Facts and Faith

Feb 18 2011 Published by under [Science in Society]

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I believe... I believe... It's silly, but I believe.  Susan, Miracle on 34th Street

Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Doris, Miracle on 34th Street

Science means accepting what the evidence shows. Pascale H. Lane, Real Life

Miracle on 34th Street, a Christmas classic movie, revolves around the identity of a nice man with a beard who calls himself Kris Kringle. Could he be the real Santa Claus, as he says he is?

His lawyer "proves" to the state of New York that he is because the US Postal Service delivers Santa letters to him in a series of random events. Hmmm, the postal service mis-delivers mail for other people to me about once a month; does that mean I'm them?

The characters quoted above include a cynical mother (Doris) raising her daughter without fantasies such as Disney princesses and the d00ds who rescue them (yeah, she's divorced, that harlot). The daughter, played by an enchanting, pint-sized Natalie Wood, sets a task for Kris Kringle that seems impossible but that happens, with or without the help of  Santa (depends on what you believe). By the end of the flick, daughter Susan believes in Santa, Doris is back in the arms of a man, and the world believes in miracles...maybe.

Fun escapism, but the "proof of Santa" offered would not hold water in court today. No DNA evidence? No birth certificate (I mean, people in the US seem to have a difficult time accepting such legal documents as evidence when they are produced; imagine the absence of one)? Not even a quick sleigh ride to the North Pole or testimony from a helpful elf? As they said in the movie, "Clang! Clang! Bellvue!"

A bill introduced in my soon-to-be home state of Oklahoma led to a bit of a discussion in my home. Here's the scoop:

OK House of Representatives, HB 1551, authored by long-time antievolution legislator Sally Kern. I ask you to email the OK legislators on the House Common Education Committee before next Tuesday (22 Feb) to let them know you oppose this bill.

Kern’s latest bill, the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act,” is an antievolution bill in the mold of the law passed in Louisiana in 2008. Under the guise of “academic freedom,” this bill would carve out a legal space for creationist teachers to bring non-scientific criticisms of evolution into the classroom. The full text of the bill can be found at the end of this email and at http://webserver1.lsb.state.ok.us/2011-12bills/HB/HB1551_int.rtf

In short, here’s why HB 1551 is a bad bill:

--Manufactured controversy. The alleged “controversies” described by this bill do not exist; scientists do not debate the validity of evolution.

--Harmful to education. This will create classroom confusion for teachers, because under this bill students cannot be marked down for certain types of answers on tests.

--Unneeded. Teachers are already free to discuss real science in science classrooms.
In more detail, here’s what’s wrong with HB 1551:

1.      “… the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy.”

Evolution is not a scientifically controversial topic. Although this bill calls for teachers to promote “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” these alleged weaknesses do not come from scientists; they are creationist fabrications. The only “controversy” here is manufactured by antievolution forces. And it is worth emphasizing that part of the language of this bill comes from a Seattle-based organization with a history of promoting “intelligent design” creationism (see 6 below).

2.      One provision of HB 1551 reads: “…no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories.”

If this were applied literally, this means that if students answered biology test questions with, “Evolution is evil--that’s my position on your stupid theory,” such students could not be marked wrong. This would create chaos in the classroom, with teachers juggling respect for religious views with grading inaccurate answers. Religion does not belong in the science classroom, and this provision drops religious “position[s] on scientific theories” right into teachers’ laps.

3.       “The provisions of the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”

This assertion is flatly contradicted by decades of religiously-based attacks on evolution. It’s clear that the effect of the bill would be to encourage creationist teachers to present unscientifically warranted criticisms of evolution, and that’s enough to make it unconstitutional. Simply saying that a bill does not promote religion does not make it so.

4.       “The intent of the provisions of the act is to create an environment in which both the teacher and students can openly and objectively discuss the facts and observations of science, and the assumptions that underlie their interpretation.”

The “assumptions” language invites creationist teachers to attack well-established science; a creationist teacher might use this provision to say (falsely) that an assumption of evolution is “atheistic materialism.” In this manner, creationist teachers could disparage evolution while maintaining that they were simply following the law.

5.      HB 1551 is virtually identical, word-for-word, to a bill introduced in 2009, SB 320 (Brogdon). Discussions of SB 320 suggest it was religiously motivated; Sen. Randy Brogdon described his bill as a way to “combat the secular humanistic indoctrination,” such as 2009’s “yearlong one-sided celebration of Darwinism [at] OU.” SB 320 also proposed to solve a non-existent problem; a school superintendent in Brogdon’s district said, “I don’t think our teachers are confused at all, and I’m somewhat puzzled because Sen. Brogdon and I have never had any dialogue on the subject.”

Information from National Center for Science Education

I went home absolutely appalled that teachers would be allowed to spout creationist viewpoints in the classrooms, and that students could potentially answer questions on tests with "God made it that way" and not be penalized. My husband thought the intent of the bill was to allow teachers to acknowledge creation myths and lead a discussion that would allow the students to "see the light" of evolution, to understand the difference between fact and religion.

My husband is naive; he still believes that rational though wins the day.

Scientific inquiry involves things that can be measured and demonstrated. While subatomic particle physics includes a certain element of faith in my mind, science ultimately relies on evidence. Evidence supports evolution. Period. And global warming, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and the lack of harm from abortions. These scientific observations do not require belief in any particular being or myth or miracle.

Why must we keep fighting this battle? Makes me wish Santa were around to make everything rational and right with the world. Now that would be a miracle!

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