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August 17, 2005

Teaching the Boundaries of Science

My latest column, "Life in an Unfinished World," takes up the evolution v. intelligent design dispute. The religious-like fervor of those who oppose intelligent design raises the question of whether they think any aspects of society rightly impinge on science. Contrary to frequent insistence that intelligent design be taught — if at all — in religion or philosophy classes, no more important lesson can be taught to American schoolchildren than that science has culturally and methodologically defined boundaries.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 17, 2005 6:06 AM
Culture
Comments

Intelligent design should be taught in biology classes, if only as a side note. Other theories predating Darwin are often covered, such as Lamarck's "spontaneous generation", so why not ID?

Too much of science education presents theory as if it were fact, when in fact all theories are works in progress. Evolution by natural selection is a useful model for the origin of species, but it may not be the whole story. The zeal shown by some educators and scientists for orthodox Darwinism is bad for science. Students should be encouraged to challenge current theories and search for better ones, especially those students who intend to become scientists.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at August 17, 2005 9:32 AM

Darwin is not the only poster-boy either. You can't question the validity of Einstein's theories with out raising a ruckus within the established and entrenched scientific community.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 17, 2005 12:51 PM

Justin,
If you are seriously interested in this debate and fully understanding why ID is horrendous beast, I suggest you read Ken Miller's "Finding Darwin's God." A biologist and a Catholic, he outlines evolution in a way that a non-scientist can easily understand, and takes to task all those who would instill their philosophies (religious or secular) into the theory. I point this out because of this passage in your article:

Just as intelligent design is not simply retooled creationism, it does not seek to fill "gaps" in evolution with the all-encompassing investigation-ender of God. Rather, the motivation of those with an interest in intelligent design is to work under different assumptions than the typical secular scientist about aspects of the universe on which science cannot comment.

I believe that this is nothing more than wishful thinking on your part. ID is virtually retooled creationism and many of the "typical secular scientist[s]" are not secular at all; many are very religious. IDers do indeed work under different assumptions, but not about what aspects on which science cannot comment but on what it can. ID claims to use science (and poor science at that) to demonstrate an intelligent designer.

It is incorrect to paint IDers as "outside the box" thinkers; they must actively ignore and obfuscate and appeal to the general public's ignorance about science in order to get their ideas heard. The truth is, evolution is no more or less sound a theory than the theory of gravitation.

But if it must come down to scientific ability or religous faith, truth cannot contradict truth. We can certainly "address the world as we belive it to be" but we cannot do so by ignoring one truth in favor of another.

I highly recommend Miller's book.

Posted by: Michael at August 17, 2005 1:13 PM

It is true that the pursuits of groups like the ACLU and Americans for the Separation of Church and State are meant to eliminate any and all references to a God in the public sphere and I’ll even go so far to say that they seem to want all Americans to have one religion and that one religion is Atheism. I’m not condoning their pursuit in any way. But I think the ID pursuit is a knee-jerk reaction to that as in “you want to eliminate all religious thought from the classroom ? We’ll show you by promoting that religious beliefs should be taught in science class”.

How does one explain the millions and millions of people who attended public school but somehow still believe that God created human life ?

For many years, students have been taught Darwin’s theory as a part of science curriculum and a vast minority of those students end up believing that we evolved from apes with no other possible explanation. Students are being taught a scientific theory. What they do with that theory is in the hands of their parents and other experiences that they have as they mature and learn.

The seriousness of the ID debate depends on the assumption that what students lean in school is all they will ever be exposed to. I don’t buy that nor do I think it is a good assumption when it comes to public policy. As a matter of fact, I think that assumption is more indicative of liberal thought than conservative thought. Science students take other classes, have friends, attend church, religious school and have lots of other experiences that make up their beliefs and, as we know, those change often as part of the life process.

In this case, I think that the view of the ID proponents is in the same class of those that want curriculum to justify their specific world view like, for example, about war, race, homosexuality and sex education. But in this case as in most others (but not all), I think that the traditional view of keeping Darwin’s theory under scientific theory and creationism under religion or philosophy should prevail.

Posted by: Mark M at August 17, 2005 5:01 PM

Michael,

Judging from the Catholic cardinal's comments that set Krauthammer off, it sounds as if Ken Miller must be a proponent of intelligent design, as well! (I think his book is already on my "to read" list... the deadline for which has recently been moved to my death.)

But I do find something interest in this comment of yours:

The truth is, evolution is no more or less sound a theory than the theory of gravitation.

