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It's difficult to take Rick Santorum seriously. It always has been, and adding "campaigning for president" to his resume did nothing to help. The man has no gravitas and even less charisma, but comports himself as if he did. The effect is of a whiny adolescent know-it-all who is eternally peeved that society isn't recognizing his obvious superiority. Add to this a devout narrow-mindedness, a stubborn refusal to even acknowledge others might have opinions or experiences different from his own, and you get the perfect Conservative Religious Whiny Emo Teenage Mutant Candidate.

If he had the smallest chance in hell of becoming president, we would have to take him more seriously, but he doesn't, and so we can freely use his various pronouncements not as telling threats of what a Santorum presidency might entail, but as mere object lessons in how stubborn ignorance is often considered, by ignorant people, to be the same thing as religious conviction.

In this instance, we have Rick Santorum explaining the outrage of public schools teaching evolution while conspicuously neglecting to teach Santorum's preferred Magic Bean theory of creation:

There are many on the left and in the scientific community, so to speak, who are afraid of that discussion because oh my goodness you might mention the word, God-forbid, “God” in the classroom, or “Creator,” or that there may be some things that are inexplainable by nature where there may be, where it’s better explained by a Creator, of course we can’t have that discussion. It’s very interesting that you have a situation that science will only allow things in the classroom that are consistent with a non-Creator idea of how we got here, as if somehow or another that’s scientific. Well maybe the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn’t explain all these things. And if it does point to that, why don’t you pursue that? But you can’t because it’s not science, but if science is pointing you there how can you say it’s not science? It’s worth the debate.
The short version of that gibberish is that Rick Santorum has no understanding of what science actually is. In any situation where "the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn’t explain all these things," the proper scientific response is to question why currently known science does not explain the something-in-question. The proper response never turns out to be "well, we don't understand this part, so let's say it's because magic." That is the very definition of scientific pursuit. Our understanding of the world may be incomplete, or even wrong, but science tasks itself with quantifying and qualifying all those things that we do know for certain.

There was once a time when all of Europe thought the sun revolved around the earth. The logic behind this was ego, and nothing else: Hey, we rock so much here on earth it's just not possible for the universe to not literally revolve around us. The Santorum approach to "science" would be, when the question was first asked, to simply say "God did it" and leave it at that. That would be the "scientific" answer to everything, in fact: Don't understand gravity? God did it. Don't understand prismatic reflection? God. Don't understand how ice turns back into water when heat is applied? Well don't knock yourself out over it, just say blah-blah-God-did-it-blah and be done with it.

When "maybe the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn't explain all these things," to continue to use Santorum's lovely phrasing, that is when science advances. Somebody, somewhere sits themselves down and tries to explain the unexplainable bits. It either proves plausible or it doesn't. A bunch of other somebodies eventually either prove the point or discard it as yet another failed attempt. There is no scientific point, however, where "hell if I know" gets chiseled down as the permanent, legitimate final answer to a question.

Santorum's critique of classroom science is that he perceives some conspiracy by which "science", as entity, will "only allow things in the classroom that are consistent with a non-Creator idea of how we got there." Well, no: That is not strictly true. Science disallows all unproven speculations about scientific facts, hence the "science" part. It is not isolated to Santorum's Christianity: We also do not allow textbooks to teach that electrons are in fact tiny little go-carts being raced around by aliens. We do not teach that pandas have magical superpowers that only manifest themselves when nobody is looking, or that one of the organs you will find in a dissected frog is a tiny Taco Bell. It has nothing to do with anti-religious bigotry. We simply wish to teach, in science classes, actual science. The stuff we know, not all of the other stuff that someone, somewhere suspects.

This is an important point, for what we are teaching in classrooms (hopefully, though heaven knows it is always a battle on multiple fronts) is not the individual bits of science per se, but the methodology of logical thinking. The difference between what we know and what we suspect is an important one, as is the difference between proof and hypothesis. These are basic, foundational tools of knowledge, or at least should be. Remove them and you end up with people like Santorum, who lack the ability to tell the difference. Five plus five is not "whatever I say it is," regardless of what modern conservative budget-minders might assert. Learning to read a graph, and learning when to be suspicious of one; learning how to properly cite experts, and what might constitute "expertise"; even if you never actually need to know what a pancreas does or what the various layers of the atmosphere are, being able to competently find out if and when the need arises is more important still.

