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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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.