The Fairness Problem

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

In 1986, I was nominated for the state school board in Alabama. My position on the teaching of evolution was this: “If you don’t know the basic ideas of evolution, you’re not an educated person. And if you don’t know the major criticisms of evolutionary theory, you’re not an educated person.”

For my position on the issue, the Lieutenant Governor called me a “religious fanatic.”

That’s how some people react when you try to treat both sides fairly on an issue like evolution.

The National Center for Science Education was supposedly created to promote the teaching of evolutionary theory in the nation’s schools.  Its principal spokesman, Dr. Eugenie Scott, has spent decades crusading for the teaching of the “scientific consensus” on evolution and against alternative points of view such as Intelligent Design. (Nowadays, NCSE has turned its attention to the promotion of Global Warming theory in classrooms.)

From my perspective, the problem with NCSE’s approach to evolution is that, by insisting on the exclusion of alternatives, Dr. Scott and the NCSE have made it less likely that schoolchildren will be educated about evolutionary biology.

Most Americans believe the government has no business ramming ideas down people’s throats. To them, a my-way-or-the-highway approach to the debate on any controversial matter is abhorrent.

The importance of open debate is one of the key concepts underlying the First Amendment. But that concept is not the only reason to maintain a level of skepticism about claims of a scientific consensus, no matter how “settled” the science seems to be. The fact is, the consensus is often wrong. (Indeed, on matters related to public policy, the scientific consensus is almost always wrong.)

In a recent article on NCSE’s Eugenie Scott, Sherri Cruz of the Orange County Register explained Scott’s strategy for dealing with contrarians by focusing on the “three pillars” of the contrarians’ arguments—the science pillar (arguments over the facts), the ideology pillar (arguments over political philosophy), and the cultural pillar. Cruz wrote of the cultural pillar:

This is, arguably, the most effective pillar that creationists and climate change contrarians have, Scott said. Americans believe in fairness and equal time and letting everyone have their say. This sometimes works to the detriment of science education.

Groups that argue against evolution and climate change . . . often stress that it’s fair and allows for academic freedom and enables critical thinking. They say both sides should be taught and that teaching both sides increases the students’ ability to think critically.

Fairness is built into American culture, she said, but it’s not relevant to what should be in educational curriculum. To illustrate this point, consider the recent National Science Foundation survey that found one in four people believe the sun goes around the Earth. But whether the sun goes around the Earth or the Earth goes around the sun is not a matter of opinion. “Let’s give people who know something about the subject matter responsibility for determining the curriculum,” Scott said.

Damn that fairness!

Note the glaring problem in Scott’s reasoning. The idea that the sun goes around the earth was, for thousands of years, the scientific consensus. More than 97% of astronomers and other scientists believed it to be true, and those who denied geocentrism were ostracized.

For the science totalitarians, the real problem with fairness is that it enables people to think for themselves. That is something the totalitarians cannot abide.

I happen to believe in most aspects of evolutionary theory, but I am well aware that much of it—at least, the version taught in schools based on the “consensus”—has turned out to be wrong. Evolution isn’t gradual and steady, as I was taught; it moves in fits and starts. Life doesn’t always evolve toward increasing complexity, as I was taught. So-called Haeckelian recapitulation (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”), that is, the idea that embryonic development shows the path of evolution, has also turned out to be wrong. The Miller-Urey experiment showing how life could have arisen from chemicals in the primordial atmosphere—that concept was mostly wrong. Those moths that turned dark because of pollution darkening the barks of trees—the pictures were fakes, and any moths that “turned dark” turned right back after the pollution was reduced; no new species were created. The genetic code, it turns out, isn’t like a blueprint; it engages in a complex dance with the world around an organism. “Junk” DNA is important, not junk. And, contrary to what I was taught, evolutionary science doesn’t prove that some races of people are superior to others.

We know these things because no one—not NCSE or anyone else—was able to shut down the debate about the origin of life and the origin of species. In that, there’s a lesson for all of us.

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