A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post, responding to this column by Jay Mathews. Well, Mathews reports, most of his email was, to put it mildly, quite negative. As befits the civil tone of most NLT readers, those who took me to the woodshed for agreeing with Mathews were thoughtful about it. There was a huffy comment over at the Education Wonks, a site devoted to--what else?--education. (The comment, to be clear, was not by the bloggers, but by a reader.)
So where am I now? This morning--I’m a slow learner--I read a very long piece entitled "No Faith in Science" in today’s Globe and Mail (not available on-line for free, but once again, don’t give these guys any money). Covering three full pages in the "Focus" section, it was devoted to a litany of complaints about anything that could be remotely construed as connnected with the Bush Administration’s science policy (including, for example, abstinence education). While the author did quote some defenders of the Bush Administration (from outside as well as inside), it was not, ahem, fair and balanced, as they say on a network I don’t generally watch (I don’t watch any other network either). Among other things, it turns out that questioning the funding of research or refusing to fund research is kind of like McCarthyism. But that’s not the fish I want to fry here.
The title--"No Faith in Science"--is unintentionally telling. The headline writer wanted to call attention to the allegedly faith-based ("fundamentalist") influence on the Bush Administration’s science policy. But in the article itself, I discovered that science is also an object of faith. Here are some of the relevant paragraphs:
When the Traditional Values Coalition prepared its list of "questionable" research projects, it proudly described the endeavour as targeting a "sacred cow." That sentiment hints at a larger problem--a signficant conversion in a society that once seemed to embrace science as tantamount to a new religion.
From the Second World War to the close of the millenium, miracles seemed to spring from laboratories--moon landings, heart transplants, commercial jets, the polio vaccine, nuclear power, computers, antibiotics, and a decoded human genome (a feat Mr. Clinton likened to learning the language of God).
But now all around are mysteries it struggles to solve, from cancer to mad cow disease.... Wonder drugs have been exposed as killers. Cold fusion has flopped. Even the flu looms as an insurmountable foe. People are losing faith.
"Science is not viewed as nearly as infallible as it once was," said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It just so happens that the paper I delivered at the conference here touched on these themes, albeit somewhat tangentially. It dealt with Tolkien’s treatment of human finitude and the longing for immortality, focusing on his narrative of the downfall of Numenor. I suggested that Tolkien provides us with an analysis of the psychological and intellectual dynamic connected with efforts to extend life indefinitely (that is, to achieve immortality), which we’re approaching when we regard every death as a failure of medical science and hence every death as in some way "optional." (For background, go here, here, and here.) While there are economic, political, and sociological arguments against seeking immortality (arguably the modern project since Bacon and Descartes), Tolkien calls our attention to the religious dimension of this issue, i.e., the fundamental impiety of trying to play God.
To make an already too long story short, I’m tempted to argue that what the emotional reactions to Mathews’ column reveal is that many understand science as a kind of orthodoxy that they’re not willing to have challenged. This is--how shall I say it?--not a scientific attitude toward science. And those who worry about whether such issues can be handled in high school seem to me to be worrying about whether "enlightenment" is possible. If they’re right, if all we can do is indoctrinate, then science does not deserve the high (because neutral or "scientific") ground that they claim for it. What the schools are doing--if they’re right-is establishing the "religion" of science. Now, anyone who has read my Ashbrook op-eds or my posts must be aware that I’m not in principle opposed to government support for religion, but I would favor "multiple establishment," support for all religions (not just one to the exclusion of others, and only for the sake of and conditioned on legitimate government purposes). So if high school science education is in fact a form of religious indoctrination, then I’d favor teaching the conflict over merely foisting one dogma on the students.
Anyone out there provoked?
Update: Do read the comments: they’re interesting, civil, and contain a clickable link to the G & M article I excerpt above. For my own part, as far as science education is concerned, I’d actually be happy with a course in the history and philosophy of science, as a result of which students learned something about the way in which modern science and modern politics are inextricably linked, and about how both are connected with (perhaps even dependent upon) a peculiar and peculiarly unorthodox understanding of revealed religion. This wouldn’t necessarily require teaching Intelligent Design, nor would it involve even the "multiple establishment" of "religion" I mentioned above, but it would provide an understanding of science that would deprive it of any pretenses to be neutral or non-partisan. Of course, this, too, is probably too much to ask.
Update #2: Since I wrote the first update on Saturday, the tone of the comments section has degenerated somewhat, so that Id no longer necessarily describe all of them as "civil." Read them, if you will, but beware: peoples hackles have been raised, there is some name-calling, and so on. When that begins in any weblog comment section (not only NLT), I tend to tune out.