Friday, 19 December 2008

The Unrelenting Struggle For Acceptance

Creationism trying to force it's way into the science curriculum is something I've blogged about previously, but it's always a persistent issue. Scientific American in their most recent issue (unless you are in Australia where we have to wait another 6 weeks) wrote about the latest face of creationism. Dispatches has a good summary of the tactics used as well. Now while some of these tactics may seem reasonable on the surface and indeed sound very reasonable to voters, it's still the same tactic of trying to undermine established science for the sake of religion.

Strengths and weaknesses of evolution
When creationists bring up the idea of teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, I wonder just what weaknesses they are referring to. Is it gaps in our historical knowledge? If so, then all science (and all history) would be regarded as inadequate because there are always gaps in the past. Why single out evolution and not talk about the weaknesses of the historical arguments for the holocaust? After all, there is more evidence supporting evolution than there is evidence supporting the holocaust. It serves to highlight the difference between fact and theory in science. We are never going to have all the facts of the world, but we can create theories that fit the facts we do have and from there can predict what other facts we expect to discover.

Where the strength of a theory lies in it's ability to explain new evidence. All science is tentative, but the ideas that get carried on while human knowledge is progressing are those theories that fit the new observations. Evolution has explanatory power that explains all the data we have, there's a reason it's regarded as one of the strongest theories in science. It's as close to one of the most fundamental truths as the method of science allows. There's a reason that over 99% of scientists accept evolution as the only explanation that can adequately account for the diversity of life on earth.

So what are the weaknesses that creationists go on about? The origin of life for starters, though complaining about that is like complaining that evolution cannot account for gravity. Evolution isn't a theory of how life came from non-life, it's a theory on how that life changed throughout the ages. The various weaknesses of the various abiogenesis hypothesises does not stop evolution from explaining the diversity of life, any more than the weaknesses of the nebula hypothesis stops the theory of plate tectonics explaining continental movement. Abiogenesis is a question that needs to be answered as it's a necessary event in history, just as planet formation needs to be answered. But evolution doesn't rest on explaining an event (or more likely a series of events) that happened ~3.5 billion years ago.

Irreducible complexity is another that comes up, it's been especially popular in the last decade. There's no doubt that there are irreducibly complex systems in nature, but it's odd that it's being branded as an evolution killer. Especially as the solution of how an irreducibly complex system could come about: add a part then make that part necessary. Really the argument is just an evolution of the old "the eye is too complex" arguments that have been around for a while, it's now using a new buzzword that makes it sound more definitive. And the eye can be explained through Darwinian mechanisms, we can see the various stages throughout nature and through computer simulations show how though mutation and selection an eye that is comparable to our own can be made in a very short time, on a geological time scale that is.

There's the familiar cry of lack of transitional forms, even though there have been a plethora of transitional fossils found showing the gradual change over time to what we see now. Dinosaurs with feathers, fish with tetrapod features, mammalian-like reptiles, early hominid ancestors, even the transition of terrestrial mammals into cetaceans. The list of transitional forms in nature is staggering. There is also the micro / macro evolution debate, where only "micro" evolution has been observed but not macroevolution. Yet macroevolution has been observed dozens of times and this is only in the short time frame we've been looking. Once you have a mechanism for change (inherited mutations), selection critera on those mutations (natural selection, genetic drift), and a means to isolate populations and allow mutations to accumulate (speciation), what more do you need?

And that's just looking at the proposed weaknesses, what about the strengths? The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. From morphology to genetics, to the progressive fossil record, to ERV markers in the genome. All these lines of evidence, the facts of the world, only make sense under the theory of evolution. There's just no other explanation that's been proposed that can adequately explain all the evidence as we see it today, and that's why evolution is regarded as one of the strongest theories in science today.

Academic freedom
The argument about academic freedom baffles me, there is academic freedom and the ability to pursue any idea within the scientific community. Of course it's tough to get ideas that go against the established knowledge heard, but that's one feature of science. Anyone can have an idea on reality, it's the hurdles an idea has to go through to be accepted that weeds out the bad ideas from the good. Science is done within the scientific community, just as history is done within the historical community. Within these communities, there will be stern resistance when a new idea crops up but ultimately it comes down to the evidence.

Getting an idea into the scientific curriculum in schools is subverting the process under which all ideas have to go through to be accepted as science. It's in effect destroying academic freedom by allowing any idea no matter how unscientific to bypass the very system of academic freedom. If creationism or any of it's relabelled had any scientific credibility, it would be fought tooth and claw among scientists. Instead the battle is being fought out in the public arena, science is a battle between those in the know and the weapon of choice is empirical data.

Creationism is unscientific because it cannot be falsified, no matter what the result of data the creationists will always have a reason why the data says what it does. Why do we see galaxies 13 billion light years away? Why do we see stars that are up to 13 billion years old? Why is it that rocks from the earth, the moon and meteorites all date to over 4 billion years, which happens to coincide with the same date as ageing the sun? Why is it we see a gradual emergence of life over the geological time span? Why is it we see morphological similarities between species? Why is it that we see ERVs in exactly the same place in the genetic code across species?

Science takes these collections of facts and applies hypothesises to them, and the hypothesises that best fit the data are counted as theories. Evolution makes falsifiable predictions time and time again, none of which so far have falsified evolution and many that have not only validated the theory but furthered our understanding of the process. Each time a new piece of evidence comes to light, it's a further test for evolution, so far it has passed every challenge presented. By contrast, where is the falsification for creationism? What data could possibly falsify divine intervention? It's not a science, it's not playing by the rules of science, why should it then be let in the science classroom?

The 'default'
Even if evolution were not true it doesn't make creationism any more plausible. Casting doubt on evolutionary theory is simply undermining science in the hope that people will be drawn to belief. It's not about being scientifically accurate or even being honest about the data, it's a system of intellectual dishonesty designed to play on the ignorance of people. Science not only uses critical thinking, it demands it! So to single out evolution as needing to be critically considered is nothing more than a ploy to cast doubt on a theory that is unfavourable to many purely for religious reasons.

If one wants to believe the world is 6000 years old and all life was created by God, that's their choice. No-one is infringing on that choice. But teaching that view in the science classroom is deliberately deceiving children who don't know better. Again I must stress that if anyone has evidence for creation, show it in the scientific community. Same goes for history, if you think the J.F.K. assassination is a conspiracy, then you need to show evidence to the historical community. Science is there for anyone to contribute, but the community will not stand back and watch those who don't want to participate try and destroy it because a few ignoramuses think they know better than the last century and a half of human progress.

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