Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ignorance on trial in PA

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, creationism, intelligent design, evolutionary debate

The 21st Century "Monkey Trial" took place in Dover, PA, just a couple years ago. Many folks I knew were incredulous that there could still be such an anti-science bias in a whole school board. After all, Pennsylvania is a politically, socially, and religiously liberal state, the home of "Outcome-Based Education", so hated by conservatives in "flyover country" like Oklahoma or Kentucky (Anti-OBE activism was the particular hobby horse of several good friends when we lived in the Bible Belt). Let's not forget that, if you take away Philadelphia and a couple of elite neighborhoods near CMU in Pittsburgh, you have a state filled with staunch conservatives, regardless of their registered political party.

Matthew Chapman, a confirmed liberal and Bush-hater (clearly expressed in several asides), and an apparently born atheist, went to Dover to cover the trial, firmly believing that creationism has no place in the classroom. He came away believing every kind of creationism should be presented to the children, but not for any reason you might guess.

I simply must show the jacket photo of the author. Looking like he's ready to counter-punch the photographer, he plays host, either to some three dozen ants attracted to sugar drippings on his white shirt, or to a bunch of stickers artfully arranged. I vote for the former.

In Forty Days and Forty Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, author Chapman presents a running summary of the events that preceded and eventually caused the lawsuit and trial, the trial itself, and the aftermath of a divided small town. Along the way, we get glimpses of most of the protagonists—and there were many—from his interviews and observations.

Most of these are likeable folks. Chapman liked them, almost all. A few, particularly Bill Buckingham, who started it all, and a hell-fire preacher who watched proceedings as an interested party, went out of their way to be jerks. Nearly all are Christians, though of widely differing traditions. One couple, who were among those who sued the Dover school board to have Intelligent Design (ID) dropped from the curriculum, left a lasting impression; he came away thinking, "If I were a Christian, these were the kinds of Christians I would want to be like." They lived their faith, and it showed.

How sad, that the Bill Buckinghams of the world are so spiritually insecure they find every little thing a threat, and cannot feel safe unless they ram their narrow vision of what the Bible "must" mean down everyone's throat. As Chapman mentions more than once, it seemed paradoxical that people expecting the bliss of heaven should be the angriest and most bitter. He also exposed the willful ignorance of many, who didn't bother to read or study material from either side of the debate, trusting what others told them, to the point that Bill Buckingham, asked to define ID, gave a pretty good definition of Natural Selection! Jesus did say we ought to be "harmless as doves", but preceded that with "wise as serpents." The pro-ID people are seen to be wise as doves and as "harmless" as serpents.

Of the articles and longer pieces I've read on this trial, this book is by far the best treatment. And why does he want creationism taught? When children have been taught to understand the scientific method and the power of evidence-based reason, you can show them forty kinds of "creation science" and they'll clearly see it isn't science at all.

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