Science Envy In The Great State of Kansas

Mark A. Nadler

September 1, 1999

Under pressure from creationists the Kansas State Board of Education recently decided to eliminate biological evolution (and the Big Bang theory of the universe) from its statewide science standards. Given that students will not be tested on this material at the state level and given the pressures exerted on science teachers not to teach it, it is likely that few students in Kansas will leave the 12th grade with any understanding of the modern theory of evolution. Instead, what most students in Kansas will probably receive as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth will be biblical creationism and the type of superficial understanding of evolutionary theory that leaves most of them mumbling that “they didn’t come from no monkey.”

Is this a bad thing? For me, and I believe most Americans, it is. Even though parents understand that tensions exist between science and religion they want their children exposed to both in a serious manner—the type of world we live in demands it. In fact, for many forms of biblical creationism and what is called the modern synthesis in evolutionary theory it is not difficult to imagine belief systems that integrate both in a sensible manner. It is mostly a lack of imagination on the part of our religious leaders and teachers that forces us to pick one over the other.

But these are not the themes I want to pursue here. My concern is with the desire of biblical creationists to shift Old Testament creationism into the scientific arena. I believe this act is a mistake and it poses danger to biblically based religions that many creationists do not fully appreciate.

One of the motivating factors in the modern creationist/evolutionist debate is the rhetoric employed by biologists. Creationists raise two valid criticisms concerning the teaching of evolutionary theory. First, those who teach evolution often present the modern theory of evolution as if it is true. No scientific theory can obtain this status. It is impossible to go from a limited number of observations—which is the best humans can ever do—to the truth of what is called an empirical statement. No matter how many humans I meet with pinkish color skin—maybe I live in Sweden—I still can not say that all humans have “pinkish color skin.” No matter how much evidence evolutionists gather it is never enough to allow them to say that their explanation of life on earth is true. What we have to emphasize to students in teaching evolution is that what we are teaching is a theory and not the “truth” in some deep sense.

Second, creationists complain that too little time is spent analyzing the weaknesses in the modern theory of evolution. This observation is also correct. All scientific theories have at least some “threads hanging” including the two, outside of evolutionary theory, that many scientists consider the greatest ever developed: relativity and quantum mechanics. There is no shame in recognizing theoretical inadequacies. This is what provides the grist for scientific mills.

These complaints about how evolutionary theory is presented, however, do not invalidate its teaching or validate the teaching of creationist ideas in biology classes. They do, however, point to the need for us to understand what science is and to understand the status of scientific theories. Science is a method that aids us in understanding the world. While scientific procedures vary to some extent from one discipline to another, all subjects that call themselves a science require empirical testing of their theories and critical review among practitioners. This guarantees that in science better theories eventually drive out inferior ones.

Even less understood by the average person is the “truth” status of scientific theories. Scientists never prove their theories in some final sense. All scientific theories have a chance of being wrong. This is why many scientists subscribe to the belief that, at best, what we can say about a scientific theory is that it has not (currently) been rejected. Notice this is not the same as accepting a theory as true.

Given these characteristics of science, do we really want biblical creationism taught as an alternative scientific explanation to evolution in biology classes? I do not think so. Let me explain why. First, for biblical creationism to be treated as a scientific explanation its adherents must state clearly what types of evidence would refute it. This is required in order for it to be empirically tested. I have yet to hear any biblical creationist state what this evidence would be. In any case, is this really what we want to subject biblical revelation to? Second, and this is even more distasteful to me, biblical creationism as a scientific explanation must be viewed as being potentially wrong—remember, this is the burden all scientific theories bear. Third, once biblical creationism enters the realm of scientific theory its adherents must be prepared to reject it if it is proven false.
Do any of us look forward to the day when CNN announces that a Professor at MIT has proven biblical creationist theory false? What will this do to the rest of our religious beliefs? I shudder at the thought of this and so should you.

Creationists have done us a favor by pointing to the false rhetoric employed by many teachers of evolution. Revealing to students the inadequacies of this theory is the intellectually honest thing to do. But either substituting creationism for modern evolutionary theory or forcing its teaching as a science is a mistake. Creationism as a religious doctrine is too important to place in the realm of science where all ideas have, at best, a temporary life. Do we really want to have our children exposed to those who would relish the thought of killing God by disposing of the story of creationism as told in the Old Testament? This could very well happen. Creationists in Kansas and everywhere else should drop their envy of science. For many, religion is more important than science. If we are not careful we might end up losing more than we have bargained for.

Mark Nadler is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Economics at Ashland University (