Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Science and Its Faith-Based Discontents

I just heard about this from a pretty shrill and self-massaging opinion piece on Commondreams.org, but a Florida state representative has introduced a bill that could give students the right to sue their professors if their opinions are not respected. The Florida House Choice and Innovation Committee passed the Orwellian "Academic Freedom Bill of Rights" last Friday 8-2 "despite strenous objections from the only two Democrats," according to the Independent Florida Alligator . The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley to stop "leftist totalitarianism" preached by "dictator professors." According to Florida's House of Representatives Staff Analysis, if passed, this bill could:
shift the responsibility to determine whether or not a student’s or faculty member’s freedom has been infringed from professional faculty self-governance to institutional or judicial governance.
So much for conservatism's less government is better government rhetoric.

This seems to be a pretty cynical move to get "intelligent design theory" into the classroom through a legislative doggie-door. The paper quoted Baxley as saying, "Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design (a creationist theory), and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’ Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue." So, his intentions are pretty clear. This is just another instance of what Lawrence M. Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, describes as rational intelligence's losing battle against fundamentalism in today's NYTs.
The "reality-based community," as one White House insider so poetically referred to it recently, is losing the fight for hearts and minds throughout the country to a well-orchestrated marketing program that plays on sentiment and fear.

The open intrusion of religious dogma into the highest levels of government is stunning. Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court speaks of "the fact that government derives its authority from God" (during oral arguments before the court about displays of the Ten Commandments) while the president of the United States has argued that evolution is a theory not a fact.

The effort to blur the huge distinction between faith and science, between empirically falsifiable facts and beliefs, was on display again this month in two very different contexts.

Congressional leaders ignored the conclusions of the doctors who have actually examined Terri Schiavo and judges who have listened to the evidence. Senator Bill Frist, previously a heart surgeon who must have once known better, shunned the conclusions of these doctors and, without ever having examined Ms. Schiavo himself, stated his "belief" that she was not in a vegetative state.

Meanwhile, on a much less emotionally tragic but no less intellectually puzzling front, the Templeton Foundation continued with its program to sponsor the notion that science can somehow ultimately reveal the existence of God by once again awarding its annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion not to a theologian, but to a physicist.

Dr. Charles Townes, the winner, is a Nobel laureate whose scientific work has been of impeccable distinction; his prime contribution to religion appears to be his proudly proclaiming his belief in God as revealed through the beauty of nature.
Whether it be Terri Schiavo, the Templeton Foundation, or ID enthusiasts, we're moving to the point where facts don't matter. Ironically, it's the Christian theocrats that are being eerily post-modern - subjectivity matters more to them than empirical, veriable evidence. And with their "intelligent design theory," these fundamentalists are altering the scientific definition of theory. Forget what "theory" means in everyday usage, in scientific terms, "theory" means "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." This means that innumerable other scientists, independent of each other, have verified the correctness of the original hypothesis.

As the Academy of Natural Sciences further explains:
The contention that evolution should be taught as a "theory, not as a fact" confuses the common use of these words with the scientific use. In science, theories do not turn into facts through the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences. In this sense, evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.
Whether the Christian right just ignorantly fouls up this distinction or manipulates it for their own agenda is open to debate. Either way though, it's abysmal anyway you look at it. First, if it's ignorance, then it's due to a lack of intellectual curiousity and irresponsibility in the public domain. If not and it's a matter of manipulation, well you know already. Either way an absence of honesty follows.

Anyway, as Baxley's statements concerning "leftist totalitaranism" show, this is about ideological warfare, not scientific inquiry or "equal time" for opposing viewpoints. He argues that opposition to his bill are "leftists" out of touch with "mainstream society." Rather, the opposition comes from those smart enough to know, just because you think it, doesn't make it so.

The bill still has to make it through two more committees before the House can consider passing it. Cross your fingers and hope Florida is still a member of the reality based community.