Suffering the Idiots

You know, when Michael Behe, the star witness for Intelligent Design at the Pennsylvania evolution trial, admits on the stand that the only way that ID can be considered a scientific theory is to change the definition of "theory" to such a lax standard that even astrology would qualify as a scientific theory, isn’t it time to stop the trial, find for teaching actual science in biology classes, and then send a bill for the whole ridiculous affair to the idiots that changed the school policy to shoehorn ID into the classroom? Does this farce really need to go on any further?

The only value to this whole thing so far is that it got Behe to admit that in order to get ID to work, you have to cheat — you have to make words mean different things than what they mean. You know, the science community already has a word for the new, more lax definition of "theory" Behe wishes to promote: it’s called a hypothesis. Should Behe manage to get his way and change the definition of "theory," what becomes of the word "hypothesis"? Is it demoted? Discarded? Given a nice gold watch for its years of service to the scientific community and then taken behind the barn to be plugged with a shotgun? And if is merely demoted, then what will become of the phrase "drunken paranoid ramblings?" That phrase has nowhere else to go.

Behe also compared ID to the Big Bang theory, suggesting that, like the Big Bang theory, all ID needed to do was wait until the intractable old scientists died off, leaving a new generation of scientists who welcomed ID with open arms — giving the illusion that acceptance of ID is inevitable. What Behe of course neglects to mention (and which someone cross-examining him ought to bring up), is that the reason the Big Bang theory gained acceptance was that the theory explained the observational data we collected about the universe better than any other theory. ID, on the other hand, fits absolutely none of the observational data, except to a very lax "I can’t explain this personally, therefore it must intelligently designed" negative standard, which, oddly enough, doesn’t actually raise to the level of science. Behe likes to wave off scientific hostility to ID as "politically motivated," but there’s nothing political about noting that a hypothesis doesn’t fit the observational data. That’s what scientists are supposed to do.

The reason ID isn’t like the Big Bang theory is that ID starts off broken and goes downhill from there. Indeed, the hypothesis for Intelligent Design is the best possible refutation of the concept, because it’s so entirely lacking in either quality described in the phrase. The only way it will achieve the sort of scientific acceptance the Big Bang has is if we lower the quality of scientists we produce. Mind you, if ID is allowed to be passed off as "science," this will be precisely what will happen. Instead of scientists who will honestly explore the physical world and hold their work to a rigorous intellectual standard, you’ll get more "scientists" like Behe, whose solution to promulgating an untenable "theory" is not to discard the idea but simply to change the definition of words to get them to mean what he wants them to.

It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Behe, who claims to be a scientist. It’s embarrassing for Behe’s employers (who have been forced to acknowledge the embarrassment Behe causes them on a regular basis by posting a disclaimer on their web site), and it’s embarrassing for anyone who likes to imagine that science should actually be about science, and not about comforting people twitchy about the fact they share a common ancestor with whatever animal it is they like the least. It’s not embarrassing for those people, of course, but the fact it’s not makes me embarrassed for them. I think it would be ashamed to go through life so afraid of ideas that I’d be willing to force ignorance on others to make myself feel happy and safe. Seems a little selfish, and a lot sad.

60 Comments on “Suffering the Idiots”

  1. Well done, John. For the record, often when I’ve debated religious fundamentalists, I find they use the “words mean different things” strategy whenever they think they can get away with it.

  2. Yeah, that’s funny for people who usually believe the literal truth of whatever holy book they have going for them.

  3. Hey John,

    I’ve checked the web to find references to Behe admitting that “the only way that ID can be considered a scientific theory is to change the definition of “theory'”, but no such luck.

    Is it your interpretation that he has effectively, if not literally, been forced to admit that? Or did the opposing party in the trial *make* him admit that with precise questioning? If it’s the latter, could you provide a link, perhaps?

    Best Regards,

    Hal

  4. rishathra – I'm in my late 40s, reside in Queens, NY, and root for both NY baseball teams (yes, that's possible!). I do presentation graphics for a living, have two kids and one SO, and am owned by several cats. If it has strings and no hammers or keys I'll play it (no guarantees on quality). And I filk. Now let's talk.
    Bruce Adelsohn

    Here is another excellent refutation of the ID hypothesis.

    (Members of the reality-based community: I would advise not drinking when clicking on that link :-) I’m not promising ANYONE a new keyboard :-D

  5. Hal: Follow the link that’s in the entry. The relevant paragraph:

    “Rothschild suggested that Behe’s definition [of theory] was so loose that astrology would come under this definition as well. He also pointed out that Behe’s definition of theory was almost identical to the NAS’s definition of a hypothesis. Behe agreed with both assertions.”

  6. Bravo! Here’s hoping that this entry, just like “Being Poor,” will get picked up in some national Op/Ed sections. This was one of the best refutations of ID that I’ve read.

    This whole ID makes me incredibly uneasy. I don’t consider myself to be an overly political or even an overly intelligent person, but even I can see that the fact that there is an entire movement behind ID is nothing short of insane. You might want to check out “Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.” It’s just as irrational, and just as possible as ID, given the ID philosophy.

  7. Not only do I live in Pennsylvania, but I graduated from Lehigh University. It’s gotten incredibly embarassing to admit that my alma mater is the one that turns out delusional old cranks and my state is the one that puts their crackpot theories into the public schools.

    I’d like to be a Lehigh aplogist now and assure people that most of the staff and students are rational human beings despite the fact that they changed the mascot from the Engineers to the Mountain Hawks for the sake of political correctness (blech).

