Friday, December 16, 2005

Death is against the law

In One Town, It May Soon Be Illegal To Die

POSTED: 7:17 am PST December 14, 2005

BIRITIBA MIRIM, Brazil -- In one Brazilian farm town, it could soon be against the law to die.

The town doesn't have any more room to bury the dead, and a federal law prevents the town from expanding its cemetery. And to protest that law, the mayor is suggesting that the town council outlaw death.

Residents would be told to "take good care of your health in order not to die." And they'd be warned that "infractors will be held responsible for their acts."

An aide to the mayor admits that the idea is "laughable" -- not to mention unconstitutional. But he says there's no better way to get the government to change the environmental-protection law and allow a new cemetery to be built.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Creation Controversy

Something near and dear to my heart in the past few years is advancing the cause of science over the groups that insist on the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in schools.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing any particular religious belief. This prohibition ensures that our public schools remain places in which students of all faiths – or those who do not ascribe to religious beliefs – may learn in an atmosphere free from divisive theological debates and sectarianism.

In disapproving organized prayer in the public schools in 1962, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court said that "[w]hen the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain."

Our public schools must be true to the First Amendment's mandate against religious divisiveness and remain free from the influence of religious dogma in order for students of all faiths to attend school without fear of coercion.

But proponents of teaching religious explanations for creation in public schools share a distinctly religious view of the world's origin and believe that the public schools should present that view even to the exclusion of science. However, this approach would plainly violate the First Amendment's prohibition against state action designed to advance a religious belief.

In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, the Supreme Court held unambiguously that it is unconstitutional to restrict a public school teacher's right to teach evolution. More recently, in Aguillard v. Edwards, 482 U.S. 595 (1987), the Court decisively held that it is unconstitutional to require educators who teach evolution also to teach creationism. Courts have yet to address a similar requirement to teach intelligent design. But based on Aguillard and other Supreme Court rulings, courts should also find such a requirement unconstitutional.

Part of what makes creation "science" not a science, is that there's no actual research. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), science is limited to explanations “that can only be inferred from confirmable data — the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. ”This process is called the scientific method .Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence resulting from observation and experiment are not a part of science.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

While intelligent design has hit obstacles among scientists, it has also failed to find a warm embrace at many evangelical Christian colleges. Even at conservative schools, scholars and theologians who were initially excited about intelligent design say they have come to find its arguments unconvincing. They, too, have been greatly swayed by the scientists at their own institutions and elsewhere who have examined intelligent design and found it insufficiently substantiated in comparison to evolution.

"It can function as one of those ambiguous signs in the world that point to an intelligent creator and help support the faith of the faithful, but it just doesn't have the compelling or explanatory power to have much of an impact on the academy," said Frank D. Macchia, a professor of Christian theology at Vanguard University, in Costa Mesa, Calif., which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest Pentecostal denomination.

At Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical university in Illinois, intelligent design surfaces in the curriculum only as part of an interdisciplinary elective on the origins of life, in which students study evolution and competing theories from theological, scientific and historical perspectives, according to a college spokesperson.

There is a place for intelligent design, and that's in religion classes. Our children should know the arguments for and against creationism, and for and against intelligent design, and know how to debate and argue each as a religious argument, as well as the claims for each in support of certain religious beliefs, and also know via science classes where the evidence points, regardless of our faith.

Evolution, also called “descent with modification,” is the only scientific explanation for the history of life on earth. It states that over time, human beings and other species have evolved through processes including natural selection. This scientific theory provides understanding of the immense “complexity, diversity and activity” of life on earth. The term “scientific theory” does not mean the same thing to scientists as it does to the layman. According to the NAS, it refers not to a “‘guess’ or ‘hunch’,” but rather to “explanations of natural phenomena” based on “testable observations and hypotheses.” And scientific fact can mean a theory that “has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples.” In this sense, evolution is a fact. It has overwhelming support from the scientific community and is based on compelling evidence from “the fossil record, genetic information, the distribution of plants and animals, and similarities across species of anatomy and development.” As a result,“[s]cientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.”

In the 21st Century, high-quality education is the key to success for our children and our nation. The dependence of future success on accessibility to a quality education means that parents, educators and others must carefully consider controversies involving the academic scholarship that our children are taught. One of these recent controversies is the teaching of intelligent design in our nation’s public schools. Here are some answers to the central questions surrounding the issue of intelligent design.

If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
-- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

For more, check out the following articles, or join the National Council on Science Education (I'm a member!) at www.ncse.org