School-age science is intended to teach just enough of the fundamentals to allow a rough intuition of how important things work; the rest must be left to individual initiative, but at the dismal least we can explain to the next generation why sticking a fork into an electrical outlet might be bad, or why you should not mix certain chemicals under your sink, and give them the tools to extrapolate those lessons further.

We have all heard (and made) various arguments against the teaching of creationism in schools as substitute for evolutionary science. Which version of creationism? Why not the creation myths of other cultures? Why not have the teacher make other stuff up off the top of their head, and teach that? What of the religious objections of all those who object to your particular version of the Magic Beans Theory? If we are supposed to teach religion in faith in science class, why are we not expected to teach science in churches?

The most fundamental aspect, though, is honoring—no, scratch that, merely understanding—the very premise of science, which is to methodically map out that which is known, that which is unknown, and how expand the former category at the expense of the latter. Throwing up your hands whenever someone describes how a light bulb works, or why mice and humans are made up of such astonishingly similar substances and structures, with the simple answer "because God did it!" is the opposite of that.

There is no particular reason why science and faith cannot coexist. Discovering that the sun did not revolve around the earth did not deal a death blow to the world's religions. Learning that illnesses are often caused by bacteria or viruses, instead of possession by wayward demons or the like, similarly did not cause all the mosques and temples and churches to close up shop. Upon learning any scientific fact, there can be at least two possible reactions from those with true faith: You can either erupt in a fury that someone dared dabble in God's domain, or you can say "huh, so that's how God made that happen" and happily get on with your life. There is nothing that says the first group is somehow more "holy" than the second group. On the contrary, members of the "how dare you meddle" group are, universally, consigned to history's dustbin as zealots and ignoramuses. Few doubt the existence of bacteria at this point. Nobody over the age of, what, six or so truly believes the sun goes away when it sets in the west, or that it is hauled through the daytime sky by a team of celestial space-ponies or the like.

Those battles are won, and have extracted nothing from true faith. It is the rare cult indeed that condemns people for believing in bacteria or gravity. Color me skeptical that religion will crumble once it becomes thoroughly uncontroversial that man and monkey is made from the same stuff. And if you were to ask me which story sounded like a more gripping tale of God creating the universe, the story of Adam and Eve certainly pales in comparison to the tale of an all-encompassing God creating all of existence from a single, colossal spark, knowing in advance exactly how it would bring about everything from nebulae to gazelles to the waffle cone.

Creationism isn't a defining element of religious faith. It is a defining element of a lazy mind, one for whom even the greatest mysteries of the universe hold no particular luster. If your faith would be lost upon discovery that Adam and Eve were allegorical figures rather than factual ones, that faith hardly seems to run very deep. If you believe the Earth to be 6,000 years old, and believe all other answers to be heresy, that is mere faith by rote.

That is why the insistence that evolution is objectionable because it is insufficiently God-imbued is so irritating. It has nothing to do with science, and precious little to do with true faith. It merely seeks an avenue of religious indoctrination be stamped with supposed "scientific approval" merely because a collection of not-very-bright people who distrust knowledge above some certain, arbitrary level demand it. We teach the God version of no other phenomenon, not in electromagnetism, or physics, or chemistry. Debating whether Pluto should be classed as a planet or as something else raises hackles, but there is no large contingent demanding we teach that Pluto might merely be an illusion caused by the Devil.

If a person cannot count to one hundred, should they simply count "98, 99, God"? If a person does not understand how magnets work, is "angels hugging" an acceptable answer? What, then, requires evolutionary thought to be couched in similar suppositions of magic? It is mere ego, of the same sort that declared the sun revolved around the earth simply because God himself would never do anything that was not centered around the gigantic, pompous heads of humanity. It is ignorance disguised as piety, and intellectual dullness masquerading as religious fervor.

Individuals like Rick Santorum have existed throughout history. Every time, they are passed by. It was once taboo to even suppose at how the internals of the human body functioned: Hearts and lungs and livers were the stuff of God, not to be meddled with. Now fossils and gene sequences play the same role. Denying evolutionary biology gains no knowledge; it instead asks that we disavow inconvenient knowledge. It is disheartening, but not surprising. Most to the point, however, it is not "science."

Nor, it must be pointed out, is it faith.


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