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Aug 22 2011

A victory for reason and good education

A California school teacher, James Corbett, called creationism “superstitious nonsense”, and was dragged into court by a student claiming that was a violation of the separation of church and state. The verdict from an appeals court has come down and they disagree — they sidestepped the whole constitutionality question, and instead made the reasonable decision that it is the teacher’s job to question dogma.

“In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority,” Judge Fisher wrote.

“But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities,” he said. “This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions.”

Here are the kinds of things Corbett was saying in class:

“Aristotle … argued, you know, there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense,” Corbett said according to a transcript of his lecture. “I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.”

He continued: “The other possibility is, it’s always been there.… Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic.”

“All I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a giant spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it,” the transcript says.

Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution. “Contrast that with creationists,” he told his students. “They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

I’m on record saying that teachers should not use the public school classroom to proselytize for atheism, any more than they should be proselytizing for Christianity. But that’s not what Corbett was doing: he was doing something that a science teacher must do, assessing hypotheses against the observable facts and in the context of reason. When people use their religious ideology to make counterfactual claims, a teacher should be able to point out that those claims are wrong.

I am very glad that the court came down on the side of allowing science teachers to teach science, even when it exposes the fallacies of religious claims.

40 comments

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  1. 1
    bricewgilbert

    I agree with everything, but is this really how the constitution has been seen by the courts throughout the years? If a teacher was doing the same, but making arguments for God would that be legal? I would be angry, because it’s not scientific. It’s really too bad that these issues often end up about separation of church and state instead of bad science/reasoning. Maybe I’m being naive, but I’ve always found the problem of religion being taught or supported by the government having nothing to do with fairness, but everything to do with demonstrable claims and sound reasoning. I don’t want my congressmen saying Jesus will heal you in the same way I don’t him saying homeopathy is a great medical treatment. That seems to be the unsaid part of all of this.

    Like I said i’m probably being naive. SATAS shields both sides from problems that we’ve seen historically.

  2. 2
    ImaginesABeach

    I am very glad that the court came down on the side of allowing science teachers to teach science, even when it exposes the fallacies of religious claims.

    According to the linked article, Corbett isn’t a science teacher, he’s an AP history teacher. It doesn’t necessarily make a difference to whether or not he should be allowed to point out the weaknesses of religious thought, but accuracy is important.

  3. 3
    required

    I thought creationism was a scientific hypothesis/”theory”, and separate from religion? How can you bring a teacher to court for questioning a “scientific” hypothesis? Can I sue a teacher if he says geocentrism is clear bunk, and not just “another possible explanation”?

    It’s not like he said there can’t be any gods; he simply stated that Aristotle was wrong to assume there MUST be because of fallacious reasoning. Clear difference. Bravo to the court!

  4. 4
    frankb

    This is how I want creation taught in class. Right out of the gate “no evidence” and “faulty reasoning” and “spaghetti monster did it”.

  5. 5
    eric

    If a teacher was doing the same, but making arguments for God would that be legal?

    If this guy were making arguments for atheism it would be illegal. But IMO, he isn’t. He’s teaching kids to challenge their beliefs. I imagine with what Hawking has said lately, the same teacher might get excited about teaching kids that ‘it was always there’ is also wrong.

    I also think it’s worth pointing out that his harshest comments about ID came as a response to a student’s question about another teacher’s plans (to teach ID/challenge evolution). This sort of doubly removes it from the category of ‘attacking religion in the classroom.’ First because he is really criticizing another teacher’s lesson plan. Second, because it was prompted by a student (in the same class as the one being secretly taped…by a student..) It’s not like he let in on ID on his own. Though he sounds like the sort who might do that, too, it’s not what happened in this case.

  6. 6
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Did a student bring up the topic or did he? I’m wondering why an AP history teacher is talking about creationism at all. He’s right on all counts, of course, but I don’t see why it was part of an AP history class to begin with.

