My Son the Expert! Part I: An Introduction to the Debate Over Evolution in Texas
As I was listening online to last week's Texas State Board of Education hearings, two comments by Board members stuck with me. The TSBE was in its final deliberations on science standards and liberal Republican Pat Hardy delivered an encomium to "experts."
She went on about how if you get sick and require the medical knowledge of an expert in the field, why then you'd better go to that expert and follow his advice! She pleaded with other Board members to listen to the "experts" on evolution, which would mean voting to accept the "expert" view that there's no debate on evolution worthy of being shared with high school biology students.
The same day, Board member Don McLeroy, who was on the dissenting side from majority "expert" opinion, delivered a stirring rebuttal. With marked irony, he asked what right he had, as a mere dentist by profession, to doubt the experts? In fact, despite being "only" a dentist, he took the view that as a citizen and an elected school board legislator, he had the right to think for himself. Indeed he had the responsibility. That was the case even if it meant, after study and reflection, rejecting what many experts say.
Then again, you don't have to look too hard for genuine credentialed experts on the Darwin-doubting side -- quite a number of those testified before the TSBE. Yet it remains true that the skeptics on evolution represent a minority academic view.
As the world now knows, the TSBE ultimately voted with McLeroy and against the majority of experts, adopting science standards that specify the precise headings under which Darwinian theory most urgently needs to be questioned -- or, in the Board's preferred language, "analyzed and evaluated."
To follow the experts unthinkingly is simply the prestige path for most people. Such docility also explains the resistance of certain constituencies, from whom you'd expert better, to thinking fresh thoughts about Darwinian evolution.
Sometimes, the temptation to surrender to expert opinion arises from nothing more complicated than laziness. I'm positive that's the case with many in the politically conservative community of journalists and other intellectuals. Science bores or intimidates these folks, and they haven't yet perceived the relevance of Darwinism to their other political and cultural concerns. Therefore expert opinion provides a welcome excuse, at least on this issue, to turn their brains off.
In other communities, there's a tendency to be overly impressed by credentials, titles, honors, and offices. This is surely a big part of what keeps more Jews from "getting" the Darwin debate. You could call it a case of My Son the Doctor Syndrome. Just as the stereotypical coffee klatch of Jewish mothers will speak in absurdly hushed, reverential tones about the fact that one of them has a son in the medical profession -- the technical Yiddish term here is kvelling -- so too there's something in recent Jewish culture that inclines us to revere "experts" to excess, no matter what the context. This is ironic given that Jews spent the previous 2,000 years refusing to defer to the dominant expert views of the culture around them.
With all that in mind, as a public service, I'll devote the next couple of posts in a brief series to a look at the testimony of two experts who spoke before the Texas Board of Ed about science standards and evolution. One is molecular biologist and MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award-winner David Hillis, who teaches at the University of Texas, Austin. Hillis stirred up the Darwin faithful with dire warnings of a coming blow to the state's prestige if students were given occasion to doubt Darwin. That, he said in the Austin American-Statesman, would be
a huge embarrassment to Texas, a setback for science education and a terrible precedent for the state boards overriding academic experts in order to further their personal religious or political agendas. The victims will be the schoolchildren of Texas, who represent the future of our state.
And who can doubt he is right? My son the genius!
The other is Southern Methodist University anthropologist Ronald Wetherington, who, in the contest of dire warnings, would not be bested by Dr. Hillis. Director of SMU's Center for Teaching Excellence, Wetherington demanded (in the San Antonio Express-News) that the Board's enlightened members "stand firm and hold back that pitchfork crowd of the 16th century."
What's so delightful about these two gents is how marvelously they illustrate the maxim that being an expert doesn't mean you are right. In fact, you may be wrong on point after point -- objectively wrong, not simply as a matter of opinion. This turns out to be the case with Hillis and Wetherington
Tomorrow, then, Professor Hillis.