Canute of the mountains

February 6, 2008

King Canute could not hold back the tide -- unknown artist

King Canute* couldn’t hold back the tides.

Surely the Utah legislature doesn’t think they can hold back the rumblings of the Rocky Mountains, either — but the proposed legislation raises delectable questions about the role of government in preventing disasters, especially using zoning laws as the method of prevention.

Good discussion material for government, civics, geology and “integrated physics and chemistry (IPC).”

* Canute was a Viking. Is anyone from Pleasant Grove, Utah, wondering about the symbolism here, with the high school mascot being the Viking, and the town being located at the foot of the mountains, almost astride the Wasatch Fault?
Image source. Better site: “King Canute on the Seashore.”


Should voting be required?

February 6, 2008

“Paul Revere” at Effects Measure muses on the effect of one vote in the grand scheme of things, and comes up wondering whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to require voters to vote — as indeed is done in Australia (voters pay a fine for failing to vote).

It’s a good discussion of the impact one citizen’s vote really makes, a discussion leavened by the science background of Revere.  The article would make a wonderful warm-up exercise for classes in civics, government, economics and U.S. history.

Voting is a privilege, but it’s also a duty of good citizenship. Should we require people to vote, by law, with criminal penalties for those who fail to make a choice at the polls?

What do you think?

Choose wisdom, choose science: Sandefur savages TEA position against evolution

February 6, 2008

Must government agencies be “neutral” between science and non-science, between evolution and intelligent design?

The Texas Education Agency lost it’s long-time science curriculum expert Chris Comer last year in a sad incident in which Comer was criticized for siding with Texas education standards on evolution rather than remaining neutral between evolution and intelligent design.

Comes now Timothy Sandefur of the very conservative Pacific Legal Foundation with an article in the Chapman Law Review which argues that science is solid, a good way of determining good from bad, dross from gold. Plus, Sandefur refutes claims that evolution is religion, and so illegal in public schools. TEA’s position in the Comer affair is shown to be not defensible legally; Sandefur’s article also points out that the post-modern relativism of the TEA’s argument is damaging to the search for knowledge and freedom, too.

In short, Sandefur’s article demonstrates that the position of the Texas Education Agency is untenable in liberty and U.S. law.

Moreover, science is an essential part of the training for a free citizen because the values of scientific discourse — respect, freedom to dissent, and a demand for logical, reasoned arguments supported by evidence — create a common ground for people of diverse ethnicities and cultures. In a nation made up of people as different as we are, a commitment to tolerance and the search for empirically verifiable, logically established, objective truth suggests a path to peace and freedom. Our founding fathers understood this. Professor Sherry has said it well: “it is difficult to envision a civic republican polity — at least a polity with any diversity of viewpoints — without an emphasis on reason. . . . In a diverse society, no [definition of ‘the common good’] can develop without reasoned discourse.”

Science’s focus on empirical evidence and demonstrable theories is part of an Enlightenment legacy that made possible a peaceful and free society among diverse equals. Teaching that habit of mind is of the essence for keeping our civilization alive. To reject the existence of positive truth is to deny the possibility of common ground, to undermine the very purpose of scholarly, intellectual discourse, and to strike at the root of all that makes our values valuable and our society worthwhile. It goes Plato one better — it is the ignoble lie. At a time when Americans are threatened by an enemy that rejects science and reason, and demands respect for dog-mas entailing violence, persecution, and tyranny, nothing more deserves our attention than nourishing respect for reason.


The debate over evolution and creationism has raged for a long time, and will continue to do so. The science behind evolution is overwhelming and only continues to grow, but those who insist that evolution is false will continue to resist its promulgation in schools. The appeal to Postmo-dernism represents the most recent — and so far, the most desperate — attempt on the part of creationists to support their claim that the teaching of valid, empirically-tested, experimentally-confirmed science in government schools is somehow a violation of the Constitution. When shorn of its sophisticated-sounding language, however, this argument is beneath serious consideration. It essentially holds that truth is meaningless; that all ways of knowing — whether it be the scientist’s empirically tested, experimentally confirmed, well-documented theory, or the mumbo-jumbo of mystics, psychics, and shamans — are equally valid myths; and that government has no right to base its policies on solid evidence rather than supernatural conjurations. This argument has no support in epistemology, history, law, or common sense. It should simply not be heard again.

Chapman Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2008

Sandefur’s article is available online in .pdf format at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).

Is anyone at the Texas Education Agency listening?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

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