May 14 2013

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part II

In part I of my analysis of a recent interview with Don McLeroy on the SGU I discussed his assertion that those of faith are more free to accept or reject the evidence for evolution, while strict materialists can only accept it as it is the only materialist option. I mentioned in that post that I would invite Don to respond – I did and he did.

In this post I will include Don’s response and then my further analysis of his response. I will then extend the discussion to other points that Don raised during the SGU interview.

Don McLeroy Responds to Part I

Steven,

Thank you for this opportunity to respond.

We are mirror images of each other. I see you as you see me-as “an excellent example of the power of motivated reasoning,” as “firmly in phase 2,” and as someone who might be considered “embedded” in a culture of their own publications, institutions, and websites.

At least we both agree to follow the evidence where ever it leads.

I do now admit that I was wrong about the atheist being compelled only to accept evolution; the atheist is also free to follow the evidence in another direction or say “I do not know.” As you wrote, “If the evidence were ambiguous or scant, than perhaps the current answer would be, we don’t know.”

In fact, I believe this is a perfectly satisfactorily answer for both the creationist and the atheist. Let us allow the students to evaluate the evidence for themselves. Concerning the Texas standards amended by the board, the Fordham report on state science standards stated “There are no concessions to ‘controversies’ or ‘alternative theories.’ In fact, the high school biology course is exemplary in its choice and presentation of topics, including its thorough consideration of biological evolution.” In Texas, we have not abandoned the “scientific consensus.”

The Austin American-Statesman opinions editor invited me to write an op-ed after the report was released.

Where the board amended the standards on evolution, Fordham described them as “exemplary”, where we accepted the standards as submitted by our writing panels, they criticized them. I guess we needed more “creationist” oversight.

My main critique of your post is an apparent confusion about the nature of science. You state “Science is about providing natural explanations.” and then later state “science is about producing testable theories that make predictions about how nature will behave.” I agree with the latter; the key criterion of science is testability. I believe it is the job of science to test theories-not to provide natural explanations.

Don

False Equivalency

It is my opinion (shared by many skeptics and scientists) that creationism is a form of denialism – it is evolution denial.  Throughout this discussion I will point out the features in Don’s position that are typical of the denialist strategy. The first is known as false equivalency – specifically that between evolutionary theory and creationism.

Don’s opening paragraph is the clearest expression of false equivalency I can recall – noting that our positions are “mirror images” of each other. If my position is embedded in any culture, it is that of the broad international scientific community. My position reflects the overwhelming scientific consensus in common descent and evolutionary change over time.

Don’s position, by contrast, is embedded in a particular sect of a religion, one that has had significant conflict with mainstream science when it conflicts with their religious dogma. The two situations are not equivalent.

This also gets to the heart of the context of this discussion – what gets taught is public school science classrooms. It should be clear that what gets taught as science is the consensus of scientific opinion, not the beliefs of one religious sect.

Don’s response to this, reflected in the interview and in his response above, is that the Texas science textbook standards reflect science, and do not insert mention of God or creationism into the books. It can be clearly established, however (documented by those following this debate over the years) that this is just the latest strategy of creationist opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools.

There is no mention of God or creationism now – only after several Supreme Court decisions struck down those strategies. Insertion of “strengths and weaknesses” language is the current strategy, that Don reflects quite well. Such strategies unfairly target evolution, however, and the “weaknesses” that are referred to are imaginary pseudoscientific creationist arguments that have already been thoroughly refuted by scientists.

With regard to “natural explanations” I think Don misunderstood my point. The natural explanations that science provides need to be testable – these are not exclusive features of science. The points of mentioning “natural explanation” was to emphasize “natural,” as opposed to supernatural.

These two features of science are, in fact, inextricably related. Only naturalistic explanations are testable. Supernatural explanations are not, because by definition they are not constrained by natural laws and can therefore never be falsified. (I discuss this point further here and here.)

Let’s move on to some new issues raised in the interview.

“Stasis” and “Sudden Appearance”

Don brought up in the SGU interview the language he managed to have inserted in the Texas science textbook standards, “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.”

