Saturday, October 08, 2005

Pandas in the Court

Can courts and school boards design with intelligence?

A lawsuit is now being argued in federal court in Pennsylvania. According to those taking sides, it is a dispute about the teaching of alternative theories to the evolution of life, theories different from those that more or less originated with Charles Darwin. More specifically, the legal issue is whether the local school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, has used government authority to establish a religious belief. Both sides of the dispute speak in the name of freedom. Those who support the school board defend their right to freely express their beliefs. Those who sued the school board claim their right to be free of government intruding into matters of religion.

It is a difficult case for any court to decide. Courts in the United States have no jurisdiction over matters of faith and doctrine. Nor is there any way a court could rule on what is, or is not, good science. Both religion and science deal, in some sense, with what is the truth. Neither legislative action nor judicial rulings can make any statement more true, or less true, than it is. Neither can a statement by the president of the United States, by a state governor, or by a mayor or a local school board. One of the parents suing the school board is quoted as saying "In science class, you don't say to the students, 'Is there gravity, or do you think we have rubber bands on our feet?' " This man is a life science teacher in a neighboring school district, and a Republican.

Perhaps the real problem lies in the description of "evolution" given in a recent New York Times article about the case: "Evolution finds that life evolved over billions of years through the processes of mutation and natural selection, without the need for supernatural interventions." Is that so? Well, IF the available scientific data proves that life was created entirely by natural selection, without any supernatural intervention, then we have a real conflict on our hands. There cannot both be creation by God and no creation by any God. One of the parents supporting the school board is described as "a mother of five who believes that God created the earth and its creatures."

But how could any scientific test establish the existence of God, or when and how God may have intervened? C.S. Lewis pointed out that when a prayer is answered, one can always look at the sequence of natural events that are necessarily part of the answer, and say "See, it would have happened anyway." Thus, an answered prayer can be logical proof that prayer doesn't work. The same is true of the natural events flowing from the creation of life. The data is the same, whether God intervened or not. God does not leave footprints in the fossil record. Science can only establish what is in the fossil record. Anyone who claims, in the name of science, to have proof that God was not involved is an ignorant, pompous, educated fool. Perhaps what appears to human eyes as "mutations" was actually planned and inspired by God.

Looking at the policy the school board adopted, it seems silly to blow this case up into a review of the legitimacy of any theory at all. The school board did not decide to teach some church's version of Biblical creationism as science. (Doing so was ruled out by the Supreme Court in 1987, as establishment of a religious belief by use of government authority). Nor did it introduce the controversial "Intelligent Design" curriculum into the science classroom. The school board merely required that a statement be presented to ninth-grade biology students, which said that there is a controversy over evolution, that intelligent design is a competing theory, and students who want to learn more could look up the textbook "Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins" in the school library. An advocacy group called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics publishes the book.

It is beyond dispute that there is controversy over evolution. There may not be one shred of truth to the criticisms of evolutionary biology, but as long as a large minority, perhaps up to one half of the American people, question, denounce, or express reservations about the theory, there IS a controversy. Allowing students to go look up an alternative viewpoint, if they choose, is hardly requiring science teachers to present it as legitimate. Intelligent Design is not really a competing theory at all. It is a brief commentary on the existing data. It does not require a whole separate text book to explain, a 2-page mimeographed sheet would do just fine. In fact, a small but growing number of Christians denounce "Intelligent Design" as blasphemous nonsense. (See the link at left, Insulting God with our Intelligent Designs). But this hardly seems to be the local school board policy that should make or break the idea. This case doesn't make sense as a test of whether it is sound science or not. The school board never said that it is.

To anyone concerned with our constitutional system of government, it is difficult to ask courts to second-guess the decisions of a local school board. The constitution assigns some powers to the federal government, reserves others to the states. States in turn assign some powers to local school districts. Since the Civil War, and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitution also reserves certain rights to the people that neither state nor federal governments may over-ride. When the constitution assigns authority, it does not, and can not, assume that whoever exercises this authority will always make the right choice. Everyone makes mistakes. The constitution tries to assign who should have the authority to act. It tries to define how those with power can be held accountable.

An unconstitutional act means that some level of government has stepped outside of its authority, has claimed a power that it does not rightly have. It is not enough that someone thinks a decision by the school board was a bad idea. Is there any consistent legal principle that can give a school board authority to define curriculum, then intervene in the details to say "No, that was the wrong choice to make, you should have done this instead?" Today it may be an injunction against so-called "Intelligent Design" curriculum. Tomorrow, it may be an injunction by another judge in a different district against teaching the theory of evolution at all. True, teaching religion in public schools does exceed the authority of any government body. But acknowledging that a large part of the American people believe in and worship God does not. (The odd thing about intelligent design programs is that they never mention God. Maybe the intelligent designer is an intergalactic supercomputer?)

However the court rules, the media and the high-powered advocacy groups on each side will probably spin the ruling in ways that are not justified by the facts or the law. If the judge rules that the school board is within its lawful authority to make this decision, the headlines will read "Federal Judge Supports Intelligent Design, Downplays Evolution." In truth, the judge could personally believe that the school board is absolutely wrong, and still rule that they are within their authority. If the judge rules that the school board has exceeded its lawful authority, the headlines will read "Federal Court Declares Darwin is Good Science." The judge could be a firm believer in so-called "creation science" and still rule that the board had no legal authority to adopt the policy at issue.

A better school board policy might be to develop an introduction to natural science classes, including astronomy, geology, and biology, along this line: "The facts taught in this class are based on human observations and measurements, using advanced technology and mathematics, to study the material world. The theories taught in this class are based on that data. None of the information taught in this class does, or can, provide any basis to "prove" or to "disprove" any religious belief as to creation or intervention in human affairs by any god, or the accuracy of any divine revelation. That is simply beyond the capacity of any science. Students may or may not personally agree with some of the material taught, but should be familiar with the theories commonly accepted in science, and how they were developed. Material on some alternative perspectives is available in the library."

Most science teachers would deny that a practitioner of Vudun has the power to inflict pain on a person by sticking needles into a doll. But there is recent evidence that a medically documented process does exist for creating zombies. As for the more conventional Christian practice of laying hands on a sick person, an honest biology teacher would acknowledge that we don't scientifically know how effective it is, or why, but when a known medical cure is available, that cure should be part of a prudent treatment process.

Faith healers have been known to kill patients by "ending the pain" of appendicitis through prayer, only to see the patient drop dead because the appendix has burst.But that doesn't mean that faith and prayer have never healed. A recent article in National Geographic described a child being treated for leukemia receiving a transfusion of cord blood cells, and mentioned that his parents had been praying for hours. That is a good combination: all that science allows us to do for ourselves, and all that God has provided us to seek divine intervention. It worked well too: doctors never saw this treatment work so well and so quickly. It's time to stop posing science and faith against each other, or demanding that either one should be twisted to accommodate the other.

1 comment:

Keith S. said...

As usual you provide a thougtful yet highly educated view of this world of partisan politics, religion and law. Great job!