I've heard this before (and not only from you), and I think I've finally identified what bugs me about it. As far as I know, no scientists — at least not those who teach in public schools — spend much time speculating about the origin of gravity. What it does, how it works, and so on, yes, but why it developed, not so much. And even if they did, the theory isn't wrapped up in the sorts of questions concerning who we are and what that means that religious folks and secularists are both apt to overemphasize in the case of evolution.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 17, 2005 7:33 PM

The truth is, evolution is no more or less sound a theory than the theory of gravitation.

Yes, but there are aspects of gravity that are not yet understood, and research into the basic nature of gravity continues. Many scientists also believe that to explain accelerating cosmic expansion, there must exist long-range forces other than gravity.

By analogy, we might postulate forces other than natural selection to explain life on Earth. That doesn't mean evolution is false; on the contrary, evolution by natural selection has been clearly observed in the field and in the fossil record. However, it may be that additional forces are needed to explain the origin of complex multicellular life (including us) from an initally lifeless planet.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at August 18, 2005 8:56 AM

I think our(mankind's) precursors were pets genetically designed by intelligent beings that had evolved from the dinosaurs.

Wrap your minds around that thought for a while.

Posted by: NotSamIAm at August 18, 2005 11:16 AM

The difference between grav and ev is the fact that discrepancies in the theory of gravitation are based on specific observations, i.e. you shoot a probe into space, and the theory predicts it should be at a specific spot after a specific time. If it's not at that spot, then the theory needs to be modified. That's doesn't mean that the original theory is "wrong", just that it is a good approximation under appropriate conditions.

For a similar argument requiring modification of the theory of evolution, you would need to make an observation that cannot be explained by the existing theory, like a silicon-based lifeform, or a lifeform with alcohol in its cells instead of water, or something like that.

Posted by: Andrew at August 18, 2005 12:41 PM

The difference between grav and ev is the fact that discrepancies in the theory of gravitation are based on specific observations [...]

That is not always true. Einstein's general relativity was originally motivated by thought experiments. Observational verification came later.

For a similar argument requiring modification of the theory of evolution, you would need to make an observation that cannot be explained by the existing theory [...]

Darwinian evolution cannot explain the origin of the first organisms from non-replicating matter. Nonliving matter has no reproductive process to amplify those heritable traits that benefit survival, therefore it cannot evolve according to natural selection.

Evolution also offers no compelling reason why there should be complex multicellular plants and animals. Single-celled microbes are more versatile and reproduce faster.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at August 18, 2005 2:20 PM

As far as I know, no scientists — at least not those who teach in public schools — spend much time speculating about the origin of gravity. What it does, how it works, and so on, yes, but why it developed, not so much. And even if they did, the theory isn't wrapped up in the sorts of questions concerning who we are and what that means that religious folks and secularists are both apt to overemphasize in the case of evolution.

Well, I think you've just succinctly stated what bugs me about this "debate"; speculation on the origin of life is outside of the curriculum. I've only had the chance to review the New York State curriculum. The Regents' exam doesn't cover origins and the textbook commonly used has only one paragraph (or thereabouts) devoted to abiogenesis and it only mentions that it is the predominant scientific theory (which it is). Some of the high school teachers I have spoken with are outspoken and opinionated on evolution but most get uncomfortable when they have to teach it. My problem with the "curriculum" debate is that if origins, which evolution says nothing about, are being taught then they are being taught outside of the curriculum and those teachers should be properly instructed to refrain from anything about the topic really. But to correct an extra-curriculum problem, the solution should not be to add something so obviously wrong into the curriculum to appease the religious anxieties of non-scientists.

And to respond to Matt Taylor, he makes many of the same errors that are commonplace in the evolution/ID debate; certainly Darwinian evolution cannot explain the origin of life on this planet but it never claims to. Natural selection alone cannot produce life and yet it has never been postulated by a scientist that it can. And while evolution offers no compelling reason (at least to him) why multicellular organisms exist, an explanation does, nonetheless. In brief, microorganisms thrive robustly but only in symbiosis with other microorganisms, of the same species or different. Under different climate conditions, some microorganisms can form a loosely connected multicellular organism, temporarily. If those conditions persist, a permanent multicellular organism would do better.

Posted by: Michael at August 18, 2005 3:38 PM
Natural selection alone cannot produce life and yet it has never been postulated by a scientist that it can.

Yep, that would explain the television program I saw a few years ago about the primordial soup getting struck by lightning or cosmic rays or some such and aligning all the necessary ingredients into a life-form.

Posted by: NotSamIAm at August 18, 2005 4:02 PM

Yep, that would explain the television program I saw a few years ago about the primordial soup getting struck by lightning or cosmic rays or some such and aligning all the necessary ingredients into a life-form.

That is not natural selection. That is abiogenesis. And that is exactly the problem. How can we have a proper discussion if some people don't know exactly what it is we're discussing?

