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Teaching the Evolution Controversy Is a Good Liberal Cause

Paul Krugman.jpgA point that Joshua Youngkin makes in his cover story above ("State of the Union: An Academic Freedom Bill Roundup") deserves highlighting today, which of course is Darwin Day a/k/a Academic Freedom Day. Regarding AF, Josh observes: "This is basically a liberal vision of science education, one that should be embraced by folks on either side of the political divide." Very true.

We have often pointed out the deceptiveness of Darwin advocates who identify skepticism on orthodox Darwinian evolutionary theory with creationism and with sectarian religious perspectives. Their goal is to fool people who haven't thought about the issue into swallowing the easy but totally bogus reasoning: "Support for academic freedom equals support for teaching students that the world is under ten thousand years old. Therefore anyone who accepts the age of the universe as being reckoned in the billions of years will naturally oppose even the best, most carefully and responsibly formulated AF bills."

The stupidity and illogic of this way of thinking is as obvious, so you might hope, as it is sadly effective.

Another effective yet erroneous tactic of the Darwin lobby is to link science skepticism inexorably with a right-wing political outlook. The message there is: "If you consider yourself liberal, moderate or anything other than a conservative Tea Party zealot, you must be opposed to AF legislation." Guys like Paul Krugman (pictured above), the New York Times columnist, are insistent that conservatives and Republicans are ignorant and anti-intellectual. So if you're a thoughtful, educated, and/or liberal person, you'll automatically wish to fight against such proposed laws.

In a recent column ("The Ignorance Caucus"), Krugman finds it altogether predictable that Republicans should take offense at teaching students to think critically. Referring to House majority leader Eric Cantor, he writes:

For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that's not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach "critical thinking skills," because, it said, such efforts "have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."
So there you go. Unlike those ignorant Republicans, liberals support critical thinking -- yet they oppose encouraging students to think critically when it comes to evolution? The absurdity of this is evident too, or it should be.

In fact, as Casey Luskin noted recently, "The Debate Over Darwinian Evolution Is NOT a Right vs. Left Issue." More than that, if you just step back from it for a moment, well-formulated AF laws should be a very natural liberal, progressive thing to support. We're talking about protecting teachers who want to enlighten their students by acquainting them with both sides of a legitimate scientific controversy. If I were a biology teacher who found the evidence against Darwinian theory ultimately unpersuasive, I would nonetheless be attracted to the idea of showing young people how to weigh serious and challenging arguments against one another.

Even if you think most high-school kids aren't intellectually prepared to evaluate these arguments, which are admittedly not simple, what kind of person wants to see teachers punished for trying out such a pedagogic strategy? But all that good AF laws seek to do is protect science instructors who would bring a bit of creativity to the classroom. When did penalizing and intimidating good teachers become a liberal's idea of wise education policy?

Zogby polling, indeed, shows that Democrats are even more in favor of protecting teachers who teach evolutionary theory's "strengths and weakness" than Republicans are -- by a margin of 82 to 73 percent.

We need to do more to deliberately claim and use appropriate language in characterizing the case for academic freedom, which is really about modestly reforming science education. There's a serious argument to be made, backed up by intuition, that this is in fact a fine liberal cause -- while it is the anti-AF activists, like our friends at the National Center for Science Education, who are the reactionary defenders of a calcified status quo.

Even if you're a conservative on other issues, on this one, if you support academic freedom, it's right and fair to call yourself a progressive.