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Who decides what is right and true? In court, the judge decides what the law is. In a democracy, political matters are decided by noisy campaigns, followed by elections. Unfortunately, some people sincerely believe that scientific issues should also be decided based on which side campaigns the loudest and gets the most votes. But public opinion can never tell us much about scientific truth. Scientific matters are best determined by researchers trained to evaluate data and declare their findings — regardless of trends in public opinion. This is true whether the subject is as weighty as the origin of species or as seemingly modest as the names of heavenly bodies. The protest over the recent decision of the International Astronomical Union to reclassify Pluto is the latest example of the unseemly tug-of-war between science and politics — and its implications extend to both classrooms and courts. DEMOTING PLUTO In response to the decision to demote Pluto from full-fledged planet to dwarf, critics accused scientists of striking a blow against “the little guy.” They often claimed to speak on behalf of schoolchildren — whose anguished letters played a large part in bringing the controversy to public attention. As a result, we may see a new children’s crusade before long, or at least another letter-writing campaign, as elementary school teachers use Pluto’s loss of status to spur lessons in both composition and civics. After all, if scientists can vote on a description of nature, why shouldn’t ordinary people lobby to reverse a decision that they don’t like? But the fact is that science is not democratic, and the Pluto petitions send exactly the wrong message, not only about science but also about democracy and law. The scientific method requires revisions, re-evaluations, and submitting even the most widely accepted ideas to investigation. Change is inevitable, and it is usually welcomed, if not celebrated. While scientists generally proceed by consensus, new propositions are sometimes subject to a formal vote — but that should never be confused with political voting. Scientists strive to revise their theoretical categories on the basis of new data and improved measurement tools, and their professional standards disallow the interest-based voting seen in politics and law. For example, after a period of rigorous debate among physicists, there was ultimately a transition when the new field of quantum physics successfully demonstrated that the old division of matter — into particles and waves — was incorrect. Likewise, paleontologists eventually came to accept that dinosaurs were more closely related to birds than reptiles. There was a good deal of argument and advocacy along the way, but the ultimate arbiters were the scientists. Of course, that is precisely what happened to poor Pluto. New information and refined measurements demonstrated that it simply didn’t fit in with the first eight planets, having much more in common with dozens or even hundreds of distant objects in the Kuiper Belt. So the vote on Pluto was simply necessary to bring the definition of “planet” up to date. And that brings us back to the kids. Adults do children no favors by rallying them behind Pluto’s cause. In fact, they risk undermining serious educational goals by suggesting that popular sentiment can, or should, sway scientific conclusions. That sort of thinking leads left-wing deconstructionists to claim that scientific knowledge is merely a “social construct.” Even more dangerously, it leads right-wing votaries of intelligent design to believe that the biology curriculum should be determined by school board elections, rather than by, well, biologists. Many parents have attempted to remove the study of evolution from their children’s education or at least to mute or minimize it. In some locales, large majorities have protested evolution in science classes, only to be thwarted by administrators or courts determined to maintain the separation of religion and science, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. DISCLAIMING SCIENCE Consider, for example, the case Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education (2000), in which a Louisiana school board required that teachers read a “disclaimer from endorsement” at the beginning of every course of study on evolution. The disclaimer would have informed students that teaching the “Scientific Theory of Evolution” was “not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit enjoined use of the disclaimer and subsequently denied a petition for rehearing en banc. But six judges dissented, joining an opinion by Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale. Noting that an “estimated 95 percent of the parish students are adherents to the Biblical concept of creation,” Barksdale and the dissenters expressed their distress that the school curriculum presented evolution “as the sole explanation for the origin of life and matter,” repeatedly emphasizing their concern that evolution was the “only theory taught” and that students were presented with “only one concept.” The dissenters justified the school board’s disclaimer in the name of balance. “It neutralizes,” explained Barksdale, apparently unconcerned that neutralizing science might not be an appropriate educational goal. Ironically demonstrating his own misunderstanding, Barksdale also suggested that the disclaimer might prompt students to investigate such alternative “nonreligious theories” as the “Big Bang and panspermia,” neither of which has anything to do with evolution. Perhaps buoyed by the Barksdale dissent, the school board attempted to take the case to the Supreme Court. Although certiorari was denied, there was again a dissent, written by Justice Antonin Scalia and joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Scalia appeared to lament earlier decisions that struck down an Arkansas anti-evolution statute and invalidated a mandatory-creationism law in Louisiana. The Tangipahoa decision, he complained, “push[es] the much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial one step further.” “We stand by in silence,” Scalia continued, while the 5th Circuit bars a school district “from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution — including but not limited to the biblical theory of creation — are worthy of their consideration.” SEPARATING CHURCH FROM STATE But neither the 5th Circuit nor any other U.S. court has ever suggested that the biblical account is unworthy of consideration. The courts have only held that biblical creation involves the study of religion rather than science and that it cannot be voted into the biology curriculum under another name. Those decisions have not been popular, but they carefully respect the line between science and faith, and therefore the requirements of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Even 95 percent of a district’s students should not be a sufficient number to cause a school to disclaim (or neutralize) the teaching of evolution, nor should any majority of schoolchildren be able to restore Pluto to planetdom. Science does not need to be popular to be accurate, and voting on science, whether by schoolchildren or school boards, is at best countereducational. Thus, instead of complaining about Pluto’s demotion, teachers would do their students a far greater service by explaining that the scientific method forces us to keep our minds open to new information about the surrounding world. And what of Scalia and supporters of the Tangipahoa Parish school board? Perhaps they could learn a lesson from one of the nation’s founders: David Rittenhouse, mathematician, inventor, and first director of the U.S. Mint. One of the first uniquely American inventions was Rittenhouse’s orrery, a mechanical device for determining the relative positions of the moon and planets, which he completed in 1770. Though the device was impressively accurate, it soon proved to be not quite complete, given that it included only the first six planets, ending the then-known solar system with Saturn. Uranus was discovered only slightly more than a decade later, in 1781 (Neptune followed in 1846, and hapless Pluto in 1930). Rittenhouse lived until 1796, but he was never known to complain that advances in astronomy had so quickly rendered his accomplishment slightly obsolete, much less seek a referendum — or disclaimer — on the discovery of Uranus.
Steven Lubet teaches law at Northwestern University. This commentary first appeared in The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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