  7. 7
    kome

    @Sour Tomato Sand
    My 10th grade history teacher went over the Scopes monkey trial, so there was a small discussion of evolution/creationism in my history class (of course, he was a rabid creationist and proselytized in class, which I would have none of so I ended up going to the Dean’s office a lot for inappropriate classroom behavior for saying things like “That’s not true, here’s what science actually says.” Fun times…). I assume something similar was going on here. Or perhaps it was a lesson about the intersection of science and society in the 1800s/1900s? Either way, I can see a lot of legitimate reasons to address evolution/creationism in a history class.

    Anyway, in my more facetious moments when thinking about these sorts of issues, I have a difficult time separating “assessing hypotheses against the observable facts and in the context of reason” and promoting atheism or agnosticism. As far as reality is concerned, the two are pretty indistinguishable. =)

  8. 8
    Glen Davidson

    I think that was a tough one, but I’m glad that in the end a teacher telling the truth got away with it. He can’t teach anything and everything that should legitimately be labeled as “true,” like “there is no excuse for believing in god,” yet how could anyone pretend that it’s logical to think that there has to be (his call on Aristotle is, I think, somewhat questionable itself, however).

    They’re going to have to narrow down what’s permitted and what’s not yet. This case settled nothing but the fact that this teacher gets away with saying what he did. I hope that reasonably good critical thinking will generally get a pass, with only outright proselytizing being forbidden.

    Of course theists should get to say things critical of atheism as well. I suspect that it happens a lot as it is.

    Glen Davidson

  9. 9
    Rey Fox

    I thought creationism was a scientific hypothesis/”theory”, and separate from religion?

    Creationism exists in a quantum state that only collapses into a certain waveform when it is observed. It’s scientific when they want to gain credibility, and religious when they want to deflect criticism.

  10. 10
    'smee

    Rey Fox@9

    Creationism exists in a quantum state that only collapses into a certain waveform when it is observed

    Since there is an absolute absence of any [thought, creativity, logic] in cdesign proponentist theories, is that state a superposition, or a subposition?

  11. 11
    Lauren

    Wow, I didn’t realize until I read this posting how used I’d gotten to the courts trampling over the separation of church and state. I was truly surprised, and very delighted, at the ruling they handed down.

    Huzzah!

  12. 12
    raven

    Professor Fired for Telling Western Civilization Class – Tech …
    www techimo com › … › DebateIMO: Politics, Religion, Controversy – Cached10 posts – 5 authors – Last post: Sep 25, 2007
    A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired … things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said. … Bitterman’s Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. … of academic affairs at Southwest, fired him over the telephone. …

    He fared a little better than Steven Bitterman at SW Iowa community college.

    Bitterman was a history teacher who was fired because he thought that western civlization starting with a talking snake in a magic garden was silly.

    He was vindicated though. He sued SW Iowa community college and won a settlement.

    WATCH OUT FOR XIANS. THEY CAN BE AND OFTEN ARE VICIOUS AND HOMICIDAL. Don’t ever forget this.

    Sorry for the all caps but this point has 2,000 years of millions of dead bodies behind it. These days they will stick a metaphorical knife in your back if they can. Sometimes the knife isn’t so metaphorical and made of steel.

  13. 13
    DLC

    I see nothing wrong in what that teacher said.
    Message for the religious: yes, science will present ideas challenging your faith. No, you do not have the right to fire anyone who displeases you in that respect. You can hand-wave it away if you wish, but you do not get the right to silence voices you don’t like, just because you don’t like what they say.

  14. 14
    raven

    old post from PT: More on the EXPELLED Steve Bitterman case.

    Bitterman was EXPELLED (fired) from an Iowa CC for not agreeing with some students that Western civilization, the course he was teaching, started with a smart ass, walking, talking snake.

    The CC paid him off. IIRC, it wasn’t much $25,000 or so. But the college didn’t seem too anxious to go to court either.

    Sounds like Iowa SW CC is run by a bunch of christofascists who never heard of the First Amendment.

    thefire.org:

    Victory in Southwestern Iowa’s ‘Adam and Eve’ Case July 22, 2008 by Adam Kissel

    The American Humanist Association’s legal center has reached a settlement in the case of Steven C. Bitterman, a professor at Southwestern Community College (Iowa) who was fired in September—over the phone—after students complained about his argument in a Western Civilization course that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be taken literally. Bitterman is satisfied with the settlement. FIRE helped Bitterman compose a letter to the college in defense of his academic freedom, and a group of Iowa faculty circulated an open letter on his behalf. Thanks to the AHA for taking up Bitterman’s case and defending academic freedom.

