Feb 252013

Owen Courreges

At this point, there should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that the City of New Orleans opposes the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, an “academic freedom” act transparently designed to facilitate the teaching of creationism in public schools.  In May of 2011, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to support legislation aimed at repealing the LSEA, and just this past December, the Orleans Parish School Board unanimously voted to ban the teaching of “creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes.”

The actual language of the LSEA seems relatively innocuous at first blush.  It merely allows schools to “foster an environment … that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”  It later provides that that the LSEA “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”

Still, that last bit is just a fig leaf.  Creationism can still be introduced into the classroom as an alternative “science,” and the fact remains that evolutionary biology is specifically targeted.

On the other hand, nothing in the LSEA actually changes Louisiana science curriculum, which I understand to be reasonably comprehensive.   Given the permissive-but-not-mandatory language, it is difficult to know precisely what impact the LSEA has actually had on science education, if any.  Thus, the conventional wisdom is that Governor Jindal signed the LSEA into law as little more than a shout out a core constituency, i.e., conservative north Louisiana Protestants who don’t believe in evolution.  Put another way, it was politics.

However, Jindal’s decision to play politics has ignited a sustained campaign to repeal the LSEA founded by Zack Kopplin, the son of Mitch Landrieu’s First Deputy Mayor/Chief Administrative Officer, Andy Kopplin.  Zack Kopplin argues that teaching creationism “confuses students about the nature of science,” which could render Louisiana students unprepared for scientific fields, inhibiting economic growth in the state.

Kopplin’s argument is probably overstated.  Again, the LSEA doesn’t actually change state curriculum, which does include a by-the-numbers discussion of evolution.  In any case, a given student’s viewpoint on evolution is unlikely to be determined by a classroom discussion as opposed to their church, parents, etc.  I don’t think a repeal of the LSEA is going to lead to an explosion in evolutionary biologists from rural north Louisiana.

However, a bigger problem is that Louisiana’s science curriculum discusses the whole concept of science in a vacuum.  It doesn’t discuss much in the way of the history or the philosophy of science.    Zack Kopplin’s concern over the “nature of science” betrays the fact that science is an evolving human construct.  The scientific method isn’t sacred writ handed to us on stone tablets; it developed over time and is still the subject of debate.

Science isn’t divorced from philosophy, sitting on some higher plane. It’s down here in the muck with the rest of us.  It always has been, reflecting the best and the worst of mankind.

This is a major part of why evolution still evokes opposition.  When the theory of evolution was first proposed,  it rapidly led to practical application in the form of eugenics.  In 1917, Dr. Joseph A. O’Hara, New Orleans City Coroner and later head of the Louisiana State Medical Society, advocated the “sterilization of defectives and degenerates, and supervision of marriage.”  Eugenics wasn’t just regarded as social policy; it was taught as science in American high schools and colleges.

Opposition to eugenics came from many sources, but especially from conservative Protestants who had feared evolution would imply that humans were not a unique product of the divine by rather just like any other animal.  Eugenics, applying principles of animal husbandry to the human race, helped validate those fears.

As conservative British author G.K. Chesterton wrote in “Eugenics and Other Evils” in 1922:

The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.

The legacy of this perception is why today we are debating a law as silly as the LSEA.

There has never been a popular consensus on what science is, what it requires and what it doesn’t.  Many view science as requiring a materialist and empiricist worldview that rejects religion.  Others view novel scientific research as translating readily into government policy, the rejection of which is tarred as “anti-science.”  Science is an excellent source of knowledge about the world around us.  It is also a useful social and political truncheon.

Kopplin argues that science itself is “critical thinking,” which isn’t quite true.  Science adheres to a reliable method, but it is not critical thinking writ large.  There isn’t a Manichean choice between placing science on a pedestal or injecting it with religious doctrine masquerading as empirical research.    Science can be placed in proper context.  The goal should be to prevent the adulteration of science, not just to use it to score political points.

The LSEA should be repealed, but we also need to address the concerns that spawned it.  Fears of adulterated science are legitimate on both sides of the political aisle.  We need to guard against any perception that science is inherently at odds with peoples’ religious, moral and philosophical beliefs.  That will help prevent the next LSEA.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • Sarah H

    You say that the scientific method is a subject of debate, but you don’t
    list a single example of how the method, starting with observation and
    moving through to peer review and incorporation or revision, is debated.
    You seem to be confusing the questionable application of science with
    the actual process by which scientific research should be carried out. I
    completely agree that the history of science is a valuable discussion,
    as are ethics and philosophy, which do change dramatically over time.
    But the scientific method itself remains relatively established. I
    totally support Zach Kopplin’s assertions that the introduction of
    unfounded beliefs into scientific debates would be detrimental to
    Louisiana’s youth and a precarious endorsement of evangelical teachers and school boards.

    • Sarah,

      I’m referring to debates over the philosophy of science and its development broadly. Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” ignited a firestorm in 1962 by urging that science adheres to paradigms and could not escape cultural and personal bias. Kuhn’s work is still debated today, and led to even more radical thinking about the scientific method and scientific progress – like that of Paul Feyerabend, who rejected the idea of a single scientific method, and argued that science would not have developed with the precepts of modern scientific method, thus proving methodological monism to be an absurdity. I certainly don’t profess to be an expert in this areas, but there is ongoing debate here (broadly speaking, between postmodernists and realists) and it goes to the heart of scientific inquiry.