  8. Intelligent design is an argument from ignorance. It looks for places where a well-supported theory does not (yet?) explain something well and fills the gap an assumption. However, the assumption of intelligent design does not produce any falsifiable hypotheses so how could it compete as a scientific theory? An assumption based on ignorance can’t scientifically refute something with evidence behind it.

    Intelligent design says more about how some people approach their lack of knowledge than it does about investigating the reality of the physical world. In my experience, religious people are not willing to put their spiritual beliefs to the test with empirically falsifiable tests and I think that is wise. Either produce an empirically testable hypothesis or leave religion out of science. It doesn’t tell me anything scientifically to say that God magically built the bacterial flagellum.

    It’s about time that intelligent design be classed as pseudo-science along with astrology. I don’t know whether to be surprised or not that Behe admitted it himself.

  9. John:

    ID doesn’t meet the definition of a hypothesis either. A hypothesis is a guess that you test. If there’s no way to test a hypothesis, then it’s just some idiot spouting off.

    How do you test for “God made things just the way he wanted, but he left behind no evidence because he’s invisible and omnipotent.”

    And that’s what keeps ID from being science: it isn’t testable. Even worse, it isn’t falsifiable.

  10. Laura:

    Indeed I am aware of Pastafarianism, as all right-minded people should be.

    MinstrelofFunk:

    I definitely don’t blame Lehigh — it sounds like Behe started acting like a moron after he got his tenure.

  11. When philosophy and science collide

    Lets get something straight, philosophy and science at one time shared a great deal of traits, both, after all, are done in the pursuit of knowledge and to a degree wisdom. Unfortunately people often tend to confuse different forms of science with di…

  12. Wonderful post! I hope that the person cross-examining him thinks of some of the things you’ve written here. If it doesn’t make the trial end faster it will certainly make Behe’s time on the stand more than a little uncomfortable.

  13. Carol Elaine – Spend my days being creative with acting stuff & cleaning up after animals for money. Spend my evenings cleaning cat puke for free. 'Tis a glamorous life.
    Carol

    Excellent, John. Me like very much.

  14. I really think there ought to just be a standard statement for textbooks, replacing the tired old “Evolution is just a theory,” that simply says that science is the study of the natural world. Anything that would be described as supernatural, including religion, does not fall within the scope of a science textbook. Regardless of the personal beliefs of anyone involved, the possibility of supernatural involvement in anything described in the science textbook will not be discussed. Students should consult their clergy and their families for guidance on such issues. However, the lack of reference to the supernatural should not be taken as denial of its existence, it is simply a seperate subject that should be studied elsewhere.

    —Because you can’t just have a textbook that says that everything absolutely, positively, evolved all by itself, according to a logical and extremely fortunate sequences of events, without teaching atheism. In the absence of God, evolution is the only possible explanation. In the presence of God, many things may be possible. They don’t belong in a science textbook, but by writing evolution by chance as *fact* without any argument you are stating the absence of God’s involvement as *fact*. That’s why they dig in their heels and make up so many arguments for intelligent design, because they don’t want their kids taught atheism in school any more than you want yours taught religion. Since we all have to go to school together, a compromise would be nice.

  15. Sara, you made one common mistake in your post: evolution is not “by chance”. But as far as compromise is concerned: the only one I can see would be to require something like comparative religions in a humanities course or something. Otherwise, the only proper “compromise” is no religion being discussed in schools, at least not in an academic context. (Extracurricular student groups notwithstanding.) Leave religious explanations for the world under the rubric of churches, and let people decide which explanations they prefer: the faith-based ones or the fact-based ones.

  16. Why’s everyone getting into such a lather over Behe? Until he publishes convincing results from his research – and I mean convincing enough to persuade the rest of the scientific community – this whole ID thing is just a work-in-progress. Personally, I think he’s headed in the wrong direction, but I don’t think any scientist – or any individual for that matter – should just give up on challenging our understanding of the world just because it makes the rest of us uncomfortable.

    As for the school board – fire the lot of them. They should be able to tell the difference between (relatively) hard science, and the unproven ideas of a single individual. Behe seems willing – in an academically honest way – to admit that his his ‘theory’ is pretty shaky – but the school board are hitching a free ride on his stature as a professor in a recognized university to prevent any of us ‘simple-people’ from questioning their judgement. Who’s going to argue against someone who’s bio ( at http://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/behe.htm ) contains stuff like,

    “The most obvious candidates, and the ones we focus our attention on, are the oligoadenosine and oligoguanosine tracts that are very strongly overrepresented in human and C. elegans DNA, respectively. Despite early reports that oligoadenosine tracts could not accommodate nucleosomes, our laboratory has shown that, not only can such tracts be accommodated (1), but that at higher temperatures (and probably under other conditions which would disrupt the spine of hydration in oligoadenosine tracts) nucleosomes bind the tracts more strongly than other sequences (2,3). Therefore we hypothesize that such tracts can be used as phasing elements.”

    I ask you?

  17. Rayyy:

    “Why’s everyone getting into such a lather over Behe? Until he publishes convincing results from his research – and I mean convincing enough to persuade the rest of the scientific community – this whole ID thing is just a work-in-progress. ”

    Unfortunately, people want to have ID perceived to be just as legitimate as a century and a half of evolutionary theory in schools. People are in a lather about this because Behe is allowing himself to be used as a tool in this (though the phrase “allowing himself” is more passive than Behe’s involvement), and as a scientist, he should know better. He’s pushing for laxer standards of science education to promote and legitimize his own bad science. That’s the problem with Behe.

