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Nature Immunology Editorial Botches American Law and Science Education

Casey Luskin

A May, 2010 editorial in Nature Immunology makes it clear that they don’t trust religious persons–even those who are neo-Darwinian evolutionists like Francis Collins–in positions of scientific authority. The editorial (written by the journal’s editors) states:

“The openly religious stance of the NIH director [Francis Collins] could have undesirable effects on science education in the United States. … In the introduction and in interviews surrounding [Collins’] book release, he describes his belief in a non-natural, non-measurable, improvable deity that created the universe and its laws with humans as the ultimate aim of its creation. Some might worry that describing scientists as workers toiling to understand the laws and intricacies of this divine creation will create opportunities for creationism adepts.”

(“Of faith and reason,” Nature Immunology, Vol. 11(5):357 (May 2010).)

Aside from the fact that Nature Immunology‘s editors are apparently unashamedly intolerant of religion, we must ask whether we should trust Nature Immunology to instruct Americans on science education. They write:

Strikingly, despite being a world leader in science, the United States still struggles when it comes to scientific education. Creationism is creeping back into the science curricula of public schools. And although intelligent design, the latest form of creationism, suffered a major defeat in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial (Nat. Immunol. 7, 433–435, 2006), when the US Supreme Court ruled that including it in science curricula is unconstitutional, creationists are making a comeback.

(“Of faith and reason,” Nature Immunology, Vol. 11(5):357 (May 2010).)

With so many errors, where do we begin?

Setting aside basic misrepresentations like the claim that ID is “creationism,” the journal’s editors apparently are not familiar with American law. It was not the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled against intelligent design (ID) in 2005, but a court from the lowest level of the U.S. federal court system — a federal district court from the middle district of Pennsylvania. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed the teaching of ID.

What’s also interesting about this comment is that they claim it’s “strikin[g]” that the U.S. has so many skeptics of neo-Darwinism and yet is a “world leader in science.” Perhaps that’s because one can be a perfectly good scientist and reject neo-the Darwinian consensus.

The article goes on to offer more complaints about American science education. One amusing complaint states, “In 2008, Louisiana state legislators passed bills that allow ‘open and objective discussions of scientific theories being studied, including but not limited to evolution and the origins of life.'” Yes, that’s right — horror of horrors that Louisiana would permit teachers to engage in open and objective discussions of evolution!

The very next sentence in the editorial contains another glaring error:

In 2009, the Texas Board of Education set new standards for incorporating ideas from intelligent- design literature, including doubts that the fossil records represent convincing evidence of evolution. Under the guise of promoting ‘critical thinking skills’, such decisions allow creationists to teach the controversy–a strategy designed to discredit evolution and introduce intelligent design as a viable alternative. Opponents of these bills justly point out that such discussions belong in religion, culture and philosophy classes but not in the science curricula.

The problem here is that Texas’s standards nowhere mention or permit the teaching of ID. The exact language adopted by Texas requires that students “analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations . . . including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking.” It also requires students to “analyze and evaluate” core evolutionary claims, including “common ancestry,” “natural selection,” “mutation,” “sudden appearance,” the origin of the “complexity of the cell,” and the formation of “long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.”

When it comes to evolution, there’s nothing in Texas’ new science standards but scientific analysis, evaluation, and critique. Postulating alternatives to evolution like intelligent design is not in the standards.

Texa’s approach to teaching evolution approach represents good science education. A recent paper in the journal Science found that students should study science by learning the evidence “that supports … or does not support” the concept being taught, further lamenting that “[a]rgument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education.”
In their conclusions, the Nature Immunology editors state: “No one should leave school believing that men walked with dinosaurs.” That’s young earth creationism, which is most definitely not a part of the curriculum in Louisiana, Texas, or any other state in the U.S.

So why is Nature Immunology fabricating fears and complaining about good science education? It’s simple:

As I explained recently in University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, leading science authorities laud the importance of inquiry-based science education — with all of its critical thinking, skepticism, and consideration of alternative explanations — but then effectively jettison such pedagogical philosophies when recommending methods of teaching evolution. That’s why Nature Immunology is aghast that “[i]n 2008, Louisiana state legislators” did something so benign as to “pas[s] bills that allow ‘open and objective discussions of scientific theories being studied, including but not limited to evolution and the origins of life.'”


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.