A Concerned Plea to Scientists and Educators

“[Y]ou should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist…. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is [more than] not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”  — Richard Feynman, esteemed theoretical physicist, giving the commencement speech at CalTech (1974)

It has “only” been 20 years since it was published, but I finally got around to reading Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, one of Phillip E. Johnson’s follow-ups to his iconic Darwin on Trial. It’s a relatively short book, aimed at preparing young people to recognize and “protect themselves against the indoctrination in naturalism that so often accompanies education.” Johnson borrows from Carl Sagan when he exhorts “tuning up your baloney detector,… [having] a good grasp of logical reasoning and investigative procedure.” Light on philosophy and scientific detail (which were covered in his other books), Defeating Darwinism is for high-schoolers and college students, pastors and youth workers, parents, teachers, and “also scientists whose education didn’t encourage them to take a skeptical look at the claims of Darwinian theory.”

It is to these last two groups that the following excerpt is directed….

“When students ask intelligent questions like “Is this stuff really true?” teachers are encouraged or required not to take the questions seriously. Instead they put the students off with public-relations jargon about how the scientific enterprise is reliable and self-correcting…. When a teacher does try to take the objections seriously, the result is likely to be a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the American Way, plus bad publicity in the press. School administrators understandably capitulate and tell teachers and students to stop making trouble. In short, Bert Cates and Henry Drummond [i.e., a reference to the John T. Scopes and Clarence Darrow characters, respectively, from Inherit the Wind] have far surpassed their predecessors in using the tools of power to keep dissent from getting out of hand.

The situation is obviously unfair to the dissenters, but never mind that for now. I’m more concerned to point out to the scientific community how bad it is for science and for education.

Here is what I want to say to the scientists and educators: History has taught us that an established religion tends to fall into bad habits, and the same thing may be true when a scientific establishment starts to act like a governmental body with an official ideology to uphold. The price of having that kind of position is that you are tempted to protect your power and wealth by defending things you shouldn’t be defending, with methods (like doubletalk and intimidating threats of legal action) that you shouldn’t be using. These become bad habits, and they eventually lead you into massive hypocrisy and self-deception.

When you preach baloney detecting as the essential tool of science but make students turn their baloney detectors off when they get to the really important questions of origins, you convict yourselves every day of hypocrisy. You also lose the ability to think critically about your own beliefs, and eventually you set yourself up for the kind of embarrassment that destroyed Matthew Harrison Brady [i.e., the character in Inherit the Wind based on William Jennings Bryan].

There is only one cure. No matter how badly you want to bury the tough questions, you have to acknowledge that those questions really are too tough to be settled with misleading slogans like “Evolution is a fact” and “Science and religion are separate realms.” You have to admit that people have reasons for objecting to the materialist philosophy you are presenting in the name of science. If you are going to be educators instead of dogmatists, you are going to have to start dealing honestly with those objections.

You need to turn you baloney detectors on yourselves. It hurts a lot at first, but eventually you will learn to enjoy it. Trust me — I’ve tried it!”

This sounds like good advice for anyone, regardless of the subject, but especially for those tasked (and honored) with teaching and mentoring others. That is, assuming one thinks that truth and fair, honest representation of facts and ideas are important.

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