Another Link, but With Some Strange Comments

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The Northern Lights blog has posted a link to us, for which I certainly thank them. But the article linking to us contains some specious reasoning that I feel the need to reply to. To wit:

Clearly, this weblog results from design of some sort, not random combination. ID advocates must be flattered that so many people consider them a serious threat to Western civilization as we know it. I'm no defender of ID as a scientific theory, but the question of what should be included in the science curriculum of a public high school is not a scientific question, it's a public policy question. This point seems lost on biologists and the growing horde of blog commentators who feel constrained to weigh in on this subject.
I would argue that the public policy question is a scientific question. That is, the public policy criteria for what should be in the science curriculum should be essentially scientific criteria. Non-scientific alternatives to scientific theories that lack explanatory power and are not testable or falsifiable should not be a part of public school science curricula. This seems so obvious to me as to be axiomatic, but if the author of the above blog has a better standard I'd like to hear it.

Perhaps even more odd is this statement:

If biologists really wanted to improve science teaching at high schools, they would campaign for higher salaries for science teachers or write a good high school biology textbook. I think lobbing rhetorical bombs at ID in the curriculum is about biologists, not about high school students.
The first statement strikes me as just plain silly. It's like those who say, "Well if those pro-life people were really pro-life, they'd adopt every unwanted child." This is a good example of a "rhetorical bomb", wouldn't you say? It's not as though there is some either/or dichotomy at play, where one can either advocate the teaching of evolution OR campaign for higher salaries for science teachers and write a good high school biology textbook. Ken Miller, for example, manages to defend evolution against the attacks of the ID lobby AND has written an excellent high school biology textbook. I would also argue that the ones lobbing rhetorical bombs are the ID advocates. The science is on our side; the only thing they have is rhetoric.
It's nice that the rather large group involved with The Panda's Thumb includes not just academic biology profs but also private sector researchers, science educators, and even one or two people with actual experience teaching in a high school! That's enough diversity to catch some of the bigger picture. They could have recruited a sympathetic minister and a lawyer or two to really round out the group, but perhaps there's a limit to how much variation one can squeeze into a single weblog.
Funny he should mention that. About half an hour ago, I did add one attorney (Tim Sandefur) and a second (Steve Gey) is likely to be invited to join. As far as ministers are concerned, I may well invite Henry Neufeld, an old friend and Methodist minister, to join our cast of characters. He's brilliant and has written rather extensively on the subject.
I don't have much to say for ID as science, but there are plenty of questionable positions that get a hearing and even carry the day in politics, law, education, and other domains where public policy decisions and compromises are played out. Just because ID doesn't get an A in biology doesn't mean it shouldn't get a hearing or that it should be run out of town. I sense that ID gets picked on more than other, more secular errors because of ID's religious ties, and biologists as a class have a real thing against religion.
This may be the silliest statement of all. ID gets "picked on" because its advocates have been very, very aggressive at extending their political influence in order to water down quality science education, and they've made little secret of the fact that they do so in service to a larger agenda of "cultural renewal". If they were not building a public relations and political machine that is threatening to damage science education in America, they wouldn't be so "picked on".

20 Comments

“I would argue that the public policy question is a scientific question.” precisely.

furthermore, on a meta-level, all public policy should be scientific questions. that is, based on evidence and consequences, and not mere rhetoric.

I have to wonder: in 1998, when the Kansas Board of Education – in addition to removing all references to evolution from the state curriculum – deliberately misstated the Second Law of Thermodynamics to suit creationist claims … was that a scientific, or a public policy issue?

They actually didn’t remove all references to evolution - they left “micro-evolution” in. But the answer to this question is three fold:

1) The put in bad science - that is a scientific issue. 2) They circumvented the standard procedures for establishing curriculum standards - that is an educational and public policy issue 3) They (at least some of them) lied about what they did and concealed it from the public and from their fellow board members - that is a political and ethical issue.

Curriculum standards are supposed to be decided upon by educators well-versed in their field, and science standards should reflect mainstream science as understood by those educators. Curriculum standards should not be subject to political pressure put upon legislators or BOE members by creationists or any other single interest group.

Massimo Pigliucci discusses this issue in Chapter 3 of Denying Evolution. On the subject of what should be taught he writes that:

In other words, are we going to teach the best of what we currently know about the world (however provisional such knowledge may be), or shall we decide whether the Earth is flat or round by majority opinion? (p. 85)

The public policy issue about what to teach in a science class has long been settled. Science should be taught, and only science.

Intelligent design creationism is not science. It makes no testable predications. Therefore, it shouldn’t be taught in science class. It’s very simple.

Note that ID creationism is just a rehashing of the Argument From Design, an argument that was decisively refuted long ago by David Hume. (There is no proof of God – that’s why it’s called “theism.” There is no evidence for God – that’s why he’s a “supernatural” being. Intelligent design creationism is a religion – that’s why it’s not taught in science class.)

