Mar 27 2012

Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Bill

Creationists continue their assault on the teaching of evolution, this time in the home state of the Scopes Monkey trial – Tennessee. The state senate passed bill 893, which will now go back to the house. The bill reflects the current strategy of creationists to sneak creationist arguments into the public school, or at least water down the teaching of evolution. The bill offers this justification for why it is needed:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;
(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and
(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects

The first sentence is certainly true, but begs the question of whether this bill will serve that purpose. Ironically this bill is directly opposed to the purpose of educating students who are scientifically literate and can think critically. This may have something to do with the fact that the creationists supporting this bill generally cannot think critically and are scientifically illiterate – at least when it comes to the topic of evolution.

The second sentence is the crux of the justification, the notion that biological evolution “can cause controversy.” This is what we call a “manufactroversy” – evolution is not a scientific controversy. The fact that all known life on earth shares a common ancestor and is the product of common descent is as well-established a fact as any in science. There is a mountain of evidence from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, biochemistry, and paleontology that support this core fact of evolution. Further, there is no competing scientific theory that can account for the evidence from these disciplines. That is the consensus view of the scientific community and the vast majority of scientists.

The controversy is a social/religious one only, and is created by the community that is pushing this bill and others like it. So in essence they create the controversy where none exists, and then exploit the controversy they made in order to push what is demonstrably a religious agenda into the public school science classroom.

The third point, that teachers may need guidance on how to deal with such topics, may or may not be true, but is irrelevant. The real question is  – are teachers being provided with the proper guidance. In fact, they are, through state science standards, which makes this bill entirely unnecessary (at least for its stated purpose). The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, “said the measure was needed so teachers can answer students’ questions, including those that were rooted in their personal beliefs.” That, of course, raises the question as to the proper role of science teachers in addressing questions of personal belief. To the extent that any hypothetical question from a student deals with the science of evolution, this bill is not needed for a teacher to address such a question (regardless of what the “root” of the question is).

Opponents of the bill, which include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Institute for Biological Sciences,  the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, correctly argue that this bill is a thinly veiled attempt to provide cover for those teachers who want to teach creationist arguments in their science classroom. This is not an insignificant number. A recent survey found that about 16% of science teachers overall teach creationism as valid science, and spend about a third less time teaching about evolution. This percentage is higher is bible-belt states like Tennessee.

The real purpose of the bill is to protect such teachers from being fired for violating the constitution and teaching religious beliefs in the science classroom. Further, the hope is that such a bill would give courage to more teachers to teach their creationist beliefs. The bill states:

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

That is the key provision – protecting teachers who are teaching creationism, under the guise of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. The “weaknesses,” as stated above, are not genuine scientific weaknesses but manufactured anti-evolution propaganda. Such pseudoscientific arguments have been deconstructed over and over again, here, on many other science blogs, in books, and in the literature. Teaching such arguments as valid criticism of evolutionary theory is religiously motivated pseudoscience, or at best simple ignorance that is unacceptable in a science teacher.

There is still hope that the bill will be vetoed by the governor, Bill Haslam, who is quoted as saying:

“It is a fair question what the General Assembly’s role is,” he said. “That’s why we have a state board of education.”

So it sounds like he might veto the bill with the justification that it is an intrusion by the General Assembly onto the turf of the state board of education. Hopefully this means he is searching for a politically acceptable way to do the right thing. We’ll have to wait and see.

Some have raised the issue that such laws are not only bad for their state, they are wasteful. So far the net result of such anti-evolution laws (other than creating a hostile environment that harms science education for students) has been to create lawsuits that the states or school districts ultimately lose, costing millions of dollars. Such laws are therefore an unnecessary drain on taxpayers.

They also make the state that passes them a target for ridicule, and less competitive in the science and technology market. Science or technology based industry is less likely to view the state as a good home. Science organizations are less likely to hold annual meetings there, and universities just might have a bias against students coming from a state with anti-science laws on the books. Tennessee, being the state that hosted the Scopes Monkey trial, is especially vulnerable to negative press on this issue.

The unfortunate reality is that a culture of anti-evolution sentiment has created a generation that is largely scientifically illiterate on the topic of evolution and that is full of anti-evolution pseudoscientific propaganda. Individuals coming from that culture (like the state senators and representatives from Tennessee) then further promote an anti-evolution agenda, and actually think they are doing the right thing. It is self-perpetuating ignorance. Outside attention and criticism is necessary to break the cycle, but it will not be easy.

