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'I can see dinosaurs from my back porch'

Palin-tology and the threat to science teaching

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USA '08 GOP Veep candidate Sarah Palin's belief in creationism brings the evolution of a crank's outlook into an asset in US public life into plain view. It's simply the rock-like belief that if science isn't convenient to a very personal value or notion, then it constitutes an attack on such and is to be set aside.

Kevin Phillips, a famous Republican historian, described it another way in American Theocracy, a book published in 2006. In referring to the current US, he wrote:

"No leading world power in modern history has become a captive, even a partial captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy - backwater, not mainstream - that dismisses knowledge and science."

Palin's attitudes on creationism and evolution were first exposed in 2006, in a debate during her winning run to the governorship of Alaska. She is not the only Republican to espouse it recently. Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback, all candidates in the Republican primary race were creationists, making it the exclusive property of the GOP.

Palin was asked whether creationism ought to be taught in public school and she replied:

"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject - creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides."

The response immediately touched off a controversy and Palin moderated her view for the Anchorage Daily News, saying only that she thought there ought not to be a prohibition of debate on evolution and creationism if it came up in class. "It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum," she said.

Palin added that she wouldn't push to have creationism-based alternatives to evolution added to Alaska's required curriculum and, indeed, she has not done so.

However, the Anchorage newspaper subsequently published an opinion piece by a local anthropologist which explained why almost all scientists get riled when they hear such arguments.

Values v. facts

Alan Boraas, a professor at Kenai Peninsula College, wrote that the issue was "volatile because it touches core values." Religious beliefs, unlike science, he wrote, "were not designed to be challenged by adherents."

"When I teach about messenger RNA carrying information from the cell nucleus to sequence enzyme production," Borass added, "I could care less what you feel about it. I want you to learn it. The issue is how well does theory account for observable phenomena and so far nothing better than evolutionary science has emerged to explain biological processes."

While it's unknown what Palin's science teacher parent thinks of her science education, since she brought it up the impression is created of one taught by a system in which evolution and creationism were presented as equals.

Readers should know that, for practical purposes, the professional criteria for teaching science at the public school level in the United States call for enduring a pretty heavy load of process-of-teaching education. However, when examined for actual absorption of blood-and-guts science, it's unusually light in the loafers. In other words, you can be totally unfit to teach science in the US and still be given a pass to do it. (Before going ballistic over this writer's apparent slag, please consider he was raised by a teacher, too, and that fresh from a PhD in chemistry he briefly taught high school chem as a substitute for his local school's absent instructor, who was actually trained as a wood shop teacher. Yes, in other words, a fraud.)

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