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Evolution and the Courts

Just a brief note on Kevin Drum's post on evolution and the constitution. He writes:

I myself would not argue that Darwinism in biology classes is protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Rather, I would argue more narrowly that everything else is forbidden. If a school district decides not to teach biology at all, that's fine. But if they do teach it, they aren't allowed to include religious proselytizing in the curriculum.
The merits of that stance view, the relevant issue here is the establishment clause. Without advancing a view of the legal issue here, I think it's politically undesirable to have courts prevent school boards from implementing creationist curricula. It leaves the religious right permanently mobilized to engage in electoral politics while secular people sit around hoping the lawyers will bail them out if anything ever goes seriously wrong. When Kansas, not exactly a hotbed of blue state liberalism, took the constitutionally permissable, but substantively wrongheaded, step of simply stripping evolution from the curriculum and replacing it with nothing, evolution advocates mobilized, won seats at the next election, and got the rule reversed. That not only restored decent policy on the question at hand, but also got some serious wingnuts out of office.

To me, this is the main issue here. Dependence on the courts makes liberals fat and lazy. Important political fights are won on the airwaves, on the op-ed pages, in the streets, and at the ballot box. The "culture wars" fights are largely winnable, but only if you play the game and learn to play it well. Thus I find myself in strong sympathy with Nathan Newman's last point on the subject (more mixed feelings about his other arguments).

January 18, 2005 | Permalink


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Hear, hear. Same is true about abortion - let them ban it.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 1:37:24 PM

Well, I think liberals should take the long view here. I imagine in 40 years' time banning the teaching of Darwin will be universally viewed in the same way that banning heliocenticity would be today. In my very blue neighborhood, banning Darwin is already thought of in that manner; but such sentiments are hardly universal. Down the road I think they will be. Here's one area where the global economy can, and likely will, play an important role. I can't imagine Biogen or Genentech or Pfizer are looking to sink major dollars into a Topeka, Kansas, facility. When Red Staters give themselves permission to study Darwin (via their legislatures), feathers are not nearly as ruffled as when it's forced on them by ACLU lawyers.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Jan 18, 2005 1:48:08 PM

What is interesting is that in most of the western world the evolution "controversy" has already dissapeared. Maybe it's because of the Catholic influence (the Church declared that evolution was compatible with their theology some time ago), but the truth is that only in the USA this is still controversial.

Posted by: Carlos | Jan 18, 2005 1:57:46 PM

All true enough, as far as it goes, but courts don't pick and choose what cases to hear, so when someone sues they have to decide, unless, as in the "under God" case, it has a way out. And even though it's obviously better to beat the bastards in an election, what do you do: (a) when elections are a long way off or (b) if you run on teaching science and only science in science classes and lose? Do you forego litigation then? Would the bad guys forego the litigation option in those circumstances if their claims had a prayer?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jan 18, 2005 2:09:47 PM

Not ban, abortion, abb1 - but if Roe v Wade were struck down, so that each state could regulate abortion as it wished, it would have some very interesting ramifications on state elections...

Posted by: russ | Jan 18, 2005 2:09:47 PM

I can't imagine Biogen or Genentech or Pfizer are looking to sink major dollars into a Topeka, Kansas, facility.

That fact might mean something if Uncle Sam weren't always looking for new ways to sink major dollars into any and all facilities thereabouts.

Posted by: digamma | Jan 18, 2005 2:16:41 PM

Your suggestion would be wonderful and the preferred way to do it in an ideal world, but we aren't in such a happy place. A couple of problems:

1. School boards are an awful way to manage an educational system. They are inherently political, and are used by ideologues to attempt to insert garbage into the schools.

2. We have a way to decide what the best ideas are in science: it's called peer review. We also have scientific societies that frequently submit recommendations. The creationists are attempting (and sometimes succeeding!) in circumventing the normal, rational mechanisms. We'd love to oppose political strategems with pure reason and good science, but it doesn't seem to work.

3. Ever heard of the Gish Gallop? It's a tactic that that old workhorse of the ICR, Duane Gish, made his own. Lie. Lie at a stunningly rapid pace. Make every sentence a declaration of a pseudo-fact. It's good at stopping scientists cold, because it takes us ten minutes and a boatload of terminology to untangle just one of his pronouncements. And what do you think the audience takes away as a memorable sound bite? It's not the long but accurate scientific explanation, it's the 30 second lie. And that's what gets repeated in the deluge of letters to the newspaper that follow.

