Faculty voice:

Robert Pennock: Defending Scientific Integrity

Feb. 9, 2016

Robert Pennock is a professor of history, philosophy and sociology of science at MSU’s Lyman Briggs College. The college is an undergraduate, residential college founded in 1967 by individuals hoping to bridge the widening gap between sciences and humanities. The first of its kind, the college has become known as the institution students go to for an excellent foundation in science and mathematics with additional focus on history, philosophy and sociology of science.

In early fall of 2004, a bright student from one of my previous Lyman Briggs courses came to my office with a copy of the Intelligent Design Creationist textbook “Of Pandas and People.” She was upset and angry to have learned that two teachers in her old middle school in southwestern Michigan were teaching creationism in their biology classes, and that the school board had approved this text as a supplement.

She wanted to know whether anything could be done to stop it. “Pandas” was published by an IDC group in Texas and I had written a book — “Tower of Babel”— about this new creationist movement when I was still at University of Texas, so I knew exactly what this was about and the likely trouble that was ahead.

When I started teaching at Michigan State University in 2000, I thought I’d be leaving this divisive issue behind me. Not so. As a political swing state, Michigan was a battleground, and some legislators were using creationism as a wedge issue.

Just a few months after I arrived, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to modify the state curriculum standards to say that evolution is an “unproven theory,” requiring students to explain the purportedly “competing” new intelligent design theory. To oppose this, some other colleagues at MSU and across the state and I formed an action group — Michigan Citizens for Science — and for the next decade we helped defend science education, successfully I’m happy to say, against a series of such bills.

Helping my student’s school district resolve the problem caused by these two teachers, which took over a year of sustained effort, was MSFC’s most important victory as it may have saved that district from the ignominy of becoming a national test case.

At about that same time I had been approached to be an expert witness for a case that was to be filed in Dover, Pennsylvania, against a school district that had instituted a requirement that students be told about IDC and put copies of “Pandas” in the library for that purpose. That trial — dubbed “Scopes II” by the press, referencing the infamous “Monkey Trial” — made international news as it demonstrated how ID was sectarian religion masquerading as science and ruled that teaching it in public schools was unconstitutional. The Dover case was a slam-dunk for science and continues to bear fruit, as will be discussed at a special symposium celebrating its 10th anniversary at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C. this month. But one never wants such issues to go to trial in the first place, as it indicates a failure in defending the integrity of science. In that sense, we can count it a major success that my student’s school district wisely avoided the embarrassment of a legal challenge.

However, the job is never done. In recent years, creationists have joined forces with climate change deniers and continue to look for ways around the law. Those who care for the values of science must remain ever vigilant.

Photo by Kurt Stepnitz