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We're Not in Kansas Anymore
June 14, 2002
By Ernest Partridge

... for over two centuries religion has been on the defensive, and on a weak defensive. The period has been one of unprecedented intellectual progress. In this way a series of novel situations have been produced for thought. Each such occasion has found the religious thinkers unprepared. Something which has been proclaimed to be vital, has finally, after struggle, distress, and anathema, been modified and otherwise interpreted... Consider this contrast: when Darwin or Einstein proclaim theories which modify our ideas, it is a triumph for science. We do not go about saying that there is another defeat for science, because its old ideas have been abandoned. We know that another step of scientific insight has been gained.

Alfred North Whitehead
Science and the Modern World

I

It seems that you can't keep a bad idea down. Readily refutable dogmas, such as astrology, "trickle-down" economics, and creationism all seem to possess some Dracula-like immortality, and no matter how much logic, experience and demonstrable proof is arrayed against them, scientists and educators seem unable to drive in the fatal stake and dispatch them, once and for all.

Consider "creationism." Despite the Scopes Trial and numerous court decisions barring "creation science" from the public classrooms, not to mention the phenomenal advance of the life sciences, this ancient dogma refuses to die and stay dead as is evident to anyone who pays even casual attention to cable TV and radio "talk shows." Numerous public opinion polls report that about half of the US population does not accept evolution including, we are told, the present occupant of the White House. (See "The President of Fantasyland: Bush vs. Science").

In 1999 creationism was given new life when the Kansas State Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the required public school curriculum. This so embarrassed and outraged the intelligent citizens of Kansas, unaccustomed to voting in School Board elections, to throw the troglodytes off the Board, whereupon evolution was restored to the curriculum.

The newest incarnation of creationism is something called "intelligent design theory" which, on close inspection, turns out to be the same old wine in a new bottle.

II

Is there any point in going over the arguments for evolution one more time? Probably not. Those who accept evolution, need not hear a retelling of the evidence, and those who do not accept evolution will surely not have their minds changed by anything we might say here. Still, these few "meta-scientific" reflections might be of some use to those who are willing, once more, to join the good fight for enlightenment. (For those willing to examine the case for evolution, the National Academy of Sciences offers an excellent bibliography).

First of all, the Chair of the Kansas Board remarked that "evolution can not be observed or replicated in the laboratory." We promise her that we will take notice if she can produce a case of "special creation" in the laboratory. More to the point, plate tectonics and astronomy also can not be demonstrated in the laboratory. Are we thus to conclude that Copernicus' "theory" is "unproved?" Or that the alleged San Andreas Fault, which I cross every day I visit my campus, is mere speculation? (Tell that to my insurance company). Of course, the data that support these theories can be "observed or replicated," in abundance, in the laboratory and in the field.

Then, once again, we heard that "evolution is just a theory, not a fact." How often must the defenders of evolution re-iterate that this complaint is based upon an elementary ambiguity: that "theory" in ordinary language does not mean the same thing as "theory" in science, and that it is the second sense that is meant by "the theory of evolution"?

Apparently, we must repeat this point as long as the creationists continue to complain that "evolution is just a theory" - which means, effectively, forever.

So folks, here it is again. As we all know, in ordinary speech, "theory" means "a hunch." And as we gather practical evidence, that "theory" may "grow up" to be a proven fact. (The scientist uses the word "hypothesis" in roughly this sense). In contradistinction, to the scientist, a "theory" is a complex model of reality, composed of "facts," laws (generalizations), and a carefully defined vocabulary of concepts, all woven into an intricate structure of implication and mutual support. Scientific theories are no more capable of "growing" (dare we say "evolving"?) into "facts," than a raisin cake is capable of "growing into" a raisin, a solar system into a planet, or a molecule into an atom. In science, facts are ingredients of theories!

This is why it never occurs to most people to discount Newton's theories of motion and gravity, or atomic theory, or the theory of relativity, or numerous other scientific theories, as "mere theories, not facts."

Ya got that, Rev. Falwell? (Don't count on it).

Scientific theories can be amazing accomplishments. As they develop and mature, theories predict and explain widely diverse phenomena, and as they do so the theories themselves become ever more robust and secure. For example, the theory of relativity explains both microcosmic and macrocosmic events: e.g., phenomena at the end of a particle accelerator, the behavior of clocks on spaceships, the bending of star light near a solar eclipse, the behavior of pulsars and black holes, and the evolution of galaxies. All these are elegantly tied together into a structure, at the center of which is E=mc2.

The structure and scope of the theory of evolution is no less impressive. It explains such widely various phenomena as the distribution of fossils in rock strata, the structure and distribution of extant species, comparative anatomy and physiology, the development of embryos, animal husbandry, the declining efficacy of pesticides and antibiotics, and the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, and other constituent chemicals of all life forms. Indeed, as Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

No, scientific "theories" are not "weak facts." They are magnificent structures, built out of the "bricks" of "simple facts."