Take a look at this letter from a creationist. It's wrong all the way through, it parrots creationist lies, and it's pretty much the standard crap we have to deal with all the time. I'd love to have a solid strategy to concisely frame the issues in a way that would persuade people against the force of outright dishonesty, but if the Democratic party hasn't managed to do that, you can imagine the difficulties us cluelessly pedantic scientists have.

Posted by: PZ Myers | Jan 18, 2005 2:21:36 PM

I think your approach is off base, PB. It's going on 150 years since Darwin's publication. It took only 20 or 30 years for evolution to become standard in research universities. The Scopes Trial was 80 years ago. So patiently waiting another 40 years is unlikely to have any effect. Moreover, this issue is one of retrogression, as if we were going to put helioicentrism back in the textbooks. It isn't like the truth will prevail, given time.

I'm not sure what the right approach is, but people are kidding themselves if they think the Red Staters are the victims of elitist ACLU lawyers.

Posted by: Roger Bigod | Jan 18, 2005 2:27:57 PM

PZ Meyers has it exactly right.

Do we really wish to risk a generation or two to scientific and economic disadvantage because we hope we can win a p.r. battle in 40 years or so? Do we wish for large pockets of the southern US to have educational systems that resemble madrassas?

We're already seeing the US slip behind the rest of the world in bioengineering simply because a bunch of red state yahoos think the Boys From Brazil was a documentary.

In the abstract, sidestepping the courts is an attractive idea. In reality, there are very real consequences, damaging to the nation.

Posted by: Jadegold | Jan 18, 2005 2:36:05 PM

Without advancing a view of the legal issue here, I think it's politically undesirable to have courts prevent school boards from implementing creationist curricula.

Politically undesirable compared to what?

The alternative is that the courts should allow the schools to be used for religious indoctrination, which in the short-term might give us an issue, but in the long-term giving the Religious Right the ability to use the public purse to fund religious propaganda efforts is probably more undesirable than giving them something to yell about (since, if they didn't have that issue, they'd blow another one out of proportion into the exact same magnitude of issue).

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 18, 2005 2:37:53 PM

Regarding creationism, if the proponents of so-called 'intelligent design' are losing in the courts and losing at the ballot box when the theory of evolution comes up, why concede anything to them? As for it being resolved in the courts, I look forward to Nathan and Matt's explanation of how so-called 'Intelligent Design' is justifiable on anything other than religious grounds. Would they be comfortable with the theory of cold fusion being taught because it happened to agree with the religious beliefs of the majority? At what point would they draw the line on scientific instruction that's justified by faith alone in our public schools?

Posted by: David W. | Jan 18, 2005 3:18:43 PM

I think the point is that it would be politically advantageous to let them win, take control, expose themselves in all their glory and then defeat them convincingly, once and for all - rather than letting them play the victim card. Doesn't it make sense?

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 18, 2005 3:28:02 PM

I look forward to Nathan and Matt's explanation of how so-called 'Intelligent Design' is justifiable on anything other than religious grounds.

I don't. You would get back the modern sounding versions of all the sophisms they have been entertaining themselves with for centuries. These usually involve homilies about pocket watches and a rather telling reading of the second law of thermodynamics which pretends that the earth is the only thing in the universe.

Posted by: absynthe | Jan 18, 2005 3:31:34 PM

The simple fact is that you can not teach high school biology without stressing evolution as the keystone of modern biology. Likewise you can not include "Intelligent Design" or alternate threories because they are simply stupid, unscientific superstitions. It would be like teaching astrology alongside astronomy as a valid science. Any other option (including trying to ignore evolution) is an establishment of religion--to ignore evolution in high school biology is to imply there is something "wrong" with the theory, when nothing could be further from the truth.

On this we can not waiver. If I had children, I would be screaming about this to my school board every chance I got.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Jan 18, 2005 3:34:35 PM

Astrology is in principle scientific, in contrast with Intelligent Design. You can design experiments to test astrology, collecting a population with different birthdays and comparing scores on psychological tests, important life events, etc. The ID people have never proposed a single experiment to test their "theory". They just data-mine normal science for things that they can claim have a low probability of occurring by natural processes.

Posted by: Roger Bigod | Jan 18, 2005 3:46:26 PM

abb1, creationists have been beaten successfully every time they are faced down in both the courts and in public opinion when the spotlight is shined on them. Recently in my own state of Wisconsin, there was a case in Grantsburg where the teaching of ID was backed after a religiously motivated school board member managed to get a motion passed supporting the instruction of 'intelligent design' in biology classes there. The response of both the scientific community in the state as well as many persons of faith caused that school district to reconsider and drop said motion, with the usual noises about how evolution should be 'critically taught' being made in retreat, etc. I see no reason to let creationists take control if we can beat them anyway. And as far as beating them once and for all goes, it isn't going to happen and it's a fantasy to think so. To risk the invocation of Godwin's Law here, it's akin to arguing that allowing Hitler to take power would forever end anti-Semitism. Yeah, right. I prefer to fight ignorance whenever and wherever it's found.

