March 14, 2002
"I hate your opinions, but I would die to defend your right to express them." This famous quote by the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire applies to the debate currently raging in Ohio. The Board of Education is discussing whether to include alternate theories of evolution in the classroom. Some board members however, are opposed to Voltaire's defense of rational inquiry and intellectual tolerance. They are seeking to prohibit different theories other than Darwinism, from being taught to students. This threatens freedom of thought and academic excellence.
Today, the Board of Education will discuss a proposal to insert "intelligent design" alongside evolution in the state's new teaching standards.
Supporters for a change in teaching standards want the board to include the idea that living things could have been "designed" in some meaningful way. Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, approves of having alternate theories taught in the classroom. He believes children should be "able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all information that is available to them so they can talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best information that is before them."
The theory of intelligent design, which predates ancient Greece, contends that nature shows tangible signs of having been created by a pre-existing intelligence. This is in contrast to Charles Darwin's theory, which assumes all physical and material reality has gradually evolved through pure chance and natural selection, whereby the fittest members of each species survive and reproduce.
Critics of intelligent design, such as the newly formed Ohio Citizens for Science, claim that intelligent design is not a viable scientific theory and should not be taught in the classroom. They fear it is creationism in disguise, and hence, propagates religion in public schools. Despite a recent poll that shows overwhelming support for including the theory in the new teaching standards, these critics continue to resist its adoption.
This opposition to intelligent design is surprising since there is an increasing body of theoretical and scientific evidence that suggests an alternate theory is possible. Research has shown that the odds that even one small protein molecule has been created by chance is 1 in a billion. Thus, some larger force or intelligence, or what some call agent causation, seems like a viable cause for creating information systems such as the coding of DNA. A number of scientists contend that alternate theories regarding the origins of the human species — including that of a greater intelligence — are possible.
Therefore, intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.
Yet, opponents of intelligent design contend that by including the theory in the new teaching standards, the separation of church and state will be weakened. This is false. Proponents of intelligent design are not trying to teach religion via science, but are trying to establish the validity of their theory as a scientific alternative to Darwinism.
Students should be taught a variety of viewpoints in the classroom. Dissenting theories should not be repressed, but discussed openly. To do otherwise is to violate intellectual freedom. Such efforts at censorship abrogate critical thinking and will ultimately thwart scientific progress.
Stifling freedom of discussion is wrong because it undermines the pursuit of truth and the presentation of different points of view, which should be the primary goal of education.
In order to protect intellectual freedom in the classroom from the dangers of political correctness, I drafted an amendment to an education bill that emphasizes how students studying controversial issues in science, such as biological evolution, should be allowed to learn about competing interpretations. Teachers have a constitutional right to teach scientific controversies so long as the discussion is about science, not religion or philosophy. Teachers must teach these theories, even if some believe they have religious or philosophical implications. There is no reason to ignore or trivialize scientific issues involving controversial theories, regardless of their implications for religion or philosophy.
The bipartisan amendment was adopted 91-8 by the Senate. It was strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats. In short, the conviction that students should be taught alternate scientific points of view, no matter how controversial, is not a conservative or liberal position; rather, it is a pro-education, pro-learning position that champions excellence in the classroom.
At the beginning of the year, President Bush signed into law the "No Child Left Behind" bill. The new law includes a science education provision where Congress states that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist." If the Education Board of Ohio does not include intelligent design in the new teaching standards, many students will be denied a first-rate science education. Many will be left behind.
Rick Santorum is a Republican member of the United States Senate from Pennsylvania.
© 2002 News World Communications. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. File Date: 3.14.02