Level Playing Field: Merit Matters for Sports & Science

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Anti-evolutionists often make political inroads by relying on America’s sense of fair play in addition to our scientific illiteracy. The average American responds favorably to the loaded suggestion that all ideas are equally valid and asks, “why shouldn’t science class treat all ideas equally?” Our challenge as supporters of science education is to teach the average American that science is not a “fair” process, but one that is based on merit, and that not all ideas are equally valid. Realizing that many Americans are familiar with another merit based school program, sports, I have developed the following analogy.

Science doesn’t treat all ideas equally for the same reason why football doesn’t treat all players equally. You don’t give your inexperienced freshman quarterback the same amount of playing time that you give the three-year starter who has taken you to two championships. Playing time and class-room time are both based on merit. Not all players and not all ideas have the same merit. Some ideas, like evolution, are equivalent to a three-year starting quarterback with two championship rings and whose father won the Heisman Trophy and three Super Bowls. Other ideas, like “intelligent” design creationism, are equivalent to an out-of-shape eight-grader who thinks football is played on an Xbox.

Advocates of “intelligent” design creationism have an idea, one that is not developed scientifically. It is like the weak freshman who wants to be a quarterback but who needs to work hard to compete for a spot on the team and the starting position. Unfortunately, this quarterback does not think that he needs to practice. He does not think that he needs to work at becoming a quarterback. He thinks that he is already good enough be the quarterback. Why shouldn’t he get as much playing time as the other quarterbacks? The fact that the coach doesn’t think that he belongs on the team doesn’t inspire him to work hard and earn playing time. To the contrary, it inspires his parents to bypass the obviously indoctrinated coach, and go over his head to the principal or school board.

A quarterback controversy is good for the team, after all. If all quarterbacks are not given the same amount of playing time then fans will not be able to decide who to cheer for. Clearly random parents who have never played football have a better understanding of the game than a coach who has been indoctrinated into it. As outsiders they are clearly capable of besting the insiders when it comes to coaching decisions. It is so obvious; isn’t it?

However, knowledgeable sports fans will understand why it is necessary to stick with an established quarterback, rewarding hard work and merit over egotism and self-importance. Knowledgeable parents, educators, and politicians should similarly understand why it is necessary to stick with established scientific ideas in classrooms.

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Anti-evolutionists often make political inroads by relying on America’s sense of fair play in addition to our scientific illiteracy.  The average American responds favorably to the loaded suggestion that all ideas are equally valid and asks, “why ... Read More

29 Comments

That’s a great analogie, man. But I have one question for you. How do you suggest the scientific commnunity teach the public that science is not a “fair” process?

The problem is many people think science is merely a theoretical construct, which is why it is easy for them to think that all ideas are equally valid. This is part of the reason why a few people are able to float the idea that science is a religion, since religion is also a theoretical construct. Consequently, many people don’t know the difference between religion and science. They think the two are the same system of thought.

Additionally, people are generally unfamiliar with empirical processes, adding to the challenge of education.

I tried to expand on your analogy a little in my mind with kind of a devil’s advocate position, and I thought: “Well, what’s wrong with letting the eighth-grade weakling play for a few minutes? It’s not exactly like the game really has a real opponent, so where’s the harm? It’s more important to be fair and nice to everyone, right?”

Fortunately, I am able to argue back at myself and I came to this conclusion: the danger does not come in the inexperienced quarterback losing the game for everyone. In all reality, there’s not a game to be won, just a game to be played. The real danger lies in the inexperienced-but-manipulative quarterback tricking the audience into thinking the rules of the game have changed. He’ll put on an entertaining show, dance around the field, jump through hoops and juggle the ball, but he’ll never score any points. A knowledgable audience would heckle this quarterback until he felt badly enough to go sit back down, but in the science game, the audience-at-large is anything but knowledgable. They are vaguely aware a game is even going on, and therefore they eat up the flashy manipulation; the score be damned. So there it is. If we let those in the bleachers call the shots, the whole team will suffer and the game will be called on account of ignorance. And no one will be the wiser. They’ll just sit there staring at the dog-and-pony show taking place on the 50-yard line, oblivious to the game they are missing.

