Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Teach the Controversy" - The Treacherous Lingo of Crypto-Creationists

The New Scientist gives us this brief update on the state of Intelligent Design in our schools today.

Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design love to use tricky language.  One of their favorites lines is, "teach the controversy," a seemingly moderate and innocuous statement that drips with anti-science subtext.  The idea is to attack science on its own terms.  By suggesting that there is some sort of cover-up conspiracy to teach evolution and hide its flaws, it calls into question the scientific integrity of everyone in the field who subscribes to it.  Science, of course, is committed to an unbiased airing of all the facts, and letting those facts speak for themselves.  And only when all the facts are available can we draw an informed conclusion. 

Here's the problem: Creationism at its core is not based on facts, it's based on theology.  And when it comes to science, "for the Bible tells me so" just doesn't pass muster.

Now, Charles Darwin devoted pages and pages in The Origin of Species to discussing problems with his theory of evolution by natural selection.  He even conceded that some of the problems were serious threats to the whole idea.  Of course, many of these problems have since been resolved, but there remain some questions (Darwin writes at length about the gaps in the fossil record, for example -- a favorite talking point for creationists today).  Just because there are questions about a theory does not mean the theory is unproved, however.  For instance, we still have questions about the nature of gravity.  We know how it works in the everyday sense; we know how to calculate trajectories for spacecraft and planets; we know about stellar and galactic formation, including the creation of black holes; and we know how gravity can actually bend light.  But we do not know exactly what happens inside a black hole, and we have yet to reconcile the gravitational force with the other known forces of the universe in a unified field theory.  These are questions for the years to come.  But obviously, no one is questioning the fundamental concept of gravity.  That's probably because it's not considered a serious threat to the existence of God, though it's fun to imagine the wacky beliefs that might be held by non-gravitationalists. 

The problem we face today is not that the creationists want the real unresolved questions of life and evolution to be discussed in class, but that they want their own scientifically unsound complaints to be given equal weight in the science classroom.  Abiogenesis, the study of life's origin on Earth, is still very much an open question.  The gaps in the fossil record, though there is a reasonable explanation for them, deserve to be mentioned in the science classroom, in the proper context.  But irreducible complexity, another favorite talking point for creationists, has been shown to be erroneous time and time again.  For the uninformed, irreducible complexity may sound like a powerful argument, but when we look at the diversity of life on Earth there is plenty of evidence to contradict it. 

These science-deniers, like Republican senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, whose statements on this subject have drawn much publicity in the last several weeks, believe that evolution is a myth.  In their view, presumably, evolution by natural selection was cooked up by Darwin as a thought experiment, wholly unsubstantiated by evidence.  For the past 150 years, they must believe, scientists have blindly held up this single work as unassailable doctrine.  They believe there is no evidence because they have not seen or read about it, or they choose to ignore it.  This being the case, why should these people be dictating the material taught in science classrooms? 

We return to "teach the controversy."  I'm all for teaching the controversy -- in a history class, or in a US government class.  Every student should learn about The Scopes Trial, and the fight over creationism in schools today is certainly worthy of discussion in social studies classes.  But pseudoscience has no place in a science classroom.

In science, we cannot simply make up causes for phenomena in nature.  We can hypothesize, but every hypothesis has to be tested if it is to be given any merit.  Sometimes there is more than one hypothesis that, based on the facts, could adequately explain something in nature, and in those cases the question remains open, waiting for more evidence.  But when we don't understand something, we cannot just give up and say a magician in the sky is responsible.  Science would get nowhere if we did that.  And in spite of their opposition to science, I would bet the creationists enjoy some of the comforts science has provided them.  For example, I'm sure they care about what the weather will be like today, and their local meteorologist is there to help them decide whether they need to take an umbrella.  But what if we thought the rain was just God crying?  And thunderstorms meant God was angry?  If we resigned ourselves to such thinking, we would be unlikely to decode the complexity of our atmospheric patterns.  Unscientific explanations like these provide us with nothing useful, and they can stand in the way of really useful scientific discoveries. 

Creationists tend to think that science is out to prove that God does not exist.  While that is certainly true for some scientists, it is not what science is about at its foundation.  Indeed, few of us would be dismayed to learn that the benevolent God of the New Testament really exists, and that we are all destined for paradise after we die.  And few of us want to prove God doesn't exist so that we can go live hedonistic lifestyles.  Science is merely a tool for understanding the knowable world.  But it's a precious tool, a vital tool, and we must defend it from the corruption of transient ideology.

Update: Listen to this nonsense from Glenn Beck's radio show on October 20th:

And now, enjoy this classic Richard Dawkins showdown, in seven parts:

1 comment:

  1. This is just frustrating to watch. This, as much as anything, puts to rest the fallacious belief that science and religion can find some comfortable coexistence. Her complete misrepresentation of how science functions and her continual skewing of the real conflict between the requirement of science that information is substantiated by facts and the fact that religion doesn't give a rat's ass about actual evidence is just glaring. I think I'm going to go get drunk now. This kind of crap just drives me to that end.