The Trial of Science


Let me start this off by first noting that I graduated from a Tennessee high school in 1968. I also never took biology in high school and only took one course which could be considered biology in college (it was a course that focused on evolution, though exactly how and in what way I do not remember – the year I took the course was a year I try hard to forget). When I write about evolution and creation, it is from the framework of what science is and how we teach science.

But for many people what is taught is science class is a direct assault on what they believe and they do not want anything taught that threatens their beliefs. There have been several times in our past where governments, sectarian or secular, have stifled the exploration of new ideas because such ideas were a direct threat to established beliefs. A belief system which must rely on oppression in order to survive is not a very good belief system.

Having said all that, there was a trial at Northern Kentucky University. (See Debating Ideas vs. Legitimizing Falsehoods) It is admittedly a mock trial. It will be about a teacher who is fired for teaching creationism in a biology class. The audience will be vote on the verdict. The likelihood is that the audience will vote that the teacher should be reinstated.

And when I read the premise of the trial, I could not help but think of another trial, a trial in my home state of Tennessee, which in part set the tenor of the debate for tonight’s mock trial at Northern Kentucky University.

In 1929, the state of Tennessee passed legislation that banned the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The passage of this law, supported by William Jennings Bryan and others, was as much a battle of cultures as it was a battle of thought and belief. Other states also wrote similar laws.

Those who supported the anti-evolution laws then saw the teaching of evolution as part of the process that was undermining the social constructs and traditional values of that time. It was a time when social patterns where in chaos. Traditionalists were worried that anything of value was being lost. Modernists no longer sought the approval of society for their behavior but only that their behavior was in line with their intellect. Intellectual experimentation was flourishing. Whatever form 1920 modernism took (be it in the music of the Jazz Age, the development of abstract art, or the contempt for the prohibition of alcohol), a new wave of revivalism was developing, especially in the American South. The question of the day and the age was “who would triumph; the modernists or the traditionalists?” Adapted from State v. John Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”)

Except for the fact that it was the evolutionist who was tried (and found guilty), there is much different between the Scopes Trial of 1929 and this mock trial of 2008.

The trial itself was a “show” trial, conceived for the sole purpose of bringing publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes was recruited to be the defendant in the trial and everyone in the town essentially what the outcome of the trial was going to be. Scopes was guilty if for no other reason than the state-approved textbook contained material about evolution in it, a fact that was in direct conflict with the law.

The trial was more a battle of culture than anything else. Bryan, the crusader for equality and the defender of the common man, saw evolution as a threat to the traditional values, values that he had defended since his rise to prominence in the late 19th century. Clarence Darrow was John Scopes’ attorney more because William Jennings Bryan was the state of Tennessee’s attorney than for reasons dealing with the law.

The trial itself was relatively short and best remembered for the interplay and exchange between Darrow and Bryan at the end of the trial. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.00. The verdict was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technical grounds (depriving Darrow and the defense team the opportunity to test the constitutionality of the law). However, the Tennessee Supreme Court also ordered that there should be no further prosecutions based on this law.

The law itself remained on the books until 1967 and the constitutionality of such statues was not considered until 1968 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such laws were unconstitutional.

The original laws were overturned because it was clear that the attempt to define what could and could not be taught was outside the realm of teaching science.

From one standpoint (and I have expressed my thoughts on that before – see “The Challenge Of Education”) the issue is not about creationism or evolution; it is about the right of an instructor to teach in a manner which is appropriate for his or her beliefs. But what happens when those beliefs contradict what is being taught or are in conflict with societal values and norms?

What happens when it is the subject that is being taught that becomes the issue and not the fact that it was taught. If you look at the comments for the Inside Higher Education article, you will see that shift taking place.

But the outcome of the trial, whether mock or otherwise, will have an impact on the teaching of science in this country. Though this event is apparently designed to foster a discussion on what is taught in science and the need for public policy to deal with such issues, it begs the question as to whether scientific theory, if properly taught, can be subject to public debate and discussion.

If there is to be a public debate on science and the teaching of scientific theory, the debate should be on why what is taught is so woefully inadequate. If we taught science as it should be taught, then such discussions would not be necessary.

If we allow the teaching of science to become dependent on public debate, without the benefit of thought, then we will put into reality such absurdities as a state legislature passing a law defining the value of pi as 3.0.

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