He wants students to decide for themselves if the fossil evidence supports evolution or not. This always superficially sounds reasonable, but the counterpoint I brought up during the interview was that we send a powerful message to students by what we choose to present and emphasize. Even presenting stasis and “sudden” appearance as a problem for evolutionary theory or common descent is misleading, because they aren’t.

Don acknowledged that the sequential nature of the fossil record is compelling evidence for evolution, and that he can understand how people would arrive at that conclusion. He thinks this is the most powerful evidence for evolution. I disagree – by far the most powerful evidence for evolution is the genetic and molecular evidence. Perhaps I can entice Don into analyzing and responding to this evidence.

I suspect he positions the fossil record as the strongest evidence for evolution because he feels he can then knock it down with his stasis and sudden appearance argument. This is really a very old creationist argument, dismantled decades ago. Steven D. Schafersman has an excellent discussion on this topic, but I will summarize.

When we look at the entire fossil record what we see are the first appearance of hard parts around 542 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion (more on this later). These first multicellular organisms were simple compared to later life, but all modern phyla are represented, but many that are now extinct. In the last 500 million years we see new species arise in the fossil record, with clear antecedents. In other words, entirely new body plans do not arise out of nowhere. New species are always variations on older species. Further, species have a definite lifespan in the fossil record – they are not spread randomly over time.

In addition to this sequential nature of the fossil record, there appears to be an overall pattern of nested hierarchies. Apes appear closely related, but can also be grouped with all primates, who can be grouped with all placental mammals, who can be grouped with all mammals, who can be grouped with all vertebrates, etc.

These patterns reflect common descent and are exquisitely evolutionary. As an added feature, species also appear to be geographically located in an evolutionary pattern. Mammals in Australia are more closely related to each other than they are to mammals in North America.

There are also numerous transitional fossils – linking individual species, and major groups. The discovery of a large number of feathered dinosaurs, for example, nicely bridges the gap between birds and theropods. Ambulocetus, the walking whale, nicely links whales and terrestrial mammals – these represent a compelling morphological and temporal sequence.

In Darwin’s time the fossil record was very scant. Evolutionary theory predicted that as the fossil record emerged it would reveal a pattern consistent with evolution, and it has, in spades. There is no legitimate scientific refutation to the implications of this massive amount of physical evidence – evolution happened.

Don does not even try (at least in the interview) to refute this evidence. Rather he employs a common denialist strategy of focusing on smaller details as if they are capable of disproving the bigger picture. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science operates (which is why scientists are so concerned about inserting these ideas into science standards – they confuse students about how science operates).

The details about how genes work and are organized do not call into question whether or not DNA is the molecule that carries inherited information. The deviations from a perfect sphere in the Earth’s shape cannot be used as evidence that the Earth is actually a cube (it is still basically a sphere, or an oblate spheroid to be technical).

Likewise, details about the pace and tempo of evolution do not even address let alone call into question the sequential,  hierarchical, and geographical patterns in the fossil record that scream evolution and common descent.

Stasis and sudden appearance are not problems for evolution or common descent, nor are they the only patterns we see in the fossil record. Some species do gradually change over time in the record, for example.

Gould and Eldridge proposed a very nice hypothesis about stasis and sudden appearance – punctuated equilibrium. Speciation events tend to be geologically rapid. “Sudden” in this context means between 5 and 50 thousand years. Five thousand years at the low end is still many generations, and is not sudden in terms of evolutionary processes. Creationists misuse the term “sudden” in the context of the geological record and apply it to biological processes in a deceptive way.

The apparent stasis of many species in the fossil record Gould and Eldridge explained as species being in equilibrium with their environment. Research has born this out. Once a species is comfortably optimized to their niche, selective pressures will maintain their optimal state. If the environment changes, species are most likely to simply migrate, to track to an environment to which they are already adapted.

Occasionally species are pushed out of equilibrium with their environment – they colonize an island, adopt a new strategy of survival, a new predator or prey species enters their environment, or climate change significantly alters their environment. Those that don’t or cannot migrate to a better environment, must evolve or die. It makes sense that a species out of equilibrium must adapt quickly – within thousands of years.

