The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." ...  ...Galileo Galilei

Commentary of the Day - February 17, 2001:  Science Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

The Irascible Professor arrived at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Thursday.  A quick trip to the press room registration desk and a personal plea convinced the AAAS press staff to reverse their prior decision to deny the IP press credentials.  Friday morning with credentials in hand we hurried off to the opening session of the Education and Public Understanding of Science symposium.

This session addressed one of the hot-button issues in science education today; namely, the collision between modern science education and traditional religious orthodoxy.  The leadoff speaker was physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy from Quaid-e-Azam University, who spoke on the current situation in Pakistan.  At present, a fundamentalist Islamic regime wields power there.

Under this regime, religious blasphemy is a crime the minimum punishment for which is death.  According Hoodbhoy, any conflict between the teachings of the Koran and the theories of modern science must be resolved in favor of religious orthodoxy.  The prevailing view of those in power in Pakistan is that scientific theories are fickle social constructs that change with time, while the religious teachings represent never changing truth.

Since Pakistan also is involved in an arms race with its neighbor India that has reached the level of nuclear weapons development, this leads to a strange accommodation with science and technology.  The regime encourages the use of the fruits of science and technology to enhance the development of these weapons, but at the same time discourages study of the underlying theoretical framework that has produced these applications.  Science and technology is taught through extensive memorization rather than by developing an understanding of the basic ideas.

Hoodbhoy suggests that the answer to this orthodoxy is through more effective science teaching, for "embedded in the fruits of science are the germs of reason that can destroy orthodoxy".

Hoodbhoy was followed by Meera Nanda, a philosopher of science from Columbia University, who provided a glimpse of the situation in India, where the government now is in the hands of the Hindu Nationalist Party.  According to Nanda, a similar reactionary modernism prevails in India.  The technological results of science are accepted while the underlying science is rejected.  In many Indian quarters, according to Nanda, science is considered a socially subversive activity.  The social constructivism and postmodernism of the Indian Left ends up supporting the religious reactionaries.

Nanda argued that the ignorance of western science combined with a view of the natural world that is grounded in religious dogma leads to false beliefs about nature that are very difficult to overcome.  She cited the case of a middle-aged woman from a small village who threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, not because she was depressed but because she wanted to achieve the instantaneous catharsis provided by Hindu theology instead of the ignominy of widowhood in a religious culture that blames the widow for her husband's death.  In this case the husband had died from a case of tuberculosis of long duration.  Hardly, something that the wife could be blamed for.

Adrian Melott, a physicist from the University of Kansas, provided insight about the August 1999 decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to modify a set of K-12 science standards that were developed by leading Kansas scientists and science educators to exclude virtually any mention of evolutionary biology, plate tectonics, the big bang theory, and scientific evidence for the age of the earth and the universe.  This was another example of a victory by those favoring  religious orthodoxy for the description of nature rather than the evidence and logic of science.  In this particular case five Christian Fundamentalists who adhere to  "young earth creationism" (a version of creationism that interprets Scripture literally and holds that the earth is less than 10,000 years old)  captured seats on the Kansas Board of Education.  These five Fundamentalist board members were able to convince one moderate board member to vote with them to achieve the 6-4 majority for the 1999 decision.

According to Melott, a major reason for the success of the fundamentalists was that until the 1999 decision races for the Kansas State Board of Education seldom attracted much public attention.  The anti-evolutionary stance of the Kansas board  attracted significant media attention.  Many in the scientific and science education communities felt that the Kansas action jeopardized quality science teaching in the state's public schools.  However, the decision ultimately was reversed (February 14, 2001) by a change in the balance of power on the board in the 2000 election.

A broad coalition of educators, business people, clergy, and politicians helped to elect more moderate members to the state board of education.  This coalition was driven in large part by the moderate Republican governor who was dismayed by the failure of a major corporation to relocate to Kansas following the 1999 decision.  The election was decided in the Republican primary, where moderate Republicans defeated several of the right-wing creationist candidates.  Kansas Citizens for Science played a major role in mustering support for the moderate candidates.  A significant factor was the inclusion in the group of a large number of ordinary citizens as well as scientists, including a number of Christians who supported good science education.  The presence of ministers in the coalition helped to defeat the "wedge" strategy typically employed by the creationists.

The creationists try to "wedge" the evolution issue by creating a false dichotomy; i.e., either you accept their narrow interpretation of the Bible or you are an atheist.  The presence of clergy in the coalition helped to show that it was possible both to hold deep religious convictions and to accept modern evolutionary theory.

The final speaker at this seminar was Cal State Hayward anthropologist Glynn Custred, one of the sponsors of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209.  Custred spoke about the religious and political issues surrounding the discovery of Kennewick man in the state of Washington.  Because of the complexity of these issues, they will be the subject of a later commentary.

The flight from objectivity, evidence, and reason is the common thread in the three cases noted in this commentary.  However, the underlying reasons for this flight are not simply a combination of ignorance and dogmatism.  Modern society is complex.  Most ordinary people do not understand the technologies that impinge on their daily lives.  A feeling of powerlessness over these forces frequently is the impetus for the desire to obtain control through political means.  As Melott noted in his talk, democracy got Kansas into its mess and democracy got Kansas out of it.  Those who value the search for scientific understanding of the universe around us must not abandon the mechanisms of democracy to the extremists.

Return to main commentary.

© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.