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Science, creationism, intelligent design... one of my education rants - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Science, creationism, intelligent design... one of my education rants
Oh, why not? It's been awhile.

It surprised me to find that "Intelligent Design" was something they were pushing in schools, or that it was anti-evolution. When I first heard the phrase, I assumed it was a religious answer to questions raised by evolution--in other words, it was, when confronted with evolutionary theory, religious people saying, "Wow! So that's the mechanism God used to create the world and keep it growing decently... how clever of Him!" I'm still not sure where I.D. differs from this, exactly, and don't care in terms of what I'm talking about because I.D. doesn't belong in a science classroom.

What? A religious person who supports the words Under God in classrooms says this?


There are good arguments on both sides of the pledge issue, but in a science classroom, I.D. has no place, because it isn't science.

I'm not saying it's wrong. In fact, what I described above as what I assumed I.D. is is more or less what I believe. But science is a process, not a clever solution to a problem. I.D. could be hypothesized in a scientific way, but there is no test that would definitively disprove it, because introducing an omnipotent being makes it logically impossible to disprove any action He might take, and science is all about disprovability. You make up a hypothesis and test it, over and over again, doing everything you can to prove it wrong. The more tests don't prove it wrong, the more plausible it becomes. Other people run the tests to replicate results, and the more times results are replicated, the more plausible they become. And if a better hypothesis comes along that explains the same facts, the scientist is meant to test it as well. Two competing theories can be equally scientific, as long as both are testable and disprovable.

Evolution is based on observations, but has elements that can be tested. Over time, do we see short-lived species like fruit flies evolve new traits in response to their environments? Over longer geological time, do we see logical progressions of trait changes and genetic drift in other populations? The answers to those questions don't prove or disprove that evolution is "scientific"--the questions themselves do. It can be tested, and elements can be, after many tests, disproved. As a whole? Maybe not--you can't absolutely prove that evolution did not occur, but you can test the elements of evolution and get a picture of it. You can't really test the elements of God, because nothing can actually disprove God, and God is therefore not properly in the purview of science. If you want to talk I.D. in a philosophy course, go for it... but how many schools that this argument takes place in have an advanced philosophy course where such things would be debated?

I'm not letting scientists off the hook on this issue, though. Far from it.

Far too many scientists have taken the word "science" and used it to mean "truth" or "fact," and it's seeped deep enough into society for everyone to take it that way, therefore when someone says that something isn't properly scientific, it's taken to suggest that it's not true or is anti-factual, and therefore if no fact can disprove it, it's declared to be "scientific" (when of course, the opposite is the case). Responsible scientists should repudiate this notion, but of course it doesn't have any headline-generating power, so those who do end up tucked in a back corner, and never have big Oscar-nominated movies made about how they bravely championed The Truth, to be ultimately proven right against those Luddite trolls who tried to silence them. I could see an exciting movie being made about people trying to disprove a theory that has wide popular support, but the problem is, they'd just end up in the role of Lone Voice of Reason instead of being responsible scientists who would end up saying, "This theory seems unlikely in light of new findings" and moving on to try another hypothesis. Science rarely proves anything, which makes it hard to write dramatic vindication scenes.

I don't know. Maybe it's just because I just have a headache and feel like being crabby to everyone.
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sannalim From: sannalim Date: September 21st, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amen, Fern.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: September 21st, 2005 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, every one of the scientists I've seen repudiating Intelligent Design has been quick to point out that if someone did find a dinosaur skeleton with a human skeleton in it's gut then the entire theory of evolution would have to go out the window. But ID is just Creationism with different codewords.

Thing is, evolution is one of the most firmly buttressed of all scientific theories in biology. It really is right up there with the Theory of Gravitation, meaning that chances are pretty good we will be refining it according to new data but extremely poor that we will be throwing out baby and bathwater together. Evolution is a "fact" too, in the sense that we can, through the fossil record, show the evolution of certain species. It's a little like courtroom evidence in that it's proven beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond any doubt whatsoever.

It's the difference between "proven beyond a reasonable doubt" and "proven beyond all doubt" which causes confusion I think. When I see someone say that an assertion isn't scientific, I take it to mean that the assertion has not been made in a way that can be tested by the scientific method. ID is not scientific -- it's an assertion which cannot be tested by science. As a result it has no bearing at all on the questions which science asks about the creation of the universe and the mechanisms by which we have come to the modern world.

It's been a long time since philosophy and science got divorced, but they still share the same language.


How's the roommate hunt going?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 21st, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. There's nothing theologically wrong with crediting God with planning it, but it's neither here nor there when it comes to trying to understand how it works.

How's the roommate hunt going?

