Debating Ideas vs. Legitimizing Falsehoods

Northern Kentucky U. to hold mock trial for fictional high school teacher fired for teaching creationism -- with the audience as jury. Is the university bolstering discussion of tough issues or undercutting science?
October 22, 2008

James C. Votruba has received hundreds of e-mail messages this week telling him that he should call off a campus event at Northern Kentucky University, where he is president. Has the institution invited Bill Ayers to speak? Actually, the conservatives aren't complaining -- scientists are.

They want Northern Kentucky to call off tonight's debut of the Northern Kentucky Forum, in which the university will sponsor programs designed to promote discussion of divisive issues. Tonight's program is the mock trial of a fictional fired public high school teacher who taught creationism in biology class. The audience will vote on a verdict.

While there may be no scientific debate about the basics of evolution, there are plenty of Kentucky lawmakers who deny evolution and promote creationism. Votruba would never advocate teaching creationism as science. "Evolution is science and creationism is faith," he said in an interview. But just because creationism has no place in a science classroom is no reason to be afraid of debating, he said. When American society has such difficulty having civilized debate, he said, universities need to create forums to promote real discussions.

But to many scientists at Northern Kentucky and elsewhere, the university has oversimplified the questions. These critics would never question the right of a creationist to speak at the university, whatever his or her views. But for the university to create a special forum in which evolution and creationism will be presented on equal terms is in fact to take a side, they say. Creationists want the public to believe that their views and those of scientists are two competing opinions, both of equal scientific merit -- and this forum will advance that view, they say.

"What this really is is an attempt to contrive a debate between science and superstition in which the superstition side gets to pretend they have equal status. And, of course, science issues are not settled in a courtroom, ever," PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, wrote on his blog Pharyngula, a watchdog on anti-evolution activity that urged readers to write Votruba.

Tonight's mock trial will feature a retired judge playing the role of presiding over the case, people playing the roles of the fired teacher and the superintendent of schools, and real-life expert witnesses on both sides. The first 200 people who show up will use clicker technology to express views on evolution before the trial, and their views on the verdict after the event. They may decide to give the teacher her job back, to do nothing, or to give her the job back but with conditions.

To Northern Kentucky officials, this is a creative approach to getting a discussion going in a community with no shortage of rhetoric about evolution. The Creation Museum is nearby.

"Within the larger scientific community, the issue is settled, but in the public policy arena, it's not a settled issue," said Mark Neikirk, executive director of the university's Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, which, along with the university's law school, is sponsoring the event. "In the real world, there is a public policy debate over how to handle this topic. Many Americans believe in intelligent design. Many Americans believe it should be taught," he said. Universities need to find new ways to promote discussion of such topics, he said.

Votruba said that most of the scientists writing him say that the university shouldn't "give a platform" to creationists, but he said that wasn't the issue. "This is about endorsing free inquiry," he said, and having all ideas welcome for discussion.

Debra Pearce, chair of biology at Northern Kentucky, said that while she strongly favors free exchanges of ideas, she is bothered by the way this event was set up. She noted, for example, that the university's announcement refers to "creation science" when creationism is not science at all. "There is no such thing," she said. American society is already confused by the word "theory" with regard to evolution -- not understanding its meaning in science -- and Pearce said this kind of event "just propagates the idea that the theory is a hunch."

Pearce also thinks there is something wrong with the university encouraging the idea that scientific questions can be decided by votes -- especially amid fears that anti-evolution groups will bus in people to dominate the event. She noted that biology professors at her institution already face the challenge of explaining science to some students who have been taught religious doctrine as science. "One of our missions is to convince people that evolution is not a four-letter word," she said.

Some of her colleagues, she said, have wanted to stay away from the event. But Pearce said that she is encouraging people to attend, and that the department plans to release a statement after the mock trial about what takes place. While Pearce said she can understand the inclination to stay away, "I feel we need to be there, as a resource."


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