The sad thing is that this is actually a very useful rhetorical tool to wield against school boards, which tend to be more appreciative of the superficialities like sports than they are of significant matters, like academics. Would that we could win them over by appealing to their desire to improve kids’ educations…

It’s been my observation that the fastest way to get voters to approve special local sales taxes for education is to threaten to cut athletics.

We really live is a messed up society where art and music education get cut before football.

If I may draw inferences from analogy, let me offer the following. In the cases of the football game and science they both apparently have an intelligible point. Because the goal is to win the football game and the goal of science is to acquire knowledge (or at least provide theories and accounts that have explanatory power), anything that disrupts those goals violates the practice’s intelligible point. So, it seems clear that football and science have a purpose to them. Now, if I follow your analogy correctly, a scientist who embraces ID–given ID’s apparent paucity of proof–violates the intelligible point of science. But he would also lack virtue as an agent; that is, he would be thinking and acting in a way that is inconsistent with the intellectual obligations of a rational agent. But that would mean that rational agents would have an intelligible point, like football games and science. Now, an ID advocate could say that in order for you to make such a judgment you would have to believe that human beings have a proper function. But “proper function” language is design language. So, it seems to me that the power of your analogies comes from smuggling in design language at the level of person that naturalism qua naturalism cannot give you.

Because I am just a philosopher with a law degree and not as smart as you scientists, maybe you can explain what appears to little ol’ me to be a conundrum of sorts. (But, hey, what do I know?).

Beckwith Wrote:

Now, if I follow your analogy correctly, a scientist who embraces ID—given ID’s apparent paucity of proof—violates the intelligible point of science.

If he embraces ID as established science. Now if he embraces it as a position of faith and doesn’t argue that it is science, then he is not violating the “intelligible point of science.”

The rest of your post is pointless presuppositional apologetics.

What kind of nonsense is that? The sole argument is that science has a proper point and an appropriate set of methods, and that ID violates them. There is no judgment being made on what the function of human beings might be–it seems to me that the only way trying to smuggle in a little invalid baggage here is yourself.

PZ writes: What kind of nonsense is that? The sole argument is that science has a proper point and an appropriate set of methods, and that ID violates them. There is no judgment being made on what the function of human beings might be—it seems to me that the only way trying to smuggle in a little invalid baggage here is yourself.

Nonsense is not good. I’ll grant you that. That’s why it’s not good for anyone of us to embrace it, or to teach it to others, for nonsense seems to have a corrupting influence upon the proper use of our rational faculties. But in order to make that judgment, it seems that it is necessary to hold that each of us has an obligation, as rational agents, to treat our faculties in a way consistent with which they seem to be ordered.

I can’t speak to the point that Reed raises, except to say that anyone who “believes” religiously what he denies he knows scientifically is violating the intelligible point of theology (if he is claiming to be a creedal Christian in all its metaphysical glory).

Francis,

Substitute a board certified brain surgeon for the experienced quarterback and a faith healer for the eighth grade quarterback. If you had a brain tumor, who would you want to operate?

Dr. Beckwith,

Interesting. What parts of the Apostles’ Creed, for instance, are known scientifically?

An ID proponent in science is like a rugby player (playing rugby) in an American football game. Independent team sports don’t mix well at the game level.

anyone who “believes” religiously what he denies he knows scientifically is violating the intelligible point of theology (if he is claiming to be a creedal Christian in all its metaphysical glory).

… or, as I’ve often wondered: “how many chickens does it take to cross a light bulb?”

We philosophers should stick together. But we won’t. Dr Beckwith said

Beckwith Wrote:

If I may draw inferences from analogy, let me offer the following. In the cases of the football game and science they both apparently have an intelligible point. Because the goal is to win the football game and the goal of science is to acquire knowledge (or at least provide theories and accounts that have explanatory power), anything that disrupts those goals violates the practice’s intelligible point.  So, it seems clear that football and science have a purpose to them. 

