Saturday, September 02, 2006


Freedom From and For Science

Ronald Dworkin, Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy at NYU and Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law and Philosophy at University College, London has an article, "Three Questions for America," in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, based on his soon to be published: Is Democracy Possible Here?

The first question is "Should alternatives to evolution be taught in schools?," while the others deal with the mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and gay marriage. Dworkin begins by observing:

Nothing frightens liberals and moderates more, I think, than the vision of religious organizations and movements dictating what may be taught to children in public schools, either through formal legislation or school board rulings or informal intimidation of teachers. Many Americans are horrified by the prospect of a new dark age imposed by militant superstition; they fear a black, know-nothing night of ignorance in which America becomes an intellectually backward and stagnant theocracy.

But someone has to make the decision as to what is to be taught and, in a democracy, who else but the majority should make it?

If the elected school board or the majority of parents in a particular jurisdiction sincerely believes that Darwin's theory of evolution is radically wrong, why should they not have the power to prevent that error from being taught to their children, just as they have the power to prevent teachers from converting their classes to the Flat Earth Society?

Religious conservatives, according to Dworkin, do not want to deny empiric science and would, but for their religious beliefs, reject the Biblical cosmology and biology as silly; no more worthy of being taught in public schools, even as an alternate theory, than that the sun orbits the earth or that radioactivity is harmless. While I am not so sure of such ready acceptance of science among religious conservatives in cases not in conflict with the Bible (there is a strong denial of global warming in that quarter), Dworkin is right enough when he says:

They deny the truth of Darwinian theory in the self-conscious exercise of their personal responsibility to fix the role of faith in their lives. That is their right: it would be a terrible violation of liberty to try to coerce them out of that conviction. But they must not try to impose that faith on others, including children, most of whom attend public schools.

Turning to the rise of Intelligent Design, Dworkin states that "[i]f there is any scientific evidence against evolution, then of course students should be taught what it is." But he goes on to say that the ID movement "has discovered no such scientific evidence at all." Instead, it make three claims:

(1) Scientists have not yet shown to all their satisfaction how the Darwinian processes of random mutation and natural selection explain every feature of the development of plant and animal life on our planet; some features remain areas of speculation and controversy among them. (2) There is now good scientific evidence that these features cannot be explained within the general Darwinian structure; a successful explanation will therefore require abandoning that structure altogether. (3) This evidence also at least suggests that an intelligent designer created life and designed the processes of development that have produced human beings.

The first is no more than saying that science does not know everything and has no meaning beyond that. As to the second:

It does not follow from the fact that evolutionary scientists have not yet found or agreed on a solution to some puzzle that their methods have been shown to be defective ... Scientists have so far found no reason to doubt that the evolutionary puzzles can be solved within the general apparatus of neo-Darwinian theory that supplements Darwin with the dramatic recent discoveries of genetic biology. None of the rival solutions that scientists offer to the puzzles of evolution calls that general apparatus into question.

Furthermore, he finds the ID arguments that the

... irreducible complexity of certain forms of life proves that Darwin's theory must be rejected root and branch ... are very bad, a judgment confirmed by their failure so far to expose these arguments to professional review by submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. It is no explanation of this failure to suppose that the scientific establishment would reject even well-reasoned articles that challenged Darwin. On the contrary, a scientifically sound general attack on evolution would be very exciting news indeed: a Nobel Prize might be around the corner.

Even if the second claim was true, Dworkin flatly rejects the third on the ground that, with all pretenses for the purpose of passing constitutional muster swept aside, if the mere "failure to find a natural ... explanation of some physical or biological phenomenon were taken to be evidence of intervention by a god who intended to bring about that phenomenon, science would disappear." Positing divine intervention furthering some unknown and unknowable divine plan explains nothing precisely because it can explain anything we don't otherwise have an explanation for. However, Dworkin chooses as an example of this an area that calls into some question his assessment of the religious rights' attitude toward science:

Why should we prefer a climatologist's account of global warming, which suggests that the process will continue unless and until people reduce the level of their carbon pollution of the atmosphere, to the rival account that a god is warming the planet for his own purposes and will cool it again when he wishes?

Although the religious right is not as united on the environment as on evolutionary theory, there is much opposition in that quarter to accepting that the scientific case has been made for warming being the result of human activity.

Be that as it may, Dworkin's suggestion as to how to balance the right of religious belief with the important social and economic functions of science education is to propose "a Contemporary Politics course" that would not only give an airing to the arguments for (and, presumably, against) ID but would also tackle such subjects as "the case for and against abortion; affirmative action in public education; the role of money in politics; the fairness of the tax system; and the role of civil liberties in shaping and limiting antiterrorist activities" from both conservative and liberal perspectives.

Before the phrase "hopelessly naive" springs from anyone's lips, Dworkin admits that such courses "would be extremely challenging and difficult to teach" and his proposal "bristles with possibly insuperable political difficulties."

But think how much it would improve our politics if students leaving high school had some understanding of the reasons why a deeply devout person might nevertheless prefer a tolerant secular state to a tolerant religious state, or why an atheist might think that public celebrations of religion were appropriate in a nation the vast majority of whose members were religious.

Now all he needs to do is find a nation with enough people in it like that, so as to make his scheme workable in the first place.

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