  18. The fact that Behe holds a professorship at a real unversity (as opposed to someplace like Bob Jones University) is a pretty compelling damnation of the whole tenure system. Of course, I suppose that there was that imbecile at Texas A&M who thought he could turn lead to gold…

  19. Last time John posted about this, I threw an opinion out there and got my proverbial head handed to me. I’ll foolishly try again here, as carefully as I can:

    I don’t dispute the fact that ID is not science (for all the reasons given here & elsewhere). Given the national debate on the subject, though, I think that keeping it out of the schools entirely leaves the students with less than a full understanding of evolution.

    Evolution is a scientific theory, but it’s unlike most other scientific theories in that it brushes up against the very widely held belief in some higher power that had something to do with creating the universe. If our students walk away from science class understanding the theory, but not understanding the controversy/debate it often generates, then I think we do them a disservice. We leave them ill-prepared to discuss evolution in any kind of social context, set them up to be blindsided if they choose to pursue it more seriously in an academic context, and reinforce the notion that science is the only valid way to explain the world around us (not to mention the inherent prejudice involved in the “I’m right so everyone who disagrees with me is crazy” logic).

    It also assumes our children aren’t smart enough to hold two ideas in their heads at the same time – the science and the fact that some religious people disagree with the science, purely on faith. I think the “keep religion out of the schools” argument is simply being used to keep ideas that people find discomforting out of the schools, which makes statements like this very ironic:

    I think I would be ashamed to go through life so afraid of ideas that I’d be willing to force ignorance on others to make myself feel happy and safe. Seems a little selfish, and a lot sad.

  20. I don’t dispute the fact that ID is not science (for all the reasons given here & elsewhere). Given the national debate on the subject, though, I think that keeping it out of the schools entirely leaves the students with less than a full understanding of evolution.

    Hrrm, I’d have to disagree. Less than a full understanding of our societies and the role the theory of evolution plays in them, yes.

    Evolution is a scientific theory, but it’s unlike most other scientific theories in that it brushes up against the very widely held belief in some higher power that had something to do with creating the universe.

    Substitute “creating humans” for “creating the universe” and you’d have it. Substitute “creating North America”, and you’re talking plate tectonics instead, which isn’t part of the theory of evolution at all, though young earth Creationists like to lump it in for some reason. Substitute “creating life” and you’re not talking about evolution either. As far as I’m aware there’s no good scientific theory for the creation of life. I believe the life was created in a naturalistic process, but as theories go that one’s a bit, um, sparse on the details. Evolution really has very little to say about the creation of the Universe, though it does contradict the ideas that it occured a few millenia back, and that there were humans walking around a few days thereafter.

    If our students walk away from science class understanding the theory, but not understanding the controversy/debate it often generates, then I think we do them a disservice.

    Yup. But that’s still an improvement over the current situation. My formal education in Evolution and the Theor(ies) of Evolution through Natural Selection sucked. I’m not sure many teachers understand the theories, nevermind the students.

  21. I think the “keep religion out of the schools” argument is simply being used to keep ideas that people find discomforting out of the schools, which makes statements like this very ironic:

    I think I would be ashamed to go through life so afraid of ideas that I’d be willing to force ignorance on others to make myself feel happy and safe. Seems a little selfish, and a lot sad.

    Here I agree. Now when it comes to religious indoctrination things are a bit tricker: whose? And when it comes to ignorance, that has no place in schools.
    The fundamentalists I have run across online are ignorant. They don’t know how to construct an argument, they use words in strange ways without definitions, and they don’t even know the contents of their own holy book.
    It’s not so much teach of evolution that fundamentalists need fear as the teaching of critical thought and the wide availability of the Bible.

  22. Brian Greenberg:

    “I don’t dispute the fact that ID is not science (for all the reasons given here & elsewhere). Given the national debate on the subject, though, I think that keeping it out of the schools entirely leaves the students with less than a full understanding of evolution.”

    Bad premises. There’s no reason to teach ID in science class, and there’s no reason not to mention the debate in the schools.

    First: Nothing about the theory of evolution — which is to say, the system of natural processes that describe the mechanisms of evolutionary selection and change — needs social commentary included to be understood, any more than learning how to change the oil in your car is dependent on understanding the “peak oil” debate.

    Additionally — as noted many times here — there is no serious scientific debate about evolution, so how is “teaching the debate” (to use the odious, obfuscating favorite phrase of IDers) at all useful in a science class? There is a debate, to be sure, but it’s a social debate, not a scientific one. I find it odd that many social conservatives, who throw their arms up in the air anytime social context intrudes into other subjects, and even into science, suddenly are all right with wasting time discussing the social implications of a scientific theory. This is not to suggest this is the case with you, Brian, but it certainly is the case with a number of conservatives. But that’s often the thing about conservatives; everything is different when it involves something they like.

    Second: If one must teach the debate, then it should be taught in the appropriate place: Social studies class, along with all other ongoing public debates. I certainly have no objection to it being taught there. This is something I’ve noted to you before, Brian, which is why your implication of my own intolerance on the matter rings false and is also more than a little offensive, as you know very well that I’ve not said what you’ve suggested. Although I am glad to see you note that what we’re really talking about here is religion, and not science.

  23. John:

    If one must teach the debate, then it should be taught in the appropriate place: Social studies class, along with all other ongoing public debates. I certainly have no objection to it being taught there.