May I remind you of a rather famous claim about games:

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! – 

Of course, this is from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. His point is that you cannot merely define the common meaning into existence; you really have to see if there is a common meaning. There are goals in science, but they are not like the goals of a game (some games are not intended to be won). The goal is to understand natural phenomena, and that is done by exposing ideas to strict tests and retaining that which is successful (and ID was never successful, not even as an inference to the best explanation).

Moreover, you say

Beckwith Wrote:

But “proper function” language is design language.  So, it seems to me that the power of your analogies comes from smuggling in design language at the level of person that naturalism qua naturalism cannot give you.

This is plain false, not to mention intentionally misleading. As a philosopher you ought to know that “proper function” language was devised by Ruth Garrett Millikan in her 1984 book Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories as a way of clarifying the notion of an etiological - that is, evolutionary - function; one in which the current functional role is determined by natural seleciton for it in the past. So using “proper function” as a term is referring, in fact, to evolutionary accounts of function (the other major notion of “function” derives from the homeostatic role it plays, and is referred to as a “Cummins” function after its author). In short, “proper function” is just a natural account of function.

But of course, you, as a mere philosopher, knew that already, didn’t you? Or are you arguing from connotations and metaphor?

I always found it a little weird that an adaptive trait has no “proper function” in the first organism in which it appears, although the same trait has a “proper function” in its offspring.

One of the hazards of definitions, I guess.

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Francis, are you trying to prove that God exists or that evolution is a fantasy? I can never quite tell.

I really do want to be on the Internet at or very close to the the moment when either or both of these great analytical feats are presented in logically unassailable fashion for the first time. What a great story that will to tell my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren!!! The day the human race truly turned a corner for the first time!!!!! Heavens, my brow gets sweaty and heart flutters just contemplating the profoundness of it all.

Agreed, GWW. Maybe eventually my kids will be able to study under the great Dembski, who by then I’m sure will hold the Philip Johnson chair of ID Theory at Caltech.

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False dilemma. Neither is my goal. I’m like evolution, I have no goal. And why should I have one anyways. Am I supposed to?

I don’t know. But I can provide you with a goal if you’d like to have one.

Sounds like you may have stumbled upon a porn site.

What’s a “porn site”?

And is it your view that our rational faculties arose with an intelligent endpoint in mind? Spare me the proof. I just want to know your position. Then I’ll tell you mine. You can trust me.

GWW and Francis, But will you both still like each other in the morning?

The term “proper function” as a technical term of philosophy of biology dates to Millikan. It is not begging the question - it is an account of function in terms of its etiology. There is no sly importation of intentional terms here. Whether it was a technical term in medieval philosophy (and I rather doubt it - function and other teleological terms were assumed to be “proper” by definition, so it may have been used merely to distinguish between an end that was improperly ascribed, as well as being used as a shorthand way of saying “the end for which the thing exists”, which is the classical Aristotelian sense), is irrelevant in this context. And in searching through the Summa at the link you gave, I found no use of the term “proper function”. Proper end is somewhat a different concept.

And no, it does not require that we “ought” to follow our proper function. This is something which we knew with Hume, let alone Huxley and Moore. We follow our proper function if it is rational, moral, convenient or a host of other prescriptively effective reasons. The reason we follow the “goals” of science is to understand our world, and why that is prescriptively effective is another matter entirely. [It is because following scientific goals works well; an instrumental prescription, if you like.]

You said, in your original post:

Beckwith Wrote:

But that would mean that rational agents would have an intelligible point, like football games and science.  Now, an ID advocate could say that in order for you to make such a judgment you would have to believe that human beings have a proper function.  But “proper function” language is design language.  So, it seems to me that the power of your analogies comes from smuggling in design language at the level of person that naturalism qua naturalism cannot give you.

