Reform Body Rejects Science Distortion

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest body of religious Jews in the nation, has forcefully come out against the “politicization” of science at a time when the issue is boiling over in state legislatures, churches and classrooms.

The strong statement came as delegates to last month’s URJ biennial gathering in Houston voted on a handful of controversial resolutions. The media focused on two: a groundbreaking resolution on the Iraq War and another rejecting Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

However, one of the most significant proposals got scant attention. In an overwhelming show of unity, delegates voted to oppose the misuse of science to serve religious or ideological ends.

And just in case anybody missed the point, the body unanimously adopted an amendment on the floor singling out one target: Kansas, the home of the “Wizard of Oz” and now, just as improbably, of a growing movement to redefine science to conform to the religious views of its conservative leaders.

Last month, the Kansas Board of Education approved new public school science guidelines intended to boost the intelligent design movement and discourage the teaching of evolution.

Science is once again at the heart of the intensifying church-state wars, and it’s not just evolution. More and more, religious right activists are distorting the notion of scientific inquiry as they pursue their social and political aims. And, as Kansas demonstrated, an increasingly sophisticated, well-financed and well-connected religious right is having an impact.

The results could be devastating, starting with a further loss of U.S. preeminence in science and technology, and filtering right down to deteriorating medical care — even for those ideological conservatives who self-righteously suggest modern science is a farce and a failure that only their religion-based answers can fix.

The fight over science is hardly new.

Since the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, which involved criminal charges against a teacher accused of violating Tennessee’s law against teaching evolution, religious conservatives have been trying to develop scientific rationales for their religious convictions.

Dinosaurs in museums, many still argue, are elaborate tricks of secularists to promote the view that the earth is billions of years old, not the thousands claimed by literal interpreters of scripture. Many go further than just asserting that religious doctrine.

Countering scientific dating evidence, they cite their own scientists who offer elaborate “proofs” that carbon-14 dating is a fraud. They say that their own “research” shows dinosaurs and humans appeared on earth at the same time, a mere 6,000 years ago.

The goal isn’t just to promote their faith by promulgating religious doctrine. They are trying to distort and discredit science, using scientists with academic credentials but driven by faith, not proof, to advance their views.

Part of their motivation is to find “scientific” explanations to reinforce their own faith. But in part, their goal is broader — to systematically break down barriers to teaching their specifically religious beliefs in the schools by cloaking them in scientific respectability.

That is the engine behind the intelligent design movement — the effort to infiltrate creationism into the schools under the guise of objective science. Increasingly, that effort is getting traction with an administration and a Congress that regard the fundamentalists as mishpachah (family), as well as key political allies.

Other examples abound.

A report by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in 2003 concluded with this statement: “the Bush administration … has repeatedly suppressed, distorted, or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals. These actions go far beyond the traditional influence that presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies and compromise the integrity of scientific policymaking.”

That report cited a pattern of deliberate distortions of science to suit religious or ideological ends, including bogus or distorted research on sexual abstinence programs, environmental problems, HIV/AIDS, stem cell research and breast cancer.

The report also noted examples of government officials appointed to key health and science oversight positions because of their views on today’s culture war issues, not their professional qualifications.

The Reform movement resolution cited another study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which found evidence of a “systematic effort to suppress and distort scientific findings in order to promote certain political ends.”

Even the highly respected Centers for Disease Control (CDC) altered medical recommendations based on religious pressure.

There are moral arguments from polar opposite perspectives to be made about issues such as abortion, abstinence, stem cell research and others. But to bend science to conform to moral and religious beliefs and make such distortions part of national policy is more than a church-state violation; it is a prescription for national decline in a world where so much — economic strength, environmental protection, the battle against disease — depends on a scientifically informed public and policymakers who can distinguish between science and faith.

That was the reality that the URJ acknowledged in Houston. In a short debate before the overwhelming vote in favor of the resolution, a noted scientist and a neurologist spoke angrily about the impact of the trend — including real harm that will be done to Americans if science is turned into just one more front in the nation’s culture wars.

Fighting public displays of the Ten Commandments may be important to preserve a constitutional principal. But protecting the integrity of science will be critical to the lives of millions of people.

Kansas may be just the first major battleground — and the URJ just the first Jewish group to speak out as the fight over science gains intensity.