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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lawmakers pushing creationism in schools is a bad idea

David Brooks

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the Telegraph is not publishing on Monday, the weekly Granite Geek column is being published today.

Two lawmakers are trying to pry open New Hampshire science classrooms to allow, or even require, the teaching of creationism.

In case you’re wondering (since this column is called Granite Geek, you shouldn’t), I think it’s a terrible idea.

Science classes should teach science, imparting knowledge discovered through scientific methods. No scientific evidence exists to support any variant of the idea that life was deliberately created by an intelligent being, so the idea doesn’t belong in science class.

Religion or philosophy class? Of course. History class? You bet. Literature, too. But not science class.

This is the first time in years the issue of intelligent design or creationism has cropped up in New Hampshire, so far as I know. You may recall much debate in 1994 when the Merrimack School Board tried to place it in that town’s curriculum, but since then, the topic has largely left the academic radar.

However, polls consistently show at least one-third of the public, and probably much more, believe in the basic tenets of creationism, often within the context of the Old Testament. (The Koran includes a similar scenario). Several states are flirting with various laws to dilute the teaching of evolution, so it’s not surprising the matter could come up here.

The two proposals are still in a legislative draft form known as a Legislative Services Request, a notification that something is likely to become a bill when the Legislature returns to Concord in the fall. LSRs may never get to bill status or go through big changes – I wouldn’t be surprised if these two get combined in some form. Even as bills, they can easily fail to become law.

Further, LSRs don’t include any text beyond the title, so much is still in the air. Here are the details at the moment:

 • Rep. Jerry Bergevin, R-Manchester, has sponsored an LSR “requiring the teaching of evolution in public schools as a theory.”

That sort of wording is often used to imply that evolutionary theory, the product of a century of evidence and study by tens of thousands of researchers, is nothing more than a complex guess. It confuses, I think, the word “theory” in everyday use (what science calls a hypothesis) with a scientific theory, which is as solid as most of the material we call fact.

The argument goes that since evolution is “just a theory,” it shouldn’t be taught as if it were, say, the Pythagorean theorem (which is also “just a theory,” come to think of it).

“My LSR is not anti-evolution, I am anti-indoctrination,” Bergevin wrote in an e-mail response to my query.

Bergevin also wrote: “This LSR would include a study of the proponents’ ideology and position on atheism.”

I’m not sure what he means by evolution’s “proponents,” since that constitutes most of the world’s scientific community, but this is the sort of detail that can be worked out as a bill is drafted.

 • Rep. Gary Hopper, R- Weare, approaches the matter more directly with an LSR “requiring instruction in intelligent design in the public schools.”

In a phone interview, Hopper said his concern with evolution as a science involves the beginning of life.

“Darwin’s theory is basically antiquated,” he argued.

Hopper said the theory teaches that life “began in some primordial ooze with lightning striking and creating simple forms,” but that “we now know that the simplest form of life, like an amoeba, the genetic code for it is millions of characters long,” which is so complicated that it must have been created by a being or beings.

I don’t think he’s got the details right, since evolutionary theory has amoebas evolving after a billion or two years of prokaryote (unicellular yet lacking a nucleus) ocean dwellers, but Hopper is certainly correct that science is flummoxed about how life began.

This is such a big unknown that some scientists would be happy to believe some unspecified Designer created life and then sat back to let evolution take over.

Hopper doesn’t agree with this idea, because of what he says are too many problems with evolutionary theory, which he thinks is fueled by scientific group-think, driven by research funding that ignores creationism.

In our phone conversation, Hopper said there was a second driving factor behind his LSR, born of concerns that cropped up when he was 17.

“I had been filled with this theory of evolution, which if you really boil it down, is a theory that we are here by accident, that there is no purpose. The conclusion is that we’re a bunch of accidents … you really have no purpose for existence,” he said.

“Teaching a child that it’s very possible that they were designed would infer that they actually have a purpose. There’s some purpose they were created, so that is a reason to live. Right now, we’re teaching children that basically they’re animals.”

I suspect that many people reject evolutionary theory for this very reason: It seems empty and meaningless to them.

If I may talk philosophy for a moment, I think this is exactly backward. Creationism is meaningless, but evolution is a door to infinite wonder.

Saying that I exist because of the same processes and materials that lead to sunsets, rainbows and the moons of Saturn (to choose a few cool things), and that we as humans can study and understand these processes – that is meaningful. It makes me part and parcel of this whole glorious universe in intricate ways.

Saying that we were created out of nothing by an unknown or unknowable being, an explanation that leaves no room for further study or understanding – that strikes me as ultimately empty and meaningless.

But this is irrelevant here, because it has no bearing on what to teach in science class.

My taxpayer dollars pay science teachers to teach science, not philosophy. Let’s hope lawmakers don’t try to get in the way.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or