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Lauren Becker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 15.4, December 2005

Of School Boards and Science Battles

Phactum (The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking) Sept./Oct. 2005, William A. Wisdom:

Wisdom took the Evolution/ID battle into his own hands and addressed the Haverford Township School Board at their Spring Meeting.

He writes, “For years I had been distressed by the efforts of Fundamentalist Christians to dilute or remove instruction in the Theory of Evolution from the public schools. But, like so many people, I figured: It can’t happen here. Then the events in Dover, Pennsylvania, made me realize that the barbarians are at our gates—that the attack on science could happen anywhere.”

No doubt this is a sentiment many of us share today. Wisdom goes on to share the text of his speech: “If the bill passes [House Bill 1007] a new section entitled ‘Teaching Theories on the Origin of Man and the Earth’ would be added to the Public School Code of 1949. Wherever evolution is taught, the bill would encourage School Boards to include instruction in the so-called ‘theory of intelligent design.’” He continued by describing the historic debates of Huxley/Wilberforce, Darrow, and Jennings Bryan, adding, “The debates are going on today not because the evidence on each side is about-equally balanced. . . .The arguments continue, rather, because science is opposed by antagonists of various stripes for a number of different reasons.”

“The issue is no longer about whether or not God exists . . . the issue is rather about the nature of responsible reasoning about our world.” Wisdom carefully showed how a scientific theory explains a large body of facts from which the theory draws its support. “This power of the theory of evolution to explain facts in biology, geology, paleontology, and other fields is the evidence required by scientists; and such evidence is wholly absent from the so-called ‘theory’ of intelligent design.”

He finished his remarks to applause from the 50 members of the audience and strong supporting statements from the Superintendent and the President of the Board expressing their own determination never to allow creationism to be taught in any form in a science class.

We know education is the solution, not the problem, so we must take our message to the local decision-makers. A small local act within a large national debate, the initiative of Wisdom to stand before the Board is a perfect example of what we as individuals can do to protect the method of scientific inquiry within our schools.

NMSR Reports (New Mexicans for Science and Reason) October, 2005, Dave Thomas:

On August 22, the Rio Rancho (New Mexico) Public School Board voted 3—2 to approve Policy 401 which states, “. . . discussions about issues that are of interest to both science and individual religious and philosophical beliefs will acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data.”

As many have feared all along, such nebulous wording opens the classroom door to theological disputes that distract from the teaching of science.

For example, in an October 1, 2005, Albuquerque Journal op-ed piece, former state senator Pauline Eisenstadt and former state board of education member Marshall Berman wrote, “On the day after the policy was passed, a student brought a Bible into a chemistry class and wanted to discuss intelligent design. On the same day, in a different class on anatomy and physiology, a student questioned the teacher and said that brain-neuron-muscle connections were so complex that they had to be intelligently designed. Another student argued that this system evolved. The two students continued to take up class time on other topics that the teacher tried to present. Later in the week, another student brought the Book of Mormon to class and wanted to discuss it. . . . The use of the phrase ‘reasonable people’ opens the door to introducing nonscientific material, confusing our students and demoralizing our teachers. . . . This school board policy will have profoundly negative impacts on student learning in science and critical thinking. . . .”

At the board meeting the following month, five residents chose to address the policy again, despite its absence on the agenda. Dave Thomas, President-elect of the New Mexico Academy of Sciences, spoke to the Rio Rancho Public School Board of Education saying, “The science establishment of New Mexico [has] reacted to and responded to (Policy 401). Science classrooms are no place to debate the finer points of religion. . . . Please rescind this policy.”

It is worth emphasizing that Policy 401 and its consequences came from the opinions of just three people. Two of the three school board members supporting Policy 401 are pastors at Rio West Community Church whose Web site proclaims their goals of “gospel saturation and city transformation.”

Skeptics, scientists, and secularists are confident in the integrity of evolutionary theory, but in reality this is not a battle of ideas. It is a battle of attendance. The victory goes to those who show up. Education issues are decided at the local level. To win the debate over past origins, skeptics must be present.

Lauren Becker

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Lauren Becker, Director of Marketing at the Center for Inquiry, is a science and nature interpreter who has taught at museums, parks, and planetariums around the country. Known for her commentaries on Point of Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry’s radio-show style podcast, she is an experienced environmental activist and advocate for science literacy and education.