39 responses so far

39 thoughts on “Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Bill”

  1. bapowell says:

    Thanks for posting. Any idea how those of us who don’t live in Tennessee can assert outside influence? After all, science rejectionism is a national problem and it affects us all.

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:

    … and on Thursday, the mafia is going to unveil its plans for advising the police as to what is or isn’t illegal, since those issues can be so confusing and controversial.

  3. Mlema says:

    oh my gosh, just got linked to this through FB …talk about science propaganda in the public schools!

  4. Mlema says:

    sorry, maybe I should give some context. The book was funded by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and other biotechnology companies.

  5. locutusbrg says:

    Those of us not living in Tenn. What can we do? send a letter to the governor? I know we can support Ms. Scott’s organization but beyond that what?

  6. sonic says:

    The Tennessee bill states-

    “This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.”

    To say the bill is ‘really’ designed to do the opposite of what it says is rather cynical.

    Similar bills have passed in other states. How is the teaching going in those states?
    Is there actual evidence that this has lead to teaching creationism (whatever that is) as science in schools?
    Does anyone have a single example?

  7. cwfong says:

    sonic, “and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine” is one key to the intent here.
    Evolution has been taught as a non-religious doctrine. Now it seems those who want to teach Creationism as a balanced alternative will have a good excuse to do so.

  8. str930 says:

    Is it intellectually honest to state that the only objectors to evolution are religious objectors? People could reject evolution for religious reasons or no religious reason at all.

    Additionally, is intellectually honest to argue that the only people who are critically thinking are those who share your views on this topic?

  9. str930 – nice straw men.

    First, I never explicitly say that the only objectors to evolution are religious. I state that the bill is part of a creationist strategy, and it demonstrably is. The fundamentalist christian community is the community that is driving efforts to hamper the teaching of evolution and include creationist arguments in science classrooms. This is not just my opinion – that was the conclusion of the court after the Kitzmiller v Dover trial, and the conclusion of the Supreme Court on every such case it has heard.

    Second – within the science community there is no serious objection to evolution. Evolution is the overwhelming consensus view of scientists, and any scientific objections were dealt with over a century ago. There may be the rare outlier, but there always is, and that’s irrelevant.

    Further – if you are well-informed on the science and are a critical thinker, then the only conclusion you can come to is that life on earth is the product of evolution and common descent. There is no other viable option. So yes, anyone who doubts that is either not thinking critically or is grossly ignorant of the relevant facts.

    Finally – given the history of the creationist community, it’s rich to play the “intellectual honesty” card.

  10. sonic says:

    “The bill protects the teaching of scientific information…”
    is the part that you may have overlooked.
    What the bill is about is this– it suggest that students-
    “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

    The complaint from some is that the theory of evolution has no weakness. If that is true- then the bill must be about other scientific theories.
    Perhaps it is special relativity that they are referring to- It is certainly all right to question that– 😉!/import/pdf/483125a.pdf

    Of course common descent can never be demonstrated experimentally-
    Is that a strength or weakness do you suppose?
    What is it about experiment and scientific truth?– Feynman said something I bet…
    Oh– Should I get jail time for mentioning this? 😉

    Then again- I believe it was Lynn Margulis that claimed the neo-darwinism is ‘dead’ because there is no adequate evidence in the literature that random mutations result in a new species.

    Should it be legal to mention this in a school? Just asking– 🙂

    BTW– here is a review of Krauss you might enjoy

  11. Watcher says:

    Oh crap, not that again. Seriously? We’re doing the Krauss argument again? Have we decided wether reading the book or not reading the book is relevant to discussing said book?

    Unless … are you trolling cwfong? That’d be hilarious.

  12. cwfong says:

    sonic, the point is that you don’t need a law to allow a science teacher to question science scientifically.

    Unless the scientist was actually something that called itself watcher.

  13. Watcher says:

    Oh come on, as an outside observer your and billyjoe’s argument was funny. The tit for tat, the blood boiling rage, the name calling … all hilarious. And then for Sonic to troll you over it? I mean, that’s just icing on the cake.

    And no use trying to lump me in with sonic, I’m on the side that believes legislative actions like this are a waste of taxpayer’s money and that evolution is the only dog in the hunt for explaining the earth’s ecology.

