Apr 14 2009

Controversy Over Strengths and Weaknesses

The strategy du jour of those who wish to water down the teaching of evolution, or to insert their religious creationist ideology as much as possible into the science classroom, is to ask, under the banner of “academic freedom” that schools teach the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, particularly evolution. The Intelligent Design propaganda machine, the Discovery Institute, has been hitting this theme pretty hard. This was also the focus of the recent controversy over the Texas science standards.

Recently Michael Egnor has taken up this banner over at the DicoTute’s blog. He is responding to a blog post by Timothy Sandefur, and in typical fashion Egnor seems to have missed the fact that Sandefur has completely dismantled his position. In Egnor’s latest reply he resorts to his playing of semantic games and grossly misinterprets Sandefur’s position, while whining about his own position being misrepresented.

A Creationist By Any Other Name

The First point of contention is the use of the term “creationist” to refer to Egnor’s position – Egnor has made this complaint about others, including myself. He writes:

The term creationist in this debate refers to young earth creationism. I’m not a young earth creationist. Therefore when Mr. Sandefur calls me a “creationist,” he’s misrepresenting my views.

Egnor completely ignores Sandefur’s actual characterization of his views, and rather focuses on a single term. It seems Egnor has unilaterally (he provides no reference or other justification) and quite arbitrarily decided that henceforth, and retroactively, the term “creationist” only refers to members of one particular subset of creationism formerly known as “young earth creationists”.  Also henceforth the term “bear” will now only refer to black bears, and the literature will be altered to reflect this.

Seriously – the term “young earth” modifies the term “creationist”, clearly for the purpose of designating a subset of the broader category of creationists. This terminology confusion has also arisen in the comments of this blog, so it is worth explaining. Actually I and others occasionally define the spectrum of creationism – from young earth creationists who deny all of evolution and believe the earth and all life was created pretty much as it is 6-10 thousand years ago. There are also old earth creationists, those who believe there was a series of creations over time, those who believe in micro but not macro evolution, those who believe in common descent but not natural selection as a mechanism, and those who believe in all of evolution but think it was guided by their god to a predetermined outcome – namely us.

There is one feature that this range of beliefs has in common – the role of a supernatural creator.  Therefore the term “creationist” is a reasonable label to refer to those who are somewhere on this spectrum. At times it is necessary to be more specific, but at others it really isn’t. For example, it is the creationists, in fact, who have promoted the “big tent” approach – essentially joining forces to oppose the teaching of godless Darwinian evolution. They are a creationist coalition.

As an aside, I also like the term (I believe coined by Michael Shermer) of evolution-deniers. All creationists, except for theistic evolutionists, deny evolution to some degree. Although the apparent purpose of such denial is to open the door for a supernatural agent, which leads us back to creationism.

Teaching Religion in Public Schools

Egnor moves onto the meat of his blog post:

Again, it is quite revealing that Mr. Sandefur is resorting to misrepresenting his opponent’s views. No, I don’t believe that it is constitutional for creationists (or anyone else) to advocate creationism in public schools. Likewise, I don’t believe that it’s constitutional for atheists (or anyone else) to advocate atheism in public school. I don’t believe that it’s constitutional for public schools to advocate religion.

But what is “religion”?

This is an aside, but for historical context it is worth pointing out that creationists (and yes, I will continue to use that term to refer to the spectrum of believers who deny evolution to some degree and insert a role for a supernatural agency) in fact did try to insert the teaching of their religious beliefs into public school science classrooms. It is only a very recent strategy of theirs to say that they never wanted this at all, their only concern is teaching science correctly. Right. Egnor adds that he is also concerned about not teaching atheism – more on that below.

But in his first paragraph above Egnor acknowledges the principle of separation of church and state, and of religion and science in science classrooms. Perhaps we can finally agree upon this principle as common ground. Certainly scientists do not want to teach any faith in science classrooms.

But Egnor also is being coy, as if we don’t know what the strategy of the DiscoTute is (more on that below).

Now that he has tried to grab the constitutional high ground, he sets the stage for his argument that it is the scientists who want to teach religion:

Yet instruction in metaphysics isn’t limited to philosophy classes. Much of what children learn in science class about evolution has profound metaphysical implications.

And there it is – evolution has metaphysical “implications”.  So now teaching science that has any metaphysical implications is akin to teaching religion. This is an absurd position. Science teaches us about what we can know through scientific methodology – not ultimate metaphysical truths. However, the findings of science can certainly have implications for specific metaphysical positions – that does not make science metaphysical itself.

