Not Quite Curriculum Theory

Professionalization of American scientists: public science in the creation/evolution trials.

Gieryn, T., Bevins, G., & Zehr, S. (1985). Professionalization of American scientists: public science in the creation/evolution trials. American Sociological Review, 50(3), 392–409. Retrieved from

The Scopes Monkey Trial, 1925

The Scopes Monkey Trial, 1925

Gieryn, Bevins and Zehr (1985), examined two of the earliest and most influential court cases in the history of the United States legal debate, over whether to allow the teaching of creationism U.S. public science classes. The term creationism—also referred to as creation science, intelligent design (ID), abrupt appearance theory, and evidence against evolution—shall be defined, for the purposes of this paper, as an inherently religious doctrine or hypothesis, holding that life and the world were created by a supernatural actor out of nothing (Superfine, 2009).

The first trial analysed by Gieryn et al. (1985), was that of John Scopes v. the state of Tennessee—known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. In 1925, the 64th general assembly of the state of Tennessee passed house bill number 185—the Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of “any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” (Butler Act, 1925, p. 1). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had offered to defend any teacher accused of violating the Act with the intent of incurring a test case, and Dayton county biological science teacher John Scopes agreed to act as defendant.

Prosecution and defense were represented by high profile legal personalities of the day William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow respectively, and the case was reported across the nation by a large media contingent, including lead correspondent H. L. Mencken. The Scopes Monkey Trial thus engendered an unprecedented degree of public attention on the issue. Scopes and the ACLU lost the case, but although an appeal to the State Supreme Court upheld the Butler Act as constitutional, Scopes’ conviction was overturned on a legal technicality. This effectively prevented any further opportunity of the ACLU taking the case to the United States Supreme Court (Linder, 2008; Scopes v. Tennessee, 1927).

The second trial discussed by Gieryn et al. (1985), was the Reverend William McLean v. the Arkansas Board of Education (McLean v. Arkansas, 1982). In this case, the federal court held that an Arkansas statute violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by stipulating “balanced treatment” of creationist ideas and evolution science in public science classrooms. In one of the rare legal decisions that have given a definition of the term “science”, U.S. District Court Judge William Overton declared that creationism could not be included within that definition. The court also—unusually amongst similar cases (e.g., Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987; Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968; Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2005)—found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, and thus did not contravene the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (the Establishment Clause)—which forbids the establishment of a national religion and / or the advancement of any one religious doctrine over another in American public schools (U.S. Const. Amend. I, 1791). Whilst the ruling was not technically binding outside the federal court’s district, the case has since proven to be highly influential, by informing further judgements, such as Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005).

The focus of Gieryn et al. (1985), was not a commentary on the debate between creationism and evolution, but rather, to discuss the “professionalization of American science” (p. 392). The process by which science and scientists, had created boundaries around the intellectual domain of science, such that other fields of knowledge—specifically religion—could not encroach, thereby competing for intellectual authority or resources. Gieryn et al., cited the work of Turner (1980, pp. 589–590), when they described both trials as public showcases of science, where scientists could present “rhetoric, argument and polemic [designed] to persuade the public or influential sectors thereof that science… is worthy of receiving public attention, encouragement and financing”. Though the authors contend that the “ideological separation of science from religion was accomplished with rhetoric that differed in substance from one trial to the next” (p. 392–393). This paper examines the authors’ argument, challenging both premise and conclusions.

Firstly, it should be remembered that between the dates of the Scopes and McLean trials—more than half a century—one of the most fundamental discoveries in the history of the biological sciences was made, which irrevocably altered the definition of biological evolution, the evidence for evolution and scientists’ understanding of evolutionary process. Namely the work of discovery of Watson & Crick (1953); Franklin & Gosling (1953); and Wilkins, et al. (1953), on the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), its properties, and the methods of replication, suggested by the complimentary base-pairing of Adenine with Thymine, and Guanine with Cytosine. The work which followed has given rise to fields such as DNA sequencing—mapping the order of nucleotides in a DNA molecule—and molecular phylogenetics—using molecular sequencing to assess evolutionary relatedness between organisms—the importance of which, to science and more specifically to our understanding of evolution, cannot be underestimated. Such fields are highly complex, and are not self-explanatory to non-scientists, requiring a good deal of specialist training and experience in order to understand basic principles (Futuyma, 2005; Nei & Kumar, 2000; Shendure & Ji, 2008). Given the complexities of such disciplines, it is quite reasonable to expect that many scientists would believe that, “scientific knowledge was beyond the grasp of the uncredentialed laity, and thus decisions about the scientific legitimacy of creationism must be left to professional scientists” (Gieryn et al., 1985, p. 406).

Gieryn et al. (1985), went on to state that:

Scientists constructed different images of science at Scopes and at McLean by attributing different qualities and utilities to scientists and to their knowledge. Our empirical task in this paper is to describe ideological differences in public science at Scopes and McLean.