Still no responses. I registered for Roommate Connection yesterday, and they were supposed to process my application during business hours, but I heard nothing. I didn't even get a verification of registration. This is troubling. I'm now down to nine days before D-day. I almost called in sick from nerves, but as short-staffed as we are at the moment, I opted to just bite the bullet and hope it didn't come with biting some poor kid's head off.
story645 From: story645 Date: September 21st, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Word. So wanna hug you, cause I have the same opinion. ID is basically the closest I get to buying evolution, which if true I see as the method of creation, but so don't want it in a classroom, cause then I feel that they might as well get into every religions different creations myths, cause as much as I buy into ID, it's still linked up with my relgious beliefs, not science.
I think evolution is fun to debate though, especially with people who buy into the theory but don't know the science behind it.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: September 21st, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Far too many scientists have taken the word "science" and used it to mean "truth" or "fact,"

True enough. I think it's down to a lack of grounding in scientific method and its origin (i.e. philosophy). Too many scientists just go through the motions without understanding the basis of what they're doing. I don't see why scientific method can't be taught at secondary school; as it is you're lucky if you get any formal nod to it before the compulsory 'generic skills' module at Masters level (in the UK, at least). And you're right again in saying that science rarely proves anything - the fact is, it can only ever disprove a theory.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 21st, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that critical thinking and the scientific method ought to be taught as soon as kids can handle it, at the middle school level if possible. Science isn't something that ordinary people need experts to do for them - it's all about observing and drawing conclusions from what you observe. If I put out birdseed, and find that the birdies will eat the sunflower seeds but leave the cracked corn, I can conclude that the kinds of birds who visit my birdfeeder prefer sunflower seed. Science!

It really is that easy, as well as fun, for us to learn basic science. It's truly unfortunate that science is perceived as something best left to the "experts," whoever they may be.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 21st, 2005 11:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

I see no contradiction between believing in a Divine Intelligence and believing that evolution is a fact. Since I'm more of a Taoist than anything, I'm happy to say that evolution, if anything, is like divine play.

Evolution tells us how different organisms adapt to their different environments. It tells us, for instance, how sea otters have evolved to live in kelp beds and eat abalone. It does NOT tell us how life originated. Science cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of God.

On the other hand, I think that fanatic atheists like Richard Dawkins are doing evolution a huge disservice. Nothing is wrong with atheism, but everything is wrong with a sneering superiority complex and calling people who do believe in God "stupid." The loftiness and intolerance of SOME scientists really does a disservice to the discipline. Being perceived as an arrogant elite isn't going to win any friends.

Then, of course, you get the real idiots, the ones who as you said proclaim everything as "THE TRUTH, and if you don't believe it you are anti-science!" Evo-psycho and sociobiology types are famous for this. The thing is, as you pointed out, the reasonable scientists who actually oppose this way of thinking and will call their colleagues on the carpet rarely get any air or newspaper time. A few years ago a furore was unleashed when a couple of sociobiology types wrote a book claiming that all men were natural-born rapists. This book got overwhelmingly panned by scientists (OTOH Steven Pinker loved it but he's one of those TROOOOOOOOTH asshats anyway); however, the authors kept maintaining that THEY were the ones who had the courage to tell the "harsh truth" and their opponents were softheaded feminists and social scientists who hated science and had no regard for TROOOOOTH. Natch, the media loved it.

And I'm old enough to remember when Derek Freeman trashed Margaret Mead, releasing a book shortly after she died saying she was a liar, her entire work was a tissue of lies, she was a nefarious left-wing social scientist with no regard for Guess What?, and so on. It was given negative reviews by fellow anthropologists, and the American Anthropology Association actually told Freeman where to stick it, but of course the media loved it.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 21st, 2005 11:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
P.S. Good luck with the roommate search! /crosses fingers
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 22nd, 2005 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Yep. As a biology student, the words "intelligent design" are pretty much guaranteed to get my back up. Most proponents of intelligent design base their theories on misconceptions or lies about evolution, and it's....irritating.

Of course, I don't view believing in evolution as a tool of God as intelligent design; that's still accepting evolution. Intelligent design, to my mind, is claiming that evolution as it stands is wrong, and impossible without the interference of a higher power (which is pretty manifestly not the case.) And then trying to push this view as science. And teach it to kids as science. Science isn't about one theory or another. Science is about the method. And there is no way to test or disprove intelligent design. Hence, as you say, not science. Kthnkbi.

It's almost as fast a way to infuriate any given group of scientists as the words "global warming isn't real". :P
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 22nd, 2005 12:57 am (UTC) (Link)
It's almost as fast a way to infuriate any given group of scientists as the words "global warming isn't real". :P

Well, the ones my mom works with (along with my biologist cousin) get equally riled at "We know exactly what caused global warming and it's about to cause an apocalypse!" Yup, there's a trend. Nope, responsible scientists haven't got their flags planted in any particular place.
lady_sarai From: lady_sarai Date: September 22nd, 2005 12:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. Oh, I so agree. And you said "ayuh!" (Sorry, from Maine. Staple of our vocabulary.)