Egnor’s argument is essentially a restating of the creationist position that teaching that evolution is a random unguided process is equal to atheism. But it isn’t – it is simply a statement about what science can say about evolution without appeal to any metaphysics.

Ironically, after whining about Sandefur misrepresenting his position, Egnor then misrepresents Sandefur’s position. Egnor writes (again being coy):

Perhaps Mr. Sandefur desires to indoctrinate children in atheism, perhaps he doesn’t.

But this is what Sandefur wrote in the very blog post Egnor is responding to:

As I explained in my article, Reason And Common Ground, the government is perfectly free to teach children that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis, even though that conflicts with the views of Greek polytheists who think the seasons are caused by Persephone’s annual visits to her husband Hades. What the government may not do is say that the myth of Persephone is true or that it is false.

That is a pretty clear position, exposing Egnor’s manufactured doubt.  Of course, according to Egnor the axis tilt theory of earth’s seasons has metaphysical implications for Greek polytheists, and so it is akin to teaching religion.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Part of the justification for claiming that scientists who want to teach evolution actually want to teach atheism is their new “strengths and weaknesses” strategy.  Egnor writes:

This I know for sure: The method of science is to consider the strength and weakness of all scientific theories. Teaching only the strengths of a theory, and not the weaknesses, is indoctrination, not science.

Yet Mr. Sandefur insists that public school children be taught only Darwinism’s strengths. Thus, it’s clear that Mr. Sandefur wants to indoctrinate students, one way or the other.

Here is some more common ground for us – scientists also agree with teaching legitimate strengths and weaknesses about scientific theories. Of course it is bad science to ignore one side of genuine controversies. What Egnor misses (I think quite deliberately) is that the “strengths and weaknesses” argument is a political one, not a scientific one.

Specifically, creationists on some state school boards, like recently in Texas, are experimenting with inserting the term “strengths and weaknesses” as a specific political strategy. The goal is to use this term in the science standards in order to exclude biology textbooks that teach evolution, or that do not contain bogus creationists arguments against evolution.

Therefore this is about teaching creationism in public schools, or at least watering down the teaching of evolution. And so Sandefur was completely justified in characterizing Egnor’s position, and that of the DiscoTute, as advocating the teaching of creationism in public schools. The “strengths and weaknesses” position is transparently just a means to that end.

Further, it is completely unnecessary to have such terminology in science standards. It is already part of science to consider the strengths and weaknesses of every theory. No one is advocating only teaching the strengths of preferred theories and ignoring real weaknesses – that is a huge straw man, useful only for propaganda.

The real conflict here is that Egnor and other intelligent design proponents have come up with a number of claims that they believe are weaknesses of the current consensus on evolutionary theory. However, their claims have all failed in the arena of science, because they are bogus. Irreducible complexity is a sham. Information theory supports evolution and does not refute it as ID proponents claim. Variation and natural selection are capable of increasing the amount of “specified information” in the genome.

I should also point out that high school science textbooks are not the place where new ideas are hashed out. Textbooks generally contain the distilled consensus of scientific opinion. They should emphasize why the current consensus is what it is, and discuss the process, even past controversies and how they were resolved. But a new idea that has not been worked through does not go into the textbooks. Certainly new ideas that the vast majority of the scientific community think are worthless and hopelessly flawed do not deserve a place in science textbooks.

There is also a difference between basic and advanced textbooks. Grade school science should focus more on time-honored basic concepts in science, while exposing students to the scientific process and history of science. And then as science students progress more and more controversy and uncertainty is appropriate, until at the graduate level students are actually in the midst of current scientific debates and controversies.

As I said – the real debate here (not the fake one manufactured by the DiscoTute as a political strategy) is about what specific weaknesses of evolutionary theory ID proponents would have in high school biology textbooks. So far, all the ones they have proposed have been rejected on scientific grounds. They need to make the case for a specific claim, and they haven’t.

It is also worthy of note that the young earth creationists on the Texas school board think some of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory include things like – the absence of transitional fossils in the fossil record and the second law of thermodynamics. To them the “strengths and weaknesses” language was used to justify including decades-old debunked creationist arguments against evolution – the same arguments that failed to get into science classrooms under the “creation science” strategy, or the “teach the controversy” strategy. The “strengths and weaknesses” strategy is being used to promote the same creationist pseudoscience as all the previous creationist strategies.