Posted by: Michael at August 18, 2005 4:27 PM

Justin said,

But I do find something interest in this comment of yours:

The truth is, evolution is no more or less sound a theory than the theory of gravitation.
I've heard this before (and not only from you), and I think I've finally identified what bugs me about it. As far as I know, no scientists — at least not those who teach in public schools — spend much time speculating about the origin of gravity. What it does, how it works, and so on, yes, but why it developed, not so much. And even if they did, the theory isn't wrapped up in the sorts of questions concerning who we are and what that means that religious folks and secularists are both apt to overemphasize in the case of evolution.

And in the "The Fact Is" essay, he said,

Of more immediate importance is the possibility of asserting ethical boundaries to science.

What you are complaining about is the secular mindset, or the mindset that says that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question. ID proponents like Phillip Johnson complain about this regularly, as well. And large swaths of the American populace share these concerns - this is why ID has as much support as it does. The problem is that positing an Intelligent Designer is not a solution to the problem, it just compounds it. All this does is play the game on the secularists terms - the secularist says, "I see no empirical evidence for God in nature, so therefore religiously based or inspired moral rules or laws are not justifiable in the public square." Phillip Johnson says, in effect, "Oh yeah, well I say there is empirical evidence for God in nature! So religiouly based morality is legitimate in the public square." But the premise is false: one doesn't need empirical evidence of God in order to justify religiously inspired moral laws in public. IDers accept the same premise as the hard-core evolutionists, they just reach a different conclusion. I think they reach the wrong conclusion, but that's not as important as the fact that the premise itself is wrong.

I agree with Michael that you fundamentally misunderstand the ID movement and where it is coming from when you say, "Rather, the motivation of those with an interest in intelligent design is to work under different assumptions than the typical secular scientist about aspects of the universe on which science cannot comment." The motivation of IDers is to find support for their theological convictions in biology, the same way that atheist evolutionists like Richard Dawkins do. If they confined themselves to pointing out when people like Dawkins are crossing the boundary between science and philosophy or metaphysics, it would be no problem. But they make the exact same error in reverse, by improperly crossing the boundary from metaphysics into science. The scientists object when the "outsiders" (i.e. religious believers) intrude on their turf, and the religious believer objects when the "outsiders" (i.e. scientists) intrude on their turf. Both kinds of intrusions are errors.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 18, 2005 5:04 PM

Since when have Darwinists claimed that abiogenesis was anything other than random chance? The Darwinist cosmology has always explained the origin of life as random chance. It fits hand in glove with Natural Selection theory.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 18, 2005 5:10 PM

[The origin of life on Earth] is not natural selection. That is abiogenesis.

Is abiogenesis on the same footing as natural selection, with regard to evidence? I was under the impression that the origin of life was still mostly a matter of speculation.

Under different climate conditions, some microorganisms can form a loosely connected multicellular organism, temporarily. If those conditions persist, a permanent multicellular organism would do better.

That makes sense, and it explains how multicellular life is at least consistent with natural selection. But it still seems like somewhat a coincidence; of all the zillion possible random strategies for cell survival, why has complex organization become so dominant? Anywhere you look on Earth, the landscape is dominated by plants and animals, not by huge bacteria colonies. It seems like something more than just random mutation + survival is at work. Not that the something is necessarily supernatural, just an aspect of nature not yet understood.

Posted by: Matt Taylor at August 18, 2005 5:26 PM

Is abiogenesis on the same footing as natural selection, with regard to evidence?

Nope. Not anywhere near. It's mostly addressed by chemists and physicists I believe; most biologists take it as red that life exists. There were some widely discredited experiments done with electricity; I'm not an expert on abiogenesis so I don't really know what the prevailing hypotheses are.

Anywhere you look on Earth, the landscape is dominated by plants and animals, not by huge bacteria colonies. It seems like something more than just random mutation + survival is at work.

Well, that's less convincing if you look at timescales. Bacteria were around for more than twice as long as mulitcellular organisms. It took some time for everything to come together. But it did. You should read Miller's book; I'm not sure if his theology would be up to par for some of Justin's readers, but he puts quantum mechanics into an interesting (and necessary) light when thinking about free will and God's plan. I don't know how new or radical it is, and since I've always been a believer in God and a "believer" in evolution, I didn't need convincing.

Posted by: Michael at August 18, 2005 5:59 PM
What you are complaining about is the secular mindset, or the mindset that says that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question. ID proponents like Phillip Johnson complain about this regularly, as well. And large swaths of the American populace share these concerns - this is why ID has as much support as it does.

If large swaths of the American populace believed the earth was flat, would there be demands that we teach that too?