Again – this is a dominant feature of the fossil record, but is by no means universal. It also in no way calls into question the bigger picture in the record.

Conclusion

The fossil record is very powerful evidence for evolution (and not even the most powerful). The fact that many species appear suddenly in the record, persist for a few million years on average, then go extinct is completely compatible with evolutionary theory and common descent, and is nicely explained by the current modern synthesis of evolutionary theory. The details are likely to be tweaked as new evidence emerges, but those details do not touch the bigger picture of common descent.

It is also important to point out, and a common part of the denialist strategy, that the fossil record in no way supports young earth creationism. If there was one creation over a six “day” period (however you interpret “day”) then why is there a fossil record showing a sequential pattern of nested hierarchies?

That fact is a fatal problem for creationism, while stasis and rapid appearance is not a problem at all for evolution. This reflects the creationist strategy, however, of not even bothering to build a body of evidence for creationism, but rather to just chip away at the evidence for evolution, and then declare victory for creationism by default (a false dichotomy logical fallacy).

The fossil record is clear evidence that evolution occurred, and was predicted by Darwin’s theory. The fossil record could have turned out very differently – there are countless patterns that would have falsified evolution (horses in the Cambrian strata, new body plans popping up out of nowhere, impossible chimeras, lack of a temporal sequence), but none of them were found.

The higher resolution details of the record tell us about what evolved from what and when, and the pace and tempo of evolution, but do not address the larger pattern of common descent. This hierarchical confusion is again typical of denialists. 

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36 responses so far

36 Responses to “An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part II”

  1. oldmanjenkinson 14 May 2013 at 8:55 am

    In my humble opinion where I see the greatest weakness in the creationists supposition is the lack of predictiveness or predictive powerin their “science”. If the basis if your argument is godidtit, there is no predictive power. You look for evidence to prove your hypothesis which is not science. This is the same as the pundits in the news who claim prior predictions after the fact. With science (to use an over symplification) I can with great accuracy predict that water will boil at 212F (tap water at sea level). A creationist would say it boiled because god willed it at the alotted time. Eppur si muove!

  2. Survivalist13on 14 May 2013 at 9:16 am

    I have to say I found the interview to be one of, if not the most interesting I’ve heard on the SGU. Two opposing positions being argued in a polite and logical fashion makes for excellent listening.

    What strikes me as a major flaw in Don’s logic is (as I think Steve mentions) that if evolution isn’t sufficiently supported by the evidence that creationism must be correct or even a better explanation. If you are purely following the evidence the alternative theory must have at least in your opinion stronger evidence. Of course you can impose the supernatural, but allowing this to be true would mean science breaks down (there is no way to distinguish one supernatural entity/occurrence from another, be those god, aliens or ghosts), the reason science works is because the supernatural doesn’t exist. However even with holding this restriction there is no logic to say that a certain supernatural power created life in a certain way, ie. once you employ the supernatural there are an infinite number of correct creation stories with no way to distinguish which is correct!

  3. mappleon 14 May 2013 at 10:11 am

    Thank you for this Interview and the discussion on your blog, Dr. Novella. I think Mr. McLeroy is very brave for talking to you on your podcast.

    As a biology student I often wondered about the creationist thinking. I would be especially interested in their explanations for things like the recurrent laryngeal nerve. Why should a creator do that to giraffes?
    If Mr. McLeroy reads the comments of this post, he maybe could answer this himself.

    Thank you both very much!

  4. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 12:29 pm

    “He wants student to decide for themselves if the fossil evidence supports evolution or not. This always superficially sounds reasonably, but the counterpoint I brought up during the interview was that we send a powerful message to students by what we choose to present end emphasize.”

    I’m not so sure that letting students decide is even superficially reasonable. If there is scientific consensus, robust enough to withstand 150 years of challenge, isn’t that is what needs to be taught? The average high-schooler’s opinion on the topic is as likely to be valid or enlightening as his or her opinion on The Canterbury Tales or the development of the fugue.

