Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stuff and Nonscience

Blogger and frequent Akron Pages reader judeandelise comments in reponse to my ID post:

People like you and Jill amaze me. I am sure you are for comprehensive
education in other areas but when it comes to this subject you aren't. It
really doesn't make sense. I read your blog and I do enjoy the current events
but you make me laugh.
Well, here at the Akron Pages we are all about bringing the funny, but I don't think that's what JAE meant. The ID debate has long been off-topic for this blog and is one of those things you can read about many other places. Nonetheless, I have often been tempted to break with my usual blogging philosophy and take it on. Now is the time. This is mostly a thought piece based on lots of long-digested reading, including this recent article in The New Republic and Talk.Orgins, an excellent one-stop shop for things evolutionary. The Dover decision also has a nice backgrounder on the evolution of the ID movement.

JAE's comment doesn't say much, but I know the debate well enough to glean her meaning. She is raising the "teach the controversy/don't suppress ID" shibboleth that has been part of the ID PR package for at least the last decade. The implied question: "If evolution is true, why not teach it side-by-side with ID and let students decide?"

Fair question. Many answers.

Let me note at the outset that one can conceptualize an Intelligent Designer in a couple of ways. One is to say that God intelligently designed a system of evolution and let it go. That a truly omniscient God would know that this mix of chemicals and that source of external energy would lead inexorably to world we know. In this concept, the “teaching” of Intelligent Design as part of a science curriculum is meaningless. The story of evolution doesn’t prove or disprove God, whose existence remains a matter of individual faith.

The second conceptualization is that evolution by itself is insufficient to have created the natural world and that God must have perceptively nudged it along. This is the concept I’m arguing against.

I want to concentrate on two of the many arguments against side-by-side teaching -- one about tactics and one about the nature of science.

The tactical argument is basically a slippery slope argument. As a wag in my law school class observed, there is a slippery slope to using slippery slope argument; that is, you can ultimately prove anything will cause anything. But in this case we don't just have a slippery slope, we have a well-organized, well-funded cadre whose stated intention is to shove American society down that slope. The advocates for ID don't want equal time. They want ultimately to eliminate evolutionary theory from the science curriculum.

How can I say such a thing? Well for one thing, because they say so. Some time ago a document from CampID surfaced. The document outlines a strategy for destroying "scientific materialism" by applying ID as "the thin edge of the wedge." The theory, apparently, is that ID proponents will start by advocating teaching the controversy, then ID by itself, then creationism. If you read the Dover court decision, you see discussion of what has since been known as the Wedge Document.

I also believe the ID motive is more than side-by-side instruction because it's consistent with the strategy we've seen. Anti-evolutionist are like water under pressure, finding any gap to flood through. In the previous post, I quote Lawrence Krauss discussing how they used a seemingly innocuous statement – on that reflects the nature of science -- a wedge to try to slip in an ID curriculum.

They do the same thing with the actual science. For example, this week's West Side Leader runs a letter in response to something -- either a letter or an article -- discussing a "study" that purported to show that radiometric dating is worthless. The letter is a perfect point-by-point refutation of the previous argument. The headline -- a creationist researcher tried to use an isotope with a half-life of 1.26 billion years to age rocks 25 years old. It's kind of like saying "this ruler can't measure this paramecium. Rulers are worthless!"

When I hear a group proclaim that teaching evolution is a Great Evil that they want to erode, then destroy and when I see them dishonestly use genuine scientific argument and disingenuous flawed studies to do so, I don't believe that what they want is an honest and fair debate on the issue in the schools.

The second major objection I have to ID is that it isn't science. It is, in fact, Anti-science. This is about the nature of science, a topic on which I have only an armchair observer's knowledge, which is kind of the point. If I can point out fundamental flaws in the structure of ID science, it doesn't belong anywhere near a science curriculum.

In a way I find idea of teaching creationism side-by-side less offensive from a scientific perspective because it is in a way science. That is, creationists advance a testable hypothesis (the Book of Genesis) and marshal evidence (the Book of Genesis) to support it. Creation Science is Bad Science in that its hypotheses are easy to disprove. For example, if the story of the Great Flood is literally true, why are there kangaroos in Australia and no where else? Did Noah drop them off (along with platypuses, echidnas etc.) on his way to Mt. Ararat? Did he do the same with lemurs on Madagascar? OK, too easy, I'll stop now.

In contrast to the Bad Science of Creation Science, Intelligent Design is Anti-Science. Creation Science has something to argue against. ID is like wrestling with a cloud. Its hypothesis -- an intelligent designer -- isn't based on evidence; it's based on the lack of evidence. That is to say, ID proponents point to gaps in scientific knowledge and say that's where God is.

