30 August 2006
Lawrence Krauss is the Chair of Physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He's one of the leading players in the 'Intelligent Design' debate in the United States, and his contribution has been especially valuable because he's a scientist who's not at all anti-religion.
Just when it seemed that the Intelligent Design controversy was dying down, the Education Department in Washington has mysteriously omitted evolutionary biology from the list of subjects available in an important university scholarship program.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Stephen Crittenden: You may remember last year's interview on The Religion Report with Professor Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He's one of the leading players in the 'Intelligent Design' debate in the United States, and his contribution has been especially valuable because he's a scientist who's not at all anti-religion. Last year he wrote to Pope Benedict expressing his alarm about a new tendency in the Catholic Church to deny Darwinian science. This followed publication of an extremely controversial article in The New York Times by Cardinal Kristof von Schoenborn of Vienna in which he argued that Darwinism was wrong.
Well Professor Lawrence Krauss is at the centre of another controversy at the moment, just when it seemed that the Intelligent Design controversy was dying down, the Education Department in Washington has mysteriously omitted evolutionary biology from the list of subjects available in an important university scholarship program.
Lawrence Krauss: There is a new program created by the US Department of Education, called the National Smart Grant Program, and the idea is part of an effort to decrease the number of students taking science and mathematics in universities, which of course is a good one. And the point is to provide some financial support for needy students who are taking science and mathematics programs in their third and fourth year of undergraduate studies. And I was contacted by someone who knew about the program within the Education Department who directed me to the web pages, and also to the commentary which was in fact due to end the next day. And to my great surprise, when you look at the documents produced by the Department of Education, there's a list of all of the available science majors for which a student can enter and get support. And there was an omission, but not a subtle omission, an obvious omission. All the science programs are listed by some code numbers called SIP codes, which are created by what's called the National Centre for Education Statistics, and they all have numbers and there's a long list of the numbers and names, and then there was a blank space between 26.1302 and 26.1304. And if you go to another place in the central registry you look up and say What code was missing? And you find out it was evolutionary biology.
Stephen Crittenden: Now do you accept that it was an accidental omission? Because I note that in your letter to the Education Department in Washington at the weekend, you say it's clear that evolutionary biology was explicitly excluded.
Lawrence Krauss: It's very difficult to imagine how such omission can happen by accident. It was a long list with commas between things, to have something not there would be clear, but when you have a long list of numbers and there's an empty space in the middle of a page which your eye is drawn to immediately, with one number missing, it's pretty hard to imagine how that could be done by accident. And I suspect that there was someone at the Education Department who omitted it, for reasons unknown, but one can suspect it was because they felt that for some reason evolutionary biology was suspect. But it's very important to get to the bottom of it because we can't leave you in this slight nagging perception that the government, at that level, is trying to censor scientific information for ideological reasons.
Stephen Crittenden: On the most famous school board in America, the Kansas State School Board, the non-creationist moderates have the numbers once more. What stage has the debate over Intelligent Design reached in education in America at this point do you think?
Lawrence Krauss: I think lo some extent we're at a turning point, at least I hope we are. I should say that I think among the public the people pushing Intelligent Design had really won the hearts and minds of the public I think in the United States, until recently as far as education was concerned. The big trial in Dover, Pennsylvania on this issue, however brought to the forefront largely the intellectual vacuousness of many of their arguments, the trial was constantly covered. I think what it did was it convinced many people that this is really what it is, which is largely a public relations effort and not a scientific one. And I think that we've seen is backtracking, I think that's had an impact. It had an impact not just in Pennsylvania, it had an impact in my own State of Ohio where we got rid of some awful lesson plans created by the State School Board, and I think it had an impact on Kansas. And the pendulum has definitely swung in that case.
Stephen Crittenden: Now you wrote a famous letter to the Pope last year, following the publication in The New York Times of an article by Cardinal Kristoff von Schoenborn of Vienna, in which he said, well he said that Darwinism was wrong, and he said the multiple universe's hypothesis had been basically created explicitly to discredit the idea that there's purpose and design in the universe. As we know, the Pope is about to have his Schulerkreis at Castel Gandolfo next weekend and the whole Intelligent Design issue will be on the books and Cardinal Schoenborn will be present. In fact I think there have been some suggestions that the Pope wants to keep this whole issue open rather than closing it down.
