May 4, 2009

The Constitution Commandeth: Thou Shalt Not Call Creationism "Superstitious Nonsense"!

I woke up from blogging hibernation because another Bush-appointed judge decided that we've always been at war with Eastasia.

As Orwell said, freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If a teacher is not allowed to say that creationism is "religious, superstitious nonsense", then we are in deep trouble. And, as of last Friday, a teacher is not allowed to say that, at least not in the Central District of California.

Briefly, James Corbett, a high school history teacher and adviser for the student newspaper, was found liable for Establishment Clause violation because of the comment he made in reference to John Peloza, a biology teacher who has been fighting (and suing) the school district for his "right" to teach creationism in his science class.

The most important reason this ruling is appalling is that it prohibits telling the truth. PZ Myers nails it:
First of all, he told the truth: creationism is religious, it is a product of superstition, and it is nonsense — it doesn't fit any of the evidence we have about the history of the world or life on it. We have to have the right to tell students not only that something is wrong, but that it is stupidly wrong.
And the judge's reasoning is mind-boggling (emphasis mine):
The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Hello? The context, as described by the judge himself, was Corbett's opposition to Peloza's attempts to teach creationism. Not only is creationism false, but teaching it in public schools - especially in a science class - is illegal. Pointing this out obviously has a secular purpose.

So much for one prong of the Lemon test; the judge sours the next one just as badly:
The Court finds that Corbett’s statement primarily sends a message of disapproval of religion or creationism. As discussed above, Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” Corbett could have criticized Peloza for teaching religious views in class without disparaging those views.
This is wrong on several levels. First, it is beyond dispute that, in the context of science, which is what Peloza was supposed to teach, creationism is superstitious nonsense. If it weren't, the fact that it is illegal to teach it would be hugely problematic. If those views did not deserve disparaging, Peloza would be a victim of persecution by the Capistrano Unified School District, the US District Court for the Central District of California (the same one that decided this case) and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There is a reason creationism is not allowed in the science curriculum.

(And, to preempt the argument that it has nothing to do with truth or falsehood, but only with favoring religion, let me ask if teaching some claim that came from a religion - and, to make the case harder, was denied by another religion - would still be prohibited if the claim turned out to be true. Let's say science discovered that it really was turtles all the way down; would it make any sense to proclaim that teaching that violates the Establishment Clause?)

Furthermore, if so many non-fundamentalist believers and conciliatory non-believers have been trying to convince the public that religion is compatible with evolution, how come disparaging creationism is equated with disparaging religion? Again, I'll outsource this to PZ:
[W]e are being told over and over again that Christianity is not equivalent to creationism. This teacher has specifically said that creationism is nonsense, and this judge has equated a dismissal of a weird anti-scientific belief with making a rude remark about Christianity. So…where are all the Christians rising in outrage at the slander of their faith?
Finally, this suit was not brought by Peloza, but by a student, Chad Farnan. It is a mystery why Farnan should have standing to sue over a disparaging statement one teacher made about another teacher.

Ed Brayton wrote about the decision as well, but he seems terribly confused for a normally staunch free speech proponent. While Ed seems to tepidly agree that the creationism comment did not violate the EC, he also seems to think that some of Corbett's other comments, which the judge found not to have violated the EC, were more problematic:
Again, this is really strained reasoning. If he really wanted to make the nuanced point that the court thinks he was making, he could certainly have done it in a much more scholarly and serious way. Instead, the statement he made was inflammatory and insulting. There just isn't any place for that kind of hostility in a public school classroom.
The way I read it, Ed would have found Corbett liable at least for the "Jesus glasses" comment. That is very disappointing, even more so because he stops at hand-waving and makes no attempt to argue with the Court's actual reasoning. Not surprisingly, a lot of Ed's commenters agree with him, many of them flaunting their ignorance of the facts (e.g., implying that Corbett was a science teacher). I will reproduce my comment here:
Why would the "Jesus glasses" comment be inappropriate? Jesus (if he existed, or other people in his name) promoted a certain set of moral rules that are demonstrably impossible to follow without acting against one's best interest, as the vast majority of Americans understand "one's best interest". It should be a history teacher's duty to explain why a certain group acted against its own interests - at least as it would appear to us. Unless there is evidence that "they were blinded/manipulated by religion" is not a fair explanation, i.e., not one widely accepted by historians, the teacher should be free to teach it.

