Sunday, May 08, 2005

Muddying the Waters


In this week's Weekly Standard, Pamela Winnick explains that the immiserated condition of science education in the United States has nothing to do with religious folly, or the Bush' administration's open contempt for empirical research, but can instead be blamed on textbook publishers like Pearson and Houghton Mifflin, who prefer "political correctness" to scientific accuracy. Reminding her readers of a 2001 study that found hundreds of errors in basic science texts, Winnick blames the influence of cultural pluralism for the poor quality of the texts and, by extension, the low science proficiency of American students.
[T]here's lots that's puzzling about the science textbooks used in American classrooms. A sloppy way with facts, a preference for the politically correct over the scientifically sound, and sheer faddism characterize their content. It's as if their authors had decided above all not to expose students to the intellectual rigor that is the lifeblood of science.

Thus, a chapter on climate in a fifth-grade science textbook in the Discovery Works series, published by Houghton Mifflin (2000), opens with a Native American explanation for the changing seasons: "Crow moon is the name given to spring because that is when the crows return. April is the month of Sprouting Grass Moon." Students meander through three pages of Algonquin lore before they learn that climate is affected by the rotation and tilt of Earth--not by the return of the crows.

Houghton Mifflin spokesman Collin Earnst says such tales are included in order to "connect science to culture." He might more precisely have said to connect science to certain preferred, non-Western, or primitive cultures. Were a connection drawn to, say, a Bible story, the outcry would be heard around the world.
Here Winnick implies that while the "primitives" and their white liberal apologists are permitted to "connect science to culture," American Christians — the most persecuted minority of them all — are shouted down for trying to make the same links in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas and fifteen other states where evolutionary theory is being challenged by promoters of "Intelligent Design." Why should Algonquian creation narratives be granted space in science texts while Genesis is not? [Update: Yes, I know the "Intelligent Design" people claim to be making a different, more "scientific" argument than the creationists, drawing their ideas from data rather than sacred texts. But it's also evident that ID doesn't simply make space for supernatural explanations for natural phenomena; it requires it by spending all its time searching for alleged "gaps" in evolutionary theory, then using those gaps to imply the existence of a "designer" and to discount the entire idea of descent by natural selection. It's religious hooey, in other words. No wonder the Kansas hearings have proved embarrassing to the "serious" ID people so far, as witness after witness has spoken goofy about the age of the earth.]

Well, for starters, the chapter ridiculed here by Winnick utilizes a standard rhetorical strategy shared by textbooks in nearly all subject areas — i.e., begin with an interesting story, try to "draw the readers in," then move on to the more conventional displinary treatment of the subject raised. Anyone who reads, writes or assigns textbooks will recognize this approach as neither misleading nor relativist. Indeed, in most science texts, this strategy serves fairly traditional "scientific" values in its separation of (subjective) myth and belief from (objective) fact and research. One could, therefore, easily imagine a chapter in a biology text that opens with a review of Genesis before proceeding onward to a discussion of natural selection.

However, the "outcry" against this hypothetical chapter would likely come not from scientists but from Christian conservatives outraged by the "demotion" of Biblical creationism to the rank of just another narrative, on par with aboriginal superstition. For the Christian activists currently pushing Intelligent Design, the point is not to "connect science with culture," nor to suggest that culture and science mingle in interesting ways, but instead to rearrange the boundary between the two — to claim scientific status for a very specific form of religious belief that is already privileged throughout American culture. These people seek not merely to denigrate evolution but also to distinguish Biblical creationism from other belief systems deemed "inferior" (and "unscientific") by comparison. The racism implicit in this strategy is quite bald and should be named.