So forgive me when I do not take Egnor or the DiscoTute at their word that they are really just concerned about academic freedom.  Their creationist strategy is transparent. And further their attempts at characterizing teaching science as akin to teaching atheism because of its “metaphysical implications” is absurd and also is a transparent distortion.

32 responses so far

32 thoughts on “Controversy Over Strengths and Weaknesses”

  1. RickK says:

    Teaching that the Moon is a big rock in space has “metaphysical implications” to hundreds of local religions among various tribal populations who believe the Moon is a divine being or of divine origin.

    Egnor’s blatant Christian-centric bigotry is just as reprehensible as his ceaseless assault on science.

  2. As an aside, I also like the term (I believe coined by Michael Shermer) of evolution-deniers.

    Maybe we should call them science-deniers instead since it’s not just evolution (biology) that they deny. They also tend to deny geology, cosmology, anthropology, genetics, nuclear physics, astronomy, and linguistics. Plus they’ve said that they want to destroy “methodological naturalism” which is the very core of science. They are anti-science despite all of Egnor’s whining to the contrary.

  3. catgirl says:

    I really prefer the label “evolution-deniers” over “creationists”. It’s no different than Holocaust-denialism or AIDS-denialism. It’s also a more accurate description of what they do. They mostly just try to discredit evolution by natural selection. Because of the false dichotomy fallacy, they believe that doing that is the same as promoting their own view.

  4. Doctor Evidence says:

    really, it is morbidly fascinating how people attempt to
    resolve (some understanding of) the scientific method
    with a-priori beliefs. Logic is compelling, even when
    you pretend its not during a debate. example:


    Sorry Egnor, reality is what we measure, not what you say it is.

  5. Timothy Sandefur says:

    Thanks for the link, Dr. Novella! I’m a big fan of The Skeptic’s Guide; it’s an honor to be a fellow target of Egnor’s fumbling efforts at argument.

  6. HHC says:

    Texans who prefer to teach creationism in school will later have to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their kids not being accepted at reputable schools and obtaining jobs in science in the U.S. For Texans, maybe its a small world after all.

  7. Timothy – thanks for leaving a comment. You have earned a “dissed by the DiscoTute” skeptical badge of honor. You can wear it proudly at meetings and scientific gatherings.

  8. superdave says:

    This is such a thorough demolishing of Egnor’s claims I don’t think I could even play devil’s advocate for his side. Also, I recall egnor once collectively insulted all of the neurologica readership, so we all get this ignoble prize.

  9. “This is such a thorough demolishing of Egnor’s claims I don’t think I could even play devil’s advocate for his side.”

    Well, I suppose by nominal definition I have to…

    Um, Godless materialist and demon spawn Dr. Steven Novella would have us believe that….

    Oh, hell. I can’t do it.

  10. Imagine a world where all the strengths and weaknesses of ID were taught in schools. It would do even more damage to the ID movement than barring it from the classroom does now.

    Widespread cluelessness about ID is its life support system. It’s hilarious that the proponents getting their wish might be the worst thing that could happen to them.

    But then I guess they’d just complain that educators were biased because they focused almost entirely on the weaknesses — as if it was their fault that even the champions of ID can’t pinpoint any of its specific strengths (in the form of positive claims).

  11. artfulD says:

    In the sense that evolution (in my view among others) guides itself through trial and error, it’s not a random unguided process. If neither side here wants that possibility to be included in the science, then both positions represented here are to that extent dogmatic.

  12. artfulD says:

    Since the Massimo blog seems to be well regarded here, I wonder how well y’all night regard the following:


  13. tmac57 says:

    A small correction regarding the recent Texas standard. The strengths and weaknesses had already been used in Texas for more that a decade, and were removed last January, only to to finally be replaced with new language in March which pretty much says the same thing: “What we now have is Son of Strengths and Weaknesses,” says Josh Rosenau, a project director for NCSE. “Having students ‘analyze and evaluate all sides of scientific evidence’ is code that gives creationists a green light to attack biology textbooks.”
    From the NCSE web site: “For example, the revised biology standard (7B) reflects two discredited creationist ideas — that “sudden appearance” and “stasis” in the fossil record somehow disprove evolution. The new standard directs students to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records.””
    Same ‘whine’, new bottle.

  14. natural selection is not random. It is the non-random survival of individual. But the term “guided” is problematic. In the context of this debate it means – is there some force, principle, or agency that is guiding the course of evolution to a particular future outcome.

    The trial and error of variation and natural selection is not random, but it is not guided in this sense either.

