Science and Democracy

When a U.S. district court ruled last December that the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district could not require the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, opponents of intelligent design thought the issue had been settled—not just in Pennsylvania, but also across the entire country. Well, their celebrations may have been premature, unless school policies are somehow exempted from the requirements of democracy. Virginia Commonwealth University recently released the results of its “Life Sciences Survey,” which measures public attitudes toward scientific issues. Among the issues asked about was the “origin of biological life.” By nearly a 5-1 margin, people believe that God, either “directly” or by guiding the process, was responsible for the “origin of biological life.” Only 15 percent agreed with teaching a strictly materialistic explanation. Most Americans, you see, favor a “pluralistic approach to teaching about origin of life in public schools.” In this “pluralistic approach,” sometimes called “teaching the controversy,” students would be exposed to various explanations. These polling results cause weeping and gnashing of teeth among doctrinaire Darwinists, who see it as evidence of irrationality or superstition among ordinary Americans. Some even suggest that America’s leadership in science and technology is threatened by these “unscientific” attitudes. Nonsense! What’s on display is not irrationality or disdain for science: It’s simply a reflection of the innate human understanding of God—what theologians call the imago Dei. Years of propaganda by scientists and teachers can’t erase it, and it’s also a recognition of the limits of science. Father Richard Neuhaus captured this in the March issue of First Things. The “controversy,” he wrote, “is composed of a complex mixture of science, religion, culture, and politics.” This “complex mixture,” which involves every aspect of human life, cannot be settled by a single judge’s opinion or by the Darwinists’ propaganda. People simply know better, and they want to have a say in how their children are educated. This is true not only of intelligent design. The same dynamic is at work in the embryonic stem-cell research debate. The scientific establishment insists that it must operate without interference from those it deems “irrational,” like Christians it considers enemies of progress. Yet 56 percent in the same survey agreed that “scientific research doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society.” Fifty-two percent agreed that this research creates as many problems as solutions. For a group aspiring to god-like status, like scientists, this is bad news. But it cannot be otherwise. Science does not operate independently of the larger culture. Scientists are not exempt from, as Neuhaus puts it, paying their respects to democracy. Thinking otherwise is not science: It is scientism, the ideology that regards science as the only way to the truth. And if this survey is any indication, Americans don’t buy it. That’s why debates over science and culture will continue. They will continue until the scientific establishment—and the courts—acknowledge the limits of what science can and cannot tell us, and when it begins to give a say to the people on how they want their children educated.


Chuck Colson


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