Saturday, January 21, 2006


The Scylla and Charybdis of Politics

All it's asking is when you get done teaching your evolution, is (say) there is no consensus, and there are other theories. . . . We're trying to protect our kids. That professor they brought in from the BYU talking about (how) we evolved from chimpanzees, he don't know that.
Well, the reference to BYU (Brigham Young University) may have tipped you off that the above is about the bill that just passed the state Senate in Utah that would require science teachers in public schools to tell their students that the state does not endorse any scientific theory about the origins of life or the present state of man and that scientists are not in complete agreement on evolutionary theory.

Now, it is almost certain that the speaker above misunderstood "that professor" from BYU. It is most unlikely that any academic speaking out against the bill would claim that chimpanzees are human ancestors instead of our cousins -- that is, descended from a common ancestor they shared with H. sapiens. People educated in biology would not be so ignorant of the state of evolutionary theory -- not until this bill has a chance to work its magic, at least.

So who was the speaker? Was it an ordinary member of the public bringing more passion than knowledge to the debate and perhaps misunderstanding the issues the bill seeks to address? Almost right. That is a perfect description of the speaker . . . except for one thing: he is not just some audience member stepping up to a microphone. The speaker is no less than Utah Sen. Chris Buttars, the Republican who sponsored the bill.

Buttars faces a classic problem in politics: What good is it if you specifically do something to satisfy the wishes of your constituents if you don’t let them know what you are doing and why? But what if your constituents desire something that, say, conflicts with the Constitution? In that case, being explicit about what you are doing is going to result in your statements being used in evidence against the law in any court challenge. Now, this is not a problem for an elected official who is out only to garner political capital and does not care what the ultimate fate of the law is. It might even suit such a cynic’s interests better if the law is overturned by the courts, giving him or her another issue ("I tell you, we have to get rid of these activist judges . . .") with which to fire up the troops while not having to promise to do anything concrete that might come back home to roost.

My impression, admittedly from long distance and based on nothing except what his public statements during this contretemps reveal about him, is that Buttars is not such a cynic but a real True Believer™. Certainly, the above quote, and many more besides, do not bespeak a sophistication that permits multiple layers of motivation and nuanced manipulation of public opinion.

In any case, back to Buttars' problem: He is certainly aware of roadblocks his bill faces if it becomes law. He amended the bill on the Senate floor to add the word "scientific" in two sentences of the bill that mandate that students consider opposing "scientific" viewpoints regarding the origins of life and the current state of the human race, and requiring schools to inform students that not all scientists agree on which "scientific" theory is correct. He maintained that those changes should satisfy the opponents of the bill that his motives are not religious in nature. He also said this:

My bill from the get-go never included anything about intelligent design, creationism or any faith-based philosophy. When the bill came out, everybody ignored that.
Well, maybe they did because Buttars was sending other signals to his constituency all along. For example, last August he asked the State Board of Education to include language in the curriculum to the effect that humans didn't evolve from any other species. He also sought to have the teaching of Intelligent Design (though, to his credit, in a humanities or other non-science class) linked to whether or not evolution is taught.
Perhaps most blatant was his statement to the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly’s organization for pushing ultraconservative positions on social issues, such as gay marriage and reproductive freedom. It is probably no accident that Buttars chose the Eagle Forum to speak to about his bill. Phyllis Schlafly had already condemned Judge John E. Jones III for his decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design case. In doing so, she accused the Judge of sticking a "knife in the backs" of "millions of evangelical Christians" who voted for George Bush who, in turn, appointed Jones to the bench. All this despite Intelligent Design advocates denying, as does Buttars, any religious intent.

But remember Buttars’ statement above about his bill being about "trying to protect our kids"? A laudable sentiment and certainly a goal within the appropriate secular objectives of government. But just what is he protecting them from? He made that clear before the Eagle Forum folks:

Teaching evolution while leaving out creationism "hurts young people,"' Buttars said.

He cited a mother who said her two daughters were told by a teacher that they evolved from animals, and, "It totally destroyed their faith."
So we already know the bill is not about protecting children from overstatements about the level of certainty they should place in science generally, since an amendment to replace references to "the origins of life" or "present state of the human race" with "scientific theory," reflecting the tentative nature of all science, was defeated by the bill’s supporters. It certainly isn’t about informing children of "opposing scientific viewpoints" because, as the case in Dover has shown beyond everything but unreasonable doubt, there aren’t any. Nor is it about there being "no consensus" about evolution within science, because there most certainly is one (though one suspects Buttars hasn’t looked up the word of late).

At the Eagle Forum annual convention Buttars needed to, and did, tell his constituents exactly what he wanted to accomplish. In doing so, he told anyone else willing to listen that the bill is all about the protection of one minority religious view concerning the relationship between science and faith. And he could not help but tell us that he is willing to subvert the Constitution in any way he feels necessary to achieve that end.

Too bad he cannot tell us that he will not stoop to any lie, will not employ any ruse, will not distort any position in his pursuit of his goal . . . at least not so as anyone with a lick of sense would believe him anymore.

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