But yes, I think the fact that evolution is a *theory* is often forgotten. And I completely agree that religion should not be placed in a science classroom... I don't know how better to say that I agree with what you said. I'm an education major, and am not looking forward to dealing with parents and superintendents over this issue.

I was lucky, though, in that I had very understanding science teachers, and my Sunday School reared self was not immediately threatened and alarmed when evolution was introduced to us. My 7th grade science teacher made sure to stress what a theory was and that evolution was a theory, and I went, "hey, how cool is this? God came up with a way to keep the world turning so He can deal with other issues without worrying about the planet!" (Or something like that. It's evolved over time, my thinking. And that's interesting word choice on my part, there. Heh.) My high school Earth Science teacher made an offhand comment when a student challenged him about the Bible, saying "How long is a day to God?" and that's always stuck with me.

Anyway, random, but I agree completely.
murasaki99 From: murasaki99 Date: September 22nd, 2005 01:30 am (UTC) (Link)
If you need a fresh grin on the topic of ID being taught in our schools, check out the arguements presented by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I rather *like* their theory of creation, it makes sense to me. XD

Ahh, the pledge... when *I* was in high school many of us wouldn't recite it at all because of 'Nam. Have people forgotten they don't have to say it, or that they can say the original version, sans 'under God'? Or alternatively, one could insert the diety/philosophy of choice in the right spot. So, Under Goddess... it has a good sound. :)
phylogenetics From: phylogenetics Date: September 22nd, 2005 01:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Very good thoughts. It's obvious that someone's been doing their homework. :~)

I think the problem is that the evolution/creation/ID 'debate' is really a social/political debate, and the science gets lost within the two sides. It's true that atheists uses this to rail against religion, it's also true that fundamentalists use evolution to rail against atheists (and nonbelievers). But evolution itself does not take a stance on God/gods/Goddess. Science cannot prove or disprove god, it does not deal in the supernatural. Anyone who attempts to do so are misusing it.

What really galls me is that some people think there is a scientific debate on evolution, that scientists still aren't sure about the theory of evolution, that ID is just a 'new' scientific tenet. And all I can say to that is 'NO NO NO NO NOOOOOOOOO'.

Evolution, as a general theory, is not being debated within the science community, sure the details are still being worked out, but the theory of evolution (change of alleles over time) is NOT in hot (or lukewarm) water.

And ID does not have ANY scientific merit, there has been NO studies done on ID by it's proponents, no data shown to prove or disprove this 'theory'....grr...even well read, educated people think evolution is still 'just a theory' because of all the 'controversy' surrounding it in the news lately.

My parents are biologists and they once made a comment that biology has finally 'come on to it's own' in the 21st century meaning that technology (and chemistry) has finally caught up to biology and now we are staring at a new phase in the field.

With the ability to observe and experiment at the molecular level, biology will be the new hot field (so they say ;~)). I believe they have a point. Biotechnology companies are flourishing and medical advances are hoping at a rapid pace. Yet we are still debating whether to teach a theory that is the modern foundation of the biological sciences today. Ugh.
galaxianomiko From: galaxianomiko Date: September 22nd, 2005 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)
I was just talking about this to someone the other day! :) I was reading through the last few months' Scientific American, and there were some pretty wanky heated reader responses to whatever evolution vs. I.D. article they had published before (of course, I couldn't find THAT issue). It basically boiled down to the same old scientists = evil and snooty argument, and that there's no PROOF of evolution, etc. Ah, how I love reader's letters.

But anyway, word to what you said.
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: September 22nd, 2005 03:18 am (UTC) (Link)
It's ironic that you should post this today, because I was part of a group project on "Censorship in Education" this morning, and the future physics teacher did his part mainly on ID in the science classroom. (He had the same argument: regardless of whether it's true or not, it's not science.

Incidentally, my portion of the project was on the English classroom, and I passed out the ALA list of 100 most challenged books 1990-2000. Since you are a librarian-goddess, I was wondering if you knew why "Where's Waldo?" was #88?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 22nd, 2005 12:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'n one of the crowd scenes on a beach, there's apparently a topless woman. I think. The banned books, list, by the way, is just the challenged book list--to the best of my knowledge, none of them are actually, technically banned.
(Deleted comment)
phylogenetics From: phylogenetics Date: September 22nd, 2005 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
That said, it does seem as though people still have problems with the concepts of deep space and deep time. People are still pushing "young Earth" ideas--that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. I don't see the point. After all, what's 20 billion years to an everlasting God?