  15. 15
    HNS_Lasagna

    It’s nice to see these small victories for the cause. I’m not against people talking about creationism when they preface everything they say with, “this is not science, it has in fact been disproven by science, the people pushing it on others claim it to be fact when its not, and the only arena of education in which it belongs is a mythology course.
    love the FSM reference though.

  16. 16
    the heat

    What Rey Fox said. If some supposedly-religious position wants to stake out a claim about a scientific fact, then it’s fair game for being contradicted.

    That aside, Corbett doesn’t seem to have any idea what “deductive” means. Deductive reasoning is faulty logic? That’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard.

    The invocation of falsificationism at the end suggests that he might be confusing deductive with inductive reasoning. Does he mean, then, that the problem with Aristotle’s argument for God was that it was inductive?

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    How can you proselytize for atheism? That’s like saying it’s proselytizing for christianity when you attack evolution. Only a complete idiot would think that … oh. Wait.

  18. 18
    Rey Fox

    is that state a superposition, or a subposition?

    Um…yes.

  19. 19
    the lobotomizer

    The court decision is great. But I agree with the heat; assuming the transcript is accurate, what he said didn’t make much sense and probably confused at least some of the students.

  20. 20
    David Marjanović, OM

    Nunc est bibendum!!!

    Creationism exists in a quantum state that only collapses into a certain waveform when it is observed. It’s scientific when they want to gain credibility, and religious when they want to deflect criticism.

    Bingo.

    That aside, Corbett doesn’t seem to have any idea what “deductive” means. Deductive reasoning is faulty logic? That’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard.

    Seconded. Probably you’re right it’s a confusion of de- and inductive.

  21. 21
    Roy Sablosky

    Teachers should not use the public school classroom to proselytize for atheism, any more than they should be proselytizing for Christianity.

    What a strangely accommodationist thing to say. It is not possible to proselytize for atheism, because atheism is not a religion. Teachers should tell the truth. And if, when they discuss religion, they are careful to tell the truth, then they will say that religion is garbage, because that is the truth. There are misleading people who misleadingly call truth-telling “proselytizing for atheism,” but this is misleading.

  22. 22
    SallyStrange

    There’s a difference between saying that there’s zero evidence for religious claims, and urging all your students to self-identify as atheists because religious claims have zero evidence.

    The latter could be called proselytizing. The former will probably be called proselytizing anyway by stupid people. Nevertheless it’s worth making the distinction.

  23. 23
    Markita Lynda, thread-killer

    So, really, what the teacher is said is that trying to prove a scientific theory by deduction instead of by testing it is, scientifically, nonsense.

  24. 24
    Loqi

    I’m saddened. Not because of the court victory, but because “teacher refuses to teach made-up bullshit, doesn’t lose job” is considered a breath of fresh air in this country.

  25. 25
    Juice

    Good to see that he “won” the suit.

    But I have to take issue with this:

    Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution.

    ORLY? Which ones?

  26. 26
    Contented Reader

    For summer reading this year, I assigned “Charles and Emma,” Deborah Heiligman’s charming biography of Charles and Emma Darwin, which focuses on how the man of science and the woman of faith managed to build and maintain a healthy marriage. Good book. You should read it.

    I allowed my own students to draw their own conclusions. My less religious students liked that they were reading about science and about evolution. My religious students said that they liked that they were reading about a religious person, but now they know who Charles Darwin is and how he developed his theory, too. And one child commented, “I always believed in Adam and Eve. But I was reading this book, and I started thinking about it, and that doesn’t really make any sense.”

    “I do have strong opinions on that subject, but as your teacher, I prefer to let my students work their thoughts out for themselves. I just try to make sure my students have the mental tools and the knowledge they need to do that. I’m glad that this book worked for you.”

    See what I did there? Teaching, without proselytizing, and without marginalizing my religious students, either.

    That’s because I’m awesome. I deserve smaller classes and a pie in the teachers’ lunchroom on Thursdays.

  27. 27
    Friendly

    But I have to take issue with this:

    Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution.

    ORLY? Which ones?

    I think what he was trying to say is that “real” scientists consistently take their new data, new methods, new fossils, etc. and test the theory of evolution against them to see whether any of the claims, assumptions, and predictions of the theory as it’s currently understood are false. This is as opposed to creationists, IDers, and other “fake” scientists who generate nothing original and wouldn’t dare to test the truth of their hypotheses against it even if they did. (This bit of verbal shorthand on his part is unfortunate, as is his misuse of the word “deduction”, but I think his intentions were good.)

  28. 28
    A3Kr0n

    Oh ya. I’d FAIL as a teacher! I don’t have much sensitivity toward religious beliefs. None actually. Tell me I can’t tell my students that creationism is nonsense, and you’d have one pissed off professor (or former professor).

  29. 29
    Roy Sablosky

    @ Sally Strange:

    There’s a difference between saying that there’s zero evidence for religious claims, and urging all your students to self-identify as atheists.

    Urging all your students to self-identify as atheists would be silly, but it is not a terrible idea, and it certainly should not be illegal.

  30. 30
    archimedes109

    That was in California? That’s nothing! Try that in my classroom in Kentucky! Watch the gathering pitch forks and torches outside your classroom windows, and try to make it to your car after work! Yeah…never a dull moment at work for me…

  31. 31
    madscientist

    That’s great news and it’s a good thing the judge avoided the constitutional question – although this is clearly not a breach of the constitution, attempting to treat the matter as a constitutional battle can waste huge amounts of time and money. The judge also clearly recognizes the lawsuit as an attempt to use religious dogmatic belief to restrict academic discourse. I only object to the teacher’s use of the word ‘deduction’ since he’s using it entirely to illustrate incorrect deductions (which arise from lack of understanding or outright incompetence or malice) while deduction itself is valid.

  32. 32
    Rick Litherland

    I think this a bad case to celebrate. It’s a good thing that he wasn’t fired on religious grounds, but not that he’s saying such nonsense in front of a class. I don’t think he meant to say “inductive” instead of “deductive”. I think he’s trying, in a confused and confusing way, to say that science relies on induction, and that you can’t prove anything about the real world by deduction alone. This is true, but in his words it comes over as the slogan “induction good, deduction bad”. The bit about scientists trying to disprove evolution suggests that he holds a view of falsification even more simplistic than Popper’s original.

    On a minor point, the verbal tic “you know” is a bad example to a cohort bidding fair to ratchet up the despair of teachers of freshman composition yet another notch.

    Atheists don’t need Corbett on their side any more than leftists needed Shirley MacLaine on theirs.

  33. 33
    Sarah

    “What a strangely accommodationist thing to say. It is not possible to proselytize for atheism, because atheism is not a religion. Teachers should tell the truth. And if, when they discuss religion, they are careful to tell the truth, then they will say that religion is garbage, because that is the truth. There are misleading people who misleadingly call truth-telling “proselytizing for atheism,” but this is misleading.”

    Ah, the simple certainty of the truly faithful.

  34. 34
    Jim Mauch

    PZ did I hear you reply in an interview when a reporter asked you if you felt that students needed more biology and evolution classes as preparation for college you didn’t necessarily agree. You said that what your new students lacked was the ability to apply the scientific method and use rational thinking. I think you said that it was easier to teach the new student the science than it was to teach them how to use deductive reasoning. Have I misquoted you?

  35. 35
    PZ Myers

    No, that’s right. I specifically said I’d rather students entered college with solid math skills than a farrago of poorly taught concepts in evolutionary biology.

    Why isn’t it accepted that graduation from high school should require either knowledge of calculus or statistics?

  36. 36
    gwnhughes

    “We are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the establishment clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher ‘fair warning’ that such conduct was unlawful,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the court.”

    This ruling does not establish a ‘bright line’ between protected and unprotected speech. The judge only makes the point that there exists no successful lawsuit that has established that a critique of religion is a First Amendment violation. Corbett’s speech wasn’t protected; *Corbett* was protected.  Contrast that with below:

    “Corbett told his students of a lawsuit in 1994 brought by a high school biology teacher who wanted to teach creationism in the public school system in addition to teaching the required course material on evolution. The courts in that case upheld a school district directive that the biology teacher must not teach creationism in science class.”

