About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Florida, critical thinking and evolution
But of course factual truth has never been the forte of creationists. Nor has honesty. The bill is ironically called “The Evolution Academic Freedom Act,” and who would possibly want to be against academic freedom? The bill aims at protecting teachers who wish to be critical of evolution teaching in public schools, except for the minor detail that there doesn’t seem to be a record of any teacher filing a complaint on the matter (I guess they are all truly scared out of their wits by the evolution police).
The Florida Senate has already passed a similar bill, which would prohibit school officials from penalizing teachers that challenge evolution based on “scientific information.” I wonder where these teachers would get such information. Oh, right, from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, the so-called think tank that actually drafted the “model” legislation on which the bill is based.
Not all is good in creationist heaven, however. Discovery Institute’s associate director John West (whose insane book on “Darwin Day in America” I just reviewed for Free Inquiry) was unhappy about the difference in language between the House and the Senate bills (the House version has removed language about challenges to evolution and replaced it with the milder requirement for critical analysis): “It makes me wonder whether some people who are for [the bill] are actually trying to scuttle it,” West told a Fox affiliate (who else?). Could it be that intelligent design (in the form of simple political opportunism) is at work in the Florida legislature? Shocking.
Indeed, time is of the essence, as the legislature’s session ends Friday, and if the two versions of the bill will not be reconciled by then, the whole thing will be mired in political deadlock (who said political inaction is a bad thing?). According to the blog maintained by Florida Citizens for Science (quoting an article in the St. Petersburg Times) “key senators have indicated they did not expect to take up the measure again if it drastically differs from their already approved bill.” Good for the senators who are willing to stick with their version of irrationalism!
Regardless of the outcome of this umpteenth creationist attack on public education, one has to wonder how all of this is possible in the first place. The answer is complex and multifactorial (as I tried to outline in Denying Evolution), but one pattern seems to emerge clearly from an analysis of the last few years of similar episodes. To put it simply, we have three factors at play: a Machiavellian engine, a dope, and an irresistible climate of political opportunism. The Machiavellian engine is of course the Discovery Institute, which is well funded and staffed by people who are deeply misguided, but certainly not stupid. It continually works to figure out ways around the law and to create the public perception of an intellectual debate that is not there (and Fox News isn’t the only one falling for it, unfortunately).
The role of the dope is played by whoever locals happen to be manipulated by the Discovery Institute for the occasion at hand: in this case we have Representative Hays, and in Dover PA there were several school board members, most prominently Alan Bosnell and William Buckingham. Unfortunately, it’s always easy to find a dope, especially among politicians of a certain conservative fundamentalist and faux-populist stripe.
As for the third factor, political opportunism is neither endemic to this country nor a novel feature of the 21st century. It is likely that several people who voted in favor of the Florida bills have qualms with their content, but that they need to return political favors, feel that they have to support the party (“right or wrong,” etc.), or are simply elected in a district where ignorance and bigotry are widespread enough to become politically effective. After all, this is a country that seems to think that a crucial “electability” question for a Presidential candidate is whether he or she does or does not wear a silly flag lapel pin -- apparently regardless of any substantial issues actually at stake.
Why is it so difficult, on the other hand, for liberal progressive forces to conjure up anything like the triplet of causes just described, this time on the side of rationality and good science? Well, we have the National Center for Science Education (which West describes in his book as an evil force headed by a truly horrible and hell-bound woman, my anthropologist friend Eugenie Scott). But the annual budget of the NCSE is peanuts compared to that of the Discovery Institute -- because it is much easier to rally ignorant bigots than intelligent people (the latter have a self-defeating proclivity to think that their fellow citizens couldn’t possibly be that stupid). It is easy enough to find progressive legislators willing to put forth worthy bills (factor two), but they then have to contend with the above-mentioned propensity of their colleagues to shy away from whatever action may be perceived by the public (or by media like Fox) as -- God forbid -- too much to the left of “the American people” (while in fact, the US simply does not have a functional political left at this point: we have center, center-right, right, ultra-right and the completely insane right).
That’s why it is up to all of us to be constantly vigil and stand up whenever necessary to protect reason and education. As Carl Sagan aptly put it, science truly is a delicate candle in the dark, always in danger of being snuffed out by the likes of the Discovery Institute and the Florida legislators.