  14. rootsmusic says:

    sonic – “Of course common descent can never be demonstrated experimentally-” This is a very weak assertion.

    By this do you mean it should be necessary to experimentally begin with the most simple bit of dna and let it do it’s thing in a dish until it demonstrates the rise of a variety of complex species? True, it would take an impractically long time to do that experiment. But how much evolved variation is required to prove the point? It was a monk who once proved that variants do descend from a common ancestor and demonstrated it with a few generations of pea plants. The history of agriculture is a 10,000 year track record of proving that point. What those who reject evolution theory conveniently ignore is that when primitive people derive maize/corn from an otherwise inedible form of grass that is just as natural a form of selective pressure as a heard of buffalo is on prairie grass.

    For a teacher to instruct a science class with your comment would only serve to stunt a student’s ability do exactly that. There is very wide difference between teaching students to just be critical and teaching them to think critically.

    Should teachers be thrown in jail for misteaching science with remarks like that? Probably not, but it should be okay to fire them.

  15. sonic says:

    The experiment you outlined could demonstrate the possibility that an elephant could come about through the means you describe.
    It doesn’t eliminate other possibilities.
    For example– if I trained a monkey to put together a bicycle it wouldn’t prove that all bikes were built by monkeys.
    Conversely, if a particular bike was made on a Tuesday– it might not be possible to prove it experimentally– it would be a matter of history.
    Some claims can never be shown experimentally– ‘common descent’ is such a claim.

    Your example brings up a much more provocative point–
    To produce the elephant from a single celled life form would require numerous steps- single cell to multiple cell to body plan to a different body plan… I am supposed to know with certainty those steps happened. (It is a fact). But when I look at the experiments I don’t see these steps being demonstrated– despite decades of attempts. It wouldn’t be right to say the experiments are total fails- but they are not successes. Of course the experiments run long enough might provide the evidence one seeks– but that is an unfalsifiable hypothesis.
    Notice– I’m not saying ‘common descent from single ancestor’ isn’t true– I’m just suggesting it might be reasonable to maintain a modicum of doubt—
    My question to you– is it right to demand a student believe these numerous steps occurred- without question or doubt– even though they have not been actually demonstrated yet?

    There is a great deal of evidence. I am aware of lots. But there is more than I know. This much I do know–

    None of the evidence for ‘common descent’ is as certain as say — “water consists of two hydrogens and one oxygen”- something that has been demonstrated and can be anytime.
    “Water= two hydrogen and one oxygen.” I say “Show me.” And I’m shown. Fact.
    “All life came from a single common ancestor” — I say “Show me.” And the experiments continue to disappoint.
    The water thing is a fact. Common descent is an hypothesis- and even if I think it is true- I can’t call it a fact.
    How do you? By what definition of the word?
    I’m really curious– I’d like to know. Maybe I just don’t understand the word ‘fact’. I’ve done stupider things… 😉

    BTW– Lynn Margulis (the one who said ‘neo-darwinism is dead’) is covered here-
    Perhaps jail time would be more appropriate after all… 🙂

    Part of my reply to cwfong was off-topic. Noted.

    yes- I would think it would be ok to talk science. But I know some teachers. Things are stranger for them than I can imagine.
    For example– it appears Dr. N. thinks Woese is not thinking critically and/or is grossly ignorant of the facts.
    rootsmusic would apparently fire a teacher for discussing the work of Margulis. I think these two are quite bright and well educated and would be the ‘good pro-science parents’ – but even they apparently would want a teacher fired for discussing the ideas and research of some of our top scientists in a science class.
    Imagine what the other parents (bible believers or whatever) would be like.

    Need I say more?

  16. colluvial says:

    The bill’s authors imply that creationism is a valid scientific theory and therefore requires that it be analyzed, critiqued, and reviewed in an objective manner. I suspect that few non-creationist teachers have dared to tear into creationism. The bill would mandate it.

  17. Watcher says:

    So Sonic, as someone who doubts common descent, what would be the alternative?

  18. cwfong says:

    sonic, you may have a point in that the intent of the bill may backfire on its intenders if it actually frees some teachers to teach what’s wrong with creationism rather than what’s allegedly right. But it’s risky to attempt that in an area where belief in a creator predominates.
    You also have a point in that you won’t find much support for cutting edge evolutionary science where it’s uncomfortably close to creationism’s dogma. Look at this very blog for cries of blasphemy when such heresy is uttered.