As for the Mark Twain quote, as long as it is a true quote, it ought to be fair game for a teacher to use it. After all, Twain is arguably the greatest American writer ever (certainly the most acclaimed word-wide), and is (hopefully) well-represented on the syllabus of some required courses. Shouldn't students learn that the greatest American writer was an atheist?
But don't take my word for it, go to the source and read the decision.

UPDATE (5/5/09): As usual, Digby gets it.


Ken Ashford said...

"First, it is beyond dispute that, in the context of science, which is what Peloza was supposed to teach, creationism is superstitious nonsense..."

This is where you (and Digby) part ways with me.

Saying that "X is nonsense" is itself not a factual scientific statement. It is an opinion.

Let's be scrupulously factual. The truth is that creationism makes sense, albeit in a way that fables and fairy tales make sense -- one can understand the concept, explain that concept to others, etc. It's not literally nonsensical gobbledygook. Sure, it springs from a religious belief, but a coherent religious belief nonetheless.

Being sensical, however, is not the same as being factual or scientifically valid. And respectfully, I believe you err by conflating the concepts of being "sensical" with being "factual".

Corbett would have been on solid legal and constitutional ground had he said (as a matter of FACT, not OPINION) that creationism was "not science". But he ventured further by stating his opinion about (what we all agree is) a matter of religion.

Now consider if Corbett he had WON the case (as you think he should have). That would establish a dangerous precedent (in that circuit) that public school teachers are free to express their opinions on matters of religion. What a gift to the religious right -- now they wouldn't even have to shoehorn creationism into "science", because you've given them a blank check to opine on religious matters!!

Bottom line: You can't have it both ways. If you believe (as I do) that creationism is religion rather than science, then it has no place being endorsed OR disparaged in the public realm. It can (and should) be rejected as a secular science, but this rejection should be done in secular lieteral scientific terms ("not valid", etc.). Even in the context of debate about whether it is or isn't science, calling creationism "garbage" or "nonsense" takes the debate itself OUT of scientific inquiry and into disparaging pontification.

bullfighter said...

Much of what you are saying is predicated on an unjustifiably narrow definition of the word "nonsense". Why do you assume that nonsense has to mean gibberish? That's far from the only way the word is used. Statements like "the Earth is flat" or "the sky is yellow" can be described as nonsense without any implication that they literally cannot be translated into intelligible concepts. If you pedantically insist that it is not "correct" to use "nonsense" to mean "gross falsehood", you are ignoring the reality of language.

Statements of creationism are gross falsehoods. That is a factual scientific statement, and it is true - beyond dispute, as I wrote. I don't think you disagree so far, apart from your semantic acrobatics.

Where we really start disagreeing is when you say that creationism is "a matter of religion" in a way meant to imply that it is somehow beyond truth and falsehood. (That implication became completely clear once you asserted that it would be a dangerous precedent if Corbett had won.) Your reasoning is fallacious. Creationism obviously makes factual statements about the world, which means that its truth or falsehood can be determined, and it can be evaluated factually and objectively, and not merely as "opinion".

You seem to be promoting the view that religiously motivated statements of fact are exempt from any test of truth. That is a dangerous view, and certainly not consistent with the ideas behind the First Amendment.

Far from it that Corbett's victory would establish a dangerous precedent. I would be more than happy to allow the religious right the same freedom of expression (and in fact I believe that they have it, both constitutionally and practically), of course subject to the same standards - and that means no teaching falsehoods.

Creationism is not merely religious belief, and it certainly should be disparaged in the public realm. Think about it: the belief that people of certain races are inferior (which is part of some religions) is far more subjective and closer to pure religious belief than creationism. ("Inferior" is a value judgment, especially if the focus is on moral inferiority.) But I hope you agree with me that such a belief may be publicly disparaged - moreover, it is the duty of public officials to disparage it. But surely, the closer something is to a statement of verifiable fact and the farther it is from pure subjective, unverifiable belief, the less protection it enjoys in the context of freedom of religion. Therefore, creationism may be disparaged in the public realm at least as much as racism.