AdrianG (adriang) wrote,
AdrianG
adriang

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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