By my understanding, the conception of “microevolution” utilized by the Kansas school board was “variation around a mean.”

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’d say that “non-speciation” evolutionary changes are not that.

(Liberal Arts major, so flame).

I agree that science education ought to dwell on science – but I think I need to qualify that statement.

I tend to believe that public education primarily exists to teach three things – discipline, civic virtue, and reasoning skills. Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and cellular biology are all sideshows.

Accordingly, I wouldn’t mind a passing reference to intelligence design in an introductory lecture on evolution – something to the effect of “there are competing ideas, but they are not as well backed up by hard science as evolution; hence we will only discuss evolution in serious detail.”

And make the lesson about applying the standards and methods of science in addition to rote memorization. Because ultimately kids, I think, need to have critical reasoning skills.

(I hated biology in high school because it seemed to focus too much on memorizing useless (to me) information, like the names of kingdoms and phyla, for the final exam. On the other hand, I liked geology in college because we went through a lot of explaining about how ideas could be applied, and where those ideas came from.)

It’s very simple. We don’t teach ID creationism because not only is it not science, it’s wrong. Consider this excerpt from the Botanical Society of America’s Statement on Evolution (follow the link below to read the entire statement):

What would the creationist paradigm have done? No telling. Perhaps nothing, because observing three wheat species specially created to feed humans would not have generated any questions that needed answering. No predictions are made, so there is no reason or direction for seeking further knowledge. This demonstrates the scientific uselessness of creationism. While creationism explains everything, it offers no understanding beyond, “that’s the way it was created.” No testable predictions can be derived from the creationist explanation. Creationism has not made a single contribution to agriculture, medicine, conservation, forestry, pathology, or any other applied area of biology. Creationism has yielded no classifications, no biogeographies, no underlying mechanisms, no unifying concepts with which to study organisms or life. In those few instances where predictions can be inferred from Biblical passages (e.g., groups of related organisms, migration of all animals from the resting place of the ark on Mt. Ararat to their present locations, genetic diversity derived from small founder populations, dispersal ability of organisms in direct proportion to their distance from eastern Turkey), creationism has been scientifically falsified.

http://www.botany.org/newsite/annou[…]volution.php

ID creationism is not a “competing idea.” The theory of evolution has NO competition. Without the theory of evolution, the science of biology would not exist. As Ernst Mayer said, before Darwin biology was just a “chaotic welter of facts.”

The argument that students should be taught “alternatives” to evolution is specious, since there aren’t any (scientific) alternatives.

Ed,

Well done broadening your membership a bit–Sandefur, always entertaining, will be a real plus.

No one is suggesting biologists don’t or shouldn’t have considerable input into the high school biology curriculum. But that primary role doesn’t extend to an absolute veto over anything you don’t like. On the other hand, that shouldn’t be a concern since you’ve got a pretty sound theory to work with.

Clearly evolution wins the scientific debate–it’s not like ID is a threat in any meaningful sense. It’s not like a couple of high school lectures on ID will poison young minds. It’s no different than “under God” in the Pledge. This is a pluralistic society; diverse viewpoints, even incorrect ones, have their place. In a society where millions of adults believe in astrology it is silly to think an ID chapter in a textbook is a threat to science in America.

Strictly as a pedagogical matter, I think you’re better starting off with purposeful design or creation, then introducing factual evidence inconsistent with that approach (or that renders it redundant) so students actually understand how evolution explains diverse organisms without recourse to purpose. Since that’s the historical backdrop against which evolution emerged, it makes sense to explain it that way.

As for the religion angle, that’s just history: Huxley and Wilberforce, Darrow versus William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial, Richard Dawkins today. Modern biology has struggled against religious explanations for over a century. Panda’s Thumb versus ID is squarely within that tradition.

Dave,

I’d like to point out that this blog does not take a “evolution shows that religion is wrong” position. Just among the PT contributors that I know well, several are theists and several are religious “skeptics” of various sorts. For others, I don’t know and don’t really care, as long as their science is strong. Many famous evolutionary biologists were strong Christians (Sir Ronald Fischer and Theodosius Dobzhansky, architects of the Modern Synthesis, come to mind). Modern examples include Simon Conway Morris and leading ID critic Kenneth Miller.

Regarding a few of your other points: including special creation in a history of pre-Darwinian biology is certainly legitimate, just as a discussion of Lamark would be. And obviously, people have the legal right to believe and promote whatever they darn well please. However, one of the purposes of public schools is science education, and giving special creation or ID a chapter in a modern biology textbook in a public school, presenting ID as a modern scientific alternative, would be simply mis-educating students. ID has approximately zero credibility in modern biology.

