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Intellectual Welfare

June 19, 2008

Have you ever had one of those moments where you listen to someone talk about a concept or issue that you generally understand and agree with but come away with an even deeper understanding after listening to them?

I had one of those moments this morning. I listened to Kenneth Miller on NPR’s Science Friday podcast on the way to work and was blown away. I don’t know … maybe it was just the right combination of coffee and my state of mind, but I thought Miller very eloquently conveyed important aspects about the origination of the newest species in the evolving anti-evolution-movement genus (pun definitely intended!).

Many of you may be following this, and I’m sure numerous bloggers have already covered it … I’m having a difficult time just keeping up with the geoblogosphere, much less the science blogosphere at large these days. Kenneth Miller, who is a professor of biology at Brown University, has a new book out titled Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. I haven’t read the book yet, but it covers the very latest in attempts to inject non-science into science class.

The anti-evolutionists are indeed changing and re-framing their rhetoric. Attempts to include ‘scientific creationism’ were generally struck down a couple decades ago (e.g., here). The movement was then rebranded as ‘intelligent design’ (ID), which took a beating in the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania case.

The latest mutation is a bit similar to the ‘teach the controversy’ meme that was circulating a few years ago with IDers. But now we have the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ argument. Other phrases or words along these lines include ‘fairness’ or ‘academic freedom’ (e.g., Lousiana’s latest). Here’s the beginning of the proposed Lousiana Science Education Act (see pdf here):

…relative to curriculum and instruction; to provide relative to the teaching of scientific subjects in public elementary and secondary schools; to promote students’ critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories; to provide relative to support and guidance for teachers; to provide relative to textbooks and instructional materials; to provide for rules and regulations; to provide for effectiveness; and to provide for related matters.

Sounds good, but guess what? There’s really only one scientific theory that proponents of the act really care about being critically analyzed – you guessed it! Evolution!

This is where Miller’s comments on Science Friday come in. I will paraphrase here, but I definitely recommend listening to the podcast.

Miller correctly reiterates that science is indeed about critically analyzing the data/information and accepting/refuting a specific idea based on that information. The strongest theories in science are those that have stood the test of time – through testing and evaluating of the concepts WITH DATA. Evolution has stood the test of time. Are the nuts and bolts of the mechanisms as we understand them today exactly as proposed by Darwin? No, they aren’t. In fact, his original ideas are based on observations of animals – it wasn’t until the discovery of DNA and the development of the discipline of genetics that we could really investigate the mechanism. We keep learning more and, yes, we are constantly revising and refining bits and pieces through critical analysis. That’s science.

Miller brings up the analogy of plate tectonics and how when he was a kid in the ’60s, the theory of plate tectonics was not generally taught in grade-school Earth science. At this point it was still being debated and discussed within the scientific community. As more data was analyzed and various ideas and sub-ideas were tested, plate tectonics, as a whole, “won the day” as Miller put it. Now, plate tectonics is standard in Earth science education – it provides the all-important context for the patterns and processes we see on our planet. Do we understand every last little detail of the mechanisms of plate tectonics? Certainly not – we are constantly debating about these details. Biological evolution is quite analogous (and has been around even longer).

The latest strategy of the anti-science crowd is to attempt to bring their ideas into a science classroom* in the name of fairness. This is a subtler, and potentially more effective, way to convince trick the general public to get on board^. Miller talks about science as a marketplace of ideas – a marketplace where competition (in the form of debate, discussion, publishing, etc.) reigns. Over the long term, the best ideas (i.e., the ones that can withstand testing/scrutiny) “win” in this competition.

The anti-evolutionists scientific ideas have lost time and time again. More fundamentally, their ideas are simply not scientific. They haven’t produced any data, there’s nothing to test, and they have no predictive value. Bringing their ideas into science class via legislation is, as Miller puts it, intellectual welfare. Their idea failed in the scientific marketplace and therefore needs propping up by government intervention. There may be some liberal progressives out there who don’t care for this particular application of the word ‘welfare’. Perhaps there is another way to put it, but I think it’s quite effective at communicating the issue.

In other words, the anti-evolutionists desire an intelligently-designed ‘science’, whereas most actual scientists envision a self-organizing system. The anti-evolutionists desire a centralized authority stipulating (via legislation) what science is and how science should be conducted. No thank you.

There’s a lot more covered in the interview and questions/comments from callers – definitely worth a listen. If anybody has already read or is reading Miller’s book, feel free to comment about it below.

* It is important to remember … this is all about curricula for science class. People can believe whatever they want in the comfort of their homes or at their place of worship; those beliefs simply do not belong in science class.

^ The most fervent global-warming deniers use similar rhetoric.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2008 11:58 am

    Very nice write-up – sounds like good podClast material to me. (Although doing a podcast about a podcast somehow seems a bit off, but maybe that’s just lack of sleep catching up to me.)

    On a more humorous note, have you seen these t-shirts? One showed up on Pharyngula. I’m quite fond of the Discworld-esque one with the elephants, although the turtle is clearly land-based and not seagoing.

  2. June 19, 2008 11:38 pm

    The thing that gets me is that the proponents of the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ arguments are not at all interested in the ‘strengths’ bit (like…. the theory of evolution neatly and efficiently explains most of the patterns of speciation we see through time and space). It’s all “Ha-ha! It can’t explain this little bit on the margins, so it’s obviously all rubbish!”

  3. June 20, 2008 8:26 am

    Tuff Cookie … yeah, I did see those t-shirts, very clever – I may have to get one.

    ChrisR – perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I don’t think this strategy has a good chance in the long run. It is far too easy to demonstrate that they are motivated by religion even though they are claiming not to be.

  4. June 20, 2008 5:26 pm

    I downloaded one of their “Teach the Controversy” widgets for my blog, though it’s way down at the bottom.

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