    I couldn’t care less what class it’s taught in. I do think it’s more effective if they’re taught in sequence (learn about evolution, then learn about the social ramfications of the theory). If a school can coordinate the curriculum that way, then more power to them. If not, then I have no problem with the science teacher stepping away from science for a few minutes to discuss the social studies angle of the current topic.

    I could buy your argument if you were suggesting that the science teacher isn’t well equipped to discuss the social ramifications, or if you were afraid that a science teacher would be incapable of discussing the subject without making it sound like science, but I seriously doubt that’s the case.

    Also, I can’t imagine this “separation of subjects” rule applied consistently across topics. For example, let’s say a social studies teacher was discussing an ancient civilization that worshipped the moon and made offerings during each lunar eclipse. Would that teacher have to refer the students to their science class to learn about lunar eclipses? Or could the social studies teacher spend a few minutes going over the basics for anyone who didn’t know?

    Me:

    Last time John posted about this, I threw an opinion out there and got my proverbial head handed to me. I’ll foolishly try again here, as carefully as I can

    John:

    This is something I’ve noted to you before, Brian, which is why your implication of my own intolerance on the matter rings false and is also more than a little offensive, as you know very well that I’ve not said what you’ve suggested.

    Ah, well. If at first you don’t succeed…

    John – I don’t think you intolerant, and I didn’t mean to imply that you are. Your comments to me (both in this post and the previous one) suggest that you’re OK with ID being taught in school, as long as it’s taught the proper way (as social studies and not science). Your posts, on the other hand, seem to imply that it shouldn’t be in the schools at all, and that anyone who thinks it should is an idiot. That’s where we disagree, and that’s why I keep handing you that axe…

  24. Scalzi wrote:
    First: Nothing about the theory of evolution — which is to say, the system of natural processes that describe the mechanisms of evolutionary selection and change — needs social commentary included to be understood, any more than learning how to change the oil in your car is dependent on understanding the “peak oil” debate.

    I agree with that. Social commentary in science class would likely make it more difficult to learn about the process of doing science. I think back to my thermodynamics course and the confusion that I experienced by trying to understand it in the context of creationist arguments. I would have learned things easier and clearer just by focusing on what thermodynamics is about rather than trying to expand it to bigger, inappropriate questions.

    Yes, it’s good for kids to be able to hold more than one idea in their heads but I’m skeptical whether most of them can. (I’m skeptical whether most adults can. People have a strong impulse to latch onto one thing.) Science is difficult enough without social commentary. Let them learn the basics of how things work before messing with their heads.

    Karl

  25. A friend of mine organized a panel to refute ID at the recent Geological conference in Salt Lake City. He invited Kurt Wise to be a part of it (the man who pretended to be a scientist until he got through his PhD program and then said oh, by the way, I don’t believe any of that crap you’ve been teaching me, it’s all ID). So anyhow, they produced this enormous session that had a huge attendance, and essentially got the entire crowd reved up to go home and get in the way of these idiots. Apparently Kurt Wise’s argument was a lot like Behe’s, and essentially said, there are more of us than there are of you, and we’re going to steamroll you, so you’d better accomodate us. Very threatening sort of presentation. Apparently the session made the papers.

    Di

  26. Brian Greenberg:

    “I couldn’t care less what class it’s taught in.”

    Fine. Let’s teach it in auto shop. Because it’ll be just as relevant there, right? I mean, if you don’t care when it’s taught, as long someone mouths the words “intelligent design” at some point in our children’s educational experience, then our work here is done. Praise Behe and pass the metric wrench!

    While we’re at it, let’s teach calculus in PE, and have kids do push-ups in American history, and have them take tests on American presidents in freshman composition class. Because, really, why would it matter? If it doesn’t matter to you when one topic is taught — whether or not it’s appropriate, relevant or useful for the stated goal of the class — why should it matter when any of these topics are taught?

    Your “context” argument is a nice try, but it doesn’t hold up. Your argument suggests that when teachers need to provide a context outside their immediate topic they should do so, and I have no problem with that — so long as the point of doing so is to illuminate their primary topic. Your example of the lunar worshippers, for example, is fine as far as it goes — you can’t understand the culture if you don’t understand the motions of the moon.

    But the converse argument — that you couldn’t understand the motions of the moon without understanding the cultures that worship it — is clearly not true, and so the question becomes how it would then be necessary or desirable to teach that in a class dealing with satellite motions, except in the most anecdotal of ways.

    Apply this now to the evolution/ID debate. In a social studies class that was discussing ID, it would be useful and relevant for the social studies teacher to discuss a little of the science behind evolutionary theory, because you won’t understand the ID/Evolution social debate without some of that grounding.

    However, as noted before, in a science class, nothing about evolutionary theory requires a discussion of the social approval or disapproval the theory; such discussion is not relevant to the topic. What would be relevant is scientific opposition to the theory, of which there is none.

    And therein lies the difference — and why it’s relevant to teach the subject in one class and not the other. Not caring when, where and how things are taught is a dangerous pedogogical position, because context matters.

    Certainly the ID people realize it, as they have absolutely no desire to have ID taught in social studies class. It does them no good there. They need to have it taught in science class, where it will have the maximum effect by being positioned as a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory. Which it is not.

    “Your posts, on the other hand, seem to imply that it shouldn’t be in the schools at all, and that anyone who thinks it should is an idiot.”

