in America is in trouble.