Florida: Open Letter on Learning from History

The “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” bills currently being considered by the Florida legislature are old stratagems borrowed from antievolution efforts in other states. Ronda Storms and Alan Hays have been asked whether “intelligent design” could be taught in science classrooms. Storms and Hays steadfastly refuse to answer the question posed. You have to look at what has been done in the name of narrow religious antievolution and not what is said.

(Originally at the Austringer.)

Storms and Hays are treating this as a rhetorical shell game, that if they consistently claim that religion has no part in their bills, then they are being put upon when the issue comes up. For antievolutionists, the essential viewpoint revolves around this simple argument: creation can only have happened by evolution or by God, and one must choose one or the other. The simple – and erroneous – conclusion they make is that arguments made against evolutionary science are thus also arguments for their preferred narrow religious viewpoint, the one that denies that God could possibly have used the methods science is discovering in creating life and its diversity. They don’t have to mention their religious stance explicitly, or so they believe – if enough of their favored arguments against evolution are taught as if science to students, the students will make the “right” choice in rejecting evolutionary science and accepting their particular interpretation of God as creator. Their choice of this narrow religious doctrine does not have to be named, it is implicit in the ensemble of arguments that they wish to permit teachers and students to bring into the science classroom without oversight, interference, or rebuttal.

This is where the history becomes useful. Following World War I, religious antievolutionists took up the obvious strategy to make sure only their view was heard in science classrooms: exclude evolutionary science. That gave us the Scopes trial and about forty years in which textbooks excised or de-emphasized instruction in evolutionary science. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided in Epperson v. Arkansas that scientific concepts could not be excluded from the science classroom to privilege a specific religious doctrine. And religious antievolutionists made the needed adjustment: they now claimed that what they had to offer was just as scientific as evolutionary science. The new stance was called “creation science” and it repeated all the same arguments as plain old creationism before it, except that it dropped those arguments that made direct reference to scripture. It was during legal battles over twenty-five years ago about “creation science” that antievolutionists began to misuse “academic freedom” as a convenient rhetorical tool to press their view. Those came to an abrupt end with the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, where the court correctly called “creation science” a sham and an illicit attempt to sanitize the narrow religious view of their brand of exclusionary creationism.

This setback famously led to the use of “intelligent design” as a reference to a non-existent field of study, accomplished simply by changing references to “creation science” in the drafts of the “Of Pandas and People” textbook to the new label, “intelligent design”. All the same arguments made against evolution under “creation science” would now be taught as the content of “intelligent design”, except for those that made explicit mention of a young age of the earth and a recent global flood. Along the way, they made an incomplete change from “creation scientists” to “design proponents”, giving us the delightful verbal transitional fossil of “cdesign proponentsists”. In 2005, the Kitzmiller v. DASD decision in Pennsylvania found an “intelligent design” policy to be an establishment of religion and that “intelligent design” itself was not science.

Ohio adopted new science standards in 2002, and it incorporated a compromise urged by “intelligent design” advocates, that evolution be the subject of “critical analysis”. A lesson plan that implemented “critical analysis” went through a first draft with open use of many arguments from creationism and those most closely associated with “intelligent design”. The second draft again chose a sanitized subset of arguments, but they were recognizably part of the religious antievolution ensemble of arguments. In 2006, the Ohio state board of education finally realized that it could not trust antievolution advocates when they asserted that no “intelligent design” would be taught, and removed the “critical analysis” language from their standards.

The arguments comprising “intelligent design” and other labels for the same old religious antievolution are meant to knock down more than “Darwinism”. They also stand for a rejection of the views of Christian denominations that have made their peace with the progress of science, such as the Catholic church and many mainstream Protestant denominations. The methods of deception and subterfuge consistently chosen by religious antievolutionists should earn the scorn of Christians everywhere.

Florida will make a choice soon. Florida can repeat the lessons of history by adopting the narrow religious doctrines that are implicit in the current mislabeled “academic freedom” and “critical analysis” bills, guaranteeing that students across the state are inculcated with a view that science and the scientists who practice it are untrustworthy. Or Florida can benefit from the experience of other states around the country and avoid a morally and legally indefensible adoption of a narrow religious doctrine dressed in secular language.

See Florida Citizens for Science for more information.