    I don’t see where the current post implies ID shouldn’t be discussed in schools, just not in science classes; that’s made fairly explicit when I suggest the court should find for “teaching science in biology classes,” which gives context to the more general word “classroom” later in the sentence.

    As a general rule I’m for open inquiry into the topics of the day, and I don’t think it’s useful to elide discussion of subjects entirely, because people care about it, and the development of a responsible citizenry includes discussion of current events. I just don’t want ID being confused with actual science, and I don’t appreciate people who go out of their way to try to do just that. Those people are idiots, and they’re passionate ones, and that makes them dangerous.

  27. Brian Greenberg:

    “If our students walk away from science class understanding the theory, but not understanding the controversy/debate it often generates, then I think we do them a disservice. We leave them ill-prepared to discuss evolution in any kind of social context, set them up to be blindsided if they choose to pursue it more seriously in an academic context, and reinforce the notion that science is the only valid way to explain the world around us (not to mention the inherent prejudice involved in the “I’m right so everyone who disagrees with me is crazy” logic).”

    Do I need to learn about the Bush/Gore election debate to understand how the Electoral College works? Do I need to read about Terry Schiavo to understand “Quality of Life?” Do I need to know that some people are Pro-Life, and some people are Pro-Choice (and some people from both camps do some crazy shit) to understand how an abortion works?

    Are these things useful information? Yes (imo). But they’re not necessary, and my knowledge of the Electoral College won’t be any less because I never heard of the Bush/Gore debate (if I hadn’t – this is a hypothetical…)

    So if I’m taking GOVT 101, let’s say, and the professor doesn’t tell me about Bush/Gore, he (or she)’s not “doing me a disservice.”

    The problem with your argument is that it seems as if you’re for forcing schools to teach extraneous information, that, while related to the topic the schools should be teaching, doesn’t help or hurt the students’ understanding of it.

    Now, should a professor get in trouble for mentioning ID? No, of course not. But it’s hardly necessary.

    “It also assumes our children aren’t smart enough to hold two ideas in their heads at the same time – the science and the fact that some religious people disagree with the science, purely on faith.”

    Who’s assuming that children aren’t smart here? I’d be fairly insulted if someone assumed that I couldn’t pick up on social debates by being a member of society.

    You say “We leave them ill-prepared to discuss evolution in any kind of social context, set them up to be blindsided if they choose to pursue it more seriously in an academic context …” but you’re ignorning the “facts of life” relating to these examples.

    Reality A) If you’re in a social context speaking about evolution (and presumably ID) and you’re unsure about the “debate” surrounding the issues – you listen until you figure it out. It’s not like the “debate” is astrophysics… the majority of people don’t need the public education system’s help in figuring out social contexts/situations.

    Reality B) If you’re interested in studying *anything* scientifically, i.e. applying the rigors of academic analysis to the subject, you’re first of all, an intelligent person quite capable of learning by reading, talking to people, and other forms of information gathering, and second, you probably aren’t in a high school/junior high Science class.

    “I think the “keep religion out of the schools” argument is simply being used to keep ideas that people find discomforting out of the schools, …”

    I have absolutely no problem with religion in schools. Seriously. And when you can design a course that accurately represents the majority of the world’s religions without giving the idea that one religion is better than the others, I’ll place my (future) children in it. I truly believe that the best way to make up your mind is to start with all the information. But teaching a course that doesn’t equally address most of the world’s religions is wrong (this is a different issue, with many facets, that I don’t think we want to get into here). And Science class is not the place for a religious education.

    And finally:
    The entire tone of your post seems to suggest that if we don’t teach these kids about this in their public schools, they’ll never learn it…

    How did you learn about ID? Did your teacher tell you about it? Did your parents make a specific effort to say “This ecosystem *must* have been designed by because I can’t see another explanation for it!”

    My point – we don’t *need* ID in schools any more than we *need* “How to interpret your life 101” – we figured it out, and so will future kids. And trust me, not having ID in schools isn’t going to keep thousands of them (millions?) from believing in it.

  28. Yeah, that second to last sentence should say

    “Did your parents make a specific effort to say ‘This ecosystem *must* have been designed by (insert your deity here) because I can’t see another explanation for it!'”

    Sorry for the mix-up, I typed Angle Brackets without thinking about it… :)

  29. I should mention – the Blog my name links to is very rated R (or whatever you want to say to mean it has lots of swearing, angry rants, implied violence, etc.). So if you’re uncomfortable with that stuff – don’t visit it.

  30. Up near the top, Sara writes: Because you can’t just have a textbook that says that everything absolutely, positively, evolved all by itself, according to a logical and extremely fortunate sequences of events, without teaching atheism.

    If that’s true, then you can’t teach that when you role dice, the laws of physics absolutely, positively control the landing of those dice, without teaching atheism. (That is, without a mechanical view of the universe.) Because any god anyone believes in could, like, do stuff to those dice in mid-air.

    Q: So during probability chapters in high school math books, why is there no discussion of fate, karma, Thor, rabbits’ feet, the Judeo-Christian god, or astrology?

    A: Um, because it’s a math book, and not some conversation in a bar, a casino, a fundamentalist church, or a D&D tournament.

    All of which are the sorts of places we do not want to turn our classrooms into. SO STOP TRYING!

  31. Sara has said something that I think is a fallacy that needs to be addressed (which Scott Westerfield has addressed in part).

    I guess the question I have for her is what is her definition of “atheism?” The only way her argument makes any sort of sense is if by “atheism” she means “a process of rational thought where conclusions follow naturally from their antecedents.”