There is such a long leap from “science has a goal” to “human beings [therefore] have a proper function”, it simply does not follow. Humans have all kinds of goals - I have the end of finding out what others want to say to me when I open my email. But opening email is not license for the inference that “human beings have a proper function”. Humans are end-holding organisms. When they play a game, it has an end; the end they give it. Different games have different ends. When they open their email, they do so for a reason. But nothing broader can be inferred from the use of intentional language when describing the behaviour of intentional systems (that is, us).

This is not a matter of “naturalism”, although I think a naturalistic (that is, physicalist) account of end-holding can be given, if only in principle. It is just a matter of what it is we do when we do science. Why is ID precluded from the ordinary path of science now? Fundamentally, because whenever it has been tried, it has obfuscated, confused, and resulted in nothing much of value, and more to the point, other hypotheses have not obfuscated, confused, or led to nothing of value. Darwinian explanations are fruitful in science. ID is not.

That of course is not to say it won’t be - by all means try to show that ID does in fact offer something that Darwinian explanations don’t. Do this in actual science. If you succeed, then we would be required to teach it in the relevant cases and disciplines. But don’t assert now that we should teach in science what has not been shown to work. And that was the point of the original post.

Dr. Beckwith,

Still waiting on some indication of what items in the Apostles’ Creed are known scientifically. F’rinstance, how about a citation for the research publication describing the location and characteristics of “hell”?

It seems to me that your assertion concerning being a creedal Christian is wrong if there is any item in whatever creed you specify that doesn’t have a corresponding body of scientific knowledge backing it up.

I think they use a more restrictive standard for what constitutes incompatibility with science, Wesley. By defining ‘knows scientifically’ as a sufficiently small set of things limited to perhaps only measurements, a set much more limited than practicing scientists would usually say, you can declare no conflict between science and religion, since of course religions seldom say things like “the value on the voltmeter at that point should be 3.4 +/.2”.

Dr. Beckwith Wrote:

I can’t speak to the point that Reed raises, except to say that anyone who “believes” religiously what he denies he knows scientifically is violating the intelligible point of theology (if he is claiming to be a creedal Christian in all its metaphysical glory).

steve Wrote:

I think they use a more restrictive standard for what constitutes incompatibility with science, Wesley. By defining ‘knows scientifically’ as a sufficiently small set of things limited to perhaps only measurements, a set much more limited than practicing scientists would usually say, you can declare no conflict between science and religion, since of course religions seldom say things like “the value on the voltmeter at that point should be 3.4 +/.2”.

No, to make Dr. Beckwith’s assertion work, the standard for what is considered “scientific knowledge” would have to be much less restrictive, not more restrictive. Creeds were specifically formulated to expose heretical thought. Someone who could recite the creed of interest without cavil was in the club; those who couldn’t usually had a hot time of it shortly thereafter. So every item in the creed is something that must be “believed religiously”. Dr. Beckwith says there is a problem if a Christian who adheres to a creed denies that any of the items of the creed are “known scientifically”. To make that work, what Dr. Beckwith must mean by “known scientifically” must be a far cry from what most people here would mean by the same phrase, and in the direction of much less restriction.

Dr. Beckwith raises an interesting distinction I never focused on: “creedal” christians (presumably distinct from “noncreedal” christians).

The church I grew up in (anglican) would definitely fall into the “creedal” camp. Are there denominations that explicitly identify themselves as noncreedal? Or is that another way of saying “free-lance” christian?

Dr. Beckwith says there is a problem if a Christian who adheres to a creed denies that any of the items of the creed are “known scientifically”.

No. He’s not saying the items have to be known scientifically. He’s saying they can’t contradict what is known scientifically.

Steve,

If that’s what he was saying, he chose a poor way to express it.

Here’s a good example of religious people having problems getting their religious ‘knowledge’ aligned with scientific knowledge.

http://www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/n[…]-346938.html

Apparently wheat can supernaturally transform into deity flesh, but rice can’t.

Gluten: It’s magically religious!

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on August 11, 2004 2:13 PM.

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