The story of mankind, it often seems, is one of disagreement. Three of our features this month illustrate that point. Seventy years after the famous Scopes “monkey trial,” people are still quarreling about evolution. Experts and parents are arguing about attention deficit disorder and Ritalin. And the perennial issue of forced busing is still in dispute. To paraphrase an adage, there are two sides to every argument--at least until we choose one of them.
Colorado high school junior Danny Phillips brings to mind yet another adage: One does not have to understand an issue in order to argue about it. It isn’t hard to admire a 15-year-old straight-A student who cares enough about an idea to take on a school district. A Christian who believes the Bible is the literal truth, Danny challenged his school in Jefferson County for teaching evolution as a fact when it is, he asserts, only a theory (“Counter Evolutionary”). Danny insists that he was not demanding that schools teach “creationism,” but he made it clear that any theories that contradict the Bible “are NOT true, factual science” and thus should not be taught.
How about theories that don’t contradict the Bible? Joseph McInerney, perhaps the nation’s chief proponent for keeping evolution in the curriculum, points out that a scientific theory is not just a guess “but a powerful conceptual framework that is supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence.”
McInerney acknowledges that evolution is a theory but adds, “So is gravitation. So is germ theory. So is the chromosome theory of inheritance.”
Science is often arrogant. And it has had to eat its own theories more than a few times. But it is the accumulation of observation, analysis, and experimentation moving ever closer to something we might call “truth.” And it should not be vulnerable to the personal beliefs of an adolescent, no matter how articulate and sincere he is.
Another adolescent is in the middle of a raging argument where science is much less sure of itself (“ADDicted”). Brent Shipley, an 11-year-old in Peoria, Illinois, is one of millions of children who take daily doses of the drug Ritalin to combat attention deficit disorder and keep them calm and focused enough to get through the day. The medical community is sharply divided on the issue of ADD, with some experts even questioning its existence. Cindy Shipley, Brent’s mother, has no doubts about the existence of ADD or the need for Ritalin. Her son couldn’t make it without the drug, she says.
Because physicians have found no scientific cause and thus only treat symptoms, ADD is as much a social issue as a scientific one. Some argue that all kids are naturally restless and full of energy and that many have difficulty adapting to the conventional school environment with its demand for structure and order.
Until science formulates a convincing theory based on compelling evidence, the ADD controversy will rage on. And mothers like Cindy Shipley will just have to do what they think is best for their children--and hope they are right.
Some 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates wrote: “There are in fact two things: science and opinion. The former begets knowledge; the latter ignorance.”
Humbly, but not surprisingly, we disagree.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Fact and Opinion