The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.