Nathan Newman's certainly predisposed against the courts doing anything about such matters, but the fact is that the courts can and do consider such First Amendment establishment clause cases, and the fact that they do so undercuts his argument, because like it or not there are obviously grounds for bringing such cases to court. I may not like Newdow taking the Pledge of Allegiance case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and I understand how that can be counter-productive politically, but so what? During the 1950s and 60s the courts made some very controversial decisions about civil rights that were politically counter-productive as well, but the plaintiffs had every right under the U.S. Constitution to avail themselves of the courts to seek justice.

Posted by: David W. | Jan 18, 2005 3:53:04 PM

It leaves the religious right permanently mobilized to engage in electoral politics while secular people sit around hoping the lawyers will bail them out if anything ever goes seriously wrong.

Maybe I'm dense, but this argument makes no sense to me. Where do you stop using this principle? Should we let them ban abortion so we can make them complacent while mobilizing our base? How about destroying Social Security? Or the 40 hour work week?

In truth, Matt, you're saying that a little creationism in the biology class is a pawn you're willing to sacrifice. Maybe biology just isn't important to you as a subject, but damnit this is a bigger question -- one of truth. For some of us at least, willingly or unwillingly catering to the worst of the religious right is crossing the line.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Jan 18, 2005 4:03:18 PM

I will write about this more later tonight, but the big problem with this argument is that it's a false dichotomy. Litigation is not a substitute for liberal mobilization; it's a form of liberla mobilization that in many cases contributes to other forms. Did Brown make the civil rights movement fat and lazy? I'd like to see some evidence for that claim...

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Jan 18, 2005 4:16:35 PM

Matt's argument seems to boil down to:

We're winning, which pisses off our enemies and make them fight harder. We should, therefore, deliberately lose, so that they won't try so hard to win, but maybe our allies will.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 18, 2005 4:21:50 PM

The problem with your summary is the part where you say "we're winning." We are in fact winning on the front of keeping intelligent design out of classrooms, but we are losing badly in the sense of avoiding unjust wars, having reasonable economic policy, etc.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Jan 18, 2005 4:36:08 PM

For some reason, the old Churchill WWII speech runs through my head as I read this stuff:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, ...The point being, of course, that the conservative movement is fighting liberalism and rationalism in Congress, and the courts, and in local school boards, and in the states, etc, etc, etc... Are liberals so undermanned that we need to start making strategic retreats? Or should we fight in every venue we can? I'm for no surrender, myself.

Posted by: Alex R | Jan 18, 2005 4:42:07 PM


I think Matt's point is that if the Right actually wins and imposes its social views, as in Kansas, the majority of voters will react so negatively they will kick them out. I think that's somewhat different than what you say.

It would be interesting to have some data to test this. I tend to agree with Matt on this.

Posted by: GT | Jan 18, 2005 4:44:53 PM

The Discovery Institute, home base for intelligent design, founded its jihad on something called the "wedge strategy," a highly religious manifesto of purpose.

But, when tthey came out from the shadows to daylight, Discovery deleted all "wedge strategy" info from its website. Fortunately, many scientists and organizations saved cached versions.

Read about IDer's religious intent here:

The wedge strategy promises to:
defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.

Sounds awfully damned religious to me.


Posted by: Steve Snyder | Jan 18, 2005 4:45:12 PM

Matt, last time I checked, re op-ed, IDers, creationists, etc. don't give a damn for what the mainstream media says. In fact, the more they are written against, the more some of them may have their perception of being persecuted fed.

Second, the NY Times, et al have no legal authority to enforce laws, constitutional civil liberties, etc. Only courts do.

Third, elections are important at both the local and national level.

At the local level, people need to stand up and call IDer school district agitators, school board candidates, etc. anti-scientific and anti-intellectual. Also, in school districts that are tight on money, the financially draining potential of lawsuits should be stressed.

But local school boards, like the New York Times, don't enforce constitutional liberties. Only federal courts do, ultimately the Supreme Court. So, this continues to keep federal elections important.


Posted by: Steve Snyder | Jan 18, 2005 4:49:25 PM

GT, regarding your data point, in the last election the pro-creationists won back a majority on the Kansas State School Board. Clearly, the 'letting the wookie win' strategy doesn't guarantee lasting pro-evolution results at the ballot box.

Posted by: David W. | Jan 18, 2005 5:15:08 PM

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