Given the dramatic changes that occurred in the biological sciences, and the changes in dissemination of scientific information (including television and other mass-media), over more than fifty years, a growth in the professionalization of scientists and the ideology of public science, would be a necessity for effective scientific communication. I believe it is a criticism of the authors’ work, that they have not discussed the impact of such fundamental changes on the presentation of public science during this period. By focusing their attention on “recent developments in sociological theories of professionalization” (p. 393), and the hypothesized “link between scientists’ public presentations of self” and changes in the professional goals of the scientific community between 1925 and 1981” (p. 393), and ignoring the effects of such major events in scientific history, Gieryn et al. (1985) paint an incomplete, possibly misleading picture of ideological change.

Developing their rationale, Gieryn et al. (1985) state that, “[t]he rise of professions to positions of relatively high prestige, resources, authority and autonomy results from successful struggles to obliterate, absorb, or dominate competing providers of ‘similar’ services or commodities” (p. 393). In support of this argument, they cite the dispute between medical scientists and midwives from approximately 1900 to 1930, when American physicians positioned themselves professionally to take over the range of obstetric services previously supplied by midwives. Gieryn et al. (1985) explain that:

An important step in physicians’ control of the market for obstetrical services was the construction of a social boundary between professional physicians and the competing midwives. In order to persuade potential clients, and in order to persuade government officials to “close” the market through licensing, obstetricians demarcated themselves from midwives by presenting their techniques and training as distinctively superior. (Gieryn et al., 1985, p. 393).

Other authors generally agree with the argument, that the emerging field of obstetrics required this form of professionalization in order to compete for clients and continue as a practice—the so-called market model of professionalization (Litoff, 1978; Dye, 1980). However, the training and developing services provided in the newly-built hospitals of the early 20th century, were superior to those provided by community midwives of the same period. As Nancy Schrom Dye (1980) states:

[I]t is easy to romanticize the experience of childbirth in early America. Because birth took place at home, because it was an exclusively female affair, and because it was not defined as a pathological process, scholars sometimes give the impression that childbirth was a calm, joyful occasion, preferable to the medically managed experience of subsequent centuries. (Dye, 1980, p. 99).

Medical history speaks for itself when we observe the decline in infant mortality from the early 1900s. This statement from the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC), summarises the position, “[t]he decline in infant mortality is unparalleled by other mortality reduction this century. If turn-of-the-century infant death rates had continued, then an estimated 500,000 live-born infants during 1997 would have died before age 1 year; instead, 28,045 infants died.” (CDC, 1999). Whilst other factors have also influenced the decline of community midwifery in the early 1900s, I would argue that the professionalization of obstetrics was driven more by the ideology of science—empirical evidence, reflected in declining infant mortality rates, resulting from improved and improving treatment—than by a motivation to monopolize a professional market in order to “deny expertise, authority and thus employment and material resources to potentially competitive outsiders.” (Gieryn, et al., 1985, p. 393).

The issue of midwives and obstetricians from 1900 to 1930 is the strongest argument that Gieryn, et al. (1985) have put forward to support their central contention, that the “market model of professionalization is applicable to the rise of science in twentieth-century American society” (p. 394). Whilst this is partially true, science would not be able to compete in any market place without evidence for the success of its product, which Gieryn et al., do not discuss:

[T]he success of scientists in enlarging their share of the market for knowledge, and in increasing public demand for their distinctive commodity, is due in part to the kind of ideological and organizational maneuvers used by obstetricians to wrest a market from mid-wives. (p. 394).

Gieryn et al. (1985), likened this to the boundary work hypothesized in Gieryn (1983), where Victorian science was said to have been demarcated from other “knowledge-producing institutions” (p. 394), citing religion as one, “in a way that denied the cognitive authority of these competitive providers of knowledge and that justified increased public support for scientific education and research” (p. 394). I would argue that the demarcation of science and religion is both natural and fully justified. Further, I would question whether religion is in fact knowledge-producing. Can a collection of inherently untestable superstitions, doctrine and arbitrarily assigned moral values, with no empirical evidence to support them, be called knowledge?

Hilpinen (1970) discusses the concept of knowledge as being “defined in terms of three conditions, of which the first may be termed the condition of acceptance or belief the second, the condition of justification or evidence, and the third, the condition of truth” (p. 110). By this definition, knowledge is highly subjective and contextualized. Acceptance or belief can easily be achieved with a convincing anecdote or two, but anecdotes are not evidence. Similarly, the notion of truth has long been debated by a variety of respected authors (Russell, 2009; Walker, 1989; Putnam, 1970, 1975; Foucault, 1980; Foucault et al., 2012; Foucault & Hochroth, 1997; Tarski, 1944). Sufficient evidence is therefore a necessary requirement of the ability to know something. However, the sufficiency of evidence may itself be questioned, as discussed by Costa (2010), “[y]our evidence (justification) is sufficient for your knowledge of p, but it does not make p true” (p. 152). The extraordinary claims of religion (e.g., that life and the Universe were created by a supernatural actor out of nothing), would thus seem to fall within the philosopher David Hume’s (1711–1776) axiom that “[a] wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence” (Hume, 2000, p. 84). This quotation has since been re-phrased by the noted American astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan (1934–1996) as, “[e]xtraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Sagan, 2006, p. 47). In its requirement of faith, religion offers no evidence for its claims (Coyne, 2009; Dawkins, 2006; 2009, Harris, 2008; Russell, 1997; Shermer, 2006).