    Unfortunately for her, that is not a particularly useful definition of “atheism.” I’m not saying that she can’t use the term that way. I’m just saying that doing so is not useful for the purposes of clarifying discussion. The reason is thus:

    What she’s saying, and I agree, is that science class ought to be devoted to developing in students the tools of rational thought. These tools might include the ability to draw logical conclusions from the available data, the ability extrapolate from the available data to develop a model which predicts future phenomena, the ability to test that model to verify or falsify it.

    The bit which Sara has elided over is how, in any useful sense, this could be “atheism.” Atheism is the belief that there is no supreme being. None of those things taught in science class I mentioned above are matters of belief. So I simply don’t understand how teach people to think rationally is the same thing as teaching people that there is no supreme being. It seems to me that one can think and reason rationally and still believe in a supreme being. Since Sara’s argument is not predicated on any specific theory, I believe the following is fair question for me to ask her:

    How does teaching about Young’s two slit interference experiment and the theory which arose from it assert the belief that there is no supreme being?

    My initial interpretation of Sara’s text, that belief in a supreme being is fundamentally incompatble with the process of rational thought, is so offensive that I’m sure that I’m mistaken and she must have meant something else instead.

    As near as I can tell, science class, in its typical state, is already the compromise she wants since it takes no position on the existence of a supreme being. All you learn in high school science class is that we have developed these models which allow us to predict the behavior of natural phenomena with great accuracy and this is process by which we derived them. That we have accurate models is neutral with respect to some putative “actual” mechanism. (I mean, the only reason why particle-wave duality throws us for a loop is because we lack the appropriate metaphor to describe the behavior.)

    P.S. To be scrupulously fair about this, the belief underlying science is that it is in fact possible to make observations, think rationally about them, propose hypotheses, test them and develop them into theories which accurately model the natural world. Again, I don’t understand how this belief is incompatible with the belief in a supreme being. Didn’t Descartes sort this all out about 350 years ago? Or maybe he just set the foundation. I forget…

  32. Andrew Wade said: “As far as I’m aware there’s no good scientific theory for the creation of life.”

    I would point out that there have been experiments done over the past 50+ years involving the basic non-organic molecules thought to exist in the primordial atmosphere. Using a self-contained system that simulated oceanic evaporation, lightning storms and condensation, Harold Urey and Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago were able to produce organic compunds, including amino acids. Subsequent experiments expanded and refined our understanding of abiogenesis, and while it may not be complete, it certainly goes a long way toward explaining how life could have started on our planet.

  33. MinstrelOfFunk said: “they changed the mascot from the Engineers to the Mountain Hawks for the sake of political correctness (blech)”

    My question is: what is so politically incorrect about Engineers?

  34. the Judeo-Christian god

    No such thing. Thanks for playing.

    Brian, it’s pretty clear that you do care in which class ID is taught.

  35. . . . the Judeo-Christian god . . .

    No such thing. Thanks for playing.

    Man, this sucks. On the one hand, I’m against letting snappy, arrogant taglines posted without elucidation stand unchallenged. But on the other, I’m against stoking off-topic semantic arguments about sets of terms that bore me.

    So let me just say that discussions about the intentions of super-beings, whatever you call them, don’t belong in math class, even though those beings may be believed to affect the laws of probability. How’s that for pith?

  36. Benjamin:

    Do I need to learn about the Bush/Gore election debate to understand how the Electoral College works? Do I need to read about Terry Schiavo to understand “Quality of Life?” Do I need to know that some people are Pro-Life, and some people are Pro-Choice (and some people from both camps do some crazy shit) to understand how an abortion works?

    Interesting question. Honestly, I believe the answer is no – you don’t need to learn about Bush/Gore to understand how the Electoral College works, but if you did learn about Bush/Gore, you’d come out of the experience with a much better understanding of the Electoral College.

    It’s the difference between knowing the theory behind how something works, and knowing how it affects/is affected by the world around it. Put it this way: if my kids were learning about the Electoral College in early 2001, I would have been disappointed if the Civics teacher didn’t bring up Bush/Gore, and I would have sat my kids down and told them about it myself. Put still another way: I’d consider the kid who learned about Bush/Gore during his/her Electoral College lesson to be better informed on the subject than the kid who didn’t.

    I also think including the context makes the subject more interesting to the students. Imagine the student who knew about Bush/Gore going into a lesson about the Electoral College. Wouldn’t he/she be disappointed if the teacher didn’t bring it up? Doesn’t that suggest that the teacher either doesn’t know about current events, or doesn’t care enough to stray from the precious curriculum long enough to mention it? Is our goal to produce well-rounded, well-informed kids here, or is to generate high test scores?

    (Side note: When the stock market crashed in October of 1987, I was taking an Economics class at the Wharton School and couldn’t wait to hear what my Econ professor had to say the following morning. Turns out he didn’t mention it at all. I approached him after class & voiced my disappointment. He told me he couldn’t care less about the American market because he was British. I lost a great deal of respect for him right then & there…)

    The entire tone of your post seems to suggest that if we don’t teach these kids about this in their public schools, they’ll never learn it… How did you learn about ID? Did your teacher tell you about it?

    No offense, but that’s just a stupid argument. It’s pretty likely that someone would have taught me to add & subtract outside of school too. Does that mean we should cut it out of math class?

    Mythago:

    Brian, it’s pretty clear that you do care in which class ID is taught.

