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.

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