  19. cwfong says:

    As to common descent, it’s a theory that in the end is based on logic. The fact is that scientists do look for other forms of life not common to our chain or web that may at some time have existed. So it’s an accepted theory that if not true is certainly reliable. But not sacred.

  20. sonic says:

    It seems there are worse bills — the states Indiana and New Hampshire both have bills that seem to promote teaching religious answers in science classes.
    That isn’t a good idea.

    My alternative to ‘the fact’ of common descent would be ‘the hypothesis’ of common descent. Facts are things that are known to be true and are verifiable from experience or observation. Like the fact that life forms have changed over time. This is verifiable by looking at the registry of roses- for example. There are a bunch of new forms of rose produced every year.
    “The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth”. Feynman.

    What definition of the word ‘fact’ is being used to claim ‘common descent’ is a fact? Do you know? That isn’t intended as a rhetorical question. 🙂

    common descent is very logical. It is plausible.
    I’m not sure either of those two sentences describe quantum mechanics well– but I’m pretty sure quantum mechanics is more ‘scientific truth’ and ‘fact’ than common descent.

  21. cwfong says:

    sonic, you realize you’ve just said you’re “pretty sure” one scientific theory about the how is more factual than the other scientific theory about the what. Except we don’t know at all ‘how’ quantum laws are regulated, and we do know something about why the regulatory basis of descent makes its common origin from ‘what’ most likely.

  22. Suraky says:

    Some viruses place their genetic material into the genomes of the plants and animals they infect. Rarely this happens in the reproductive cells of the infected lifeform, in a way that doesn’t stop the lifeform from reproducing normally.

    If common descent is true, I predict that all through the tree of life there will be a pattern of this junk DNA that matches how lifeforms have split into new groups and species. For example if the common ancestor of mice and humans acquired one of these rare infections, mice and humans would carry the same piece of junk DNA, with small variations due to mutations over time. I predict that there will be enough of these remnants of ancient infections from different viruses to link many branches of the tree of life and to give a good calibration of the rates of genetic mutation over time.

    There’s your experimental prediction, that if shown to be true removes all controversy from Evolution with common descent.

    The discovery and observation of endogenous retroviruses in the genomes of a great many lifeforms prove that experimental prediction to be true. The only alternative is the non falsifyable idea that your god created the universe 5 minutes ago with everything exactly how we see it to be.

    ERV’s …. Funny how creationists never talk about them.

  23. olsonjs444 says:

    In the interest of exploring new scientific discoveries, such as the endogenous retroviruses in the genomes of higher order life forms, I’d point to the following analyses:

    Jern, Sperber & Blomberg (JSB, 2005) “Use of Endogenous Retroviral Sequences (ERVs) and structural markers for retroviral phylogenetic inference and taxonomy” reported finding over 3300 provirus ERVs (3149 in human genome, 260 in chicken genome) using software they created.

    The software, RetroTector (copyright), assigns “scores” to patterns within a genome that are “close matches” to any of the sequences in a database containing millions of retroviruses. This retrovirus database can be found at the following link:

    Each retrovirus consists of sequences of approximately 7,000 to 12,000 bits, broken down into at least four genes (gag, pro, pol, and env). The RetroTector software score is generated after the program “recognizes conserved retroviral consensus motifs, and constructs putative proteins (“puteins”) from the different reading frames in the gene candidates.” In plain English, RetroTector looks for partial matches, and then fills in the missing bits in the human or chicken genome (the non-matched bits to the retrovirus genomes) by fabricating non-existent and non-evident proteins. The result are “proteins” that are then matched.

    I find this method to provide less than compelling evidence of retrovirus inclusions in the human genome. It would be far more persuasive to find exact matches to a sequence 10,000 bits long.

    One description of the human genome is as an incredibly detailed and complex “computer program”, which dictates such seemingly unimportant features as hair color, eye color, finger-print patterns, sizes & locations of moles, age at which puberty begins, etc. What today is described as “junk DNA” may one day be found to determine timing of certain physiological changes within the body, or neural pathways, vascular branches, or even the length of bronchial cilia in promoting asthma.

    The most complex software mankind has created and maintained has about 100,000,000 lines of code (used for international telecommunications switching of global internet traffic), or about 3 Billion bits (3 Gb) to encode. Sequences within this code are highly repetitive, and entire sections are self-contained (written by the same programmer), and joined together by other programmers. The program can be broken down easily into subroutines and individuals lines of code.