Gieryn et al. (1985), argued that the “[i]nclusion of Biblical theories of nature in public school science classes challenges evolutionary theory and threatens the cognitive authority of scientists over this sphere of knowledge” (p. 394). Given my previously outlined rationale for the criteria defining knowledge, I would argue that this not the case. Creationism does not present a threat to the cognitive authority of science, but the teaching of creationism in public science classes is misleading and detracts from scientific literacy. As the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) was to confirm, creationism and its derivatives (e.g., intelligent design, abrupt appearance theory, evidence against evolution), were simply religious hypotheses masquerading as science.

Time Magazine, 2005

Time Magazine, 2005

In a 139 page judgement, Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative Republican appointed by George W. Bush, delivered his judgement, ruling against the teaching of creationism in American public school science classes. Jones stated that his judgement was based partly on the grounds of the religious views of a number of school board members, noting that several “would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID [intelligent design] Policy” (Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2005, p. 137). Commenting further on the board’s original change of policy and determination to pursue a legal challenge, Judge Jones stated that the case had been engineered as constitutional test case, which if successful, would have provided a rationale for any U.S. public school to adopt the policy of evolution denial and the promotion of religious doctrine as science. He also described, the failure of policy-makers to make a rational decision, based on available evidence:

[R]esult of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. (pp. 137–138)

However, possibly the most important part of Judge Jones’ ruling, was his finding that intelligent design was inherently non-scientific:

[D]efense experts conceded that ID is not a theory as that term is defined by the NAS [National Academy of Sciences] and admit that ID is at best “fringe science” which has achieved no acceptance in the scientific community… (p. 70)

[W]e find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory… ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument… that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. (p. 89)

In his ruling, Judge Jones clearly identifies the misleading nature of intelligent design and the inherent contradiction in the term creation-science.

Gieryn et al. (1985), argued that:

Although the Establishment Clause prevents the introduction of sectarian religious training in government schools, it cannot prevent introduction of scientific evidence for an alternative scientific hypothesis such as the creation-science model of origins… (p. 400) [and]

[C]reation-science blurs the demarcation between science and religion by asserting continuities between scientific knowledge and religious values, in order to challenge government’s selective support of the evolutionary perspective. (p. 404).

Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) illustrated the fallacy in this argument. Namely that the term creation-science is a misnomer, and illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the authors. There is no science in creationism, and inventing hypotheses in an attempt to make theology look like science—as in the case of creationist text books such as Of Pandas and People (Davis & Kenyon, 1993) and Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 2006)—then calling those hypotheses creation-science, does not make them correct, probable or even very poor science.

Gieryn et al. (1985), stated that, “[c]reation-scientists try to use the authority of science to pursue intellectual, political or religious agendas that do not coincide with agendas pursued by the professional scientific community” (p. 403). This is still very much the case, despite the weight of scientific evidence, empirical argument, government policy, and established legal precedent, attempts continue to be made to deliver creationism in American science classes, as reported by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE):

On November 5, 2012, Clayton Fiscus (R-District 46), a new member of the Montana House of Representatives, asked for a bill to be drafted that would “[r]equire public schools to teach intelligent design along with evolution.” As such, the bill would presumably conflict with the decision in the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which requiring the public schools to teach “intelligent design” was held to be unconstitutional. (NCSE, 2012)

The NCSE later described how the bill had been re-phrased to use the term “encourage critical thinking regarding controversial scientific theories” (NCSE, 2013a) in place of the previous “[r]equire public schools to teach intelligent design along with evolution” (NCSE, 2012). Presumably because the previous wording so overtly challenged the ruling of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005). The bill was defeated in a later hearing, where the NCSE described “[o]ver twenty people attending the hearing, including scientists, teachers, theologians, school board members, and concerned parents, testified against the bill; none testified for it” (NCSE, 2013b).

In summation, Gieryn et al. (1985), have argued that the demarcation between science and non-science has been pursued so intently by scientists, in order to “advance two separate professional goals: to justify enlarged investments in scientific research and education, and to monopolize professional authority over a sphere of knowledge in order to protect collective resources of scientists” (p. 406). The authors’ analysis of two public showcases of sciences, in the early and latter halves of the 20th century respectively, simply have not shown sufficient evidence to support these conclusions. This paper has argued that the very premise of religion as a source of knowledge may be profoundly flawed, and that the basis for considering religion, in the guise of creation-science, as a competing intellectual domain is fundamentally incorrect.

Gieryn et al. (1985), stated that:

A fuller understanding of the “rise” of scientists in American society will emerge from further sociological studies of public science-occasions like Scopes and McLean—where the boundaries of science are negotiated and where the allocation of cognitive authority and professional resources is at stake. (pp. 406-407)

Professional scientists are highly-trained specialists in their own, often highly-complex fields. As a result of such specialization, I would argue that they are, by definition, the best people to judge issues arising within their own areas of speciality, and to define the boundaries of their own intellectual domain.

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