Is Rick Perry Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Not When it Comes to Science

08/24/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

For those of us who care deeply about science literacy and who work to create an appropriate, and respectful, understanding between science and religion, Rick Perry's entry into the Republican presidential race offers both good and bad news.

On the positive side, Perry has decided not to run away from his past. With the exception of his position on vaccinations for the human papillomavirus, he is embracing rather than distancing himself from his previous record making it very easy to recognize where he stands.

On the negative side, his past record clearly demonstrates both a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of science and a willingness to jettison science when its conclusions are at odds with his politics.

Perry's stance on the theory of evolution is especially troubling and emblematic of his overall disdain for modern science. Simply put, Perry's position either represents willful ignorance of both science and the law or demonstrates that he lacks basic knowledge that fifth graders should have.

Just this past Thursday in New Hampshire, in response to a child's question, Perry described evolution as "a theory that's out there" and one that's "got some gaps in it." His latest statement is remarkably similar to what his office wrote to a Texas voter in 2006 when questioned about intelligent design: "Recognizing that evolution is a theory, and not claimed by anyone to be more than that, the governor believes it would be a disservice to our children to teach them only one theory on the origin of our existence without recognizing other scientific theories worth consideration."

As any well-educated fifth grader could tell you, in science, a "theory" is as good as it gets. Although "theory" in common parlance means nothing more than a guess, in science it means something very different. An idea rises to the level of theory in science only after numerous, independent tests have been performed and have yielded consistent data. A scientific theory offers insight into the natural world while making predictions about the structure of the natural world. Scientific theories permit us to make sense of random facts.

Because science proceeds by disproof rather than proof, in other words because science is reliant on the concept of falsifiability, scientists must be open to the possibility that a commonly accepted theory might, at some time in the future, be replaced by a more finely tuned or more robust theory. But being open to the possibility of future work modifying and improving our present theories is a far cry from saying that something is "just a theory" and thus not deserving of any special attention.

Why does it matter if we understand the nature of science? What's the difference if we, as a society, refuse to accept what it means when a scientific concept rises to the level of theory? Ken Miller, in his 2008 book "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul," made the case more succinctly and more articulately than I could. Writing about William F. Buckley's attack on evolution, he said:

In many ways, I think that William F. Buckley misunderstood evolution, and he certainly misunderstood the nature of science. There is indeed a soul at risk in America's "evolution wars," but it is not the cultural one that Buckley sought to save. Rather, it is America's scientific soul, its deep and long-standing embrace of discovery, exploration, and innovation, that is truly at risk. That is why the stakes in this struggle are far greater than the wording of curriculum standards or the nature of textbook passages on the Cambrian fauna. The choice we face as a nation is nothing less than whether we will continue to be the world's scientific leader or quietly watch as the torch of discovery is lifted from our hands.

Amazingly, Perry's position on evolution actually does even more damage than did Buckley's. By unabashedly tying creationism to evolution as co-equals, Perry dismisses decades of established legal precedent and he marginalizes the religious mainstream in America in favor of those who demand that a particular fundamentalist perspective shape our legal and educational system.

In response to that same New Hampshire student mentioned above, Perry proudly claimed that Texas teaches both creationism and evolution. That view is consistent with how his office responded to a constituent's question in 2005: "The governor does not oppose presenting creationism alongside evolution in discussions about the origins of mankind."

The problem with this position is that it flies in the face of decades of legal precedent set by federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Creationism in all of its guises, including intelligent design, has consistently been legally determined to be nothing more than religious dogma and thus been outlawed from a place in public school science classrooms and laboratories.

What Perry's statements do demonstrate, however, is that the oft-repeated mantra by the Texas State Board of Education and its allies that they're not promoting creationism but rather encouraging students to be critical thinkers is nothing more than vapid verbiage. Perry makes it abundantly clear that the goal was to indoctrinate students with creationism rather than teaching them to carefully assess scientific arguments.

Perry and the creationists he speaks for reject evolution on religious rather than scientific grounds. Their narrow religious perspective dictates that scientific consensus be dismissed in favor of one very specific reading of an ancient religious text. In contradistinction to Perry and his ilk, there are many whose religious faith is strong enough to embrace the findings of science. Indeed, the thousands upon thousands of religious leaders who have endorsed The Clergy Letter Project have absolutely no problem accepting, understanding and celebrating modern evolutionary theory while promoting the deeply held tenets of their religion.

If Rick Perry had his way, both science and religion would be greatly diminished and we would move ever deeper into a Dark Age in which critical thought about complex issues would be pushed off the table.