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(Continued from “Science, interrupted“)

There are a few good ground rules for approaching a classroom issue. The first is to start with the teacher. Going straight to the principal or superintendent instantly escalates things. This is especially important if there’s any doubt about what happened — and there almost always is.

I don’t usually suggest email, since tone is hard to convey, but I used it this time to have a record of the exchange and took care that my tone didn’t become the issue. I’m trying to ensure that kids in our community are getting science in the science classroom. For that I need information, period. Is this teacher undercutting our state’s excellent science standards by tub-thumping against evolutionary theory in his (unrelated) class…or not? Is he inserting “intelligent design,” which the judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover said serves only a “blatantly religious purpose,” into a public school science class…or not? That’s what I need to know.

If he is, I want to use the information not just to spank him (which changes too little), but to make it less likely to happen again in any science classroom in the district.

It’s best to focus on a single question. His rant about “evolutionists” can’t be explained away, so there’s no need to give him an opportunity to muddy it. I stuck that one in the file for later. First, I wanted to check on that other red flag.

“Dear Mr. Taylor,” I wrote:

I was so pleased to see that my son Connor is taking science this year. He’s always had a great interest in the subject, and we often discuss what he learns in class each day.

Last Tuesday he came home a bit puzzled over something from the lecture, and I’m hoping you can clarify it. I’m puzzled as well, so perhaps something was lost in the translation.

He recalled you saying something like this: “Experiments (or evidence) today can’t tell us anything about what happened in the distant past. Since no one was there to see it, we can only guess.”

I’m not a science educator myself, just a fan, so I’d appreciate your clarification. It seems to me that much of science is devoted to examining the present for clues about the past. I remember learning about the 19th century debate between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, for example, two theories that attempted to understand Earth’s past by examining present clues. A strong consensus eventually converged on uniformitarianism, which is now the cornerstone of modern geology.

Can you point me to a citation or two so I can further explore this idea that we can’t use evidence in the present to understand the past? Or, if he misheard, I’d appreciate knowing that.

Dale McGowan

I Googled him for kicks that night (as I’m sure he Googled me). Found him on a social networking site of a sort. “I love God,” said the first sentence of his self-description. “He is the center of my life.” Of course this alone is not the slightest problem. I had a dozen colleagues and friends in my teaching days who were Christians and brilliant science educators. But combined with the odd evidentiary notion and the anti-evolution rant, I was starting to get the picture about Mr. T — a probably decent, hardworking man who is letting his private views compromise his professional responsibility to the kids in this community.

He replied the next day:

You can most definitely use evidence found in the present to understand some things that have happened in the past. Just like in law evidence found in the present can help prove a crime that occurred in the past. That would be nonsense to think otherwise. Let me ask you this question. Which would be considered more reliable evidence to you, you personally seeing something happen in front of you over and over again or you not seeing this event happen but you find circumstantial evidence indicating the event happened?

Mr. Taylor

Even without citations to the Institute for Creation Research, there’s our smoking gun. This is a hamfisted set-up for a creationist punchline: Evolution relies on “mere” circumstantial evidence, while God witnessed creation and wrote about it in his Book.

I replied, answering his question but quickly returning to mine:

Dear Mr. Taylor,

Oh good, thank you. I suppose he misheard. One way to be sure — he said it was on an overhead. Perhaps you can share that to help clear it up?

Your question is an interesting one. First, I’d note that what seems reliable to me is often not, including the apparent evidence of my eyes. That’s why eyewitness testimony is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. Circumstantial evidence is often misrepresented in popular culture to mean “weak” when it actually means “indirect.” DNA is circumstantial, yet one of the strongest types of evidence.

To answer your question: If my eyes told me Mary entered an apartment over and over, but the DNA indicated it was Susan, I would certainly go with the circumstantial evidence, as would the legal system.

Another example: my son witnessed your statement about our inability to know the past from the present, but I’d like to see the circumstantial evidence of the overhead — when you have a minute.

I do appreciate your time and help.

No answer for three days. Apparently I spoiled his punchline.


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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.