Sartwell on Dover


Today's Los Angeles Times features this op-ed by Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College. His children attend the Dover area public schools.

Most of the essay is excellent. Sartwell argues that ID has no merit as a scientific theory and that it should be taught in science classes as a historical curiosity, like alchemy or astrology.

But in the last paragraph he turns around and ends up supporting the School Board mandated statement in support of ID. Very weird. I present a full analysis in this post over at EvolutionBlog.


Not as weird as you think. I also read some PT comments today by an atheist supporting ID. And at least 3 of the 7 expert witnesses for the pro-science side are Christians. ID promotes religion, but not mainstream religion. And whether or not we win KvD and restrict the “supply,” I see a lot of underutilized arguments that can reduce the “demand.”

This is not your father’s “monkey trial.”

What I find interesting actually is the number of religious folks I know who consider ID to be a very bad idea from a theological point of view. They do the same kind of flip-flops that Mr. Sartwell does, though.

Mr. Rosenhouse wrote at his blog: Why does he now support a statement that contradicts all of that? The Dover School Board isn’t telling kids that ID is an outdated historical curiosity. They are saying that it’s a live scientific option.

I agree; Prof. Sartwell had me somewhat on board until that conclusion. (And I’m one of those libertarians you referenced who would prefer a voucher system so that these kinds of controversies could be held to a minimum, tho they cannot be totally ended given the need for college admission standards.)

We cannot lie to children, and the Dover statement is a lie. ID is not a scientific alternative to evolution. It is a theological one.

And should public school teachers be steering kids to theological treatises? Imagine the thicket we would get into if any public school system decided to announce to biology classes that science was only one way of knowing, and that not everyone accepts it, so the kids should consult some ID textbooks that presented a different epistemology. Does that communicate to religious children whose parents do accept evolution that they are really atheists? Not truly religious?

And what if we did spend time parsing ID as we do alchemy in high school biology? Then we have public school teachers overtly dissing a contemporary religious belief.

The only conceivably proper forum for ID in a public school is in a neutrally taught social studies course, or a comparative religion class. And even there, the potential for controversy and excessive entanglement looms.

Why not leave it to parents and churches to address faith aspects of origins, and omit such minefields entirely from the public schools? Parents are free to teach their kids that science is wrong when it conflicts with scripture, and should also be free, in my strong opinion, to demand that their children be exempt from biology classes that contravene their religious beliefs. But they are not free to dictate the content of science for everyone else, however offensive that content may be to them.

Whatever the solution is, Prof Sartwell is wrong to think it lies in either the Dover statement, or in overtly lumping in ID with alchemy in a public school classroom. Science classes should teach scientific consensus, and the methods of science. Yesteryear’s flap over heliocentrism is fine for showing students how science can bump up against religion, but even that extinguished controversy would need to be presented with care in a public school. A contemporary one should be avoided, at least in science class.

It’s no flip-flop theologically to consider ID bad religion. If one accepts on faith that God created the universe as most of us Christians do, then it only stands to reason (in support of faith!) that what we observe in nature is similarly connected.

The question is, what do we observe? If what we see is evolution, so be it. To most of us Christians, then, it is a challenge to God’s authority to claim that what we in nature, manifestations of God’s direct action, is not what God wants. ID is just another form of blasphemy, another form of the old argument ‘man’s ideas are better than God’s.’ Such arguments may be entertaining, but they do not promote the church or the faith.

At least, I don’t feel that I’ve performed any flip flop. The atheist and I may disagree over just why it is that what we observe in nature is correct, but we agree that what we observe is what is there. Creationism, including ID, depart from that reality-based view of events.

On his blog, Jason writes:

Introducing ID into science classes is purely a device for using the public schools to promote religious propaganda. Everyone knows that. In their unguarded moments, the Dover School Board makes that explicit. The lawyers on both sides of the case know it, all of the witnesses know it, the judge knows it. Every blogger commenting on this case, from either side, knows it.

The legal issue being adjudicated here is whether the crazy people have managed to be sufficiently dishonest about their religious motivations. That is all. Have they buried their brain-dead religious twaddle under enough balderdash to sneak past a constitutional challenge?

This really nails the essence of this event. The battle here is over whether the flat-out lies being repeated by the creationists have enough coverage to provide plausible deniability to a judge personally inclined toward creationism and needing only the flimsiest and most transparent fig leaf to pretend he doesn’t see what’s going on.

What’s scary is, if Bush manages to appoint one more Antonin Scalia, the creationist strategy has won the field, and Lying For Jesus will become the watchword for a much wider demographic than the mere 45% of Americans who believe people were created poof, as is, and recently.