  5. worlebirdon 14 May 2013 at 12:37 pm

    One of my biggest problems with the “teach the controversy” way of thinking is that, in my opinion, high school students (and even more so, grade school students) are simply not qualified to “judge the evidence for themselves”. Would we expect high school students to accurately be able to analyze the evidence for other scientific concepts? What about mathematics, or history? Just to take an extreme example, quantum mechanics tells us that at sub atomic scales, particles begin to behave in extremely bizarre ways – ways that from our macro perspective seem completely counterintuitive, even crazy. “Common sense” would tell us to reject such a theory as impossible, and yet science can demonstrate that it is, indeed, the case. The evidence, however, is esoteric enough that the average high school student is unlikely to understand it, and could not possibly hope to be able to make an accurate judgement of the “strengths and weaknesses” of such a theory. Evolution is not the extreme case that quantum theory is, but still is seems irrational to expect the average high school student to come to their own conclusions about accepted scientific ideas. That kind of work would be reserved for college students going into a related specialized field.

  6. Gotchayeon 14 May 2013 at 12:45 pm

    I think Skeptical Steel’s point is important. Children are stupid.

    Less provocatively, students are there to learn. It’s actually a great idea to present students with arguments used against established theories like evolution, but only if the purpose of introducing these arguments is to teach the students why they’re bad arguments. It’s educational malpractice for teachers to leave students to decide for themselves which scientific arguments have merit. Teachers should absolutely be encouraging students to try to determine the scientific merit of different arguments, but it’s not actually teaching without feedback – the students need to have a way of knowing if they’ve done it right so that they can learn to do better in the future. There’s no learning if there’s no feedback.

    Also –

    I made a post in the last thread about science and methodological naturalism. I see from one of the posts you’ve linked here that you’re defining “naturalism” such that anything testable is natural, basically, in which case science isn’t ruling out many kinds of creationism in advance (and this seems to underlie what you’re talking about in this post). But in this case you were really confusing (probably to Don as well) in your last post when you go straight from saying that “scientists are forced to accept materialism” to “science does require methodological naturalism”. You evidently don’t think that methodological naturalism requires materialism, or anything even close to it.

  7. locutusbrgon 14 May 2013 at 1:13 pm

    First of all Steve small typo, I believe you meant to say ” oblate spheroid to BE technical.”

    Secondly I know we want to lock out the nonsense from the school books. Still it would be fun to have them require to spell out the “controversies of the creation standpoint”. To teach the controversies of course. IE” the problems with the creationist viewpoint and the fossil record being sequential, and DNA disproves the bible history. We should get to put in the controversies about the bible as a historical document and “Problems”.

  8. The Other John Mcon 14 May 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Excellent post and discussion, thanks Steven.

    We need to get Don to agree to his own assertion that “students should decide for themselves.”
    So, Don, you agree we need to teach Lamarckism in detail, as an alternative theory? How about some random non-Christian fundamentalist interpretation of evolution (if one exists)? Or the Smurf-Magic-Rainbow theory of Evolution? Or the aliens-did-it interpretation? Or how about the one I just made up on a paper napkin?

    What are you afraid of Don? Students should decide for themselves, you said it yourself. We’ll keep the kids in school an extra two hours every day to lay out all the extra nonsensical garbage that someone somewhere said that could maybe be a different interpretation of evolution. Or we could just teach them the scientific version: your call, all or none.

  9. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Children are stupid. Plus they smell bad and their manners are appalling. I mean, when there’s some heavy lifting to be done or it’s their turn to buy a round, where are they? The worst! :)

  10. HarryBlackon 14 May 2013 at 3:06 pm

    To take Dons claims at face value (He is by far the most reasonable and earnest proponent of Creationism that I have heard.) he says he wants people to address the evidence as he has and reach their own conclusions of it through critical thinking. I am willing to believe this for the sake of discussion.
    As others have said, high school students (with few interested exceptions.) dont have the depth of knowledge about how science works, how theories are developed and how this narrow issue fits into the overall picture of evolution. I think its a recipe for lazy, apathetic and fantasy prone teenagers (ie- Most teenagers) to choose the most narratively satisfying explanation that requires the least work. If this hasnt happened its a testament to the vigilant teachers and hard working students themselves in spite of the policy.