    Well, no – I don’t. What I care about is that the kids come out of the schools with a well-rounded understanding of the subjects they’re being taught. If these kids take the study of evolution much past high school, someone is very likely going to ask them about ID. If their answer is “never heard of it,” then (IMHO) their high school has failed them.

  37. It’s not just the HTML tagging, it’s how Movable Type renders it. So it’s not all your fault, Brian.

    I’d agree that context makes things more interesting when it’s being taught — the real world application of things makes them more relevant. But again, the question is to what end? In a science class, discussing how evolution happens around us every day and affects our lives (for example, through the evolution of drug-resistant “super bugs” because people treat antibiotics like they were candy) makes sense because it amplifies the relevance of what’s being taught. However, spending more than a token amount of time on ID in a science class (or elevating its status to a viably competitive theory with evolution, which it is not — but which is the goal of the IDers) doesn’t do anything but muddy the waters.

    In other words, not all “context” is created equal, when it comes to teaching our children. And once again, this is why it matter which classes kids learn about ID in. From a pedological point of view, not caring which class a topic is discussed in isn’t necessarily any better than demanding it be taught in a class for which its inappropriate.

  38. I would point out that there have been experiments done over the past 50+ years involving the basic non-organic molecules thought to exist in the primordial atmosphere. Using a self-contained system that simulated oceanic evaporation, lightning storms and condensation, Harold Urey and Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago were able to produce organic compunds, including amino acids.

    Oooh geektime! The amino acid results I think are something of a red herring. The presence of amino acids in the environment is probably very important for the evolution of early life, but amino acids are neither reproduced nor cause anything else to be reproduced. What I find more promising is that you can have reproduction without having a bunch of DNA Polymerase around. The pattern of atoms in a crystal layer is reproduced in the next layer of a crystal, including many types of defects – reproduction/inheritence. Unfortunately each layer is reproduced only once, so you can’t have selection. But that’s not true of my next example: prions.
    Prions are thought to be layers of (mis-)folded protein, with each layer acting as a template for the next: put hydrophillic amino acid next to hydrophillic, and hydrophobic next to hydrophobic, and you’ve just reproduced the previous layer. (It’s probably slightly more complicated). Nice thing is this doesn’t require any fancy mechanism: the proteins will tend to do this by themselves (it’s a low energy configuration), so the mechanism would be present in a pre-biotic earth. And you can reproduce a protein configuration multiple times: Just cleave the protein from one of its neighbors to expose a new surface. So you can also have selection. Reproduction, selection: those are the raw materials for evolution through natural selection. (You also need mutation, but you tend to get that for free with any reproduction mechanism).
    Problem with prions as a model for the first life is that while the template mechanism they use to reproduce is present in a pre-biotic earth, the very specific peptide strings they’re built from wouldn’t be.
    I’m not well versed in abiogenesis theories, but I belive that the template theory is the only real contender for how the first life reproduced. And it’s not a bad theory–the mechanism can easily be present in a pre-biotic earth. As for the substate, I belive that layers of clay are the current favourite.
    But any self-respecting life-form also has the other two components of a von Neumann machine: the universal constructor, and the program to drive it. In cellular terms that would be the DNA -> mRNA -> Ribosome pathway, and the genes that drive it. Now fortunately you can use the mechanism of evolution through natural selection to evolve those parts (since you already have reproduction and natural selection). But you still need an evolutionary pathway to get to that endpoint. And the pathway to the universal constructor (gene expression) is sorely missing from almost every theory I run across. And until you have gene expression in some form, you’re very limited in what you can do to enhance reproductive success: the lifeform-to-be is very vulnerable to extinction.
    I am aware of one exception: RNA can form complicated, useful molecules without a lot of help from complicated Ribosome/etc machinary. You just encode matching base pairs along the RNA, and let the regions bind to each other. A nice, simple mechanism that doesn’t require a lot of complicated machinery to work. And it probably doesn’t require much coding to get something useable[1]. Modern organisms still use this mechanism to produce the molecules they tag amino acids with.
    But RNA itself requires a fair bit of complicated machinery to reproduce. So it doesn’t work as the first life forms. And I haven’t run across any explanation for how reproducing patterns of clay can reproduce RNA while they’re at it.
    So there are plenty of good pieces to build a theory of abiogenesis from (as you note). But I’ve yet to run across a good (or even mediocre) theory.
    [1] What most refutations of evolution through natural selection that aren’t utterly lame miss is that natural selection doesn’t need good proteins to work on, it just needs proteins that have some effect, feeble though it may be. And that’s a far lower bar.
    What they also tend to miss is that most proteins have a hiarchial structure, and there are types of mutations that can rearrange this structure without destoying the low level structure. You don’t have to reinvent the alpha helix or the beta sheet for every new protein. More than that modern life forms seem designed to help evolution through natural selection work effectively. :cough: sex :cough:
    </geekery:>

  39. Andrew: Wow! I certainly wasn’t expecting such a lengthy dissertation, so kudos to you!

    I was merely pointing out that while the leading theories may not be complete it certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t compelling research being done to figure out how life started.

    I think the presence of amino acids is important if only because they are so obviously a part of life as we know it.

  40. John H:

    My question is: what is so politically incorrect about Engineers?

    When I was a senior at Lehigh (mid 90’s) the University was going through an image change to attract more students. Up to that time Lehigh was primarily an engineering school but they were rapidly shifting to a business/arts focus. They want to be Ivy League sooooo bad. It was decided that the “Engineer” mascot didn’t adequately represent the student body in that there were very few women or minorities in the engineering college and a growing number of students weren’t in the engineering college at all.
    The funny thing is that the engineer mascot wasn’t a geeky guy with a pocket protector and slide rule, he was a train engineer. The guy who founded the school (Asa Packer) was a railroad tycoon after all.