    The human genome also has 3 Billion bits, and seems to defy sequencing with the best computer tools available. The best minds approaching the problem are stymied by the highly repetitive sequences at the center and ends of each chromosome. It is extremely difficult to imagine how this complex code assembled itself by “acquiring” DNA, RNA, and other bits of code from viruses, bacteria, and simple forms of life.

    This is the only scientific explanation for our origins. The question becomes: should this scientific explanation be taught (unchallenged) in public school classrooms? I’m a scientist, so it is easy to answer yes. Why burden our children with questions they cannot hope to answer?

    But I can see how others may feel differently. Is it really such a bad thing to instill in our children such questions? Was it not similar unanswered questions that drove us to become a scientists?

  24. BillyJoe7 says:


    Richard Feynman was talking about physics – in particular, quantum physics.
    I can’t imagine him demanding experiment to confirm common descent.
    Common decent is suggested from many sources and confirmed by genetics.
    There is so much evidence in support of this theory that it has become a scientific fact.
    Scientific facts are like scientific theories in that the non-scientific meaning is quite different.
    Scientific facts can be overturned given extraordinary evidence to the contrary.

  25. norrisL says:

    So come on down to Australia where we have vastly fewer religious hang ups than you lot in the USA. This kind of rubbish never gets off the ground here

  26. ChrisH says:

    Except you exported Ken Ham to us. Could you please take him back?

  27. BillyJoe7 says:

    Actually he gravitated towards your welcoming arms.

  28. sonic says:

    yes- the data manipulation is part of the analysis.
    Now we ask– is the data manipulation justified?
    And it seems that is a discussion without a ‘right’ answer. I mean we might agree that it is OK, but we would have to be willing to acknowledge the weakness of the argument and be willing to retract the claims given information that would bring into question our basic assumptions that allowed for the manipulations in the first place.
    But you knew that.

    I’m not sure that ‘common descent’ is the only scientific explanation.
    For example– suppose life originated in more than one form more than one time.
    This seems to be what Woese is suggesting.
    I don’t know how life begins de novo- so I find the notion that it could happen only once a bit like claiming a miracle.
    If there is a chemical formula for life (undemonstrated so I put ‘if’), then it might not be implausible to imagine that the conditions that allow for this formulation to work actually existed more than one time here on earth.

    Not common descent and not creationist.
    A third way if you will.
    What do you think?

    You might want to check these terms-
    ad hoc, false dilemma, straw man.
    Good luck!

    I’m going off topic to give you a high five for asking fong to read the book. 😉

  29. Suraky says:

    Notice how Olsonjs444 makes several mistakes in his attempt to deflect ERV’s as proof of common descent.

    1: He demands very large perfect matches ignoring the fact of random mutations. Really I suspect he is well aware of this and is just trying to taint the idea of accounting for mutations in the comparisons because he doesn’t have a solid way to deny the implications of ERV’s. I wonder if he realizes that he effectively uses the same technique of filling in the gaps every time he listens to someone speak in a noisy room.

    2: He makes the common mistake of considering DNA to be a computer program that contains precise instruction on how to do everything, where to put everything to make a lifeform. It is a recipe, not software. Nowhere does it say to put a mole here or an eye there.

    3: He uses a true strawman (sonic has it backwards … surprise), by implying that I think junk DNA inserted by ERV’s can not become useful. Of course it can, that doesn’t mean it has to, and is irrelevant to the fact of much of it having come from ERV’s, and having been passed on through common descent.

    4: Comparing our genome with a large software package intentionally designed and created by us is a false analogy. The genome came to be through billions of years of chemicals doing what chemicals do … Obeying various laws of attraction and repulsion.

    5: Blatant argument from ignorance. Your difficulty in imagining how something may work or may have come to be is irrelevant, just an excuse for denying the results of people who can think of and test better ideas. Given that your admitted difficulties show you dont understand the topic, you are not qualified to pass judgement on the results.

    6: Given how much effort it takes me to write this kind of response on my phone, I will also jokingly call a Gish Gallop on you too.

    Sonic … Can you say Sockpuppet? Or do you need olsonjs444 to say it for you?

  30. sonic – multiple origins of life does not explain the evidence for common descent.

