Reason on the ropes

I wasn’t intending to write about Science v. Religion again anytime soon, but a random conjunction of recent sources demand consideration as a group.

These disparate sources include an educator’s reaction to New York’s “banned list” of city exam topics, a noted blogger’s analysis of yet another piece of Tennessee anti-evolution legislation, and a listing of the anti-science views of Canada’s Conservative government.

Reading these sources one after another focuses the mind forcefully on the tenuous position that both science in particular and rationality in general have in the public mind.

– * –

The first article is Annie Keeghan’s “New flash: New York educators reject dinosaurs,” published by on March 26th. Keeghan has considerable educational publishing experience, and her report is a combination jape and lament.

In an attempt to avoid exam questions and topics that may “evoke unpleasant emotions in students,” the NYC DofE has created a long list of unacceptable topics. Some of the exclusions are straight PC — no mention of IPods, since some students are too poor to buy them. Others are cave-ins to the special interests who urge avoiding “controversial” topics like evolution — no dinosaurs, please — and religion — no Native American creation myths, and thank you.

Of course, there are several issues here. I’ll just mention in passing the fuzzy-headed “no exposure, no harm” thinking that has created an entire generation of children and young adults who have been cosseted and coddled and cuddled until they think, to their great detriment, that they live in a world that owes them unbridled happiness and constant gratification. You know what I mean.

Of more concern is the idea that New York would ban even the mention of anything that might offend the “personal beliefs” of even one of the little test-takers. When it comes to “personal beliefs” or “impersonal facts,” bet on irrationality every time, or be prepared to go broke fast.

The New York City list is remarkably comprehensive, banning reference not just to the obvious culprits like evolution but also birthdays (JW’s don’t celebrate them), Hallowe’en (paganism and witchcraft) and junk food (it’s bad for kids).

And the influence on curricula goes far beyond testing. If it’s banned on the test, what publisher will risk putting dinosaurs or Hallowe’en into a textbook series that might be rejected by one of the nation’s biggest educational materials consumers. Keeghan, writing from experience, puts it this way:

Because lists like the ones coming out of New York offer no definitive explanations or guidelines; they raise only more questions, inspire fear in editors responsible for decision-making, and create a general reluctance on the part of publishers to go near any topic remotely off-limits.

– * –

The next source is Steven Novella’s dissection of the motivation behind the Tennessee legislature’s anti-evolution bill. Having lost every court fight over creationism and ID, the Bible-inspired anti-evolution forces in Tennessee have adopted a new tactic. Don’t try to legislate “teaching the controversy,” of which there is none; instead, pass a law that directs and protects science teachers’ responsibility to encourage “discussion” of the “issues” that arise from science lessons, including those “issues” that arise from students’ religious beliefs.

Novella highlights the key sections of the legislation. One sections states that “The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy.” Yet, as Novella is quick to point out, there is no scientific controversy. As he writes, “The fact that all known life on earth shares a common ancestor and is the product of common descent is as well-established a fact as any in science.” And, further confuting the claim of “controversy,” Novella notes that “there is no competing scientific theory that can account for the evidence from these disciplines.”

What this means is that any “controversy” that needs to be “discussed” in science classes arises not from scientific sources but from the student’s and the community’s religious and social beliefs.

Novella argues that “the real purpose of the bill is to protect such teachers from being fired for violating the constitution and teaching religious beliefs in the science classroom.” According to the legislation, no one “shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

If that’s not license to dilute Darwin with Deuteronomy, what is it?

– * –

The third piece comes from an excellent Canadian source, the progressive newspaper The Tyee. The source article is “Understanding Harper’s Evangelical Mission,” by Andrew Nikiforuk.

Entire books, and good ones, like Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor (reviewed here), have been written about the evangelical underpinnings of Stephen Harper’s government, philosophical and theological imperatives which, as Nikiforuk points out, Harper and his staff are at great pains to mute in public.

But people are noticing more and more how anti-science, and anti-reason, Harper’s government’s policies are. Nature was moved to editorialize recently that it was “time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.”

Nikiforuk writes:

Almost daily, more evidence surfaces that Canada’s government is guided by tribalists averse to scientific reason in favour of Biblical fundamentalism—or what some call “evangelical religious skepticism.”

From pulling out of the Kyoto Agreement without bothering to replace it with a coherent “made in Canada” plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to a government minister’s branding of environmental opponents as “foreign radicals,” to calling Greenpeace (which originated in Canada) an “extremist group,” to the latest threat to cancel government funding of registered charities that criticize federal environmental policies — the present Canadian government is no friend of science.

Nikoforuk’s article outlines the fundamentalist creed that generates this anti-science attitude. As he writes, “any Canadian listening to the news these days might well conclude that the Republican extremists or some associated evangelical group has occupied Ottawa.”

– * –

The battle to project reason into debates shaped by inspired writing, and the endless rearguard action to protect previous successes against the relentless counter-thrust of the religiously motivated, is both exhausting and disheartening.

It’s exhausting because it’s never-ending, and it’s disheartening because I am constantly reminded that the rational is always devalued when emotion and religion hold sway.

But what is one to do? If one can’t live in a made-up, make-believe world of spirits and saviours, the real world, the world in which things actually exist and events actually happen, is the only alternative.

Defending reason and science may be challenging, but the alternative is Fairyland.

2 thoughts on “Reason on the ropes

  1. Dinosaurs and dragons. Kids tend to know which ones are for real.It may take learning and age to place them in context. The problems come when they both need to be fitted with other things into belief systems that allow us to interact with others in the real world and then they can easily be thought to be the same.

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