    I must say however, as Steve touched on during the interview the fact that Don is mostly dissecting popular science writing as the basis of his arguments, I feel that this is very disingenuous. Ok pick the weakest part of the theory you want to argue against (That should ring alarm bells about your own position) but to choose the watered down for public consumption explanations of these ideas is blatant soundbyte mining and a total strawman.
    I dont care how Dawkins (or any other popular writer) worded a particular simplified example. Check his sources. Read the academic literature his opinion is based on and debate that. Its harder but if you can do it your opinion will be taken somewhat more seriously. If you cant follow it then perhaps its premature to comment.

    It is very sad that as we describe the cognitive bias that causes educated people to perform these mental gymnastics, they most likely read our descriptions, re filter them and say how its crazy that we cant see these biases are blinding us to what is so obvious to them!

  11. DarqXydeon 14 May 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I concur. Living in Texas, I felt this was an insane change. High School students do not possess advanced degrees in the sciences, and are in no position to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to support common descent and evolution.

    Beyond that, Don’s tactic of picking the weakest argument and using it to take apart the whole theory is ludicrous. Imagine a table, and that table has numerous legs holding it up, some stronger and sturdier than others. You can break off a few of the weaker legs, but the table will still stand on the remaining ones.

    And they’ve been doing the same thing to history in the state; emphasizing the parts of history that are focal to the right-wing, evangelical conservative side of the political spectrum, and giving little mention to the parts of history that support progressive values and civil liberties, like the freedom from religion. Basically, it’s “The History of the U.S. According to the John Birch Society” now.

  12. ivoryboneson 14 May 2013 at 5:01 pm

    A chilling exposé of a madman. Riveting! 4 stars.

  13. Mike G.on 14 May 2013 at 6:19 pm

    To me, the major point to be made here is that scientists look at the evidence that has been found and develop a scientific theory from that evidence and are willing to modify that theory and change it it as new evidence comes to light.

    But Don is coming to the discussion as someone with a conclusion already formed, and is proceeding to look for evidence that can conform to that conclusion. In his mind, “evolutionists” are also doing this by saying that evolution is true and looking for evidence to back it up.

    This is right in line with the way the creation museum presents the argument, stating the evidence means different things depending on your point of view (biblical vs. naturalist). I think this is the key to understanding Don’s argument and why he has such a hard time accepting evolution.

    The key is to help him understand that evolutionists are not predisposed to the conclusions, but that has been reached due to the overwhelming multiple lines of evidence that points that way.

    Like Steve said in the previous blog post – a classic example of motivated reasoning. Of course, he feels the same way about evolutionists, and it needs to be shown that this is not the case.

  14. BillyJoe7on 14 May 2013 at 6:22 pm

    “Let the students decide”

    I agree that this is a badly thought out argument.
    They are students for god’s sake.
    Once they know evolution inside out then, and only then, can they begin to question.
    Before that point is reached, questions are only for the purpose of trying to understand better what they still don’t understand fully.

    I disagree, however, that a student cannot know evolution inside out by reading text books and popular books written by mainstream evolutionists. If you have read all of Richard Dawkins’ and Steven Gould’s popular books on evolution, you will know enough about evolution to assess it adequately. Knowing the minutiae contained in scholarly texts on evolution are simply not necessary to this end.

  15. bachfiendon 14 May 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I don’t think that Punctuated Equilibrium necessarily means that evolution, speciation, is abrupt, over 50-100,000 years. Most speciation events are allopatric – occurring in different places. Evolution occurs faster in smaller populations. If you have a small isolated subset of a species tucked away in an inaccessible place with a harsher environment, it could be slowly evolving, over periods much longer than geological time, to form a new species. But not leave any fossils, because it’s not common or widespread. And then the climate changes, so the altered environment suits it better than the parent species, which abruptly goes extinct, with its fossils disappearing suddenly from the geological column, and is replaced by the daughter species, which becomes common and widespread. With its fossils abruptly appearing in the geological column.

