Does Science Matter?


Edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar
212 pages. Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. $10.00

For insight into the culture wars over science, secularism, and science education, look no further than a remarkable new book, Secularism & Science in the 21st Century (ISSSC, 2008).

Specifically, look at the index: There are listings for Darwin, Charles and Coulter, Ann. Next to DNA and ecology is another listing: “dinosaurs, co-existence of with humans.” And, thanks to alphabetical coincidence, Galileo is a finger’s width from the International Flat Earth Society.

The odd juxtapositions suggest that when it comes to science, we’re a schizoid nation, at once hostile to science, obsessed with it, and hugely dependent upon it, in myriad ways. And also that we’re deeply polarized, with secular progressives on one side of the Kulturkampf and religious conservatives on the other.

While reinforcing this perception, Secularism & Science in the 21st Century also tackles the question of where we’re headed. Divided into three sections—one on challenges to evolution, one on pedagogy, and one on scientific literacy—it presents candid dispatches from the frontlines of the science/religion debates. The contributors—scientists and professors who teach science—deserve your attention and, perhaps also, your sympathy.

Consider what they are collectively up against. Secularism & Science in the 21st Century surveys the spectrum of challenges to science education, from stickers on science textbooks to court challenges to evolution to the notorious “wedge” document, a anti-science manifesto that rails against scientific materialism and vows to instill “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” 

These challenges are summarized nicely, if briefly, by the contributors. Dr. Daniel C. Blackburn, a biology professor at Trinity College who contributed to the first section, looks at the Creationist movement and sees encroaching theocracy, a “broad assault on rationality and secular institutions.” “All individuals who value freedom of thought…theists and non-theists alike…have every reason to resist this dangerous intrusion of religion into the public sphere,” he writes.

In a similar (if slightly less alarmist) vein, Dr. Austin Dacey uses his own term— “accomodationalism”—to describe a neutral, even conciliatory, stance by scientists toward their detractors. This is misguided, he writes; scientists who recuse themselves from these debates in the name of kindness or compromise are doing themselves a disservice. Dr. Dacey, the author of The Secular Conscience, even sees merit in the righteous stridency of atheists like Richard Dawkins: “[He] might be successful at raising the consciousness of skeptics.”

The debate over science is hardly academic (nor is it new; see under: Scopes trial.) “The conflict matters more now than it ever has before,” write the volume’s editors, Dr. Ariela Keysar and Dr. Barry A. Kosmin. Because we live, work, and vote in a “highly competitive and interconnected world”; and because “science is a bigger prize today,” these arguments matter, the editors argue. 

The most provocative essay here—one that raises the simple but volatile question, Does Science Matter?—is presented by Jeffrey Burkhardt, a professor of Ethics and Policy Studies at the University of Florida. Burkhardt posits an American Everyman, “Ralph the Barber” (think “Joe the Plumber,” but with scissors). Because Ralph is made up, his life lends itself to quick exposition: Ralph is a happy, solvent American, but he doesn’t know—or care—about science. And why should he, Burkhardt asks. Ralph’s doctor, mechanic, and electrician handle science matters for him the way a CPA handles taxes.

If scientific illiteracy isn’t an Achilles heel for people like “Ralph,” can science educators—with their secular worldview, and their secular champions—defend their profession? Can they make their case that scientific literacy matters? Can that claim ever be made “objectively,” i.e., can it be divorced from the interests—political, professional—of those making it?

Those are the questions raised, sometimes implicitly, in the introduction to this excellent volume, and 11 papers later, you’ll have answers (if not a consensus). The best case for scientific literacy may be the democratic one that the editors make: that science literacy is necessary to be a good citizen. This collection, with its field-level view of the culture wars, is a good place to start.

Jesse Tisch is the assistant editor of Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.

Dr. Barry A. Kosmin is Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, and research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College. He was a principal investigator of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, and is co-author of
One Nation Under God and of Religion in a Free Market.

Ariela Keysar is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.  Keysar is a demographer, and is associate research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College. She was study director of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey and is co-author of
Religion in a Free Market.