Teaching evolution includes discussing where the gaps are, the current hypotheses about how Creature X evolved from A to C, and how scientific investigation seeks to find evidence to validate or invalidate those hypotheses. In contrast, the logical conclusion of ID is to leave the gaps be; after all, fill in the gaps and, by the ID logic, you disprove God.

So in the side-by-side teaching model, one of two things happen. Teachers disposed toward ID begin to actively discourage scientific investigation lest they begin to disprove God, and teachers disposed toward evolution teach that they are disproving the existence of an Intelligent Designer.

As I noted above, belief in evolution is not a ipso facto a disbelief in God. Christianity survived the discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It survived the discovery of thriving non-Christian civilizations. It can survive the discovery of God’s recipe for creation.

That I have spent the time this post required illustrates one of the frustrations with the argument; responding to the bumper-sticker slogan “Just teach the controversy” requires a small treatise.

So, JAE, that is my response. I doubt you were persuaded, but if I made you laugh again, it was time well spent.

[NOTE: Edited for some unusually egregious typos.]


keng said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head: ID is truly Anti-Science.

As a lefty, my point of view will certainly be easily deduced, but I can respect the views of those on the right on some issues such as abortion or stem-cell research. (Respecting a view is different than agreeing with it!). Certainly there are some grey areas relating to where you believe specific lines should be drawn.

But the argument over evolution pits the most extreme and conservative elements in our society against reasonable mainstream thought. Even Catholicism--certainly not the most liberal of Christian faiths--does not regard evolution as a threat to its doctrines (or, as you pointed out, the Copernican discoveries did little to demolish faith).

What really frightens me is this insistence that we all must adapt a seemingly medieval way of looking at our universe much like the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan. Fundamentalism of any stripe still seeks to impose the restrictive beliefs and practices upon us, the majority.

Jill said...

Scott - I was intrigued enough by JAE's comment, that I visited her blog and her husband's blog and took some time to learn what they've offered to the blogosphere, about them. Then I emailed her, she emailed back and it seems as though we visit one another's blogs now. HAE has some very specific stances from what I can glean and that's fine. What I like more is that she'll read other blogs, so that means she's at least subconsciously reading other viewpoints. I confess that I didn't like the conclusory nature of her comment (that prompted you to write this post today), but I feel better for having communicated with her directly about it. Maybe we'll learn from one another.

As for ID, I'm really getting into the part about how the motto teach the controversy falls apart when your realize that there IS no "controversy" with evolution. The only controversy that exists is because ID was created to suggest that there is controversy. Scientifically speaking, there is no controversy with evolution. (Yes, I read the part in your post about how to deal with gaps.) ID belongs elsewhere - just not in science class.

Of course the problem with elsewhere is the expenditure of public funds for religious teaching. Which is why those folks trying to inject religion into schools have tried to do it in science class. You simply can't teach religion in a publicly funded school. That's a basic tenet supported by years of interpreting our country's constitution. It is not anti-religion. It is pro-
American - ALL Americans.

PS - You did see that the El Tejon case has been settled?

Pho said...

Keng and Jill:

Thanks for your comments. Jill, I see a couple of additional problem with teaching ID in a philosophy class. One is that it won't by itself satisfy the ID folks since they want to ultimately undermine and kill off the evolution curriculum. The second problem is that once such a class is introduced, the camel's nose is under the tent. Given the stated purpose of ID -- to get the entire camel, plus the rest of the herd in here with us -- I hate the thought of giving in even this much.

Finally, such a class has the same potentially thorny issues as a class studying the Bible as literature (another camel's nose idea being bandied about). Such a class should feature some level of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry. Would ID Land sit still for that?

When I studied Shakespear in high school we discussed the controversy over whether Will really authored the plays. How happy would the authors and advocates of ID be if their kids study the contradictory accounts of creation in Genesis 11-2.3 versus Genesis 2.4-3.24? About J, E, P, D authorship of the Pentateuch? About how some scriptures were chosen for the Bible and others omitted? About translation errors in the King James version? About the ommission of the Apocrypha?

My guess is that they would not be too happy about it.

Jill said...

Well, yes, there's all that too. Which of course is why all that really doesn't belong in the public school classroom.

Here's what I want to know, and I know it's kind of a naive sounding question, but I keep coming back to it: why not just send your kids to parochial school if you're so high on creationism? That's kind of rhetorical I guess but still, other than the need to make sure all Jews return to Israel so that the second coming can arrive, and making everyone else into a Christian (BIG GENERALITY SORRY), why such a push to have religious instruction in a public school? Why isn't it obvious that in this country, religious instruction is done in a parochial school?

I'm just dense when it comes to this aspect.