Monday, 8 September 2008

Teaching the controversy

I've been casually following the events of the RNC and listening to the kinds of people who could potentially be running the free world come 2009. The Sarah Palin pick was shocking in a way, it came out of nowhere. Apparently Maverick McCain wanted Lieberman, but because that would isolate the evangelical supporters in the republican party, he's now got an evangelical Christian from Alaska. And from there comes the inevitable "teach the controversy" position that conservatives have been pussyfooting around to woo a population that accepts a myth over scientific fact. And it seems to be working, though there's just one problem: there is no scientific controversy about evolution.

Controversy, what controversy?
Quite simply, there is no debate in academia about whether evolution is wrong or creationism is true. Because there is no need for that debate, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It's one of the strongest theories in science today, right up there with heliocentrism in regard to the degree of certainty the scientific community has. Yet the Creationist community misrepresents this in two ways: by trying to discredit evolution as unscientific, and using the public arena to gain support of an idea that has no scientific credibility.

The first tactic is shooting themselves in the foot. By trying to cast evolution as unscientific, they are trying to make it comparable to creationism. But then they both shouldn't be taught as they are not science. But evolution is science while Creationism isn't. Evolution is a theory that explains lines of evidence across multiple fields, while creationism is a conclusion that's taken from a book of mythology. Evolution is not circular, it fits in with explanations from other fields; Creationism not only doesn't fit the evidence but it contradicts almost all that we know. Again, it's important to stress that knocking down evolution won't make Creationism any more plausible scientifically. But it's not really about being right, it's about resolving one's inerrant mythology with a body of evidence that says otherwise.

The second tactic is taking that first tactic to the population: appealing to people's emotion, their beliefs, and by misrepresenting the science behind evolution. By saying that there is controversy, they are creating it in the community. It's the academic equivalent of holocaust denier, though it's playing to a much more receptive crowd. Science is an open process, anyone can contribute. But all battles for science should be fought in the academic arena. Taking an idea public without academic scrutiny is subverting the system. Taking it public after it's been rejected in the academic arena is downright dishonest. Quite simply, the system exists for a reason: it weeds out the bad ideas.

Teach the lunacy

Ned Flanders: We want you to teach alternative theories to Darwinian evolution.
Principal Skinner: You mean Lamarckian evolution?
Reverend Lovejoy: No! The Adam and Eve one!

About 99% of the population of scientists agree with evolutionary theory. There are more historians who deny the holocaust than scientists who deny evolution. Quite simply there is no controversy, we evolved just like every other life form on this planet. If a believer's need for God hinges on Genesis being literally true, then that God is dead (in the Nietzsche sense of the phrase). Welcome in the new age of theological nihilism, as all meaning from the universe has gone now that we are biological entities as opposed to hand-crafted clay golems. It's not God who dies, it's the scripture. It says more about the tight coupling between God and scripture than anything else, that God isn't the holy entity rather it's the bible that people worship.

If Creationism were to be taught in schools, what kind of precedent would it set? Surely if Creationism were to be taught in science, holocaust denial should be taught in history. After all, it has more support among the historical community. We could bring arithmancy to mathematics, teach psychokinesis in metalwork, make aliens the cause of the pyramids, put in conspiracy theories as a valid historical narrative, and so on. Why not teach all these concepts? After all, they all do enjoy support at some level from a good portion of the community. The reason we don't is simple: ideas can be (and often are) wrong.

It turns out when people say "teach the controversy", they don't want every fringe idea taught to students. They only want the fringe idea that they believe in taught. The problem by ignoring it is the accusation on censorship. And it's a somewhat valid argument to make. Letting the children decide is an important step. But therein lies the problem. To let them decide, it means teaching two ideas in equal light. But quite simply, when there is mountains of evidence to support one idea, and the other idea contradicts that evidence, how can the teachers fairly address it? If we taught Creationism in science, then it would only be fair based on the evidence to utterly destroy the idea. But of course that won't do for the creationists either.

Schools have a huge amount of information they can present to students and a very small amount of time in which to do so. To spend some of that time on theories with no academic credibility would detract from the many things that could be taught instead. The more time that is spent teaching Creationism in science, the less time it leaves for actual scientific ideas. This is why disputes are fought out in the academic arena, where people have decades of training and are qualified to be able to judge based on the evidence presented. Children with very little exposure to the scientific method are not qualified.

While there's no controversy in the academic community, we should not create one in the classroom. The academic community may be wrong, but that's for the evidence to decide. The academic community is open to anyone, it's a vicious group that attacks any idea contrary to what we know about reality, but that's there to get rid of the bad ideas, to weed out charlatans, frauds and bad scientists. Darwin faced incredible opposition from the scientific community when he brought out The Origin Of Species but the idea lasted because the evidence backed it. Likewise Einstein was not taken seriously for his theory on relativity until it was verified by experiments. Ultimately the evidence decides the credulity of a scientific hypothesis, crying persecution and demanding equal status is not the way of going about gaining acceptance.


Anonymous said...

Agreed on all counts. There is no "controversy"; there's only outright rejection of overwhelming, detailed evidence, replaced by nothing save for the mythology of ancient Middle Eastern goat herders.

Anonymous said...

So, to `teach the controversy' in a way that lets the children decide, we need to first teach them about the scientific method, complete with examples that illustrate how good and bad ideas are separated from one another in the scientific arena.

For instance, in a biology class, a teacher might explain how the evidence suggests one or another explanation. Say, that certain morphological changes in the fossil record of various organisms suggest something akin to our breeding efforts on domesticated animals and plants; let's call it `natural selection' to parallel the `artificial selection' that we impose on pigeons or dogs or corn or what have you.

Then the class can explore how to test the idea and learn what evidence supports the idea, what evidence argues against it, and how the idea is refined in the whole process. Note that evidence in this example will extend far beyond the fossil record or whatever other evidence led to the original `natural selection' hypothesis.

Of course, many other examples would have to be presented for the students to get the full spectrum of how scientific ideas are raised, tested, honed, and in general pass from hypothesis to either accepted theory or discarded proposition.

Supposing that there is time left over at the end of the course, and the students have a reasonably good appreciation for the scientific method at that point, then it might be appropriate to turn them loose on various controversies, either from the public or academic spheres.

Yeah, that seems like a good plan to me.

wishing (ihacan)