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On Fridays, the National Public Radio (NPR) show "Talk of the… - AdrianG [APOD]
November 21st, 2004
10:55 am

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On Fridays, the National Public Radio (NPR) show "Talk of the Nation" is about science. In fact, they call the Friday show "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday". The first hour of this past Friday's show was about the continuing efforts of Christian fundamentalists to suppress the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. The debate, as a whole, is too much to cover in one journal entry, but the Anti-Evolution side of this discussion keeps making a very flawed kind of fairness argument. In this entry, I intend to offer two justifications for dismissing this fairness argument.

First, I think it is clearly wrong to say that teaching evolutionary theory in science class while excluding Creationist theories is unfair. The Creationists argue that, to be fair, we must give equal time to both theories and that we must not suggest that one theory is better than the other. This is like arguing that, to be fair, we must not suggest that a team which just won a 50-0 victory over another team is better than the other team.

Science has standards by which theories are to be judged. To be fair, what we must do is apply these standards as uniformly as possible to all theories to which we are trying to be fair. Not everything needs to be judged by the standards of science, but when someone submits a theory as a scientific theory, the theory is judged fairly under scientific standards, and it consistently fails under those standards, only a sore loser would claim that it's unfair for science to stop taking the theory seriously. It's tough to see one's theory shot down, and it's particularly tough to see one's theory torn to pieces in a very public way within the scientific community; But imagine how little science might have accomplished, over the years, if it were against the rules to discredit a theory whenever it might offend proponents of the theory.

Creationist theories have been abject failures as scientific theories. It is important to note that this statement is limited to their value as scientific theories. To say that these religious theories have no value in science is not to say that they have no value elsewhere. Frankly, I think it should come as no surprise to anyone, even to most Christians, that religiously motivated theories are often failures as scientific theories. Science is heavily focused on testing theories, where religion is usually based on faith. I think most Christians would agree that a scientific philosophy of constant skepticism and testing of all ideas has no place in Christianity. But if one's goal is to submit religious theories as scientific theories, it must be obvious that they will face exactly this kind of constant skepticism and testing.

All this raises the question of what, exactly, creationists are trying to accomplish by attempting to introduce religion into science. They claim that their ideas are valid science, but is it really their intention to bring scientific skepticism and testing of ideas into philosophies rooted in faith? I think this explanation is unlikely. I think creationists are Christian extremists who feel threatened by science. I think they know that, without the help of more moderate Christians, their attacks on science cannot be successful. I think that these creationist theories are, in part, an attempt to enlist the help of moderate Christians. An effective way to unify a group is to make then believe they are fighting a common enemy. Science, in general, has not sought conflicts with religion. Many scientists are religious and recognize that science and religion serve different goals and should stay separate. To create the appearance that science is attacking religion, I think creationists have attempted to insert Christian theories into science, knowing that science would apply a level of skepticism and a demand for testing that Christianity was never intended to withstand. With this tactic, creationists have created a situation which they can characterize as science attacking Christianity, when in fact, science is simply noting that religion is not science.

It is instructive, I think, to consider the main reason for science to reject creationist theories: Creationist theories are not falsifiable. To be falsifiable, there must be some conceivable set of circumstances that can prove the theory wrong. This may seem, at first, to be a trivial objection to a theory, but falsifiability is an essential quality for a scientific theory. Science is about making testable predictions, and in a sense, making a prediction of one outcome is the equivalent of ruling out other outcomes. If a theory does not rule out any conceivable outcome, it has no value in making predictions. But religions do not generally subject themselves to this requirement that theories must be falsifiable. Whatever goals religions may have, making testable predictions about the outcomes of everyday experiments is not among them. The criticism that a religious theory is not good science in no way suggests that the theory does not make good religion. The goals of science are religion are not the same, and they should not be judged by the same standards.


The second reason for rejecting the fairness argument is that creationist theories are frauds. To a non-scientist, creationist theories may seem plausible, but for people claiming scientific credentials to introduce such theories again and again as science can only be described as fraud. When people want to be taken seriously as scientists, they learn the rules of science and they learn how to construct plausible scientific theories. Like many professional cultures, the scientific community has standards of conduct and standards by which members of the culture judge each other's work. So called "creation scientists" have not made a good faith effort to follow these rules or live by these standards of conduct. I believe this is because "creation scientists" are not interested in addressing their arguments to the scientific community. Like any con artists, their real intended audience is made up of those members of the public who are naive about the subject matter of the confidence game.

I'm sure there are those who are not so confident that "creation scientists" are con artists (and I'll get to that topic in a moment), but it's worth discussing what a naive principle of "fairness" like that offered by the creationists would do to us in those cases where we must cope with con artists. A con artist makes his living by playing on the naive sense of politeness and fair play of his victims. What could be more convenient to the con artists than a principle that all claims have equal validity and that to impose some measure on ideas so that we can assess their relative worth is unfair? What should we do about a claim that Ponzi scheme is just as valid as any other business model, that it deserves equal time in business schools, and that it would be unfair for business professors to suggest that is is less legitimate? I think we must accept that there are often ways of measuring ideas for validity and that some ideas are probably better than others. To reject such a notion is to leave ourselves vulnerable to con artists, and perhaps more to the point, to do so would fly in the face of fundamental scientific principles.

Of course, I should not attempt to escape, completely, the important question of whether or not "creation scientists" are con artists. If their tactics are to be considered valid, I suppose I could simply assert that my claims about the fraudulent nature of their work are just as valid as their claims that evolutionary theory is wrong and that the scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to suppress the truth of their work. Even if I believed in that argument, I am not satisfied with that level of validity for my own claims. The frauds perpetrated by "creation scientists" are rather well documented at the Talk.Origins Archive site, but those fraud are dependent on audience ignorance of key matters in science. I have become convinced that creationists are guilty of fraud by reading these accounts of their activities, but I must say that the case against them is rooted in principles of science. For those readers who are not familiar with science, learning more about science may be necessary before the case becomes clear. Further, I should point out that this archive site does not usually use the word "fraud" to describe the activities of "creation scientists", and I think it is more appropriate for them not to. The purpose of this web site is to make easily available those facts that we can use to make up our own minds about attacks on evolutionary theory. I think it is clearly outside the purpose of that site to go as far as characterizing "creation scientist" behavior with words like "fraud"; Nevertheless, I think it is clear from the weight of evidence that "creation scientists" are often guilty of fraud. I think it is appropriate to cite some specific documents:
  • "Some Questionable Creationist Credentials" points out that some (but not all) "creation scientists" have questionable scientific credentials.

  • "Creationists and the Pithecanthropines" details Duane Gish's dishonest efforts to discredit scientific findings by Eugene Dubois and others regarding Homo Erectus (originally named "Pithecanthropus Erectus" by Dubois).

  • Creationist Arguments: Australopithecines shows a pattern of carelessness in the claims of various creationists trying to discredit theories that australopithecines are intermediate forms between humans and other primates. People engaged in serious science simply cannot afford to make repeated blunders like those described in this article.

  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics, Evolution, and Probability explains why claims that the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution are wrong. Note that thermodynamics is one of the pillars of modern science. While most laymen do not understand thermodynamics well enough to see through these creationist claims, there is no excuse for one who claims scientific credentials to make such a mistake.

  • "Creationism and Human Evolution" is an index page of various creationist responses to paleoanthropological research. The documents index show a persistent pattern of fabrications, misquotes, and general sloppiness in "creation science" papers. Many (but not all) of the mistakes could, individually, be described as honest mistakes, but when they are this frequent and pervasive, I think it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the authors are simply dishonest.

The site contains a great deal of information about the evolution debate. It does cite quite a number of creationist arguments and includes links to creationist web sites with complete arguments, but on the whole, the site supports the evolution side of the debate. While there are controversies about specific points of evolutionary theory, there is no serious scientific controversy about evolution as a whole, and the site's focus on the pro-evolution side of the popular debate reflects this state of affairs about evolutionary theory in science.

It is wrong to claim that science is divided about the validity of evolutionary theory, and it is equally wrong to claim that unscientific theories like "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design" belong in science classrooms.

Adrian

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[User Picture]
From:copperwise
Date:November 22nd, 2004 12:55 am (UTC)
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Nicely said.