It’s no flip-flop theologically to consider ID bad religion.

I think what Rike’s Granddaughter meant is that they can perceive that IDC is bad religion, but they favor teaching it in public school science class nonetheless.

Sartwell, who often writes insightful pieces Op-Ed pieces for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has totally lost it. The Dover statement puts forth ID as science, not a religious minority’s view, which it is. In doing so the school board is telling their students an outright lie. That is unforgiveable in any school, public or private.

In doing that the school has failed in two ways: It’s promoting a particular religious viewpoint in direct violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment , and falsely representing that view as science when it’s not. Their posturing is more subversive than anything Joe McCarthy ever imagined.

The solution, in my view, lies in teaching ABOUT ID and other creation myths in a class on comparative religions. In fact the more I see the lies and misrepresesentations by the promoters of ID the more convinced I am that every student in this country (and maybe some adults as well) should be required to take a course in comparative religions in which the basic aim would be for all students to come away with an understanding of what freedom of religion means and why it’s a bedrock principle of our Constitution.

When I read the piece this morning, I assumed he was being at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek at the very end.

(Cross-posted from EvolutionBlog)

Jason’s quotation of Sartwell:

To understand what the Dover school board was trying to accomplish, consider how you would feel if your children, in the course of a compulsory education, were taught doctrines that contradicted your most cherished beliefs — that blandly invalidated your worldview without discussion. Think about being heavily taxed to destroy your own belief system. That’s how the people in this community feel.

I think Sartwell puts it too blandly. I commend to your attention my piece last year on Panda’s Thumb

There I said

After thinking about it at length and talking with people in the community and elsewhere, what I am realizing is that this is not something that has anything to do with reason and science; it is about fear.


I am beginning to understand that the core motivation driving the supporters of such proposals is fear. Not fear for themselves — they are too strong in their faith to be corrupted by evolutionary science. It is fear for their children and in particular, fear for their children’s souls. There is a genuine belief that accepting an evolutionary view of biological phenomena is a giant step on the road to atheism, and in learning evolutionary theory their children are in peril of losing salvation. Given the beliefs they hold, this is not a silly fear. From their perspective, atheism is a deadly threat, and evolution is a door through which that threat can enter to corrupt one’s child.


I agree fear is the motivator here. Even those who claim not to have a horse in this race express concern that their children might be exposed to something that jeopardizes their chances of going to heaven. The penalty for allowing Satan to trick you into a false faith is eternal damnation. If this isn’t one of the foremost parental responsibilities, then what is?[…]&tid=126 … in the meantime, scientists in the USA are being made to refute creationism-in-a-dress in court…

Another one who agrees with you on the fear thing, having thought the same for a while.

It’s not ignorance that drives IDers to stick their heads in the sand or chant lalalalalala with their fingers in their ears when confronted with all the evidence, or actively push for ID to be taught in schools. Instead, it really is a belief that an evil Satanic conspiracy by scientists is trying to turn children into immoral atheists, and that all the deceit in the world is permissible while trying to stop this. The end justifies the means.….

I think one of the fears of mainstream religion is the fear that what they are preaching may be proved nothing more than a myth.

Mainstream religion was happy to let evolution travel on its happily on its way because it was not actually attacking God or making overt statements with regards to the bible or God.

You had evolution making scientific progress and you had religion, keeping the faith.

Now that the ID/Creation crowd is pushing their agenda, trying to get a foothold in public schools with their pseudo science, all their claims are going to come under strict scrutiny. This means Evolution/Critical Thinking will now butt heads with Religion and this scares mainstream religion.

The ID crowd is pushing this battle where mainstream religion had hoped it would never go.

In case no one noticed: Comment #50000 occured above. A bit of a milestone for the Thumb.

I’m afraid Prof Sartwell is doing what the IDists have been working toward all along and has become confused about the difference between science and religion. One way to address the fear of people that evolution will put their children’s immortal souls in danger is to emphasise the theistic evolution argument that in fact evolution doesn’t have to do anything of the sort.

However, the ID people seem to dislike theistic evolution more than just about anything. Their whole purpose is to push the notion that it’s evolution or God but not both, that science could tell the difference if it weren’t for all the nasty atheists who’ve taken it over, that there’s objective evidence that it is in fact God and that evolution is wrong, and that therefore we need, effectively, a Christian theocracy (which is the real object of the exercise). Theistic evolution leaves the theistic part as an option, not a necessity.