The point of conflict comes from some segments of the population that believes in the inerrant, literal word of the Bible. This means, if God didn't say 20 billion, but instead starts talking about Adam and Eve and all their various decendents, they count back the number of generations and came upon about 6000 years, hence the earth must be 6000 years. If evolution somehow discounts that, then the Bible is fallible, and hence....I guess that means their entire belief system is false and based on a lie.....
dalf From: dalf Date: September 22nd, 2005 05:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Well as a creationist I have to disagree. First off definitions. Your original impression of ID and what it means is what IDers/Creationists woudl refer to as theistic evolution, its somethign else.

Your first argument that it is "not science" encounters the same problem that as the above. That is not understanding its nature (note that I am nto arguing that one is right and one is wrong here). Without getting too emeshed in the details no 'theory' or girins (theistic or not) strictly speaking is falasafiable. Look at all the nice ad hoc proping ups that thigns the the Big Bang theory get every time no information (that does not quite fit) is discovered. There are other reasons that neither idea qualifies for 'theory' status but moving allong. In terms of science, both ideas should properly be refered to as 'models' that is they are framworks of how some condition or event is thought ot have come about and we can go out and make ovservations in nature to see which model best fits with the facts.

The supporters of ID (called ID as to be unassociated with any specific belief about how creation might have happened or the nature of any diety), simply feel that the scientiific observations and data supporting one or more models of creation should be presented allong side the data supporting evolution. It shoudl be pointed out that in classes where this is done students routinly test higher. This works on other iddues as well presenting evidence and arguments for opposing ideas is a powerful teaching tool.

To me the biggest and more important (And most decisive) argument in all of the creation vs. evolution debate is that the evolution side tries to frame it as a science vs. religion or science vs. not science debate in order to preclude the debate all together.

If you think of science as a search fo knoledge or a way of understanding how the world works. Then we shoudl be albe to go out and find evidence of those events. That is what ID is about.
myf From: myf Date: September 22nd, 2005 07:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Fair enough. But... where is the evidence - using the scientific method - supporting ID? I have to confess that I'm a massively biased atheist and I don't want to clutter up Fern's LJ, but if there's some journal articles or somesuch written by the ID crowd I'd be interested to know where they are. (I haven't been looking for them, but if they're out there I'd like to know, and you're a convenient person to ask).

If they're not using the scientific method, though, then I'm uninterested. *shrug* Because I like logic.
danel4d From: danel4d Date: September 22nd, 2005 08:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh good, I've been waiting for a chance to get everyone hating me.
I'm one of those fanatical atheists you were talking about upthread, so here goes...
If only I.D. was as you thought it to be. But as others have mentioned, it's nothing so simple. The thing is, its kind of hard to find exactly what I.D. is, and that's deliberate. It's been chosen to be the controversy part of "Teach the Controversy", but it's deliberately vague and shifting. Even the term: "Intelligent Design" - it makes no mention of god. SO it's not religious in any way, but is a respectable scientific theory on the same level of evolution. It could be aliens behind it, see, or time-travelling wizards, or pan-dimensional hyper-beings beyond our puny mortal comprehension. Of course, a deity is the only serious plausible explanation, but it's kept deliberately vague. Another tactic they use is to turn it from a debate in a collection of theories across the whole bunch of disciplines to two competing models - Intelligent Design and Otherwise - which must stand and fall as a whole. So they throw in evolution and the Big Bang and Geology and everything all into one. Hmm... I'll post more in direct replies to people over today or tomorrow - this is a subject close to my heart, for some strange reason, and I don't really have time to do it justice now.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 22nd, 2005 10:29 am (UTC) (Link)


As an Orthodox Jewish biologist, I can only say: WORD.

ID is a philosophy, not a (so-called "hard") science. In fact, I always understood ID to be more of a "proof" of G-d's existence (i.e. something this cool and complicated must have been intentional and somehow planned) rather than an actual theory on how the world came about.

Fellow monotheists, G-d created the world, but the Bible never says exactly *how*, beyond the verbs "made", "created", etc. Science goes into the mechanisms, and evolution is the basic accepted model, the one that fits all the current evidence. There is no "creation vs. evolution" debate. These two terms address completely different questions: Creation is who; Evolution is how!

A logical, scientific, believing person has to realize that G-d tends to work through natural laws, only rarely going for the miraculous - and even miracles are often a matter of timing more than anything. G-d's hand is most apparent through the timing and probability of events, not their apparent cause or mechanism.

Personally, I find evolution itself to be great support for my faith. It's just too cool! Maimonides wrote 100 years ago that anyone who wants to instill in himself love of G-d needs to study astronomy and cosmology. Today, I think that biology would do the job better.

In short, let's teach evolution in science class, and G-d's role as Creator in philosophy/religion/whatever class. They can work together, but they're different subjects!

One nitpick with an earlier post: the Theory of Gravitation is basically *wrong* according to quantum mechanics. Close enough to satisfy most observations at the macroscopic and astronomical level, but still fundamentally incorrect - this from my wife, who's a physicist.

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