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January 14, 2005

More on Evolution & the Courts

Reacting to my post one commentator characterized my stance this way:

You know, I realize that liberals are using this period to rethink our positions on various issues but do we really need to kowtow to Creationism? Just how conservative are you guys planning to get?
Part of my ongoing contention is that opposing allowing courts to overturn democratic decisions is not a conservative viewpoint. I've written extensively on why judicial review by the courts has a terrible history in this country. This recent post also explored the relation of democratic thinking and the problem of liberal demands for legal judicial review.

Aside from headline bad cases like Dred Scott, Lochner v. New York, and the Court's more recent decisions attacking affirmative action and laws protecting women, even facially progressive court decisions have invited backlash that have often subverted their supposed goals.

The reality is that forty years after the Supreme Court began eliminating prayer in schools and banning creation-science from the classroom, religious conservatism is more dominant in our public culture than when the Supreme Court first acted. And I don't think those two facts are unrelated.

Secularism increased in strength democratically in the United States throughout this century until the 1960s. But the Supreme Court decisions on religion and then abortion became a populist rallying cry for the building of the religious right in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Instead of having to rhetorically attack their fellow citizens for secular changes in law, the religious right could blame these legal changes on a malevolent "elite", centered in the Supreme Court, that was attacking their way of life.

And liberals increasingly play into the Right's caricature of them as elitists by reflexively defending court decisions over democracy. Just taking a sample from comments both on my site and on Kos:

  • Tom: I'm all for democracy, but when decisions are made by poorly informed people, the results will be perverse.
  • Frederick: Lets let every yahoo right-wing majority in any elected body in the U.S. suspend the constituion and federal laws they don't like.
  • MAJeff: First of all, let's face it, Cobb County is a cultural wasteland.

    The basic message of a lot of liberals is that since the voters are yahoos and too stupid to be trusted, we need courts to step in and impose proper policies. Which is just fuel for the conservative religious attack machine.

    Now, if we were talking about some fundamental violence to a minority group, this kind of rhetoric might be warranted, but we are talking about a STICKER in a textbook asking students to keep an open mind. Yes, it's trying to cast doubt on evolution, but either liberals have confidence that students can read the evidence in the textbook and make up their own minds, or they really have no business claiming that evolution is so clearly a superior explanation of biology.

    My view is that if students actually looked at so-called "intelligent design" theory side by side with evolution, they will overwhelmingly choose evolution as the more convincing explanation of the origin of life. Court censorship of creation-science actually feeds the idea that evolutionists have something to hide. And let's be real, it's not like keeping creation-science out of schools has led to belief in evolution. The most recent polls show that 55% of Americans don't believe evolution happened.

    As long as their beliefs aren't exclusively taught as the truth, why shouldn't that 55% of the population have whatever facts that support their position presented in the classroom? As this Wired Magazine article makes clear, creation-science has a long scientific pedigree stretching back to William Paley in the 19th century. It may be bad science backed by an ideological campaign, but do we really trust courts to become arbiters of what is good and bad science? As long as its proponents keep explicit religious arguments out of their texts, it's really hard to see the basis for having courts trump school boards in choosing school curricula.

    Update: One note of support from Brad Plumer who agrees that once students start thinking critically about "Intelligent Design", since even the ID folks admit to variation within species and the next step to evolution is pretty easy, so "the slippery slope from ID to mainstream evolution is very slippery indeed, and I don't think it would take long for students to see that."

    Posted by Nathan at January 14, 2005 06:42 AM