    The courts upheld the school district directive because of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) which ruled that Louisiana’s ‘balanced treatment’ law, allowing creationism and evolution to be taught in biology class, violated the Establishment clause, because it advanced one religion in particular. The opinion went on, ”teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.” Behold, the origin of the transparent and absurd rationales for Intelligent Design.

    However, the ruling in Corbett is not a victory for anybody but Corbett, and he wins because there is no law protecting religion from criticism. Religious advocates are furious with this treatment, considering it to be court-sanctioned ridicule. They see this: pro-religious speech in schools is illegal; anti-religion speech in schools is legal. Free Speech and Establishment activists are going to attack this ‘inequity’ with vigor, so prepare for lawsuits that claim the ‘prohibited free exercise of religion.’  

    They will not stop until they believe their rights and beliefs are protected by law.

  37. 37
    echidna
    Roy@21: And if, when they discuss religion, they are careful to tell the truth, then they will say that religion is garbage, because that is the truth.

    Sarah@35:Ah, the simple certainty of the truly faithful.

    Alternatively, the simple certainty of verifiable reality. Do you have any evidence beyond tales of magic that might even hint at the existence of any of the myriad of spirits, elves or gods that people have imagined and worshipped over the millenia? Anything to hint that any of the tales of magic might be true?

    If you consider that Roy’s position in insufficiently nuanced, then please explain.

  38. 38
    echidna

    The bit about scientists trying to disprove evolution suggests that he holds a view of falsification even more simplistic than Popper’s original.

    Well, yes, except that we say that Einstein disproved Newton, leaving his laws intact enough to still be taught and used, but still managing to turn our view of the universe on its head.

    There is no reason why something similarly subtle but view-changing couldn’t happen with biology.

  39. 39
    Shripathi Kamath

    This case along with an atheist ad that a local atheist group put up recently, has caused a lot of frayed nerves in the Bible belt of Southern California.

    Bigoted fundagelicals are coming out of the woodwork, and are simply aghast at the thought that Christianity is not accepted as the law of the land. I live in this community so it is surprising to see as many atheists or atheist-friendly people show up to defend Dr. Corbett, and the rights of atheists to offend.

    http://missionviejo.patch.com/articles/in-jesus-glasses-case-court-rules-in-teachers-favor

    and

    http://newportbeach.patch.com/articles/atheism-billboard-goes-up-on-55-freeway

    Dr. Corbett, even in this Christian community is well-supported by the students, who organized a rally in his support when he first fought and lost his case. He has taught in Beirut, and was threatened with his life for trying to use the Socratic method of discourse, the same that he uses in his classes. He states that the risk is worth the prize of educating minds. We need more educators like him.

    When he was found guilty of violating Chad’s constitutional rights by the lower court, it was for recollecting an incident where a creationist teacher had been trying to teach ID in school, and the comment “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense” was cited to be the offending one. Peloza was trying to peddle “creation science”, which strangely, the judge and the plaintiff’s lawyer insist was really religion.

    Even though the “Jesus glasses” comment had been found benign both by the lower court and the circuit court, look at the inflammatory headline (“insult”), the protests against it, and yet the title remaining intact.

    As to the atheist ad, I found out that I was a camel jockey, and should be chanting Muslim prayers in Mecca, and if I did not disregard the Treaty or Tripoli that I cited, and accept the Christian foundation of the country, I should leave it.

    Not bad for a week in the Rick Warren cesspool.

  40. 40
    Amphiox

    Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution.

    ORLY? Which ones?

    Actually, all of them.

    Experiments are designed either to disprove a null hypothesis, or to distinguish between two (or more) alternative hypotheses (thus disproving at least one of them). In biology these hypotheses are generated from the theory of evolution, so the work of the biologist is a continuous series of attempts to disprove aspects of the theory of evolution. (Every biological experiment has a potential result that, if it occurred, would disprove the theory of evolution, either in part or even in whole). The confidence we have in the theory of evolution arises from the fact that all these challenges to the theory, produced through “routine” scientific work, fail. Those potential evolution-disproving results do not occur.

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