Friday, April 3, 2009

Okie Counter-Evolutionaries

When the story broke to the effect that some Oklahoma legislators were upset about Richard Dawkins coming to OU for an invited public presentation about evolution, my first reaction was to sigh but I wasn't necessarily motivated to go off on a rant about it. After all, this is a thoroughly "Red" state, so this sort of "thinking" is just part of the fabric of living here. But an article in today's OU student paper about it finally got to me.

As of this time, there are charges and countercharges regarding this OU-sponsored talk, with both sides accusing the other of censorship. The OU people feel they're being harassed by the legislature, which could have an inhibiting effect the next time they're considering inviting another controversial figure to OU. The counter-evolutionaries feel that their public speakers need to have "equal time" and the university is effectively censoring their viewpoint.

Well, guess what folks - despite the attempts to cloak religious fundamentalism in the disguise of "intelligent design" theory - the alternatives proposed by these folks to evolution aren't science! Scientific presentations at a university aren't like broadcast journalism, where the so-called "fairness doctrine" applies, requiring opposing sides to be granted equal time. Perhaps Biblical versions of creation could be offered as religious seminars but they are not valid scientific alternatives to evolutionary theory. Hence, they aren't even talking about the same topics!

Furthermore, it would be absurd (although being absurd has never stopped zealots) to argue that if a famous physical geographer is invited to give a talk at OU, the advocates of Flat Earth theories need to be offered equal time. Or if a famous meteorologist comes to OU for a presentation, the proponents of forecasting by various means of divination (e.g., reading goat entrails or casting bones) should be allowed to air their views as alternative perspectives.

Unfortunately, it seems these fundamentalist legislators have no clue about how science works. If they can't see that Biblical creation myths aren't remotely close to science, it's likely because they don't understand much about the scientific process. Along the way, Oklahoma once again finds itself revealing how ignorant some segments of its society really are.

These legislators argue that evolutionary theory is inconsistent with the beliefs of the majority of Oklahoma citizens and so should be barred from state funded university campuses. Regrettably, it might even be true that the majority of Oklahoma residents deny evolution and embrace Biblical creation stories! But to say that a state university should only invite speakers who reflect the viewpoints of the majority of a state's residents is contrary to what an educational institution should be doing. If anything, universities have a clear obligation to offer controversial figures an opportunity to speak, especially when their views clash with those of the majority of its citizens! Oklahoma's students need to be exposed to ideas that shake their foundations. To a considerable extent, that's what universities are supposed to do.

I recommend that OU emulate the sentiments of the University of Wisconsin, as immortalized in the "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque affixed to Bascom Hall on the UWisc campus in Madison. The plaque reads:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.
The story of this landmark can be found here. OU bureaucrats would do well to offer an equivalent reaction to this controversy.