    Regarding epigenetics – I don’t find this topic terribly controversial. Science typically finds the world to have many layers of complexity and the more we dig the deeper they get. This is interesting as to the biochemical substrates of evolution, and has implications perhaps for the the possible patterns that can emerge through evolution, but I don’t think it changes the basics of evolutionary theory.

  15. superdave says:

    In reading Egnor’s blog, I respond with a quote from the great philosopher Dee Snider. “If that’s your best, your best won’t do”.

  16. artfulD says:

    But trial and error is a purposeful way to achieve an outcome that to even a small extent relieves the organism of the problem or problems that prompted (and in a way continually prompt) that activity to begin with. Some would say it’s the continual search for reinforcement of satisfaction as a goal in and of itself (I don’t take that approach but its interesting).
    The Egnor’s don’t see and don’t want to see that achievement of purpose can be incremental without any help from a creator and nevertheless be successful.
    As to epigentics and its function, I expect we will find that it’s a facilitator for the results of such incremental successes to be passed forward. The basics don’t have to change for an auxilliry theory to help us know more about how evolution can work without any helping hands of gods.

    Egnor’s strategy is to find gaps that science seemingly can’t fill, and to eliminate any avenues that might lead to their filling. He wants to see only one source of purpose – let him see that there are as many as there are forms of the life that makes its own.

  17. tmac57 says:

    “Egnor’s strategy is to find gaps that science seemingly can’t fill, and to eliminate any avenues that might lead to their filling.”
    Yes, and it is beginning to look like the ID/creationist side is getting more desperate with their tactics. Their attempt to co-opt science by inching closer to it should ultimately fail, but it will undoubtedly take a long time. Kind of a dichotomy paradox with science being the ultimate goal.

  18. artfulD says:

    That paradox depends on the assumption that the universe is not infinitely divisible – but in posing the conundrum one is led to infer that it is.

    In a similar way, ID may end up hoist by its own conundrum.

  19. TheBlackCat says:

    Good summary. One seemingly minor but I think important issue, though, is this:

    The real conflict here is that Egnor and other intelligent design proponents have come up with a number of claims that they believe are weaknesses of the current consensus on evolutionary theory.

    I am not convinced this is the case. They certainly seem to believe that they can convinced uniformed laypeople that these are strengths and weaknesses of evolution, but I have my suspicions that at least some of them are aware of the flaws in their ideas. They have shown no problem misrepresenting their opponents’ opinion to further their cause, I see no reason to assume that they would not likewise misrepresent their own opinions as well.

    This is not about truth for them it is about converts. It is about what they consider to be saving souls. They have shown repeatedly they have no problem lying to accomplish this goal, so I have no doubt they are at least capable of presenting arguments they know to be totally without merit. It is pious fraud, and once it is clear they are willing to go down that road I really do not think anything they say can be trusted, even about their own beliefs.

  20. TheBlackCat says:

    Oh yes, and there is one thing I though is important to add:

    Although they claim the “strengths and weaknesses” language is supposed to protect teachers and students who want to discuss the scientific weaknesses of a scientific principle from punishment, so far nobody promoting the “strengths and weaknesses” idea has been able to present a single case where someone was punished for trying to do so

  21. IDiots are not stupid. Of course they know what they are doing. They justify their means by the ends of their religious jihad.

    Their efforts are a stewpot of simmering ironies: they abandon their morals by lying and deceiving to derail evolution in favor of creationism so that their sense of morals may prevail, and they do not see that their actions and refusal to accept easily evidenced facts renders them inevitably victim to the natural selection of ideas.

    Rather delicious ironies at that.

  22. Doctor Evidence says:


    “I can not propagate my moral belief system without violating it.”

    The Egnor Incompleteness Theorem.

  23. Apollo says:

    “Yet instruction in metaphysics isn’t limited to philosophy classes. Much of what children learn in science class about evolution has profound metaphysical implications.”

    Reading this made me laugh. Does Egnor even know what Metaphysics is?

  24. mindme says:

    It took me a bit to get it but “DiscoTute” refers to the Discovery Institute. Disco + ‘tute.


    Incase anyone else was confused and thought Dr. N. was referring to a message board troll.

  25. I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of the definition of “purpose”. Yes, individuals act with purpose. However, I don’t think their purpose is to evolve (it’s just to survive), and even more, it is not to evolve to a specific outcome. Therefore there is nothing guiding evolution.

    I think evolution is best understood as something that just happens when varying organisms struggle for survival. It’s like water seeking its lowest level – it doesn’t “want” to get there, it’s just something that happens as a consequence of the laws of physics.

