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

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.

  1. JasonTD
    September 19th, 2008 at 02:16 | #1


    I made no reference to the motives or biases of the anti-evolutionists. My points were directed only at the rhetorical tactics they use and how they are unscientific, in my opinion. I don’t see any ad hominem in what I said.

    Your second paragraph shows a misunderstanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed and advanced. During informal discussions over scientific issues, people, including scientists, will often revert to the normal way of debating ideas: each taking a side and arguing in support of theirs and/or against the other side. This seems natural to people since it is how arguments and ideas are discussed in the vast majority of situations. But what makes science unique as a system of knowledge is that there is, in fact, only one side: nature itself. There is an objective truth to strive to reach. Our ability to reach that truth and describe it correctly is, of course, limited. Even successful theories are only accepted as correct provisionally. Further testing and observation will always be needed to modify those theories, expand them to cover new phenomena, or even replace them if necessary.

    This is what Feynman was getting at. In science, you don’t stake out a position to defend against challengers, because what is going to provide the toughest challenge to your ideas is not other people, but reality. So, not fooling yourself, as he put it, is your top priority. You need to be at least as skeptical of your own ideas as you are of the ideas of others.

    When you put forth your own view of life and its history, you have made a claim about how life behaves in nature. That claim must stand or fall on its own merits. Whether or not some competing claim is ‘better’ doesn’t actually make your claim a successful scientific idea. However, the Theory of Evolution also needs to stand on its own merits in the same way. So, I do agree that there is a ‘burden of proof’ for supporters of Evolution, just not that it is any higher than the burden of proof on you to support your view.

    I don’t particularly wish to discuss evolution vs. creationism in detail here, for two reasons. One is that it is off the original topic of how the issue relates to parental choice in education. Second is that I am far from an expert in that area. As I said, my field is physics. I am a science educator (I teach chemistry and physics at a public high school in Florida), not an evolutionary biologist. As such, I have read a fair amount about how the issue is debated in public forums, but there are those much better qualified to discuss the science in full detail. I would be happy to continue discussing how this issue relates to the nature of science and how education in science relates to the original topic of TokyoTom’s post. I actually have more to say on that topic than I have so far, but I am running out of time for tonight.

    Thank you for the interesting discussion so far, Torsten. I hope we can continue it. And thanks to Tom for providing a good place for thoughtful discussion.

  2. Torsten
    September 18th, 2008 at 14:33 | #2

    Thanks for the reply JasonTD,
    I am aware of the basic arguments from both sides (evolutionists / creationists). I don’t know why you deem the mentioned arguments to be flawed and I think discussing them in detail here would explode this blog post. What you are pointing to can however be called bias on the creationist/anti-evolutionist side. But let’s don’t forget that this applies to evolutionists/Darwinists as well. Pointing to the others side biases and motives is btw. an ad hominem line of argument and hence a very unscientific way to argue.

    In my own point of view organisms are complex functional systems that require a high degree of perfection for their continued existence and reproduction. It can be reasonably assumed that this won’t come into existence by chance. This places the burden of proof on the evolutionist shoulders, who now would have to demonstrate via experiment that my kind of reasoning is wrong.

    That most people in academia do share evolutionist beliefs seems to be the result of the hegemony of this point of view.

    If there is interest into discussing the matter on the forum, we can do so, since this may attract an even broader audience to the forum via the search engines.

  3. JasonTD
    September 17th, 2008 at 22:31 | #3


    Some who argue against creationists may make the logical mistake of suggesting that being in a minority is what makes the anti-evolution activists wrong. What really makes them wrong, however, is that they are wrong on the facts and in the conclusions they draw from those facts.

    I’ve been reading the arguments of anti-evolution activists for several years. Gaps in the fossil record, irreducible complexity, mutations occur too infrequently, 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, polonium halos, etc. None of these arguments have survived even my inexpert scrutiny. (My M.S. is in physics. The last biology course I took was in high school.) I have never seen a truly scientific argument against evolution. Lot of arguments are dressed in the language of science and/or use actual data. But they are all missing essential scientific reasoning. This next quote from physicist Richard Feynman’s 1974 commencement address at CalTech shows up so often in online discussions about science because it is such a clear and obvious explanation of how to be ‘scientific’. (Feynman was considered a great teacher of science, not just a great scientist, for his ability to explain things so well.)

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

    He notes that being scientific requires a level of utter honesty that is not normally found in other areas of life. When making a scientific argument, you must be willing to question and doubt your own argument and imagine all of the ways in which it might be wrong.

    “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory.”

    This is what is missing from those that I have seen argue against evolution. I do not see them being honest in that kind of complete way. Their arguments are constructed solely on the basis of what information and ideas support their desired conclusion. Evidence that contradicts that conclusion is either misinterpreted badly enough so that it seems to support it or ignored entirely.

    I’m still waiting for a scientist to make that kind of utterly honest scientific case against evolution.

  4. Torsten
    September 17th, 2008 at 15:08 | #4

    I don’t see how opposing the theory of (macro-)evolution is necessary “being wrong on science”. Just because those scientists not in favour of evolution are a minority doesn’t mean that they are wrong or unscientific.

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