    Punctuated equilibrium is just an illusion, reflecting how common and widespread species are, and the probability of fossils being formed and then discovered by scientists. And not a reflection of the speed of evolution.

    It’s a tenet of paleontology that the oldest discovered fossil of a species doesn’t necessarily indicate the time the species originated – in fact, it’s almost certain that it must have been earlier. Perhaps much earlier.

  16. Wayneon 14 May 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Maybe Steve should have just asked McLeroy if he believed humans and dinosaurs co-existed…. as McLeroy has stated that he does indeed believe…. That alone would have been all I needed to hear from this gentleman.

    IMO, the willfully ignorant YACs just need to be mocked.

  17. rocken1844on 14 May 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Children are NOT stupid – see for example how well the kids apply reason at Camp Quest (camp-quest.org) in addition to outdoor exercise the children have the opportunity to flex their skeptical muscles.

  18. Davdoodleson 14 May 2013 at 9:45 pm

    @DarqXyde: “You can break off a few of the weaker legs, but the table will still stand on the remaining ones.”

    And, with all due respect to Don’s argument, he’s not even “breaking off legs’.

    Essentially (to re-cast your analogy), Don’s looking at a perfectly ordinary table, and trying to suggest that (i) one of the legs appears wobbly, and therefore (ii) the table top is being held off the ground by god.
    .

  19. Nitpickingon 14 May 2013 at 9:51 pm

    I’m forced to disagree with you on one point, Steve.

    I think both the fossil and molecular evidence is strong enough to be incontrovertible–so it’s meaningless to say that one is stronger than the other.

    (I assume that in the next essay you’ll bring up the consilience of the molecular, fossil, and embryological evidence?)

  20. starikon 14 May 2013 at 10:08 pm

    I guess I’m not as impressed by Don’s reasonable tone as others. This guy is a politician. I love confrontational interviews and this was a good one, but you’re not as close to reaching him as he makes it seem. Like the ID movement in general, this man carefully chooses his words to camouflage his real motivation. He doesn’t believe in evolution because it contradicts Genesis, but he’s savvy enough to realize that objections must be couched in scientific language. I just hope that people like this, in their quest to understand their enemy in order to mimic it, accidentally gain understanding. Which is why you do what you.

  21. starikon 14 May 2013 at 10:11 pm

    ..do. :(

  22. Skeptical Steelon 14 May 2013 at 10:41 pm

    “I guess I’m not as impressed by Don’s reasonable tone as others. This guy is a politician. I love confrontational interviews and this was a good one, but you’re not as close to reaching him as he makes it seem.”

    @Staric: Yes, well put. Here you say much more clearly what I tried to say on the previous thread.

  23. Roberton 15 May 2013 at 1:24 am

    I found the interview interesting because although he got text into the text book standards he appeared unaware of the simple explanations (the evolution of hard parts which fossilise more readily) for things like the cambrian explosion. It would appear that he is uninformed about the subject area he wishes others to be informed about.

  24. Bill Openthalton 15 May 2013 at 3:43 am

    sarik

    Like the ID movement in general, this man carefully chooses his words to camouflage his real motivation. He doesn’t believe in evolution because it contradicts Genesis, but he’s savvy enough to realize that objections must be couched in scientific language. I just hope that people like this, in their quest to understand their enemy in order to mimic it, accidentally gain understanding.

    His “real motivation” is that he is trying to protect his core beliefs — the information on how the world works we pick up as children, which becomes nearly as immutable as what we got from our genes. Religious people feel in their gut that their belief is correct, and they struggle mightily to protect it from the contradictory information provided by science.

