'I can see dinosaurs from my back porch'
Palin-tology and the threat to science teaching
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.)
In a frontpage story from the New York Times in late August, the newspaper described the pernicious results of being in a school system where it's OK to be engaged in malpractice in science education. The paper set about examining how one good teacher at a Florida public school had to walk on eggshells while teaching evolution so as not to turn off students, the children of evangelicals. Giving evolution to them straight without dancing to assuage concern that science was attacking faith, the article explained, ran the risk of alienating the kids. But another biology teacher down the hall taught a course entitled "Evolution or NOT," one aimed at jamming legitimate instruction. The Times reported that teacher left students "to draw their own conclusion." However, if asked the teacher told them she thought God did it, said the Times.
These things describe an environment which did not exist during this writer's public school education. Thirty-some years ago, in various parts of backward small-town America (where this writer was raised), science easily co-existed with religion. Being up on things was quaintly thought to be modern and good, a unifier connecting us to the greater forward thrust of the nation. Students and their parents did not war over an imagined assault on religious values when Darwin was taught. Indeed, one could find the biology teacher in church every Sunday, the fabric of his faith intact.
The view from Bedrock
In more recent days, bigger American newspapers have begun to mention Palin as a young earth creationist. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez went to Wasilla, Alaska, where he found a progressive blogger who delivered an even more flabbergasting bit of news. Palin was said to believe "that man and dinosaurs once shared the planet." Lopez whimsically dubbed this "Palin-tology" but averred that such an extreme claim might not be true.
Looking to Science Debate 2008, an effort designed to pry answers from the candidates to determine "Who will be the best president for America in a science-dominated world," provided discouragingly few answers, despite lots of words.
A lasting extermination of creationism from science education as a salutatory thing, to be carried out from a national rather than state/community level, wasn't even faintly addressed.
As to compromising science if it conflicts with a person's views, the answers made only a pleasant-sounding hum. Obama, if you want the long version, McCain, if you prefer short.
"Denial of the facts won't solve any of [our] problems," offered McCain. "Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views," said Obama.
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.