The instinctive reaction of most people to this question is "Of course not! Without critical thinking, science is dead!" So when one of the leading science journals carries a report on the Louisiana bill promoting the development of "critical thinking skills" describing it as an "attack [. . .] on the teaching of evolution and mainstream scientific thought on global warming and other topics" - it is time to reflect on the reasons why.
One of the many caricatures of "academic freedom" initiatives (Source here)
The report puts great weight on the scientific consensus about evolution. It refers to "mainstream scientific thought", the "overwhelming support from our science teacher members", and to "agreed-upon standards". The implication is that all talk of "critical thinking" to challenge the consensus must be motivated by factors outside science. Consequently, we read comments like: "Science educators say the new wording is intended simply to circumvent rulings by U.S. courts that creationism and intelligent design are unconstitutional religious intrusions into a public school science curriculum."
This dismissive perception fails to acknowledge the intense debates and fundamental differences about evolution that exist within the scientific community (for a current example, go here). Can any issue relating to evolutionary theory be found that is free from controversy? I cannot think of one. The emphasis on 'consensus', with the implication that dissent comes from outside science, is actually alien to the spirit if science. It can (and should) be argued that this emphasis is a threat to the health and vigour of all disciplines of science. Sociologists of science have come to recognise that the 'consensus' argument is part of a struggle for power and influence. In his recent book, Professor Steve Fuller suggests that "public professions of faith in evolution by scientists are best interpreted as simply marking solidarity with the reigning orthodoxy" (p.32). He refers to one of the major recent 'consensus' statements on evolution:
"The first case is the InterAcademy Panel of 67 national academies of science, which in June 2006 issued a joint statement calling for the promotion of evolutionary theory in schools against an alleged worldwide creationist threat. Yet, the statement failed to identify any specific evolutionary mechanisms for mandatory instruction, resorting instead to an anodyne characterisation of evolution as somehow responsible for the diversity of life on Earth, and an easy dismissal of young-Earth creationism. One suspects that to manufacture the appearance of widespread scientific consensus, the statement's drafters were forced to edit out any specifically Darwinian references, especially to natural selection, that might prove divisive to some of the signatories." (p.32-33)
The inclusion of Global Warming issue is very interesting. This is another topic where 'the scientific consensus' has been thrust down the throats of the public, political leaders and funding bodies. The issue, of course, is not primarily about global warming per se, but whether the human activity of burning fossil fuels (and releasing extra carbon dioxide) has had a significant influence on atmospheric temperatures. (For a useful overview of issues, go here). It will be a surprise to many that there is a significant community of dissenting scientists who feel that the consensus is contrived and are very concerned about the pressures they face to conform. They vigorously object to the ad hominem claim that their dissent is sponsored by oil companies. Their responses in the media reveal titles and counter-arguments that have much common ground with the experiences of ID scientists. There is a general problem here for the science community to address: consensus arguments are being constructed which are undermining scholarly activity by treating dissent as anti-science and driven by vested interests. It appears to me that the real problem is with the champions of consensus, for they are selectively reporting the science issues and have an agenda that includes power, influence and access to research funds.
The consensus arguments about evolution are somewhat more complex than this. Why is it that "academic freedom" issues and the promotion of "critical thinking skills" are linked so easily to "creationism and intelligent design"? Those who do this are either advocates of philosophical materialism ('matter is all there is' so living things must be explained by material processes only and any dissent about this must be religious) or people who have adopted sphere sovereignty in their thinking about science. This is Gould's NOMA thesis, which requires an absolute line to be drawn between science/facts and religion/values. Anything to do with design (they say) is located within the religion/values sphere and is completely outside science. By embracing one of these philosophical stances, the opponents of the Louisiana bill have driven into a cul-de-sac which results in their flat, stereotyped responses. They are unable to conceive that their might be any philosophy of science other than their own, and they cannot recognise scientific arguments against evolution even when they are spelled out. As evidence of this, the cover of Explore Evolution is reproduced in the Science report with the comment "Political science?" Sad! It looks as though the author would benefit from education that develops "critical thinking skills".
This graphic is given the title: "Political Science?" in Science
Louisiana Opens School Door for Opponents of Evolution
Science 320, 20 June 2008: 1572.
A bill passed overwhelmingly by the Louisiana state legislature and expected to become law as early as next week marks the latest attack in the United States on the teaching of evolution and mainstream scientific thought on global warming and other topics.
Fuller, S. Dissent over Descent, Icon Books Ltd, Cambridge, 2008 (Chapter 1).
Crowther, R. Explore Evolution Textbook Featured in Science Magazine, Evolution News & Views, 22 June 2008
Crowther, R. Victory in Louisiana: Governor Jindal Signs Historic Science Education Act On Evolution and Education, Evolution News & Views, 27 June 2008
West, J.G. Louisiana Confounds the Science Thought Police (National Review Online, July 08, 2008)
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