The Immediate Threats to Scientific Advancement in the United States

The Immediate Threats to Scientific Advancement in the United States

On the website of The Washington Post on January 31, Chris Mooney posted an article titled, “A new battle over politics and science could be brewing. And scientists are ready for it.” A day earlier, ProPublica posted an article about President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, with the alarming headline, “DeVos’ Code Words for Creationism Offshoot Raise Concerns About ‘Junk Science’.”

If anyone had any doubt that the current administration is at the very least skeptical of science, if not opposed to it nearly completely, these two headlines should speak a powerful truth: unless the results of scientific inquiry can be monetized immediately, or those results do not threaten the money-making industries of the oligarchy, this administration has little to no interest in continuing the scientific inquiry and exploration that has been the bedrock of American ingenuity for nearly four centuries. The two-pronged approach in evidence muzzles scientists and suspends or caps funding, particularly for government projects (or so current events indicate) while also curtailing the accuracy of science education across elementary and secondary schools, which could leave high school graduates with a substantial scientific knowledge deficit and make it harder for those educated in America to continue in the hard sciences at the college level. Our hope of reversing global climate change and all its attendant problems across the fields of science hinges on funding research, building scientifically sound industries, and teaching our children and youth well so they can continue the work for their generation and their children’s, as well.

Of particular concern to me as a Christian is that the Secretary of Education designee has a history of supporting “Intelligent Design” (ID) as a valid scientific theory of the origins of life on Earth. Despite an excoriating judgment against ID in the 2005 federal district court case Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District authored by Judge John E. Jones III, supporters of the cause continue to prod for openings into science classrooms. Phrases such as “teach the controversy” and, as Ms, DeVos said in her testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, “critical thinking.” ring alarm bells for those who have skirmished with ID backers in the past. In particular, the phrase “critical thinking” is at issue in Texas, where once again the State Board of Education has overruled the subject area specialists to insert material of questionable value to students that had been removed in the teacher recommended standards for high school biology. Opponents of this material fear an opening for the teaching of ID or undisguised creationism. Proponents say that the material, which includes “the complexity of cells, the origin of life and abrupt appearance and stasis in fossil records,” is an opportunity for students to explore the possible explanations for such events.[1]

Given her family’s history of supporting voucher programs and school choice initiatives that funnel public money to both public charter schools and to religious private schools, Ms. DeVos’s use of the phrase “critical thinking” cannot be accidental. it seems unlikely that she is unaware of the connotations and implications of her words. Most public charter schools, such as the West Michigan Aviation Academy founded by Ms. DeVos’s husband Dick, are at least bound to state standards for curriculum and thus prohibited (in theory) from teaching ID or creationism. Public money going to religious private schools is an entirely different matter. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, founded by her husband and her in 1989, provided support for The Potter’s House School at least as recently as the spring of 2013.[2] The Potter’s House School requires its teachers to “accept without reservation the school’s statement of faith” that includes, tellingly, the statement, “We believe that the Bible, God’s Word, is infallible, reliable, and applicable to today’s person, adult or child.”[3] I cannot make the logic work for a science teacher both to ascribe to that statement and to teach evolution without some bias against it, if said teacher would even mention it. Belief in the infallibility of the Bible mandates that it be a science book and that what is said in it about Creation by pre-scientific storytellers and poets is more accurate than the science produced by expert men and women who have actually studied Creation. Interestingly enough, most preachers who say that about science do not say the same thing about learning faith from the Bible without the guidance of those who are experts in the field because they have studied it…

I wish I could snap my fingers and get every ID and creationism (Young Earth or Old Earth) adherent to see the majesty of evolution as the mechanism for the creation of life and its infinite diversity. I wish I could help them understand the power of God’s imagination to write the laws of physics that dictated the laws of chemistry that led to the moment of life, and the subsequent panoply of experimentation and failure and success that led to the moment of sentience, when life could ask, “Why?” and then start trying to figure out not just why but how. God could indeed be the Uncaused Cause and even the Intelligent Designer, but that does not require God’s fingers constantly in the mix as ID and creationism purport. God’s creativity, God’s inventiveness, God’s inquisitiveness: what if those are the elements of God’s image that we bear within us, the marks of sentience, and what if sentience, not the specific human form, is what God intends as the ultimate end of creation? God called all of creation good and sentient life “very good.” Let us use that sentience—that wisdom—to keep nurturing curiosity and exploration of our universe in our children, our youth, and our whole society for the glory of God.


Rev. Dr. Ruth E. Shaver received her D.Min. from Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2016. Her dissertation includes an examination of the common roots of faith and scientific curiosity and an intergenerational curriculum for churches to encourage scientific exploration and experimentation as a practice of our Christian faith. She was the Pastor and Teacher of The United Church of Schellsburg United Church of Christ in Schellsburg, Pennsylvania, for ten years and currently resides in Attleboro, Massachusetts. She is preparing to become an intentional interim minister.


[1] Chang, Julie. “Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution.” The Austin American Statesman/myStatesman Online, February 1, 2017. Web. http://www.mystatesman.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/texas-education-board-approves-curriculum-that-challenges-evolution/TyQyZ5OxYNU3NQNDfZqECI/. 5 February 2017.

[2] Philanthropy Magazine. Interview with Betsy DeVos. Spring 2013. http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/interview_with_betsy_devos, accessed 2 February 2017.

[3] From The Potter’s House School teacher application at http://pottershouseschool.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Teacher-Employment-Application.pdf, accessed 2 February 2017.

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