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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 12:59 am (UTC)
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Thanks.

Adrian
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From:savagemind
Date:November 22nd, 2004 03:56 am (UTC)
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You haven't been hanging around debate lately, have you?
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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 04:04 am (UTC)
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I had not heard of it before. A quick look makes me think that most participants are more interested in stirring up controversy than in exchanging interesting ideas. Do you find it to be otherwise?

Adrian
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From:savagemind
Date:November 22nd, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)
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No, but I greatly enjoy controversy. The reason I mention it is, well, this: http://www.livejournal.com/community/debate/3556205.html

After that it seems to have spread into every other discussion-oriented community.
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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I'll have to take a look at that link.

Debate always troubles me a bit. Clearly it has some value. But when I am discussing an issue with someone, part of what I try to do is make sure that I'm really giving the other party a chance to change my mind about the issue. I think the best approach to changing someone's mind on a subject is to make arguments rooted in that persons own beliefs. That means that I have to try to explain enough about my viewpoint to give the other party a fair chance to change my mind, and I have to listen carefully enough to the other party to know how to make such arguments to him or her.

Formal debate is generally not about two parties trying to exchange ideas so much as it is about those two parties putting on shows designed to convince a third party that they won. While debate skills have their uses, they are very different from discussion skills, and it's really discussion skills that I want to develop.

On the other hand, my experience has been that people arguing with me against evolution have rarely, if ever, employed discussion skills as I've described them. I can't say that they've ever been honest enough with me about their own reasons for belief that I have a fair chance to change their minds; And I don't recall them ever attempting to frame arguments in terms of more fundamental things that I've said I believe. It has always seemed to me that they were trying to convince me that the average third party would likely side with them.

This kind of experience in evolution vs. creationism discourse makes me think that perhaps debate skills really are what matter most in these cases. Really, all I could hope to accomplish is to convince the audience that I'm right, and that does have some value. So while I like discourse to be calm and respectful most of the time, I will at least look over that particular debate.

Thanks.

Adrian
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From:savagemind
Date:November 22nd, 2004 07:32 pm (UTC)
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In all fairness to debate, there is no formal debate going on whatsoever.
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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 08:00 pm (UTC)
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I'm guessing you're right about that. The word "debate" has a more precise meaning in the context of formal debate, so it seemed like the right place to try to make my point. I can't be as certain, but I suspect still applies to many less formal debates. The real question is, do the arguments presented seem more tailored to appeal to the fundamental beliefs of the people to whom they are addressed, or do they seem more tailored to appeal to the public in general (the audience).

Of course, in the Evolution vs. Creation Science debate, the best we can probably hope for is to appeal to the audience.

Adrian
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From:savagemind
Date:November 22nd, 2004 09:41 pm (UTC)
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Most arguments are self-serving, regardless of to whom they are tailored. The reason why I am so fond of debate is that most members are (brutally) honest about this and without pretense regarding it, save their own massively inflated egos.
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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC)
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Surely there is some virtue in this. 8-)

Adrian
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From:lonepair
Date:November 22nd, 2004 05:49 am (UTC)
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neither evolution, creationism, or intelligent design are complete explanations, they are simply different starting points for people with different capabilities and beliefs.

it is always up to the individual to be objective and diligent about the pursuit of and application of knowledge, and i don't see evidence that scientists are any better at that than anyone else.

[User Picture]
From:savagemind
Date:November 22nd, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)

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Wow.
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From:adriang
Date:November 22nd, 2004 05:38 pm (UTC)
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    It is always up to the individual to be objective and diligent about the pursuit of and application of knowledge, and i don't see evidence that scientists are any better at that than anyone else.

Actually, I suspect you saw some evidence that scientists, on average, are better than most people at being objective and diligent about the pursuit of knowledge when you posted this entry. The computer you used to post this entry is heavily dependent on a very complete and counter-intuitive field called "Solid-State Physics". Solid-State Physics is something of practical off-shoot of another complex and counter-intuitive field call "Quantum Physics". Science could not have made progress in those fields unless the scientists responsible for that progress had been strongly committed to scientific principles. As someone who has taken a class about Solid-State Physics, I can tell you that this field is a remarkable achievement of science.