One of the reasons we teach science in public schools is to encourage people to expand their perceptions and challenge hypothese through the scientific method and inquiry. The fact that large swaths of people believe in ID--which is just creationism dressed up for the 21st Century--is all the more reason to teach science which has actual, broad scientific support and not based on metaphysics.

I don't dismiss some of teh ideas of ID, but I don't see how they have any place in the pubilc school classroom. Maybe in a college classroom where students are in a better place to debate and challenge and not be indoctrinated, but not in the public schools.

Posted by: Res Ipsa at August 18, 2005 6:00 PM

You should read Miller's book;

Indeed.

I'm not sure if his theology would be up to par for some of Justin's readers, but he puts quantum mechanics into an interesting (and necessary) light when thinking about free will and God's plan.

Oh no, not that again. When it comes to quantum mechanics, I tend to think Einstein was right that "God does not play dice". Orthodox (Copenhagen Interpretation) quantum mechanics has big holes in it, big enough to fit God, karma or whatever you want to see in the universe. Anyway, I should read Miller's book before commenting further...

Posted by: Matt Taylor at August 18, 2005 7:32 PM

Another interesting piece by Lee Harris, in TechCentralStation.com, on Evolution vs. Creationism. (It's quite long, though.) In one sense, he echos what I said above when he says,

On the other hand, my advice to the Christian fundamentalists is: Keep Adam and Eve, but get rid of creationism. It betrays your cause in the worst possible way, because it violated one of the basic rules of survival, which is, Never play by another man's rules. If faith and imagination comes first in your life, then science must come somewhere else in the hierarchy, assuming that it appears at all.

He also favors the notion of "cosmic intelligent design", that is, that the whole of the universe has design built into it, which I also favor.

However, he (not surprisingly) exhibits the same attitude towards "fundamentalists" that he did in his piece on Tradition and SSM - namely, as Justin pointed out, he doesn't take the notion that religious claims might be true seriously. He seems to view religious claims as useful in a sociological sense. He basically makes the same point Justin makes: people need to understand the proper limits of both science and religion.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 19, 2005 3:31 PM
That is not natural selection. That is abiogenesis. And that is exactly the problem. How can we have a proper discussion if some people don't know exactly what it is we're discussing?

Just what about my comment did you think was so contradictory to what you were saying?

Posted by: NotSamIAm at August 22, 2005 12:28 PM

One of the reasons we teach science in public schools is to encourage people to expand their perceptions and challenge hypothese through the scientific method and inquiry.

How do you apply the scientific method to Shakespeare or Dante?

I think you missed the point of the comment - science is not the be all and end all of knowledge, but, unfortunately, our society (including and perhaps especially our public schools) do treat it that way. Ev may have a reasonable explanation of what changes occurred over a given time frame - it does not answer how we should order our relationships. The large swaths of opinion have concerns over science being the ultimate measure not in saying whether x or y can be done, but whether x or y should be done. This is now playing out in the ESC debates, where, because science can manipulate embryonic human life, many think we should - and turn to the scientific ability to do so as a reason we should.

Posted by: c matt at August 22, 2005 1:03 PM

In a SCIENCE class, it might be nice to stick to science (and the scientific method of analysis) and not metaphysics or theology. I'm not saying that maybe there isn't a place for creationism, but it's not the pubilc high school science classroom.

Posted by: Res Ipsa at August 22, 2005 2:22 PM

Then why even teach evolution at all in the public High School science class? Natural selection theory of evolution was specifically developed by Darwin to contradict creationism, so it's as much a belief system as it is an attempt at a scientific explanation. The same can be said about I.D. Scientific methodology can be taught without it, and probably with less confusion.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 22, 2005 3:15 PM

i Natural selection theory of evolution was specifically developed by Darwin to contradict creationism, so it's as much a belief system as it is an attempt at a scientific explanation.

And more than 125 years later, the theory is now well, established and well, supported scientific inquiry.

Creationism, which was questioned over 125 years ago, still remains more theology and philsophy than science and ID is just warmed over creationism for the Left Behind generation.

Posted by: Res Ipsa at August 22, 2005 5:08 PM

And what does that prove Res? Natural Selection has been well promoted, well supported, and well accepted, but it is still a belief system because the actual process has not been demonstrably documented or observed. No matter how many thousands of generations of fruit fly have been observed as coerced into mutations, at the end of the experiment, they were still fruit flies. There's no control sample, the experimental environment is contaminated; in short, all of the conditions the scientific community would expect to be produced to debunk Natural Selection Theory do not even exist for the popularly accepted theory. On that basis alone, if I.D. is withheld then so too Natural Selection ought to be withheld from the High School curricula and saved until the students have the opportunity to compare it to I.D. theory.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 22, 2005 9:42 PM