    The real problem is that scientific information cannot be wished away. It is one thing to reject the tenets of another religion, it is a lot more difficult to reject scientific knowledge (imagine rejecting everything we know about, and do with, electricity to maintain belief in Zeus). The monotheistic religions emerged when knowledge about the natural world made the belief in super-human gods neigh impossible. We now witness how current knowledge about the natural world makes belief in the monotheistic religions almost impossible. The acceptance of evolution (and consequent reduction of their god to the role of prime mover) by the catholic hierarchy is a good example of how religions will have to evolve to survive. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

  25. HarryBlackon 15 May 2013 at 7:26 am

    Reading some of the excellent comments above I feel I may have misrepresented myself a little with my own comment.
    I do of course have a personal opinion on Dons motivation and his goal for introducing such a poor standard to the school system.
    However, I feel that in the context of a civil debate, my opinions and assumptions (regardless of how hard it is for me to see alternatives) are not entirely relevant and that only the stated arguments of a person should be addressed until it becomes impossible not to address other factors. Don has put his cards on the table and this is a very subtle and coy challenge to evolution, one which the science itself will have no problem surviving, but which some lay people in a position to implement policy are having trouble understanding.
    To that end Dons ideas on the age of the world are not strictly relevant because it seems to me he is defending only this change in the Texas school system and not his own beliefs.
    I do think that any science teacher who cannot defend evolution against such a weak attack, regardless of his or her religion, needs to lose his or her job. They just dont know or understand their subject or they are willfully not doing their job and lying to kids.
    I love the above analogy of the wobbly table leg by the way. Fitting to the discussion how it came from an idea that another person mentioned and was improved upon! Is there a word for that?

    Also just to hit on the point of learning evolution from popular text? Absolutely!! Its been my only source on the matter as Im not a biologist or THAT interested.
    My point is that if I decided I disagreed with something Dawkins said in such a context it would be pointless for me to nitpick a paragraph that likely had editorial input and omissions for the sake of flow. If I thought there were weaknesses there and I was being genuine, I would need to address the academic source.

  26. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2013 at 8:27 am

    The real test of Don’s openness and sincerity will be when his arguments are dismantled here, how will he respond.

    True believers (as we have seen here in the past in the comments) will go around in circles and use semantics to avoid evidence and logic. They will tend to repeat their premises without ever fully addressing the core criticisms.

    I will reserve judgment about Don until we play this out.

    Keep in mind – I never expect people to immediately admit major error and change their world view. At best we can plant a seed, or set Don on a trajectory of true questioning that might eventually lead him to a different conclusion.

  27. LCon 15 May 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Interestingly, I can think of a topic that’s obviously near & dear to Don’s heart, and about which there are details where the evidence is scant to nonexistent. Is what’s good for the goose also good for the gander?

  28. PNJeffrieson 15 May 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I really admired your professionalism and restraint during that interview. I think if I had been conducting it I would have been screaming down the phone by the half-way point!

    Don’s objections are equivalent to taking the accelerating expansion of the universe as evidence that gravity doesn’t exist and that therefore the world must be flat. Indeed if anything it’s even more ludicrous since at least that is a genuine point of scientific curiosity while it seemed to me that all of the arguments he made could be easily accommodated by evolutionary theory as it stands now.

    I’m all in favour of the ‘teach the controversy’ approach however – it just shouldn’t be taught as a *scientific* controversy because it isn’t one. It’s a manufactured and purely religious controversy and should be taught as such. If Don next wants to campaign to ensure that religious studies textbooks are forced to point out every time a religious belief is contradicted by scientific evidence then he has my full support.

  29. ccbowerson 15 May 2013 at 12:53 pm

    “I guess I’m not as impressed by Don’s reasonable tone as others. This guy is a politician. I love confrontational interviews and this was a good one, but you’re not as close to reaching him as he makes it seem.”

    I agree with this assessment, but I also think that what Steve is doing can be a good approach. Take the most charitable interpretation of his position, and give him the benefit of the doubt while enagaging him in these discussions. Challenge his points and demonstrate that his arguments are flawed and misguided. How he responds to that will expose how intellectually honest he is really being.

    There is a problem with being too aggressive initially in the interview setting: you could make Don look like the more reasonable person (separate from the actual arguments). This is the danger in having this type of interview to begin with, but if you are going to do this you have think through the different senarios, and I’m sure Steve did just that.

  30. daedalus2uon 15 May 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I came across a cartoon that I think explains the motivation behind putting religion in the classroom.

    http://nicholsoncartoons.com.au/wahabi-schools-saudi-royal-family-600wb.html

    I see no difference between doing it in the US, or in Saudi Arabia.