Understand, I'm not saying that scientists are always objective and diligent. Even if we exclude the misconduct of "creation scientists" like Duane Gish, scientific misconduct probably occurs every day. Still, science has an imperfect but excellent method for separating good work from bad. This imperfect method takes time and often begins by leaning towards the wrong answer, but over time it usually finds its own mistakes.

You are correct to say that evolutionary theory is incomplete, but it is a good faith (in the legal sense of "good faith") scientific effort, and it is a much more mature field that "creation scientists" would have you believe. It is only incomplete in the sense that science is never really complete. There is still and will likely always be continued work on subtle details of evolutionary theory. Despite dishonest claims by "creation scientists", there is no serious scientific controversy over whether or not evolution really occurs.

I think "Creationism" and "intelligent design" as scientific theories are frauds and simply aren't comparable to evolutionary theory. Note that qualifying these statements to limit them to science is deliberate; I'm not suggesting that religious beliefs in divine creation or in intelligent design are frauds. But I am saying that when people claiming scientific credentials dress these religious beliefs up as science and submit them as challengers to evolutionary theory, I think those people have perpetrated a fraud against both science and religion and I think they are guilty of scientific misconduct. While I admit that not all scientists are honorable people, I think that NO "creation scientists" are honorable people. I think "creation science" is a cynical con game designed to defraud moderate Christians just as much as it is designed to attack science.

Insofar as you are simply talking about belief in divine creation and intelligent design as religious beliefs, I agree that they are just different starting points.

Adrian
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From:lonepair
Date:November 23rd, 2004 04:06 am (UTC)
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"Actually, I suspect you saw some evidence that scientists, on average, are better than most people at being objective and diligent about the pursuit of knowledge when you posted this entry. "

Here you are idealizing scientists as being 'better' than 'most people'; as if scientists themselves are not people. You have to compare things on the same level. What we are discussing is why some ideas are better than others. Ideas are better than others when they are more connected to things, more useful.

Objectivity, as I use the word, is equally relevant to science and religion. Knowledge is apprehended in levels. At each stage, you can see clearly everything that led to and supports your current stage of knowledge. In other words, you know what you know and what it can be used for.

As it exists today, science is not pure and it is not an entity that can be 'attacked.' Neither is religion. These are conceptual categories. Constructs of your mind mixed with emotional attitudes derived from a sense of identity as a scientist or perhaps just a rational person. These frauds and cheats are just people being people, certainly not being objective, but if you know more than them, they are no danger, right? Or does the possibility of people believing the wrong thing frighten you? Why?

Scientists, theologians, diplomats, and soccer moms who make our world better have to access more of reality than is available through a single set of glasses. That is why, as you observed, many scientists are also religious.

There are 'scientific' values (principles) that when applied to investigations of the unknown, yield a certain result. Similarly, other principles govern the emotional and sensory aspects of life and they also yield results in predictable ways. Combining them, the general quality of being increases, and that person can be more effective at certain things. Understand more, invent things.

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From:adriang
Date:November 23rd, 2004 05:06 am (UTC)
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    Here you are idealizing scientists as being 'better' than 'most people'; as if scientists themselves are not people.

I must say that I am mystified by this characterization of my remark. Are you sure you read it carefully?
    Objectivity, as I use the word, is equally relevant to science and religion.

It's hard to know what to do with this statement. Certainly, under the common understanding of the word, objectivity does not seem important to most religions that I'm aware of, although the set of religions that I'm aware of is small. In particular, in Christianity, religious knowledge seems to come from authority. If there is any evidence to suggest that objectivity is a core value of Christianity, I am unaware of it.

On the other hand, objectivity is valued in science. Surely the tendency in science to reduce data to quantities which can be measured is evidence of of the value science places on objectivity.
    As it exists today, science is not pure and it is not an entity that can be 'attacked.'

There is something going on in school boards across the country that I'm inclined to describe as an attack on science. I'm open to suggestions on how to talk about it, but it seems like you are simply trying to define words so that they aren't useful to talk about these events. I don't think I agree with the point you are making, and in any case, defining words so that the other party can't say what's on his mind hardly seem like a good way to facilitate an exchange of ideas.
    Or does the possibility of people believing the wrong thing frighten you?