    ERVs are just one line of evidence. There is also homology of amino acid sequence and base pair sequence. Even with the discovery that “silent” mutations can affect gene expression (and so are not truly silent), there is no viable explanation for the patterns we see in proteins and DNA sequences other than common descent. Various proteins in different species are not identical, nor are they randomly different. They differ in a pattern that follows a branching pattern of common descent and accords well with the branching pattern we infer from other lines of evidence.

    You cannot explain this with multiple creations. You cannot explain this with intelligent design. You cannot explain this with creation – unless you posit a creator who created life to look exactly as if it evolved – which brings us back to the unfalsifiable problem.

  31. rootsmusic says:


    Creationists seem to keep coming up with new arguments to make with evolution and, I’ll admit that some of yours are thought provoking. But they always just boil down to something like an intellectual sounding line concocted by a think tank somewhere, i. e. irreducible complexity, common descent can’t be demonstrated experimentally, yada yada. Awareness of evolutionary processes driving the diversity of life in the world came about very slowly, painstakingly. Starting with traveling the world gathering thousands samples of insects, plants and animals, cataloging all those fossils, learning the genome, multiple disciplines over 150 years, you know the story, to arrive at the most likely conclusions. It’s real hard work over generations to build a solid consensus about it. This is exactly what creationists do NOT do. They bury their heads in ancient texts and try to quibble with new knowledge. If creationism wants to be respected it should do some equally hard work to resolve the intractable conundrums creationism presents. The theory of a Creation 7000 years ago of a 13 billion yr old universe with a history that didn’t exist is necessary to existence and conforms to physics that don’t include a divine factor is really big. There is an enormous amount of great science that could come out of proving that theory if in fact it has merit. Unfortunately for creationists though, it’s been the testing of creation theory over the long haul that’s yielded the persistently contradictory result of evolution. That’s the way science goes. Creationism is all science had to begin with. It’s the theory doesn’t pan out. Perhaps we should invoke some legislation to get some real science teachers into Sunday schools to make some comments to the children like – Divine creation of the world can’t be demonstrated experimentally.

  32. olsonjs444 says:


    You may want to re-read Steven Novella’s 3 April post. I don’t think the argument “It’s real hard work over generations to build a solid consensus about it” captures the gist of what makes evolution theory so compelling. “Scientists” had built a consensus in the 13th century by working very hard over hundreds of years to prove the Earth must sit at the center of the universe. Only a handful of scientists were needed (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo) to overturn the consensus. As all scientists know, science is not determined by consensus, but by mathematics and reason.

    In addition, there is no longer any controversy about the age of the Earth.

    This issue has been adequately addressed by one of those “blatant arguments from ignorance” alluded to by Suraky. Summarizing, Einstein’s theory of general relativity links matter and time. It turns out that time progresses more slowly near a massive object. Furthermore, it can be demonstrated (using math & physics alone) that one billion years and one day represent the same period of time — it only depends on one’s inertial frame of reference. What’s more, Einstein determined that as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases without limit — the more closely an object approaches the speed of light, the more massive it becomes. The Big Bang theory suggests that all matter originally expanded outward from a singularity at approximately the speed of light. This means that if we could ride on a proton zipping out into space at nearly the speed of light, our clock would tick very slowly compared to the clock of someone standing at the (now relatively mass-less) singularity; the “stationary” observer would record one billion years, while the traveler recorded only one day. Meanwhile, Einstein’s special theory of relativity demonstrates that our traveler would look back at the singularity point and conclude one billion years had passed, because all time is relative to the inertial frame of reference of the observer. The traveler’s perception of the passage of time would be influenced by the great mass associated with high speed travel.

    It is embarrassing as a scientist to recognize there are many other scientists who think all people of faith must be “ignorant” about science, and therefore, their ideas and their reasoning must be eschewed from public discourse. In practice, we are all ignorant about any subject we have not spent a great deal of time studying. In my opinion, it amounts to little more than intellectual bigotry to stereotype all people of faith as scientifically illiterate.

    This is precisely what the Tennessee law hoped to address. It seeks to teach children to respect others’ points of view. Certainly when it comes to evolution there are many points of view, and we adults haven’t done a very good job of teaching our children how to discuss it respectfully and rationally. Evolution itself is a term so overused that it has lost its precise scientific meaning in the American English vernacular. That’s one reason why debate forums such as this blog tend to devolve into ad hominem attacks and increased enmity, rather than mutual admiration and increased understanding.

