Something on the Sunday talk show, “Meet the Press”, caught my attention. Today’s show was hosted by Tom Brokaw, a favorite of mine in the news business. He interviewed Gov. Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota, Co-chair of the RNC convention in the Twin Cities. Gov. Pawlenty was acting as a “Vox VP” for the Republican VP nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin. I was only half paying attention to this interview – it seemed to be hitting the same issues that everybody has been raising the last few days – until we got to this:
Brokaw: In the governor’s race she refused to be specific about her views on creationism versus evolution, but, as I understand it, she did say that the two should be taught side-by-side in public schools.
Pawlenty: I saw her comments on it yesterday and I thought they were appropriate . . . if there are competing theories and they are credible, her view . . . was . . . allow them . . . both to be presented so students could be exposed to both, or more, and have a chance to be exposed . . . to the various theories and make up their own mind.
Brokaw: In the vast scientific community, do you think that creationism has the same weight as evolution and at a time in American education when we are in a crisis when it comes to science there ought to be parallel tracks for creationism versus evolution in the teaching?
Pawlenty: In the scientific community, it seems that intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely – there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated . . . In Minnesota, we’ve taken that as a local decision. I know Gov. Palin has said intelligent design is something that should be taugt along with evolution in the schools . . .
Brokaw: . . . Given equal weight?
Pawlenty: . . . intelligent design is something which in my view is plausible and credible . . . and something I personally believe in, but more important from an educational and scientific standpoint it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level.
(“Meet the Press”, Sunday August 31, 2008. Ellipses indicate text that didn’t change the meaning of the surrounding text, such as verbal pauses or repeated phrases)
I won’t go into my complaints about the specifics here – you’ve probably heard them all before (science is not a democracy of ideas, but a rigorous method by which ideas are included or excluded; there is no evidence for intelligent design, only claims of gaps in the theory of evolution; a theory is not just an idea, it’s an experimentally tested idea that produces new knowledge and new tests; lots of scientists believe lots of wrong things; etc.). I will say this – it was hard to disentangle Pawlenty’s views from Palin’s.
It took me a little work to find something resembling a transcript of the October 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate. I found an article from the Anchorage Daily News , October 25, 2006 , with some of the text of the debate. I found that the specific question asked of the candidates regarding evolution and creationism was this:
Toward the end, moderator Michael Carey . . . looked to change things up with a pair of curveball questions about religion:
Is it OK for religious leaders to endorse candidates, and should public schools teach alternatives to evolution (such as creationism and intelligent design?)
I note that the question DOES NOT say “should public school science class” teach alternatives to evolution, but just “public schools”. I’ve not had a problem with the idea of teaching such things in a current events class, or even something like a comparative religion class. Those would be very valuable, putting creationism and intelligent design in their social context (since they lack a scientific one). One of the debaters, Andrew Halcro, answered as if he recognized the difference between teaching the idea in public school and teaching it in the science classroom:
HALCRO: “I think anything that is religious-based in, in concept, you know, really should, needs to be taught in the proper channel – philosophy, sociology . . . I don’t think it should be taught as a science.”
Former AK Governor Tony Knowles, another debater in the forum, sounded less informed on the issues but delivered one central point in the argument:
KNOWLES: “… The answer is no. The reason why is we don’t want politics in our science. We actually want more science in our politics . . . We don’t want to just teach all things because it may be politically correct. We want to teach the best science there is, and there is overwhelming evidence, there’s almost incontrovertible evidence that evolution is the science that, that we know . . . And that’s what we should always teach, to never compromise on the principals just because it’s politically popular.”
I can see why he lost – he sounds pretty unsure on, at least, this issue. I presume this must have affected him in other issues. His central point – more science in politics and less politics in science – is a good point, bordering on a sound bite, but he didn’t quite drive it home. Halcro was, at least, to the point.
Gov. Palin’s response was also direct and to her point:
PALIN: Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information . . . Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both . . . And, you know, I say this, too, as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject — creationism and evolution . . . It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.”
She makes no distinction between science class and other classes, just goes straight for the “teach both” argument. She also doesn’t make any statements about credibility or plausibility, like Pawlenty does. She makes the classic argument that avoiding intelligent design is keeping information from our children. It suggests she’s misunderstood that science is a process of vetting ideas, and that you have to teach that process. Science is not a conclusion, it is a process. ID represents an excellent case of an idea not only unvetted, but proposing no test that can vet it in the first place – a classic non-scientific idea. You ave to equip students with good science methods first, before asking them to go and differentiate between a testable and an untestable idea.
If controversy like this – between a non-scientific idea and a scientifically established principle – is a foundation of her thinking, I do worry about how her decision-making process is informed.