No, the world would not end if a little pseudoscience got taught in public schools. But we’re living in the age of biotechnology and bioinformatics, where evolution is an absolutely central concept (just visit the National Center for Biotechnology Information if you don’t believe me). A well-educated workforce is essential to competing in these fields, and a well-informed citizenry is essential for making wise decisions about biotech issues. The U.S. is already behind other industrialized nations educationally, why should we weaken education even further solely in order to satisfy the sociopolitical concerns of a fringe movement?

Furthermore, making a fundamental opposition between evolution and ID is just plain wrong. Descent with modification can involve intelligent design, as genetic engineers know.

However, if much of evolution was due to intelligent design, one would conclude lots of unflattering things about those designers:

* Multiple designers / design teams operating over the generations. * Designers that are remarkably uncreative, preferring to modify existing features that create new ones, no matter how kludgy the results look. This blog’s namesake feature is one of these. * Designers that curiously neglect to fix some of their predecessors’ mistakes. * Designers that are competitive, pitting their designs against each others’ designs. Predators/parasites have adaptations for living off of prey/hosts, while prey/hosts have adaptations for thwarting predators/parasites.

And then we have things that a sensible designer would never design, like male lions killing the cubs of prides they have taken over. From a “good of the species” standpoint, that is counterproductive, but it fits perfectly into the concept of a “selfish gene”.

Nick, nice comments. I followed your Kenneth Miller link, and what do you know I checked his evolution book out from my local library last week. Good for him for tackling the daunting task of writing a good high school biology text, a task many college profs would shy away from.

Nor did I suggest every biologist is anti-religion, or that every believer is anti-evolution. There’s more mixing than one might expect, I think.

I’m not arguing the ID line–there are more than two sides to this issue. Put simply, opposing ID on scientific grounds does not lead to a unique policy position on science education. It does argue for making evolution the central focus of the curriculum. We agree on that.

Here’s an alternate argument. High school students are different from college students. They are minors. Their parents have a legitimate and a legal interest in what they are taught or exposed to. That doesn’t run to controlling the curriculum, but it supports parental input and some influence. Unlike college students, high school students don’t generally choose their courses–they are essentially coerced into learning, or at least listening to, whatever the state chooses to teach them. Thus there are solid grounds for sensitivity about what exactly goes into the curriculum.

No doubt a non-believing biologist would object to their 16-year-old being forced to attend state-sponsored religious instruction twice a week during public school hours. That’s how some believing parents view their 16-year-old being forced to attend state-sponsored biology instruction five days a week during public school hours.

So perhaps the failure to grasp the complexities of the public policy angle regarding high school curriculum content stems partly from a failure to recognize the different positions of high school and college students. If minimal ID coverage “throws a bone” to concerned parents of high school students with a valid concern and quells their fears to some degree, it is a policy option that merits consideration, especially when the property taxes of those parents support the school district’s operation. The suggestion that this weakens education to any measurable degree is exaggerated. If kids just learn to spell “intelligent” and “design” properly, there is probably a net educational gain from its inclusion.

But I’m not arguing for ID’s inclusion in the curriculum. I’m arguing against the idea that it should receive no consideration. I’ll leave the actual decision up to the various states and school systems.

“That’s how some believing parents view their 16-year-old being forced to attend state-sponsored biology instruction five days a week during public school hours.”

Which belief of the believing parents is the school supposed to discuss? Why just ID? Why not Innuit, Hindu, Zorastrian, Mormon, Hopi, Raelian, or Zulu? Aren’t they equally valid in their respective contexts?

Believers (of whatever flavor) who object to having their children taught science based theories about the natural world may elect to home school or send them to religious schools. Many do.

Dave writes:

Clearly evolution wins the scientific debate–it’s not like ID is a threat in any meaningful sense. It’s not like a couple of high school lectures on ID will poison young minds. It’s no different than “under God” in the Pledge. This is a pluralistic society; diverse viewpoints, even incorrect ones, have their place. In a society where millions of adults believe in astrology it is silly to think an ID chapter in a textbook is a threat to science in America.

So where would you draw the line? Would you teach astrology too? How about holocaust denial? Geocentrism? Flat earthism? All incorrect views that “have their place” according to your reasoning, and one could easily add a hundred others to the list. Our children are already falling well behind the rest of the world in education, how much more time would you like to waste on false ideas in the name of pluralism?

Dave writes:

Here’s an alternate argument. High school students are different from college students. They are minors. Their parents have a legitimate and a legal interest in what they are taught or exposed to. That doesn’t run to controlling the curriculum, but it supports parental input and some influence. Unlike college students, high school students don’t generally choose their courses–they are essentially coerced into learning, or at least listening to, whatever the state chooses to teach them. Thus there are solid grounds for sensitivity about what exactly goes into the curriculum.