Lawrence Krauss: It will be very interesting to see what happens. I certainly felt of course as you know, when the Pope was Cardinal, he was Head of the International Theological Commission which wrote a very explicit statement which I actually quoted in a piece I wrote in The New York Times, that it was one of the things that prompted Cardinal Schoenborn to write his piece in The New York Times. The International Theological Commission was really quite explicit about the validity of evolution, and the scientific basis of evolution.
Stephen Crittenden: This is John Paul II in '96 saying that evolutionary biology has progressed beyond the hypothetical stage.
Lawrence Krauss: Yes, but beyond that in fact, Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, was actually Head of the International Theological Commission during that time and actually if you read the reports of the International Theological Commission, they go further than the Pope, they really are quite explicit about the fact that what they call contingent phenomena, which corresponds in some sense to random mutation, can in fact ultimately be consistent with the purpose to the universe, namely the argument that God is the cause of all causes. And therefore if God chooses to work for a universe which involves random mutation and natural selection, that's fine. And they discussed that in great detail. And I had great hope when the new Pope became Pope that this issue as described by the last Pope would continue to be the position of the church. But since then there are concerns and in fact this particular retreat that the Pope was having with his former students, the subject is called Evolution and Design, and Cardinal Schoenborn who backtracked after he wrote the piece, he said the way he wrote things was not correct, and that it perhaps rather what he was attacking, some people of the church said he was attacking not Darwin but what you might call Darwinism, namely the idea that natural selection and random mutation combine and Darwinian evolution implies there cannot be any purpose in the design of the universe and he was objecting to what he saw as a tendency among scientists and science to adopt that philosophy which of course was the antithesis of what he believed the church was all about.
So he backtracked, but I have to say there have been statements recently by various individuals in the church and we will see what comes out of this meeting that suggests that the very wedge that I urge the Pope not to create between science and religion, may be being created.
Stephen Crittenden: There does seem to be doesn't there, a kind of a small neo-creationist movement inside the Catholic church that's appeared talking about Catholic science in much the same way that you get some Muslims talking about Islamic science.
Lawrence Krauss: Yes, that is of course a disaster, because the church is no better. I think the sense is that somehow science has primacy when it comes to issues of nature and that the church should take back that primacy, but that's of course exactly the wrong thing, because as people from St Augustin on realised when it comes to natural phenomena, science does have primacy. Science describes how the natural world works, and it is a disaster in my opinion, for theology and for the church to try and suggest otherwise, and I certainly hope that those individuals within the church who somehow feel the church has to assert its own scientific view, will not prevail because it's not only a disaster for science, which it is because of course it will affect the views of many believers.
Stephen Crittenden: It would be a blow you're saying, to the scientific community.
Lawrence Krauss: I think it would be, because it would be further support for those people who would argue that science is subjective and it is subsumed by the Bible, whereas the key point is that the Bible's not a scientific document. But I think it would be a much greater disaster for the church than for science, because ultimately it will backfire, just as it did at the time of Galileo.
Stephen Crittenden: Look I think it's important, given that the Catholic church has treated Darwinian science with equanimity up until this point. I think it's important to be asking why should this movement be occurring at this time, and it occurs to me that perhaps the church's positions on sexuality and the natural law, involved in recent years so much over-reach that the Vatican itself has become aware of how vulnerable it is to Darwinian science. On questions like whether or not there's such a thing as a fixed human nature. And you know, when you actually think about it, and go back, over the last few years there have been a number of instances of the Vatican relying on pseudo science. There's the famous line that the population crisis is an inane invention of the media, the view that the HIV virus can pass through latex, that contraception causes neurosis, that homosexuality can be reversed. When you start to put all those things together I wonder is there a pattern there?
Lawrence Krauss: I agree with you, there is an inherent tension at the very least. I'm trying to be more optimistic and I hope that what we see now is not a pattern. My hope in fact is when I wrote the letter to the Pope I also talked very carefully to people at the Pontifical Academy of Science, which is a group of scientists who serve at some level as advisors to the Catholic church on matters of science, and as you know the letter that John Paul wrote about evolution was actually contained in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the occasion of a meeting they were having on biology. In working with the Pontifical Academy when I was writing this letter, my understanding was that they would in fact within the next years, have another meeting on issues of evolution and biology, and my great hope was that that would provide the occasion for the current Pope to make a statement reaffirming what the last Pope had said, and I still hope that will happen. However I've recently read some material by people who were arguing in fact that the Pontifical Academy of Science has too much influence on matters of science in the Catholic Church, and I hope again those people don't prevail.
Chair of Physics, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio
New York Times article by Lawrence Krauss
How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate