Let’s be clear. Science is not about belief. Asserting students get to decide whether or not they believe in evolution makes no more sense than saying they get to decide whether they believe 2+2=4, or that they believe the Civil War started in 1861. The veracity of evolution is no more a debate in science than plate tectonics, the atomic structure of matter, gravity, or genetics. To be fair, not all scientific theories are verified. String theory is a perfect example of a very well developed scientific theory on which there is great debate. It may well turn out that strings go the way of recapitulation (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) and get relegated to the dust bin–or not. But evolution has 150 years of data and observation verifying it. There is no debate among scientists.
Yes, debate skills are useful, critical thinking skills are essential, and discussion is healthy in an educational environment. Debating the merits of the philosophies of Kant vs. Marx is healthy. Students should get to hear both sides and decide for themselves if Johnson made the right decision to lead the U.S. into Vietnam. Getting information to come to their own opinions on when human life legally begins is a topic worthy of discussion. I would personally like to see students get balanced views of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva contrasted with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To learn about the Jesus of the Qur’an as well as the Jesus of the Bible. But I suspect the people who are all about “teaching the controversy” in evolution (where no controversy exists) would not be so keen on teaching the controversy on religion where the world is rife with it.
The point being, “debating” evolution is actually counter to the goal of developing critical thinking skills. One of the key elements in the critical analysis of anything is sorting out the facts from the assumptions. Teaching students that 150 years of verifiable and repeatable data collection is merely an assumption is the basis for the sort of reasoning that produces Holocaust deniers, not scholars. To take this to it’s logical conclusion, students should not accept anything they are taught as fact. And no one is seriously advocating that.
Why am I talking about this now? Because the GOP is. Cindy McCain and Sarah Palin have both stated they support teaching evolution and Creationism in science class and letting children makes decisions about what they believe. (To their credit, at least they are talking explicitly about Creationism and not trying to couch it as Intelligent Design.) John McCain has said he believes in evolution, but he can see the handiwork of God whenever he hikes the Grand Canyon. This makes him sound more reasonable than his wife and running mate, but doesn’t clearly illuminate his position on whether or not Creationism should be recognized as science. More troubling, it asserts that he finds evolution to be a matter of belief. Yet I recognize (as does he) that he cannot come out and say Creationism has no place in science class without alienating the base he just energized with his Palin pick.
Why does this matter? Because I think it’s essential that our leaders possess unparalleled critical thinking skills. That includes being able to separate facts from assertions. It also includes being smart enough to be aware of what you don’t know, and wise enough to know who to trust to provide that expertise. By asserting that evolution is a matter of belief, they are demonstrating neither talent. And that concerns me.