The Synthese controversy will have at least one good outcome if it brings the brave and important work of Barbara Forrest on behalf of real science education in Louisiana to the attention of the philosophical community. She deserves our admiration and support for the fight she's helping to lead.
Background: In 2008 the Louisiana State Legislature passed the "Louisiana Science Education Act" (LSEA). You can read Forrest's analysis of this "stealth creationism" bill by following the link on this web page, or by going directly to the PDF.
Forrest often posts on the Louisiana Coalition for Science blog, which covers the Discovery Institute, hunts down "stealth creationism" around the country, and in particular fights the pernicious effects of the LSEA.
Dear Members of the Louisiana Legislature,
As Nobel Laureates in various scientific fields, we urge you to repeal the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) of 2008. This law creates a pathway for creationism and other forms of non-scientific instruction to be taught in public school science classrooms.
The warning flags many of us raised about this law have now been proven justified. Members of the Livingston Parish School Board recently announced their desire to include creationism in the science curriculum for the 2011-2012 school year. Clearly, the LSEA is well understood by Louisiana school administrators and public officials as having created an avenue to incorporate the teaching of creationism into science curricula in Louisiana schools.
Louisiana’s students deserve to be taught proper science rather than religion presented as science. Science offers testable, and therefore falsifiable, explanations for natural phenomena. Because it requires supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, creationism does not meet these standards. Seventy-two Nobel Laureates addressed these issues in 1987 in an amicus brief in the Edwards vs. Aguillard U.S. Supreme Court case, which originated in Louisiana after the passage of a 1981 creationist law:
“Science is devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the observed phenomena. Science is not equipped to evaluate supernatural explanations for our observations; without passing judgment on the truth or falsity of supernatural explanations, science leaves their consideration to the domain of religious faith. Because the scope of scientific inquiry is consciously limited to the search for naturalistic principles, science remains free of religious dogma and is thus an appropriate subject for public-school instruction. . . .
The grist for the mill of scientific inquiry is an ever-increasing body of observations that give information about underlying ‘facts.’ Facts are the properties of natural phenomena. The scientific method involves the rigorous, methodical testing of principles that might present a naturalistic explanation for those facts. To be a legitimate scientific ‘hypothesis,’ an explanatory principle must be consistent with prior and present observations and must remain subject to continued testing against future observations. An explanatory principle that by its nature cannot be tested is outside the realm of science.
The process of continuous testing leads scientists to accord a special dignity to those hypotheses that accumulate substantial observational or experimental support. Such hypotheses become known as scientific ‘theories.’ If a theory successfully explains a large and diverse body of facts, it is an especially ‘robust’ theory. If it consistently predicts new phenomena that are subsequently observed, it is an especially ‘reliable’ theory. Even the most robust and reliable theory, however, is tentative. A scientific theory is forever subject to reexamination and — as in the case of Ptolemaic astronomy — may ultimately be rejected after centuries of viability. . . .
A thorough scientific education should introduce these concepts about the hierarchy of scientific ideas. Such an introduction would permit the student to relate the substantive findings of science to the process of science. Just as children should understand and appreciate the scientific theories that offer the most robust and reliable naturalistic explanations of the universe, children should also understand and appreciate the essentially tentative nature of science. In an ideal world, every science course would include repeated reminders that each theory presented to explain our observations of the universe carries this qualification: ‘as far as we know now, from examining the evidence available to us today.’ . . .
Scientific education should accurately portray the current state of substantive scientific knowledge. Even more importantly, scientific education should accurately portray the premises and processes of science. Teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to scientific education: It sets up a false conflict between science and religion, misleads our youth about the nature of scientific inquiry, and thereby compromises our ability to respond to the problems of an increasingly technological world.”
Scientific knowledge is crucial to twenty-first-century life. Biological evolution is foundational in many fields, including biomedical research and agriculture. It aids us in understanding, for example, how to fight diseases like HIV and how to grow plants that will survive in different environments. Because science plays such a large role in today’s world and because our country’s economic future is dependent upon the United States’ retaining its competitiveness in science, it is vital that students have a sound education about major scientific concepts and their applications.
We strongly urge that the Louisiana Legislature repeal this misguided law. Louisiana students deserve an education that will allow them to compete with their peers across the country and the globe.
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