But never mind all that. From pulpits throughout the realm, now and into the indefinite future, the word goes forth: "evolution is merely a theory, not a fact." Though shot through with fallacy and elementary error, this battle-cry remains rhetorically effective. And that is all that is required by the creationists.

III

How is it possible that seemingly intelligent (and manifestly clever) individuals can, given the weight of evidence and theoretical scope, reject evolution? It seems incredible, so long as we see creationists as misguided quasi-scientists and scholars, who have somehow read the evidence differently from the mainstream of bio-scientists.

But such a view misses the point that "creation science" is an oxymoron, and not a "science" at all. Instead, creationism is religious apologetics, and as such the very opposite of science. With science the conclusion follows from the evidence. With apologetics, the conclusion selects the "evidence."

Science is based upon verified and replicable facts, organized into theories which (ideally) yield hypotheses that are, at the same time, both confirmable and falsifiable (to be explained shortly). In science, hypotheses follow from inquiry, and are the most open, tentative and vulnerable part of the enterprise. And scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable - from a hypothesis one must be able to describe, either directly or by implication, numerous observations which, if encountered, would disprove the hypothesis. Scientific confirmation, in other words, consists of an encounter with predicted observations, to the exclusion of all those other describable disconfirmations. For example, in Eddington's classical eclipse experiment, Newtonian physics would have placed the apparent position of the star at a different location than that predicted by relativity theory. Indeed, any apparent location other than that predicted by Einstein would have refuted his theory. Instead, it appeared just where it was predicted to be, assuming E=mc2 (and much else). As Karl Popper noted, scientific confirmation is a failure, despite deliberate effort, to disconfirm, and thus scientific hypotheses are, in principle, forever logically "open" to revision or even refutation.

Religious apologetics is the exact opposite. The conclusion (i.e., "the doctrine") is assumed at the outset, and its disconfirmation is ruled out, a priori (i.e., absolutely). What remains is a search for "confirmation," however it might be obtained - by citation out of context, by equivocation (cf. "mere theory" above), and by the employment of any of the other devices in the vast armory of fallacies well-known to skilled debaters and salesmen.

Unlike scientific hypotheses, religious doctrines are unfalsifiable, and therefore detached from the world of observable phenomena. An example from my youth serves as illustration. When I asked my fundamentalist mentors to account for the existence of dinosaur bones and other fossils, I was offered two "explanations." The first was that the Lord put them there to test our faith, and the second was that Satan had put them there to lead us astray from the truth. An interesting feature of both "explanations" is that they are non-falsifiable. However convincing the apparent evidence for evolution, we can be sure that the Lord or Satan have even greater capacities to "test" or "deceive" us (as the case may be). Thus, in principle, we can never disprove that we are being either "tested" or "deceived" by superior intelligences. Unfortunately for the creationists, the other side of the logical coin of "non-falsifiability" is "non-confirmability."

Creationist attempts to present "arguments" for their position are thus, in the final analysis, insincere. They are not prepared to abandon their position, whatever the refuting evidence might be. To the scientist, holding to a view in the face of confuting evidence is plain stubbornness (not unknown in the history of science). To the dogmatist, such "stubbornness" is a virtue - a triumph of faith over "temptation." And the greater the evidence, the greater the faith required to overcome the temptation to believe, and the greater the faith, the greater shall be the reward hereafter.

The creationists insist that they have a "right" to have their viewpoint heard in the public schools, alongside of evolution. And if denied this right they may, as in Kansas, attempt to exclude the teaching of evolution in the schools. (A June, 1999, CNN Gallup poll indicates that 68% of the public agrees that both should be taught in the schools). But there is no ban against teaching creationism in the churches, at home, or in private "Christian schools." Nor should there be. The regulation of religious teaching is no business of government.

But neither should religious doctrine be falsely identified as "science" and taught alongside science in the public schools. For that is an "establishment" of religious doctrine, and thus contrary to our founding political principles.

And so, the struggle continues. Thus the National Academy of Sciences has published, first in 1998, a booklet entitled Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, and now a companion Science and Creationism. The latter can be downloaded, but both should be purchased from the National Association Press. [books.nap.edu] As a summary, we can not improve upon the concluding paragraphs from the NAS publication, Science and Creationism.

Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief. Documentation offered in support of these claims is typically limited to the special publications of their advocates. These publications do not offer hypotheses subject to change in the light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstrations of error. This contrasts with science, where any hypotheses or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge.

No body of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal material rather than scientific observation, interpretation, and experimentation should be admissible as science in any science course. Incorporating the teaching of such doctrines into a science curriculum compromises the objectives of public education. Science has been greatly successful at explaining natural processes, and this has led not only to increased understanding of the universe but also to major improvements in technology and public health and welfare. The growing role that science plays in modern life requires that science, and not religion, be taught in science classes.

***

 
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" www.igc.org/gadfly.

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