On My Mind
The United States may be a scientific and technological superpower of the 21st century, but we are fighting 19th century intellectual wars. Across the country, legislatures and boards of education at state and local levels are attempting to insinuate a new brand of creationism into the science curricula of our schools. Court battles in Pennsylvania and Georgia, an expected board of education mandate in Kansas, the introduction of a bill in the New York State Assembly as I write this: Efforts to discredit the teaching of evolution—a theory widely accepted by the international scientific community for more than a century—are fully underway.
As an educator in the liberal arts—working in a country whose universities have long been the envy of the world— I find attempts to compromise science education by introducing the pseudoscience of “intelligent design” disheartening, even frightening. If they succeed, our children will lag behind other countries in their knowledge of science and become scientifically naïve, perhaps downright ignorant. Our society will no longer recognize the difference between scientific thinking and beliefs.
What’s at issue here is not science against religion, but the confusing of the two domains. The distinction is crucial. Many scientists are deeply religious and find that science and faith can co-exist. However, each domain relies on dramatically different methods for discerning truth, weighing evidence, determining standards of proof and reaching conclusions. To pit “intelligent design” against evolution errs by implying these are comparable theories, when in fact they are based on fundamentally different assumptions about how we know what we know.
Scientific theories are statements about the empirical world that can be proved or disproved by making observations and measurements under specific conditions that insure replication: If we do A under defined conditions, we can predict that B will occur. We use statistical methods to get a level of confidence about the probability that B didn’t occur by chance alone. The validity of a scientific theory resides in its power to explain phenomena that are observable and can be analyzed with a particular agreed-upon logic. Theories can, of course, be contradicted and altered by new evidence that has also been gathered by following the scientific method. It is one of the hallmarks of scientific theory that scientific theory itself continues to evolve with greater and greater accuracy.
Beliefs, on the other hand, are statements about events that are not subject to empirical observations that can be replicated, and their standard of proof resides in other statements also believed to be true but not grounded on observations. One can believe that God created the world in six days if one takes certain sacred texts as the final authority. Faith in that authority leads one to believe there is truth contained in the text. Faith requires no observations of empirical phenomena, no logic for interpreting the data other than acceptance of a text or a person as a higher authority. The difference is not one of degree: It is a difference of kind, and not a trivial one. Science gets revised, but dogma doesn’t.
If we want to educate our children to think analytically and know what can be reliably known about the physical world they live in, then schools must focus on the appropriate domain to teach from. Valuable teaching time should be spent so that our children will learn more science, not less.
Why does this concern Sarah Lawrence? Surely our liberal arts institutions are as committed as our research universities to protecting the integrity of true scientific inquiry. But I also feel that, as president of a College that values social involvement, I have an obligation to speak out on issues that affect the world beyond our campus. If we believe that it isn’t enough for us to educate the individual for the individual’s sake, but that we must educate that individual to transform society, then it’s essential for me, for all of us, to speak out against forces that would impede that society’s knowledge and understanding of humanity. We must ensure that every young person is presented with tools for grappling with both scientific endeavor and with faith: to respect the inherent value of each, and to understand the essential difference between them.