Surely you are turning the problem on it's head. My objection is that these religious extremists are attempting to exclude a mature and well established field of science from public schools because THEY are afraid of people believing things that offend their religious sensibilities. These religious fanatics can believe whatever they want, but I am not inclined to concede to them control of our public schools. For most of recorded history, when Christianity has been free to suppress contrary ideas, unspeakable evils have been the result.
    Combining them, the general quality of being increases, and that person can be more effective at certain things.

It would be nice if combining ideas always led to good things. I am not at all convinced that introducing religion into science can do anything but harm. But setting that concern aside, for a moment, do you understand that we are talking about a set of religious fanatics who have been trying to ban the teaching of evolution in school for nearly a century? Do you understand that giving those people more power is not going to result in one big happy family of diverse ideas for us all to enjoy?


I must say that it is difficult to even understand what you were trying to say throughout most of you comment. It seems like you may be avoiding any precision of language in the discussion, and I am concerned that the issues at hand can't really be discussed unless different concepts are kept properly separated. You seem to be claiming that there are not meaningful differences between religion and science, and I hope you'll pardon me for being blunt, but any such claim is simply dead wrong.

I think you genuinely meant to communicate a point of view, here, but I am concerned about the semantic games that I think I see going on in your comment, and I am worried about whether or not we can find enough common ground, within this topic, to carry out a meaningful discussion.

Adrian
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From:lonepair
Date:November 23rd, 2004 07:21 am (UTC)
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Hmmm... Yes, I am aware of the other meanings of objectivity, though I thought including a more specific usage would be helpful.

I agree in the essential points you bring up here with respect to handing over control to religious Fundamentalists of any denomination. You are quite right, unspeakable evil has been the result of placing power in the hands of uneducated and unscrupulous people. What I didn't elaborate on was the human tendency to usurp power for short term personal goals, which is equally possible with power derived from scientific advances as it is power from church or state. I don't trust anyone.

"You seem to be claiming that there are not meaningful differences between religion and science, and I hope you'll pardon me for being blunt, but any such claim is simply dead wrong."

No, I'm claiming that both are extremely useful, and that life cannot be fully engaged without both. It is up to the individual to integrate the experiences of same, which takes mental and emotional discipline.

Perhaps I am being as dogmatic about individualism as these Christians are about creationism; I find that when I know the truth about a given matter; I don't care anymore what others think. Apparently you do, and that is something I will have to live with, haha. I actually kinda like it when some people don't believe me, because I know I can take advantage of their stupidity later... a character flaw, perhaps?

We certainly seem to enjoy the use of words, don't we? ;)
[User Picture]
From:adriang
Date:November 23rd, 2004 07:11 pm (UTC)
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    I'm claiming that both are extremely useful, and that life cannot be fully engaged without both.

Hmm... I don't think I agree with that, as stated, but it could be that our disagreement is more about words than essence. I think we might at least agree that there are things outside of science which are important, and that religion often touches on those things. Spirituality is an awfully imprecise word for those things, and I worry that is has connotations that I don't want for the purposes of this discussion, but I can think of no good alternative, for the moment, so I will use it. It seems to me that religion often touches on spirituality mainly as a means to its real end, and that real end is to gain control over people by claiming monopoly authority over spirituality. It may be that some religions don't do this, but I am concerned that by saying that religion is what people need, I might be encouraging people to satisfy this need by going to the power mongers in those religions that use that tactic.

Do you see why I'm concerned about this way of putting things? I'm not sure we actually disagree on the essential point.
    I don't care anymore what others think. Apparently you do, and that is something I will have to live with, haha.

I think we all have a tremendous capacity for mental self-indulgence and even self-deception. I don't think any of us can learn to think well without testing our ideas against the sensibilities of others. It is the habit of anticipating criticism of our ideas that makes us more careful at thinking, and it is mainly experience that teaches us what types of criticism we might expect.
    We certainly seem to enjoy the use of words, don't we? ;)

I hope so, since this is a text based medium. 8-)

Adrian
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