    But I agree that there is apparent purpose in evolution, although it is an illusion the creationists assume it is the consequence of a supernatural entity.

    The exact same thing applies to the concept of “design”. Ambiguities in the definition can be exploited to argue that the appearance of design implies a designer. But design too can result spontaneously from the bottom-up as a blind consequence of evolution. No one “designed” life, yet life has design – design as a consequence of life evolving, like water seeking its lowest level.

  26. John Pieret says:

    While the Persephone example is a good one, what about the “metaphysical implications” of Egnor’s own specialty of pediatric neurosurgery? Every successful outcome he has implies that Christian Science and its belief that all disease is the result of spiritual failings is wrong. By cutting out tumors or correcting other defects in physical brain tissue, instead of only praying over them, he is supporting an atheistic and materialistic view of disease. Maybe we should teach students, including his patients, that there are gaps in our knowledge of disease and let them make up their own minds if Egnor is unnecessarily and cruely cutting open childrens’ brains.

    Or, on the other hand, we can act like sane adults.

  27. artfulD says:

    I will agree to disagree on the nature of purpose, except that if one defines it the same way as Egnor would like us to, we give him that advantage. In the end, it’s nothing more than a human concept that his like use or misuse to activate their mythologies.
    A quibble as to whether an organism’s purpose is to survive rather than to evolve. As a concept, it may just as well be that of evolving to survive. At the mechanistic level of the organism itself, it may be no more than ensuring some probability of getting the next shot of energy. And then the next and so on. Evolution by increment!

  28. Dr. Evidence: “The Egnor Incompleteness Theorem”

    Oh, I like that.

  29. artfulD says:

    Something else of the what’s not to like category:

    Why People Believe What They Do
    University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Tania Lombrozo talks about why people believe what they do, especially regarding evolution or creationism.

  30. HHC says:

    Wouldn’t U.S. student efforts be better directed toward learning
    current law as it applies to Texans instead of learning a creation myth which demands submissive thought processes? How do you develop good citizenship? By allowing your state citizens as the Texas Criminal Courts did to burn the flag if you don’t like current political issues? If you throw out texts on science and evolution how do you create critical thought? Morality doesn’t begin in school, you are a part of the community from birth onward. You don’t grow up in a vaccum even if you live in Texas.

  31. obxneil says:

    I’ve long toyed with the idea of becoming a biology teacher in order to be on the front lines of this paltry debate, and test my solution to it. Simply put, I would indeed bring intelligent design into the science classroom:

    “Okay students, today we’re going to test for the identity of the designer, as its identity is only implicit these days. Susie, being that the Hindu mythology is, relatively speaking, far more accurate in its timescales, I want your group to devise experiments for testing the Hindu pantheon, and build a theoretical framework for the necessity of a caste system to the functioning of the universe.
    “Bill, you and your group do the same for the Mayan mythology (also more accurate in timescales), but pay particular attention to how human sacrifice might be essential to keep the planets in orbit, and the sun from imploding. This could have dramatic benefits to averting global warming.
    “Shaniqua, your group needs to devise experimental determination between Jewish, and Northwest American Indian accounts of the special creation of man. You should determine whether man is made from dust, or perhaps clay miraculously brought to life, or from the blood of a nefarious lizard slain by a clever, talking fox. If it is indeed lizard blood, I expect your group to identitfy the species.
    “Art, your group will study flood impacts on aquatic lifeforms. Calculating the dilution consequent from flooding the Earth above Mt. Everest, devise a mechanism by which saltwater lifeforms could survive. Our local pet store has generously donated several tanks worth of saltwater life.
    “Nikki, your group should devise a testable hypothesis regarding the retreat of glaciers as a victory of the Norse gods over frost giants, and the extinction of large mammals in North America as collatoral damage from the conflict.
    “Tyler, your group is to test the vegetarian animal hypothesis of the Garden of Eden. Using 40 species of strict carnivores, feed them a purely vegetarian diet and note the results. If promising, we’ll then take strict herbivores, and attempt to transform them into carnivores.
    “Melanie, your group is to test all of the Greek creation myths, but in particular, I want a meta-analysis of the evidence of gold, silver, and brass-fashioned races that purportedly preceeded mankind’s creation, and devise a plausible biology for them.”
    I have high hopes for this kind of approach. Finally, some real scientific treatment as to the identity of the designer, and the mechanisms for creation. Darwin wouldn’t stand a chance.

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