I think science teachers need to tell kids in this country (or at least in many parts of the country) that the theological implications of a scientific theory are irrelevant to whether the theory is scientifically sound. The notion of whether that theory causes a problem for their beliefs is a matter for some setting other than a science class. You can’t start watering down science because some people don’t like what it does to their beliefs. This might be a very interesting discussion in another lesson, but science can’t afford to be held hostage to religious sensibilities. It’s been a disaster every time it’s been done in the past, and this time will be no different.

intelligent design isn’t a scientific alternative to evolution, it is a metaphysical alternative to science. Fundamentalists percieve (probably correctly) that more people disagree with evolution than with any other principal organizing theory in basic science. It is their “straw man.” The real idea under attack is actually methodological materialism (or any materialism or naturalism for that matter). They would probably prefer to see astrology, dianetics, or Lamarkism taught in science classes, since all of these also have mystical components. The fact that the scientific method has to a great degree been the proximal cause of American prosperity is lost on a lot of people. Intelligent design is only crucial if we ever have to relive the 17th and 18th centuries.

I keep seeing the term “materialism” in various posts here (#50043) and else where. Would someone define the term as used in this context?

Keanus: …every student in this country (and maybe some adults as well) should be required to take a course in comparative religions…

Boy howdy - if you think there’s resistance to the idea of kids being taught evolution

I keep seeing the term “materialism” in various posts here (#50043) and else where. Would someone define the term as used in this context?

It’s the fundie code word for “atheism”.

Along with “naturalism” and “darwinism”.

Keanus: …every student in this country (and maybe some adults as well) should be required to take a course in comparative religions…

Boy howdy - if you think there’s resistance to the idea of kids being taught evolution…

Indeed. Can you imagine the look on a fundie parent’s face when Junior comes home and says “Guess what, Dad – I learned all about Hinduism and Islam today!!”

Fundies don’t want religious opinions to be “compared” —- what they want is for THEIR opinions to be taught, and no one else’s.

I keep seeing the term “materialism” in various posts here (#50043) and else where. Would someone define the term as used in this context?

From the National Center for Science Education (NCSE):

“So science must be limited to using just natural forces in its explanations.This is sometimes referred to as the principle of methodological materialism in science: we explain the natural world using only matter, energy, and their interactions (materialism). Scientists use only methodological materialism because it is logical, but primarily because it works. We don’t need to use supernatural forces to explain nature, and we get farther in our understanding of nature by relying on natural causes.”

Comment #50045

Posted by poolboy on September 28, 2005 08:13 PM (e) (s)

I keep seeing the term “materialism” in various posts here (#50043) and else where. Would someone define the term as used in this context?

You’re bad, in league with Satan, and thus anything we do is justified as we’re fighting on God’s side.

science opponents deliberately equate methodologic materialism with philosophical materialism. The former is a statement of position that science is only capable of asessing matter in motion under the influence of blind uncaring forces of nature for no apparrent purpose. This limits the scope of scientific inquiry. The latter is a belief system and beyond the scope of science to address. I’m no pro at this but philosophical materialism may be similar to athiesm. Regardless neither athiesm nor philosophical materialism are required for scientists to do their jobs. Whenever you here the weasel words “sound science” beware of this deliberate equating.

I am not even an amateur in this so I very much appreciate all your comments.

I first thought materialism was toward being materialistic, needing to acquire things, self-centered, hedonistic,… I suppose that is the philosophical sense and ultimately where opponents push their definition towards athiesm.

I have more knowledge in the realm of physics than biology. As I have read more articles evolution, I can easily see the long connection from the String Theory to quantum physics, to chemistry, to biology, to evolution. For my religous friends, I have been calling that long connection, “the hand of god”. I get mixed reviews when using it.

The science opponents that want to connect methodological materialism to “no apparent purpose” get lost in the last mile of the journey (evolution). Mainly because that is where their religion gets in the way.

What matters is how Matter works.

Back on the subject, I have a son in eight grade. He is currently going through a beginning series on basics of evolution (and doing very well).

Thus, far they have not had any kids “speak out” in regards to creationsim. But, having talked with the teacher, she has a ready stream of discussion guides to bring the “religous contraversy” to the front.

Her take is that since the child asked, then it is OK to discuss it. Ex: If she gets “the earth is 6000 years old”, then Her questions are “How have other scientist examined this? Let’s look at the process for doing so.… things that are available to us… “Why is there a fossil record”? And “It shows that it is really 4.5 billion years old”…

I am still working through my thoughts here, but I would like somehow to bring the true contraversies (literal Genesis cannot be true, ID is not science and cannot be tested ) into the forfront and show them in the light of science. I think it works better to be open as such in high school (not middle school). Maybe the best way is as my son’s teacher tries to do today. If asked, be prepared and jump all over it.

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This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on September 28, 2005 2:56 PM.

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