  31. rezistnzisfutlon 15 May 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I think it goes without saying that it’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to change someone like Don’s mind in one sitting. The benefit of such an exchange is for the viewers.

    What I think is most important about such exchanges is to correct the misinformation, or dare I say, disinformation, about the science being disseminated by creationists. Many people who aren’t scientifically literate may be swayed by creationists masquerading as intellectuals who make superficially reasonable sounding arguments about “teaching the controversy” or “critically evaluating the theory”. It takes those who are versed in the science, and just as importantly, versed in the creationist arguments, to correct the misinformation. One thing that is also lacking in modern public education is sufficient instruction on what science is in the first place, so without that understanding many people view science as just another point of view or ideology, no more or less valid than any given religion.

    The thing is, creationism is an inherently dishonest position because not only can it not rely on actual science to support it, the science mostly directly contradicts it. Furthermore, it makes claims about the natural world that should be testable but cannot be, which is why it can be wholly dismissed while maintaining intellectual honesty.

    Pointing out factual errors, logical fallacies, and dishonest statements may not sway the speaker, but it would definitely put them into the proper perspective for some. And as mentioned before, planting seeds may someday bear fruit, as has been the story for many in similar circumstances who eventually grew out of their steadfast religious dogma.

    Dr. Novella, I have a question for you. In your opinion, what’s your stance on Dawkin’s reasoning for not debating creationists, that by doing so unnecessarily gives them an air of legitimacy and credibility that isn’t warranted? What’s the benefit in engaging them directly in conversation rather than simply debunking their claims after the fact?

  32. BillyJoe7on 15 May 2013 at 6:11 pm

    …for those who don’t know, Richard Dawkins does not participate in public debates with creationists because it gives them oxygen.
    The creationist has won as soon as the evolutionary biologist accepts the invitation – they have even said so themselves!

    So don’t do it.

    Stephen Gould felt the same way.
    In fact it was Gould’s advice that convinced Dawkins to deprive creationists of that oxygen.

  33. RickKon 15 May 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I must say I’m a bit disappointed how quickly this discussion turned into a defense of evolution.

    When will someone get a creationist into a room and say:

    “I have a model that fits and explains vast amounts of evidence without breaking any chemical or physical laws. But my model, evolution, has had enough air time.

    Instead, we’d all like to know how YOUR model fits and/or explains the evidence. Let’s start with patterns of morphology, observed speciation, Lenski experiments, shared DNA, inherited ERV markers, molecular biology, vestigial traits, atavisms, genetic mutation, embryology, nested hierarchies in the fossil record, transitional species predictions, radiometric dating, dendrochronology, thermoluminescence dating, ice core dating, biostratiography, archaeogenetics, biogeography, and plate tectonics.

    When you’ve meshed those into a coherent model, then we can get into some of the details.”

  34. tmac57on 15 May 2013 at 8:45 pm

    RickK- I agree that your tactic would seem very reasonable,rather than the defensive stance that those of us who accept evolution often find ourselves in. There is a problem though,and it comes from the fuzziness of the creationist claims in the first place. They only accept that God is the creator, there is no coherent explanation for it,therefore,there is no,and can never be,any comprehensive logical processes that could have anything approaching the bulwark of evidence that supports the theory of evolution.
    I suspect they would be satisfied with the more simplistic:

    “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” Romans 11:33

  35. hippiehunteron 16 May 2013 at 12:22 am

    I think we should teach creationism as an introduction to the teaching of evolution.
    Firstly we should introduce Aboriginal creation myths then
    Viking,
    Hindu,
    Greek,
    Christian/Jewish,
    Chinese,
    African’
    Mayan,
    Korean
    and so on whilst pointing out that they all have the same evidence base and have all been supported by personal revelation.
    Then let the students decide.

  36. starikon 16 May 2013 at 12:26 am

    Riickk
    You just launched into a defense of evolution yourself. When you start with the premise of following the evidence where it leads us, of course evolution is the only model that works. Creationists don’t do that. They start with the premise of Genesis and try to rationalize away any conflicting evidence.

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