Reasonable people, reasonable disagreements.
Did you know that the Rio Rancho Public Schools, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, have a district policy on science education that has been criticized by the New Mexico Academy of Science, a number of science chairs from the University of New Mexico, and the Faculty Senate of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology?
You did if you've been reading The Panda's Thumb.
Anyway, today I had a look at the actual district policy and thought it worth dissecting. Unless, you know, you have a note from a parent or guardian excusing you from the dissection.
Here's the infamous Policy #401 in its entirety:
The Rio Rancho Board of Education recognizes that scientific theories, such as theories regarding biological and cosmological origins, may be used to support or to challenge individual religious and philosophical beliefs. Consequently, the teaching of science in public school science classrooms may be of great interest and concern to students and their parents.
The Board also acknowledges the conditional trust parents place in public education, as well as the requirements of the Constitution and New Mexico education law, that the classroom not be used to indoctrinate students into any religious or philosophical belief system.
Because of these concerns, this policy recognizes that the Rio Rancho Public Schools should teach an objective science education, without religious or philosophical bias, that upholds the highest standards of empirical science.
Therefore, science teachers in Rio Rancho Public Schools will align their instruction with the District’s approved curricula and fully comply with the requirements of the New Mexico 2003 revised Science Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards. Age-appropriate emphasis will be given to Strand I, Science Thinking and Practice; Strand II, The Content of Science; and Strand III, Science and Society. When appropriate and consistent with the New Mexico Science Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards, discussions about issues that are of interest to both science and individual religious and philosophical beliefs will acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data.
I've thrown in some bold emphasis above to highlight the points that I think warrant further discussion.
" … scientific theories, such as theories regarding biological and cosmological origins, may be used to support or to challenge individual religious and philosophical beliefs." I suppose this is true if one has religious and/or philosophical beliefs that include particular commitments.
For example, I hold a certain set of beliefs about the deity, including the belief that the deity affixed the words "love one another," in indelible ink, to the wall of the convenience store down the block, three weeks ago. But when I mention this to the clerk at the store, he whips out the surveillance tape, time and date stamped from three weeks ago, showing a neighborhood kid (Nelson) using a Sharpie to affix those very words to that very spot.
It seems I have a religious belief that is being challenged. Can it survive this challenge? It can if I am not committed to the veracity of surveillance videotape (certainly an option — I saw Minority Report) or if I accept the idea of the deity working through Nelson to affix the words. In other words, my religious or philosophical belief is only challenged to the extent that it is entangled with other specific commitments I might have.
"… the classroom not be used to indoctrinate students into any religious or philosophical belief system …" What precisely is indoctrination? I take it this involves not just the presentation of a view, but an exhortation to commit to it, or else. (Or else what? Get a failing grade? Look dorky in front of your friends? Burn in eternal hellfire?)
I'm a professional educator and I'm not exactly sure how I'd indoctrinate my students even if I wanted to. The ideas I'd like to shove down their throats (Learning is good for you! Doing your homework will make life in this class better!) don't take, at least for a large proportion of the students. But, we're not here to teach me mind control; we're here to dissect the policy.
The intent of this bit seems to be to say, to the extent that science might be a set of commitments resembling religious commitments, science ought not to be something students are forced to commit to, or else. Because that would be akin to religious indoctrination.
We'll return to this point in a minute.
"… an objective science education, without religious or philosophical bias, that upholds the highest standards of empirical science …" I take it this means laying out for the students how scientists work to build and test their theories from empirical evidence. Here are some observations. Here's a theory that seems to account for them. Here's something else that theory would predict; let's go to the lab and see if it happens.
This is good, practical knowledge, although significantly more complex than, say, learning how to conjugate French verbs. You can certainly learn how scientists do science without becoming a scientist yourself (in the same way a 14-year-old can learn all about safe-sex without having any sex). And, you can master the mechanics of a theory, at least as a problem-solving tool, without buying into it (as the high grades of certain former physics students who doubt the world is really as quantum mechanics says it is attest).
"… reasonable people may disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data." If they do it in a reasonable way, they may.
Scientists, of course, frequently encounter observations that are subject to a judgment call. (Is that really a hint of pink I see in the flask, or am I still some ways off from the endpoint of this titration? Is this an accurate reading, or is my detector on the blink?) Nothing unreasonable about that. You get more data to clarify the situation.
But we're concerned with places "the meaning and interpretation of data" supposedly pits science against religion. Here, there is certainly room for disagreement, but it is much more reasonable when people put their commitments on the table.
Dr.F: The deity wrote "love one another" on your wall.
Apu: The surveillance tape proves that Nelson wrote "love one another" on my wall.
Dr.F: I don't believe videography gives reliable data about happenings in the world.
Apu: You could ask Nelson.
Nelson: Yeah, I wrote it.
Dr.F: I don't believe Nelson, either.
Apu: But do you see how, if you accepted the videotape and Nelson's testimony, you'd think Nelson did it?
Dr.F: Yes, I understand the inference. I just don't believe it.
This is a reasonable disagreement. It rests on a clearly articulated disagreement about what should count as meaningful data. Clearly, there is lots of room for further discussion of why certain types of data are deemed reliable and unreliable, or of what sorts of demonstrations might change one's mind about such things. Depending on one's commitments, coming down on one side may seem more "reasonable" than coming down on the other. (What's rational, it seems to me, is a matter of the context -- of what else I know and what else I'm committed to.)
Here's what's not reasonable:
I'm committing to a deity that has properties X and has performed acts Y as detailed in this set of sacred scriptures AND I'm committing to the whole set of empirical facts and the best scientific theories we have to date (with the understanding that these may be updated as further facts and theories present themselves) AND in the cases where these commitments come into conflict, rather than flagging it as part of the mysterious nature of the deity or the as-yet imperfectly understood nature of reality, I am committed to SCIENCE being the party in error, but Lordy, I'm still totally down with science.
You can have science and you can have religion. You can learn about both without practicing either. Like playing accordion and roller skating, they are not mutually exclusive. On the other hand, if you start taking advice on accordion playing from your roller derby coach, or on skating from your accordion teacher, it's possible you'll run into problems.