      We should certainly teach the scientific method as the conventionally-accepted means of scientific inquiry, but at the same time, we should acknowledge the debate over it (however briefly). If you really want to confuse students about the actual nature of science, the best way of doing that it to teach them that certain ideas are entirely sacrosanct and will never change. This doesn’t mean teaching non-science, but resisting the urge to deify science.

      I also do support repeal of the LSEA, but I regard it as more of a sideshow. It doesn’t do anything directly, and I suspect it has had little practical impact. Moreover, I see some hubris on the part of those who claim to stand for “science.” Any abuse of science is said to not really be “science,” as though science is fixed and incorruptible. And true “science” often winds up comporting with the speaker’s preconceived beliefs, even when there is a high degree of scientific uncertainty. We shouldn’t let science be co-opted by any camp.

  • I honestly think that science will always be at odds with religion. Religion relies on fear and superstition. It works best when administered to weak minds. Baptism at 2 weeks or 12 years translates to brainwashing young minds before they reach the age of reason. The absurd notions that people are born sinners and other foolishness in their dogmas are anti-science and anti-reason. Jindal, folks in north LA and Catholics largely dismiss science when thought and the facts are contrary to their own beliefs.

    Scientific reasoning intimates that maybe there are no gods, no devils. no angels, no heaven nor hell. There is no scientific proof of any of that foolishness. Maybe one day the majority of us will realize that there is just our natural world. Maybe religion is all man-made where the popular dogma is entirely myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds. Maybe one day, reason may prevail !

    • H.J. Bosworth,

      You’re free to think that; many people do. On the other hand, religion is virtually a cultural universal. I don’t think anyone can doubt that a belief in the supernatural is a common human trait and has a basis in every major human culture. I don’t think science does or should dismiss something so pervasive out of hand. Science merely observes the natural world, which neither proves nor disproves religion.

      Calling religious belief “anti-science” is, I think, a big part of the problem here. Simply because science doesn’t explain something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Science can’t prove or disprove morality either; it can’t prove that it is right or wrong to do anything. That doesn’t mean issuing a moral judgment is itself “anti-science.” That would be taking science into areas it isn’t intended for and doesn’t need to be taken.

      • Owen,

        Religious dogma has historically provided answers to life’s questions that were later disproven by science.
        Galileo Galilei was tried by the Catholic church for his paper on his scientific method, convicted of heresy and condemed to house arrest for the last 10 years of his life. All he did was to offer scientific observations that flew in the face of the prevailing lies.
        You may give a pass to the prevailing Christian shift in play to replace our government with a theocracy but I think that is a dangerous path. But I do appreciate your article on the dangers of the LSEA.

        • H.J. Bosworth,

          Nobody disputes that the episode with Galileo and the Inquisition was troubling and wrong, although it should be noted that Galileo did not follow a single scientific method and arguably could not have advanced heliocentric cosmology under modern scientific standards (a point advanced by Feyerabend). Thus, Galileo would likely have found modern science stifling. Moreover, the modern church, especially after Pope Pius XII, has been very open and accepting of modern scientific research and has apologized for its past mistakes, including its treatment of Galileo.

          I’m not trying to defend any movement to “replace our government with a theocracy” (which really isn’t on the table right now) and I certainly oppose any shift towards greater religious control of government. The LSEA, I have said repeatedly, is bad law. On the other hand, if materialists use their conception of “science” to advance their philosophy in schools and government (what G.K. Chesterton feared) I’d see that as equally bad. I see the continuing opposition towards evolution as being, at least in part, a reaction to the excesses of the early evolutionists — scientists and social theorists who were correct to embrace evolution, but wrong to use it to justify eugenics, social Darwinism, and worse. I think an acknowledgment that bad science on both sides has led to this rift is the first step to mending it. That’s my real thesis here.

          Another part of my thesis is that science itself is a fallible human construct. I find it disturbing to describe science, as Kopplin does, as being definable as “critical thinking.” That’s a blanket statement that belies more complex interactions, inertia, social pressures and biases within the history scientific progress. And to the extent it suggests, as you have, that religion is baseless crap believed by people who don’t think critically, it’s just stirring the pot. Even if you believe that science and religion don’t mesh, surely you’d rather that religious people not view science as the enemy?

    • B.C.

      Great response, Owen.

      To believe that science and religion are entirely exclusive of one another is contrary to reason and ironically, very “unscientific.” Only the most primitive minds can’t understand that some individuals can and choose to believe in both. I don’t consider myself religious but I still choose to respect the beliefs of others.

      • B.C.,

        That’s the irony here. I don’t agree with Chesterton insofar as I fully accept evolution, but what he pointed out in the quote I provided was important. It suggests that conservative Christian thinkers believed that “science” had been co-opted by materialists (i.e., people whose belief system includes a denial of the supernatural). I think using science this way is wrong, and it’s equally wrong with the LSEA. We need to respect the beliefs of others, as you say, and guard against the abuse of science to advance religious *or* philosophical doctrine.