    However, I think Steven Novella accurately points out the flaws in this Tennessee law, and expresses an appropriate concern over how it would be used in practice. I’m concerned that a law intended to teach respect for others will end up getting used to crush the creativity and curiosity inherent in all young minds.

  33. sonic says:

    Thank-you for noticing– I’m consistently provoked by my thoughts. 🙂
    Darn things…
    I do try to be civil– I don’t have the answers. I used to have the answers. Now I don’t. Perhaps I will have the answers again someday.
    Darn things– these thoughts… 😉

    You claimed I had two choices– common descent or ‘that your god created the universe 5 minutes ago…’
    That is both false dilemma and straw man.
    That is what I was referring to.
    I would allow olson to defend his statements about erv’s– I’m sure he understands what he is saying better than I do.

    I don’t understand the comment about sock puppet. Is it worth elucidating?

    Dr. N.-
    I can’t explain many things. The person who I believe is discussing the possibilities of multiple origins is Woese. I have no reason to ignore his opinion as I believe his discussion is based on current observations.
    I think one could explain the evidence with a design hypothesis. But a design hypothesis might explain different evidences as well. That’s the major weakness- the design hypothesis might be too flexible to be rendered falsifiable. Right?

    thank-you for a discussion sans ad hominem. Your approach is one I wish to emulate. 🙂

  34. BillyJoe7 says:


    “[the Tennessee law] seeks to teach children to respect others’ points of view”

    That’s another reason to oppose that law.
    You should respect people, but you shouldn’t have to respect their views.
    In my opinion, and whilst agreeing that sceintists with creationist views not scientifically ignorant, their actual creationist view is an ignorant view and is therefore not worthy of respect.

    “science is not determined by consensus”

    In fact it is.
    With global warming, as an example, there is input from thousands of scientists, from all over the world, working individually in many diverse fields, none of whom could have their pulse on all the data. In these circumstances, it is not only important but necessary for them to get together, consider all the evidence together and come up with a consensus about what it means. No one scientist can do all this work on his own.
    The consensus achieved at any point in time may prove to be wrong in the long run, but this is the best that can be done with the evidence available at the time. This is just good science. It actually brings the science forward.

    “it can be demonstrated…that one billion years and one day represent the same period of time”

    I think you meant the same “distance” in spacetime.
    But what is your actual point? That the theory of relativity supports young earth creationism?

  35. cwfong says:

    If an ignorant view is not worthy of respect, then none of us should be respected by any and all out there who are less ignorant. And where does that leave the most ignorant person in a group, for example. Especially if or when the ignorance is due to a handicap that can’t be educationally alleviated.

    Also one billion years and one day in the olsenjs444 example do NOT represent the same distance in spacetime. They only represent the present time measured by theoretical watches in two theoretically separate places.
    If one taught the science of this to a smart but “creatively” ignorant child, one might actually in time persuade him to amend his beliefs. In other words, you’d have shown respect for his potential.

    Otherwise, I suppose you’d only send the already educated to school. I’m ignorant as to how that would work.

  36. BillyJoe7 says:

    Looks like I need to clarify my points…

    “[the Tennessee law] seeks to teach children to respect others’ points of view”

    What I said was: “you shouldn’t have to respect their views.”
    I respect a view that has merit.
    That law requires that I respect views regardless of merit.
    Post-modernism anyone?

    “it can be demonstrated…that one billion years and one day represent the same period of time”

    One billion years and one day DO NOT represent the same period of time (because, clearly, one billion years is 365 billion times longer than one day). What IS objectively the same is the “distance” in spacetime between the two events on either side of those two subjective time frames.

  37. cwfong says:

    What then do you think Einstein was demonstrating with that sort of example?

  38. BillyJoe7 says:

    Equations in physics must deal with invariant quantities.

    Newton had ‘time’ and ‘space’ in his equations.
    But Einstein showed that ‘time’ and ‘space’ are relative and, therefore, that Newton’s equations are incorrect.
    Einstein was looking for something that was invariant.
    He found that spacetime fits the bill.
    As speed increases, time dilates and space contracts, but space-time remains constant.

    But I am interested in olsons response to my question:
    “But what is your actual point? That the theory of relativity supports young earth creationism?”

  39. cwfong says:

    Yeah, you really nailed him with that one.

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