Again, I would ask where you would draw the line. A vote among parents in a given school district on what they believe so that could be taught? What if the majority in a given school district believed the holocaust to be false, would you teach that? At the very least, your standard would seem to demand that the schools not debunk beliefs held by parents. Surely if there are solid grounds to demand “sensitivity”, you wouldn’t allow a teacher to say, “I know some of your parents believe the holocaust never happened, but here’s 100 reasons why they’re full of crap”. And if that’s true in that situation, it must be true in every other situation as well. What of followers of Christian Science, who believe that disease and illness are sent by Satan or a trick of the mind? Must we stop teaching the germ theory of disease, or at least give equal time to this “alternative theory”? What of the geocentrists and the flat earthers? And if you’re going to follow the same reasoning you use for ID, how would you teach it? Should the teachers say, “Here’s an idea some people believe and here are all the reasons why it’s false”? That would seem even worse than just leaving those ideas out.

With all respect, isn’t just about everyone looking at this from the wrong end? i.e. “Huxley and Wilberforce, Darrow versus William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial, Richard Dawkins today. Modern biology has struggled against religious explanations for over a century.”

Neither Descartes nor Bacon nor Galileo, nor any of their peers sought to undermine or to question religion. They were looking for a way to get at what were to them satisfactory explanations of the world around them. They went out of their way to avoid discussing how their inquiries might impact religious beliefs. Darwin, too, did his best to stay out. It was Huxley [“How stupid not to have thought of this myself!!”] who angrily went back at Wilberforce.

It was the religious authorities who perceived a threat to their earthly influence who initiated the attacks. Dawkins is a modern day exception to this - had he lived four hundred years ago he would have been burned at the stake - atheism was illegal in those days.

Modern scientists like Richard Feynmann explicitly refused to extrapolate from their work to “what it all means.” Too bad most scientists can’t resist telling the world what it all means as soon as they gain even a smidgin of public recognition.

People who can think for themselves can extrapolate from science as for the rest, let sleeping dogs lie.

The “Church of Christ, Scientist” (Christian Science) teaches that disease is really false belief and that it’s wrong to use materialist medicine to try to cure it. Here is a nice skeptical look at it:

http://www.math.uwaterloo.ca/~shall[…]alks/cs.html

That church’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was a known user of materialist medicine, taking morphine and wearing glasses. She, of all people, ought to have been able to convince herself that pain and imperfect vision are not real – and cure herself.

More recently, Dr. Isaac Asimov had once discovered that a mysterious Sunday-morning rumbling had been the air conditioner of a Christian Science church. A discovery that caused him to laugh long and loud, because those Christian Scientists ought not to need that materialistic contraption in their house of worship. They ought to be able to cool themselves by “recognizing” that their overheating is not real.

Non-scientific alternatives to scientific theories that lack explanatory power and are not testable or falsifiable should not be a part of public school science curricula.

Where does this leave High School social science?

On a more practical note: Does this also imply that textbooks must be updated every time science proves an old theory wrong?

James-

I don’t think it has anything to do with social sciences. Social sciences are not sciences in the same sense that biology is, though they can use some of the tools of science to reach conclusions.

On a more practical note: Does this also imply that textbooks must be updated every time science proves an old theory wrong?

Textbooks should be updated as often as practical, and with modern technology that can be fairly often. Ken Miller, who wrote a wonderful high school biology textbook, has a website that continually updates the information found in the textbook. But I suspect that your question is based upon a false perception that science disproves theories often. That’s not the case. A successful theory is rarely going to be overturned. New evidence may force a modification, but rarely is it going to force a situation where the theory is thrown out entirely, for the simple fact that it wouldn’t be a successful theory if it didn’t explain the data very well. For the handful of instances when a longstanding explanation was thrown out completely in favor of an entirely new explanation, there are a hundred cases where an explanation was slightly modified to account for specific circumstances, or for new data. The core ideas of well established theories - evolution, relativity, the germ theory of disease - are very unlikely to be overturned.

Ed Brayton - Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

My question was from the perception that text books tend to be severely out of date. It seems that new text books often make use of information that is also out of date. This may no longer be the case

The social science comment was a carry over from an old debate on whether the social sciences are really sciences. I agree with your contention that they do not qualify as a hard science.

Social sciences are not sciences in the same sense that biology is, though they can use some of the tools of science to reach conclusions.

Not to get off topic here, but this is one of the most specious statements made by those in the so-called “hard” sciences, and just about every time it’s examined further, the only justification given is that they are able to remove themselves to the lab for experimentation.

Either something uses the scientific method, proposes theories, tests them based on further examination of data, and modifies it accordingly, or it’s not science. There’s a reason that the AAAS has Sections H,K,J, and Z.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that not all work done in one of these disciplines is science, but to categorically deny them the title of science either takes more than a bit of hubris or more than a bit of ignorance.

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This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on March 24, 2004 6:07 PM.

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