Humans are wired to make sense of the world, to create some semblance of order out of seeming chaos. Consider the following few sentences:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Despite the scrambling of letters in this paragraph, most people are able to make meaning of it and do so without much thought. That is because nature essentially abhors a mess. Disorder is about as welcome as Mel Gibson at Bâ€™nai Bâ€™rith. The five senses seek to create order, and so does the mind. Whether presented with garbled text or an event or circumstance that outwardly seems to defy reason (e.g., a rainbow, a tsunami, biodiversity, terrorism), humans will strive mightily to put the peg of stimulus in its proper hole.
But what if no hole is readily available? What if no sense is to be found, no meaning is to be made? Then, being human, weâ€™ll improvise. Weâ€™ll jam that obstinate little peg in the nearest hole or, if necessary, create a brand new hole. The peg must fit! When it does not, there is a tendency to become uneasy, perplexed, disoriented. From such internal conflict springs science and theology and all else that frames meaning in this world.
From such internal conflict also springs external conflict, as beliefsâ€”and their associated valuesâ€”clash. For example, one might generally consider current events in the Middle East as the product of clashing religious and political beliefs. One might also consider the debate, as such, over evolution as a clash between secularism and fundamentalism orâ€”as posited by Lawrence M. Krauss in an essay published in todayâ€™s New York Timesâ€”between knowledge and ignorance:
Voters in Kansas ensured this month that noncreationist moderates will once again have a majority (6 to 4) on the state school board, keeping new standards inspired by intelligent design from taking effect.
This is a victory for public education and sends a message nationwide about the publicâ€™s ability to see through efforts by groups like the Discovery Institute to misrepresent science in the schools. But for those of us who are interested in improving science education, any celebration should be muted.
This is not the first turnaround in recent Kansas history. In 2000, after a creationist board had removed evolution from the state science curriculum, a public outcry led to wholesale removal of creationist board members up for re-election and a reinstatement of evolution in the curriculum.
In a later election, creationists once again won enough seats to get a 6-to-4 majority. With their changing political tactics, creationists are an excellent example of evolution at work. Creation science evolved into intelligent design, which morphed into â€œteaching the controversy,â€? and after its recent court loss in Dover, Pa., and political defeats in Ohio and Kansas, it will no doubt change again. The most recent campaign slogan I have heard is â€œcreative evolution.â€?
But perhaps more worrisome than a political movement against science is plain old ignorance. The people determining the curriculum of our children in many states remain scientifically illiterate. And Kansas is a good case in point.
The chairman of the school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago, although he was quoted in The New York Times this month as saying that his personal faith â€œdoesnâ€™t have anything to do with science.â€?
â€œI can separate them,â€? he continued, adding, â€œMy personal views of Scripture have no room in the science classroom.â€?
A key concern should not be whether Dr. Abramsâ€™s religious views have a place in the classroom, but rather how someone whose religious views require a denial of essentially all modern scientific knowledge can be chairman of a state school board.
I have recently been criticized by some for strenuously objecting in print to what I believe are scientifically inappropriate attempts by some scientists to discredit the religious faith of others. However, the age of the earth, and the universe, is no more a matter of religious faith than is the question of whether or not the earth is flat.
It is a matter of overwhelming scientific evidence. To maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth requires a denial of essentially all the results of modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and geology. It is to imply that airplanes and automobiles work by divine magic, rather than by empirically testable laws.
Dr. Abrams has no choice but to separate his views from what is taught in science classes, because what he says he believes is inconsistent with the most fundamental facts the Kansas schools teach children.
Another member of the board, who unfortunately survived a primary challenge, is John Bacon. In spite of his name, Mr. Bacon is no friend of science. In a 1999 debate about the removal of evolution and the Big Bang from science standards, Mr. Bacon said he was baffled about the objections of scientists. â€œI canâ€™t understand what theyâ€™re squealing about,â€? he is quoted as saying. â€œI wasnâ€™t here, and neither were they.â€?
This again represents a remarkable misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific method. Many fields â€” including evolutionary biology, astronomy and physics â€” use evidence from the past in formulating hypotheses. But they do not stop there. Science is not storytelling.
These disciplines take hypotheses and subject them to further tests and experiments. This is how we distinguish theories that work, like evolution or gravitation.
As we continue to work to improve the abysmal state of science education in our schools, we will continue to battle those who feel that knowledge is a threat to faith.
But when we win minor skirmishes, as we did in Kansas, we must remember that the issue is far deeper than this. We must hold our elected school officials to certain basic standards of knowledge about the world. The battle is not against faith, but against ignorance.
Lawrence M. Krauss is a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University.