Thursday, November 17, 2005

Science education, and why we're all boned

From George Will, today:
The storm-tossed and rudderless Republican Party should particularly ponder the vote last week in Dover, Pa., where all eight members of the school board seeking reelection were defeated. This expressed the community's wholesome exasperation with the board's campaign to insinuate religion, in the guise of "intelligent design" theory, into high school biology classes, beginning with a required proclamation that evolution "is not a fact."

But it is. [The rest deleted, but worth reading for other reasons than the rant I'm about to deliver.]

Okay, everyone say it with me now: Evolution is a theory. Theories are never true; theories are never "facts".

This does not mean that "intelligent design" is a true as evolution, any more than it means that ID is as blue as evolution.

Evolution, broadly speaking, is supported by an amazing amount of data, both observational and experimental. (Remember Medel? Peas?) Don't know much about Intelligent Design, except that it seems to be just a bunch of justifications for the strong anthropic principal, which isn't a theory, because it isn't testable.

So what I'm ticked off about here is that Mr. Will neglects the fundamental point. Start debating science and theology as if they're the same type of things, and you end up diminishing both.


Anonymous poolboy said...

I guess science has changed since I was in school. Then, the precursor to the theory was the hypothesis. The hypothesis could only make it to the theory level by passing controlled tests against it 100% of the time.

This led to the idea that valid hypotheses had to be testable, repeatable, and disprovable. The prevailing "theory" of origins/macroevolution is none of those, and therefore, seemingly, cannot even rise to the level of a hypothesis, much less a theory.

Please debunk this line of thinking.

9:42 AM  
Blogger WhatsAPundit said...

Updated the original post to address this issue with the reference to Medel's peas.

It is true that a theory has to be testable to be a true theory, but that DOESN'T mean that the test has to be done in a laboratory. (Kind of hard to test plate tectonics, let alone anything to do with astrophysics if it were....)

What it does mean is that you should be able to make a prediction of what will happen under certain defined conditions. If you can then find those conditions (say, produced during an earthquake, or produced during a supernova) you can test the validity of your theory.

There may be God out there, and maybe God designed this universe so that a monkey could become a man. But frankly, by all the "natural experiments" that are suggested by evangelicism (i.e. opportunities for miracles that will alleviate the suffering of righteous believers), there's a lot more evidence against the existence of a God than for. (On the other hand, it has been an Old Testament kind of year....)

So careful with that testable stuff, poolboy. You really don't want to go where that leads, I think.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous poolboy said...

I read your update ("Evolution, broadly speaking, is supported by an amazing amount of data, both observational and experimental.") and from it, I can see the major disagreement we have: I have seen very little data that scientifically supports the current nebulous theory of macroevolution/origins.

Your reference to Medel's peas merely supports microevolution or speciation which nobody really disputes (i think).

Contrary to your statement, I am not afraid of where a search for scientific proof leads. Can you put forth a test by which macroevolution is disprovable?

8:14 AM  
Blogger WhatsAPundit said...

The moment Venus arises from a clamshell, Eve grows from a rib, or Ask and Embla are created from logs, then I will buy into creationism. (Please note, however, that this event would not invalidate macroevolution any more than Relativity invalidated Newtonian Mechanics; Newtonian physics works just fine for the vast majority of engineering applications, and apples still fall at the rates predicted in the seventeenth century. Newtonian physhics was incomplete; I'll go out on a limb and bet that Einsteinian physics will be shown to be incomplete someday too.)

If you want to show macroevolution is fundamentally flawed you need to show evidence that explains the data better than the current framework. Got some? I mean, some that doesn't boild down to "because X said so"?

(Going to take a moment and back off on the homeschoolers. Considering the state of public education in this country, I can't blame most of them for wanting to take matters into their own hands.)

Seriously, the best evidence against macroevolution would be any species identified that could not be linked to an earlier species. And of course, as you go into the fossil record, you will find species that suddenly "appear," especially in the Cambrian period. But the trouble with using that to "disprove" macroevolution is that an absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. The fossil record is incomplete; fossilization is a relatively rare process. (But one, unlike Divine Intervention, that can be modeled and reproduced.) Miss a couple of million years because of climate change or whatever, and you miss a lot of data.

(Theists should love the "absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence" bit. In other words, God can exist even if you can't see God. Be consistent here, please.)

So the question again is, how does Intelligent Design do a better job describing the process by which dinosaurs (apparently) became birds? I'm sorry, "because God wanted birds" does not strike me as a rigorous analysis of the possible mechanisms.

I'll throw you a bone: Darwin's understanding of evolution was flawed. Early evolutionists expected that evolution would be a relatively "smooth" process. Data suggests they were wrong about that. Current variations on the theory posit that evolution occurs most rapidly in small isolated populations, where genetic abnormalities aren't lost through regression toward the mean distribution. Darwin's theory was no more "wrong" than Newton's theory of gravity; but then again, as I mentioned before, theories either work or they don't work. And for explaining most of what we see in the fossil record, I'll stick with evolution as the best tool available.

Science is a process of refining explanations of how the world works. Theories change over time; if basic premises turn out to be wrong (the phlogistin model of heat comes to mind) they are discarded for theories that better match data and/or do a better job predicting new data.

"Why the world is as it is" is a question best left to religion. As a metaphysical concept, Intelligent Design doesn't offend me. "Why are there penguins?" "Because God wanted penguins" strikes me as a perfectly fine thing to say to your child. (Not mine, mind you, but it's my job to talk to my child about God, I think.) "How are there penguins" is an entirely different question, and I think a variation on the frustrated parents' standard response "Because!" is unhelpful in the extreme.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous poolboy said...

You have missed or ignored my point. You stated that evolution is a "theory"; I countered that it was too vague to be a theory in the scientific sense, and that furthermore it did not, as a whole, rise to level of a hypothesis and asked for your input.

Your responses thereafter included the following ideas (among others): god cannot be proven, a lot of theories have been superceded and will likely continue to be, homeschoolers are ok (i guess) because public schools are in the tank, etc., etc.

Let's be clear: I have not made any statements regarding Creationism or Intelligent Design; I have not stated that macroevolution is not true. I *have* questioned how such a vague framework can fall under the practice of the inductive method.

I don't dispute your claim to its truth, I merely marvel at the fact of how few are willing to honestly assess that it may be the evolutionists who are the pulpit-pounding practitioners of the "Because".

I have asked you if the framework of macroevolution is representative of true science, you have responded by proclaiming its truthfulness and by attempting to disparage those who wish to compete with it.

I remain a skeptic. You cannot convince me of something by telling me how many other people believe it or by introducing non-germane arguments. If macroevolution is science or has science on its side, plainly state so.

If you find my discourse too incorrigible or simple-minded for your liking, we can end the discussion here.

3:44 PM  
Blogger WhatsAPundit said...

Eh. You're right. I have missed your point, but maybe that's because it seems too much like major hair-splitting, to not much effect. If your point is that Evolutionary theory isn't as rigorous as, say, quantum mechanics, well, that's a hard one to dispute. If your point is that Evolutionary theory is therefore not science, I'd continue to beg to differ.

You talk about me disparaging those who posit theories that attempt to compete with macroevolutionary theories. Please link, because so far the only thing I've read anything about is Intelligent Design, and from what I've read about that, it's simply post-hoc justification for theism.

Final point, what I want taught in schools is science. You're dead-on correct that skepticism is the cornerstone of science. But another cornerstone, I think, is that once you think a theory fails, it becomes important to come up with a new, more valid theory. Settling for a new, less valid one won't do.

11:09 AM  

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