  41. John:

    In other words, not all “context” is created equal, when it comes to teaching our children. And once again, this is why it matters which classes kids learn about ID in. From a pedological point of view, not caring which class a topic is discussed in isn’t necessarily any better than demanding it be taught in a class for which its inappropriate.

    OK, I let this go the first time, because I thought you were being tongue-in-cheek, but allow me to clarify: When I said I didn’t care what class it was taught in, I was referring to the conversation about teaching it in science class vs. teaching it in social studies class. Perhaps what I should have said was, “I don’t care which class it’s taught in.” Clearly, this kind of thing doesn’t belong in autoshop or math class.

  42. It’s Movable Type not you, Brian. Now you know why I don’t tend to use blockquotes in comments.

    You wrote:

    “When I said I didn’t care what class it was taught in, I was referring to the conversation about teaching it in science class vs. teaching it in social studies class.”

    However, once again, it’s appropriate for one and not the other, for the reasons I explained above, so not caring which of these classes it is taught it is still playing fast and loose with the pedogogy, in my opinion. And as noted, it certainly matters to ID proponents into which class ID is assigned. Their agenda is not served with ID in social studies.

  43. Going back to the original entry…

    Unfortunately, the common use of “theory” isn’t the same as the scientific definition. It fits in a range between “hypothesis” and “Hey! I’ve got a theory”. While Behe’s re-definition of the word is too lax for science, it fits well with what most non-scientists think it means. (Non-scientists who are currently in high school know the correct use, but no one listens to them when discussing education.)

    Behe knows very well that the weakened definition plays well in the court of public opinion, where scientists aren’t represented as eloquently as they are in a court of law. And while most would find it absurd to present study of the zodiac as a science, people seem to forget which is “astrology” and which is “astronomy”.

    Why is this desk whacking me in the head?

  44. Andrew: Wow! I certainly wasn’t expecting such a lengthy dissertation, so kudos to you!

    Thanks. I didn’t have any real point, I was just taking the opportunity to geek out and figured no-one would mind.

    Unfortunately, the common use of “theory” isn’t the same as the scientific definition. It fits in a range between “hypothesis” and “Hey! I’ve got a theory”. While Behe’s re-definition of the word is too lax for science, it fits well with what most non-scientists think it means.

    The latest issue of Scientific American had a review of a book detailing the abuse of such ignorance of science by everybody’s favourite boogiemen, the Republicans. Specifically, the review mentioned abusing ignorance over the role of uncertainty in science: using the lack of total certainty to dismiss uncomfortable theories. I see it happen a lot with regards to evolution. Our picture of the tree of life has gaps and holes and uncertainty and conjecture a-plenty, but the evidence for common descent is pretty overwhelming.
    Personally I find the abuse of science by the medical industries scarier. I fear the corruption of medical research will cause/has caused many deaths, and a great deal of unnecessary expense.

  45. In high school, one of my most respected science teachers taught us all about alchemy (you know, turning lead-into-gold). Now, before you all throw your hands up in horror, he did it as an engaging means of discussing *bad* science: How to spot a fake.

    I guess I’d be okay with ID in my kid’s science class in *that* context.

  46. rayyy,Eh, there’s more than enough examples of bad science out there to mock, err, discuss. I don’t think we ought to latch onto an example (though it certainly qualifies as bad science) that’s sure to infuriate a substantial number of kids. That’s not really a conducive environment for learning. Maybe (hopefully) fifty years from now Intelligent Design will be a suitable classroom example of bad science, but if it’s going to be discussed now, I agree with John that it should be confined to Social Studies.What bothers me most about the ID debate is that most proponents of it are ignorant, but not stupid. The few (such as Behe) who have no excuse are simply cynically using the fact that people generally want to believe things that conform to what they already believe. And when a tenured professor steps up and claims to believe this nonsense, those who don’t really care about the scientific method (or care to learn) can say “hey, he’s a scientist and he buys it, so it’s obviously not as clear cut as the scientific ‘majority’ say it is.” Worse, Behe can be believably (to the credulous) portrayed as a modern day Gallileo bravely standing against the orthodoxy of the scientific community.And hey, let’s not be too hard on the alchemists — they were important forerunners of true chemistry and the scientific method in general. Plus, they used all those nifty symbols and whatnot.

  47. As a concept, alchemy is not as far-fetched as ID. Knock three protons out of the nucleus and lead becomes gold.

    From a practical standpoint it wouldn’t make any sense to do this, but it should be possible.

  48. As a concept, alchemy is not as far-fetched as ID. Knock three protons out of the nucleus and lead becomes gold.
    From a practical standpoint it wouldn’t make any sense to do this, but it should be possible.

    It’s been a while since I took nuclear physics but I don’t recall any way of knocking protons out of a nucleus. (You can shatter nucleii and get all sorts of fun elements). What you can do is add protons to nucleii. So turning gold into lead is probably possible. There are now quite a few elements on the periodic table that are not naturally occuring, and have been manufactured through such transmutation.

  49. I suppose I should have said ‘Figure out how to knock three protons out of the nucleus’. It should still be possible, but totally impractical.

  50. Sorry John, my tone may have been a bit off. And I don’t know for a fact that knocking protons out of nuclei cannot be done today. In any event your point certainly stands.

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