Well, as I feared, I did set off a debate about Intelligent Design, which wasn’t my intent, but was inevitable (unless I allowed no comments on the post). Hugh hopes that I’ll respond to this post.
As I said, I’ve discussed this in depth previously, and I suspect that Professor Reynolds (John Mark, not Glenn) is reading some things into my comments that I don’t intend.
I understand that this is not a science discussion, but a science (and philosophy) metadiscussion. That is, a discussion about how to discuss it.
I (unlike many scientists and evolutionists) recognize that science is a philosophy in itself, and one that is faith based. I don’t know if anyone followed my link to my previous discussions on this topic, but it would have been helpful if they had. Particularly if they continued to follow the links back to this post and this one.
For instance, I wrote:
The problem with creation theories is not that they’re inconsistent with the evidence–they are totally consistent, tautologically so, as Eugene [Volokh] says. The problem is that they tell us nothing useful from a scientific standpoint. In fact, there are an infinite number of theories that fit any given set of facts. I can speculate not only that all was created, but that it was created (complete with our memories of it) a minute ago, or two minutes ago. Or an hour ago. Or yesterday. Or the day before. Or, as some would have it, 6000+ years ago. Each is a different theory (though they all fall into a class of theories) that fit the observable facts. They are all equally possible, and all (other than some form of naturalistic evolution) untestable.
And furthermore, they offer no hope of making predictions for the future. After all, if a creator can whimsically create a universe in whatever manner he wishes, including evidence that he didn’t do it, how can we know what he’ll choose tomorrow? Orrin Judd likes to make much of the fact that many evolutionary psychologists believe that free will is an illusion, but if that’s the case in a naturalistic world, how much more so must it be with a whimsical creator, who can not only make us as he chooses, but unmake, and remake us on the same basis, whenever he chooses?
Of course, the argument to that is that the scriptures say that God grants us free will, which may be true, but once again, it isn’t science…
…I have faith in the scientific method, but I can’t prove it’s the best way to achieve knowledge to anyone who doesn’t. Unlike many who believe that the scientific method is the correct one, I admit that this belief is based on faith.
To me, the argument of evolution versus…well, other unspecified (and unscientific) explanations is not about true and false–it is just about science versus non-science. If I were to teach evolution in a school, I would state it not as “this is what happened,” but rather, “this is what scientists believe happened.”
In other words, I don’t want to indoctrinate people what to believe–I just want to make sure that when they take a science class, that they’re getting science, and not a religion dressed up as science. Whether they want to accept science is up to them…
…Unfortunately, the debate can tend to degenerate quickly, on both sides. Many creationists view evolutionists as godless propagandists, with the agenda of poisoning the minds of their children against their faith. Some evolutionists (particularly devout atheists), don’t recognize that their own belief system is faith based, and believe that it really is an issue of right versus wrong.
I don’t believe that people who believe in creationism are stupid, or mad–they just have a different belief system. The only thing that I object to (and justifiably frustrates people like [biologist] Paul Orwin) is when they try to argue the issue, when they clearly don’t understand evolution, and don’t want to take the time to learn about it (other than, perhaps, wrongly, from creationist screeds). This isn’t a matter of intelligence or sanity, but ignorance (which can fortunately be readily cured).
If one is going to critique a scientific theory, it is only polite to become educated on it (which means reading the works of its proponents–not just strawmen written by its opponents). Otherwise, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, by asking questions that have been answered many times, and often long ago.
With regard to my statement that science is a philosophy that rests on faith, I wrote the following:
Belief in the scientific method is faith, in the sense that there are a number of unprovable axioms that must be accepted:
1) There is an objective reality
2) It obeys universal laws
3) Its nature can be revealed by asking questions of it in the form of experiments
4) The simplest explanation that fits the facts is the one that should be preferred
There are other tenets, but these are the main ones.
I’m not saying that Professor Reynolds is ignorant of evolution, and I apologize for simply snipping so much old stuff rather than responding directly with new prose, but it’s frustrating to rewrite things I’ve written in the past, and it’s important for him to understand that I am not arguing the truth of his or my beliefs–I am only arguing about what the name of the class in which they are taught should be.
He claims that the boundary between science and non-science is not the clear bright line that I claim it to be. He also claims that not all scientists are Popperians.
Perhaps. I can only speak to my own view of what constitutes the scientific method, which I believe (notwithstanding my heresy about it relying on faith in the form of unprovable axioms) is reasonably mainstream among practicing scientists.
My own gripe about science education in this country is that it’s not taught as a philosophy of how to attain knowledge, but rather it’s simply taught as a compendium of “facts” that must be learned. Given that it starts out with this fundamental misunderstanding (promulgated, unfortunately, by many incompetent science teachers), it’s not surprising that many take umbrage at the teaching of “facts” that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.
So if science is a religion (in the sense of a belief system, which I think it is), then is it a legitimate subject for public schools? As I’ve said previously, this is largely a symptom of a much larger problem–the fact that we have public schools, in which the “public” will always be at loggerheads about what subjects should be taught and how. But given the utility of learning science (something that I employ every day, whenever I troubleshoot my computer network, or figure out what kinds of foods are good or bad for me), I think that it is an important subject to which everyone should be exposed. But if I were teaching evolution, I would offer it as the scientific explanation for how life on earth developed, not a “fact” or “the truth.”
The problem arises when some scientists, blind to their own faith and its tenets, come to believe that their beliefs represent Truth, and that those who disagree are fools and slack-jawed yokels. And with that, I come full circle in once again agreeing with Hugh that the media does a disservice to the debate when it doesn’t respect the beliefs of those who feel that their children are being indoctrinated away from their faith.
[8:15 PM EST update]
In response to Carl’s comment (see comments), I’ll republish a post from early in this blog’s life, almost three years ago:
Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that’s who pays for it–not, in a manner similar to National “Public” Radio, because it’s necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like “The National Science Quiz.”
It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, “How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?”
I threw something (it’s been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I’m sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.
“This is not science!” I yelled at it, ineffectually. “Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it’s the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it’s why very few people understand anything about science!”
Science is not a compendium of “facts.” Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That’s why I get upset when someone says that “evolution is a fact.” Not just because it’s untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.
Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that’s what is implied by the “science quiz” described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).
When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.
Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of “facts,” (which I couldn’t manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don’t consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity–perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.
What’s my point?
Learning physics wasn’t about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That’s what all science should be about.
But instead science, when it’s taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don’t understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it’s generally taught, is pure drudgery. It’s little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.
It’s also little wonder that the phrase, “it’s only a theory” has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is “only a theory,” then it’s not a fact, and we need not believe it.
So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks–to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a “fact,” or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.
Of course testing theory against empirical data is crucial to understanding how the process works, but my concern is that the system is out of balance. If Carl believes that it’s currently all theory, that’s clearly as wrong as it being all fact (and given the educational system and educational degrees in general, I suspect that much of the “theory” being taught is wrong as well).