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.