Archive for the ‘local control’ Category

The evolution of Palin: Is the battle over evolution a struggle against science, or a proxy war with the state?

September 8th, 2008 4 comments

In the context of a review of the focus on “creationism” that Alaska governor Sarah Palin has injected in the presidential election, Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, has attempted to explain (in The Financial Times, oddly enough) to his readers in the UK the strange American politics of “intelligent design”.  While insightful, Caldwell has missed an important part of the bigger picture (which few Americans seem to have grasped).

Caldwell’s key points are below; I follow with my own views.

“The point of intelligent design is to take science down a peg. To warn enthusiasts that they risk “discrediting science itself” is a bit dense. For them, evolution is a potent symbol of the way “scientific materialism” leaves people feeling demeaned, disenfranchised, stripped of prerogatives and less free. This feeling is not groundless. Dostoyevsky and Marx said similar things. The scientific world-view poses challenges to religion only in the course of posing challenges to a whole lot besides. To take one obvious example: fewer offices permit smoking today, but it is a stretch to call this a choice. In the US, at least, there was little democratic participation in the decision. There was scientific research and then there were mandates from health boards and courts. Maybe these mandates were “all to the good”. That does not make them democratic.

“The anti-evolution activists in America’s small towns are wrong on the science – but wrong in a way that is of absolutely no consequence to them unless they choose a career in horse-breeding or molecular biochemistry. Their feelings of disenfranchisement, on the other hand, are real and consequential. Experts control an ever larger share of decisions about where roads can be built, what people can ingest, what can be taught and whether the decisions of democratic bodies pass constitutional muster. Like so much else in US public life, the battle over evolution is a class conflict disguised as a religious or moral conflict. It is comforting to look at the fight over evolution as one that pits the educated against the ignorant. It is that. But it is also a fight that pits technocrats against democrats.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy analyst (who comments frequently on climate change matters) posted the above paragraphs without comment other than to praise Caldwell’s “incisive analysis”; I cross-post below verbatim my own comments to Roger:

Roger, I’d say that Caldwell has a thoughtful analysis, but it misses at least as much as it sees.

Some of what Caldwell misses is captured by Francois’ fears about a “scientist caste” that depends on public funding and is seen as part of a rigid, “dictatorship-like” social order who presume to have “ultimate authority”.

Caldwell is closest when he notes the feelings of disenfranchisement by “the anti-evolution activists in America’s small towns”, but this is NOT a “class conflict disguised as a religious or moral conflict”. Rather, it is a struggle between local parental choice over what their children are taught and state and federal governments and courts, on a battle ground created by the continued legacy role of governments in providing public education.

One simply does not see the creationist debate in private schools, and if state governments ever got out of the business of being educators (as opposed to providing support to parents to have their children educated in schools of their choice), the whole issue would disappear. As a legal matter, the legal battle is about the separation of church and state – if the state isn’t the educator, then the issue dries up. If we left school choice and education up to parents, most parents would prefer the best education. So the problem is chiefly one of parents being upset that organs of governments over which local parent have little influence – courts, legislatures and distant bureaucracies (Caldwell’s “technocrats”) – trump parental rights. This in turn is played into a larger power struggle between the rights of local government and more distant state and federal ones.

While the teaching profession itself leans Democrat, the NEA doesn’t run the courthouses or state houses, so this is hardly a “class” struggle. That does seem to be somewhat of a meme from the Right, however – that the evolution debate is about Godless communist lefties trying to dictate to small-town America. The irony, of course, is that while Republicans like to foster that resentment (as well as other resentments and fears – of ragheads, enviros, gays and French-speakers) for political gain, Republicans have consistently exacerbated the real concerns of small-town America by further federalizing education, increasing the power of federal government and doing nothing to put political power back in the hands of local citizens.