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In the context of scientific controversies from climate change to Darwinian evolution, the buzz phrase of the moment is "science denial." It’s an all-purpose insult term intended to call up images of Holocaust denial, being "in denial" about a range of painful personal issues, or flat-out "denying" an evident reality that’s right in front of you. You’re supposed to picture a red-faced, intransigent person — I see in my imagination a little fat balding man with a mustache — his armed folded across his chest in angry defiance, mouth set in a grim, truculent pucker.
What’s so useful about accusing opponents of being science "deniers" is that it excuses you from having to say anything of any substance in answer to their arguments. You’ll find the technique on display in a New York Times op-ed by University of Rochester physicist Adam Frank, "Welcome to the Age of Denial," in which Dr. Frank conflates every kind of skepticism on scientific issues, and of course offers no response to any of them beyond the blanket charge of "denying scientific fact."
Today… it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, "creationism" was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as "creation science" and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.
Notice the skilled sowing of confusion here. I’m not aware of "creation science," a/k/a Biblical creationism — indefensible on Constitutional grounds quite apart from the scientific or other merits — being "pushed into classrooms across the country."
I am aware of responsible efforts to safeguard the academic freedom of teachers who wish to introduce students to mainstream scientific evidence both supportive and critical of Darwinian theory. But that is a very different matter. It’s not "denial" at all but a reasoned stance in favor of treating the experience of learning as exploration.
The irony of the case against science "denial" is that many advocates for "science" and against "denial" turn out, on closer inspection, to be proponents of indoctrinating rather than educating young people. That’s the scary take-away of Casey Luskin’s new article in World magazine about a campaign to nationalize science instruction ("Darwinian Dictates") and mandate the exclusive reign of Darwinism in biology class. Not only there, either, but in curricula intended for kids as young as third grade!
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
makes biological evolution a "core idea" and urges that by the third grade students should be presented with "evidence of common ancestry" of humans and animals. Middle-school students should "infer evolutionary relationships," and in high school they should hear that "common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence."
The proposed nationalized science standards — already adopted by five states, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Maryland, Vermont, and Kansas — are precisely in the business of denial, directing instructors to present a picture of the evolutionary evidence shorn of any complicating details that might cast doubt on the orthodox Darwinian view:
NGSS requires students to learn that similarities among vertebrate embryos indicate common ancestry, but says nothing about the significant differences between embryos in their earliest stages. A 2010 paper in the world’s foremost science journal, Nature, explained, "Counter to the expectations of early embryonic [similarities], many studies have shown that there is often remarkable divergence between related species both early and late in development." Under the NGSS, such evidence would be excluded.
Once students hit high school, NGSS has them learning that "similarities in DNA sequences" across different species also support common ancestry. But NGSS does not note that the scientific literature is filled with studies where DNA similarities conflict with the predictions of common ancestry. A 2009 article in New Scientist, "Why Darwin Was Wrong About the Tree of Life," observed, "Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded."
Although NGSS encourages inquiry-based learning and lauds "open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism … and honest and ethical reporting of findings," it downplays those virtues when it comes to teaching evolution.
Read the rest of Casey’s important article. I suspect that in the future you are going to be hearing a lot more about NGSS, a nefarious attempt to shut down open discussion of science in the science classroom.
Image: Soviet industrial school/Wikicommons.