Ed Brayton on Dispatches from the Culture Wars has done a great job critiquing both the legal reasoning and the general logic and use of quotations and authorities deployed in an argument that teaching about evolution in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment.

Ed’s critique meticulously picks apart particular flaws in the logic of particular arguments. I think it’s important to observe on a more general level how such arguments are based on essentialist notions of meaning established by authoritative definitions … as if conclusions can be reached on the basis of AUTHORITATIVE definitions (e.g., from courts) that establish WHAT IS SCIENCE, or WHAT IS RELIGION. It seems to me that this way of thinking about meaning and authority, not just by the writers but by the audience that finds them credible, is a more fundamental problem at the base of the specific lines of argument that Brayton refutes.

I think there’s a recursiveness to this, in that a major purpose of education in science (as in other areas of curriculum) is to help students become capable in discourses that don’t function on the basis of those kinds of meanings and that kind of authority.

Buried deep in his critique is a point that I think is especially important, but too often neglected. Ed writes:

And let’s bear in mind how abiogenesis [which Ed rightly notes is not the same as evolution] is taught in schools. It is not taught as something that has been proven, but as an ongoing research project. No textbook says “this is how it happened”; the textbooks describe past hypotheses on abiogenesis that showed promise but didn’t get us all the way (Miller-Urey, for example) and describe current hypotheses. But no textbook declares that we know how it happened, simply because we don’t yet. We cannot have the same confidence in abiogenesis as we do, say, in common descent, but that does not make it a “religious theory”.

We read endless arguments about whether “intelligent design” IS science, and whether evolution IS religion (cf. Coulter’s book). Maybe it would be helpful if we would more often and more loudly make the point that IF ideas derived from work on evolution were being taught in schools AS some kind of religious article of faith, THEN WE WOULD ALL AGREE THAT THIS WOULD BE UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Once we have made that point clear, we can go on to clarify how very different that would be from the teaching that does go on in public school science classes.

Meanwhile, over at The Panda’s Thumb, bhumburg takes on other problems with how the relation between science and religion is being used by some polemicists for ID, in his critique of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Review: “Traditional Christianity,” Ersatz Revolutionaries, and the Culture War (Chapter 15)

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  1. […] This makes no sense to scientists, who know the fundamental difference between science and religion. Science teachers need to be even more clear about this: It’s not enough for science teachers to have a sound but perhaps relatively unarticulated understanding of the difference, since a central concern of their job as science teachers is to help students form their understanding of what science is and how it works, which would necessarily include an understanding of how science differs from religion. […]

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