Thursday, March 25, 2004

Creationism and Evolution
The Topic That Will Not Die

Another essay by Phyllis Schlafly caught my attention.  This time she wrote about the recent efforts of some persons to get schools to teach alternatives to evolution, which typically would be some variant of creationism or intelligent design.  It seems that this is one of the more common topics in the Blogosphere.  In an effort to find a fresh approach, something new to say, I decided to engage my spontaneity engine. 

One of my favorite ways to pound out a quick essay is to use the compare-and-contrast structure.  It's easy to do; the essay almost writes itself.  But if what I want is a fresh approach, I can't use a hackneyed method.  So what to do?  First, read the essay by Schlafly, then poke around a bit using intuition, settle on something to compare and contrast the essay with, and figure out how to sprinkle in some observations of my own.

Ok, where did I last see a well-written post about evolution and creationism?  Pharyngula  is what comes to mind.  Sometimes the first association is the best, so I go to Paul Myers' site.  This time, I find an essay, not by Myers, but one he borrowed from The Botanical Society of America  (BSA).  (See the original context, here.)  It turns out that Ed Brayton already wrote  about the BSA essay, so there is no point in me just doing another review of the same piece.  And Scientific American has posted 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, and Chris Cagle  has addressed intelligent design, so there is no need for a simple refutation of the Schlafly article (which deals with creationism and intelligent design).  But the comparison between the Schlafly article and the BSA article does appear to be a fresh perspective. 

Now, with both sides of the brain engaged, and action potentials  zinging back and forth along the corpus callosum, I can get to work.

The Schlafly essay was published on March 22, 2004, on Townhall.com.  The title is: Ohio lesson plan pleases conservatives, irks apostles of Darwin.   The comparator essay, Botanical Society of America's Statement on Evolution, was written by members of BSA and finalized on July 27, 2003.  Admittedly, the comparison is not entirely fair.  The BSA probably had a committee that went through several drafts of their Statement on Evolution.  So theirs would be expected to be more polished.  Still, Ms. Schlafly put hers up on the 'net, so she must think it is presentable. 

She begins:

"Why is it important for scientists to critically analyze evolution?"

That's the first question in the "student reflection" portion of a controversial 22-page section called "Critical Analysis of Evolution," which is now part of Ohio's 547-page public school science curriculum.

How could anybody object to such an innocuous question?

The response to this is contained in the BSA essay.  Note, however, that the BSA essay has been around for a long time.  I cannot help but think that if Ms. Schlafly had done her homework, she would know that there is an answer to this.  Not that she regularly reads the Botanical literature, but really, it is simply to find many good articles on the subject.  Even though her question really is a rhetorical device, it is not very effective for this purpose if there is a good answer to it.  From the BSA:

We are asked, "Why, in all fairness, don't we teach both explanations and let students decide?"  The fairness argument implies that creationism is a scientifically valid alternative to evolution, and that is not true. Science is not about fairness, and all explanations are not equal. Some scientific explanations are highly speculative with little in the way of supporting evidence, and they will stand or fall based upon rigorous testing. The history of science is littered with discarded explanations, e.g., inheritance of acquired characters, but these weren't discarded because of public opinion or general popularity; each one earned that distinction by being scientifically falsified.

Now, back to Schlafly:

On Feb. 10, the Ohio State Board of Education approved the new curriculum by a vote of 13-5 after being persuaded by 22 Ohio scientists that the lesson plan promotes academic freedom and that it is good for students in 10th grade to have an inquiring mind about evolution.

This is an interesting way to mislead people.  The format of her essay is similar to that of a newspaper report.  But look at what she does: she starts out with some dry facts: "On Feb. 10, the Ohio State Board of Education approved the new curriculum by a vote of 13-5...", but then she slips in some opinion statements:  "promotes academic freedom and that it is good for students in 10th grade to have an inquiring mind about evolution."  Did she survey the Board to see if in fact those are things that the (unnamed) scientists persuaded them to believe?  Or is this an untested hypothesis of hers, mentioned as another rhetorical device?  A well-written article would not leave me with these questions.  If she is reporting and not merely advancing her own opinion, she would do well to learn how to write like a scientist, are at least like a good reporter.  BSA provides a good example of clarity:

[...] To test these hypotheses, plant biologists crossed einkorn and emmer wheats with goatgrasses, which produced sterile hybrids. These were treated to produce a spontaneous doubling of the chromosome number, and as predicted, the correct crosses artificially produced both the emmer and breadwheat species. No one saw the evolution of these wheat species, but logical predictions about what happened were tested by recreating likely circumstances.

I realize that the clarity is diminished somewhat by taking the quote out of context, but the idea here is that an effective essay contains an indication of how the conclusions were derived. 

Again, back to Schlafly:

There is nothing religious about creationism, or even about intelligent design, in the new Ohio standards. What is controversial is giving students the opportunity to question evolution; it's the inquiry-and-debate aspect that some people find so threatening.

I've got news for her.  People do not become professional academicians if they find inquiry and debate to be threatening.  Again, she posits an hypothesis with absolutely no support.  I suppose it is true that "some people" find inquiry and debate to be threatening, but she implies that it is the opponents of creationism who have this reaction.  Can she provide an example of one proponent of evolution who is opposed to inquiry and debate? Every scientist I know would love to have school children engage in both activities more often.  (As a matter of fact, I invite any creationist on the planet to debate my 11th-grade son, who just won the State Mock Trial competition.)   Getting back to the point, BSA does address her question, "What is controversial about giving students the opportunity to question evolution?"

Is it fair or good science education to teach about an unsuccessful, scientifically useless explanation just because it pleases people with a particular religious belief? Is it unfair to ignore scientifically useless explanations, particularly if they have played no role in the development of modern scientific concepts? Science education is about teaching valid concepts and those that led to the development of new explanations.

There is no controversy, really.  No one advocates that schools teach both sides of every  topic.  That would be ridiculous.  Are we also to give equal time to the Geocentric Theory  of the solar system?  Her statement, "There is nothing religious about creationism, or even about intelligent design, in the new Ohio standards."  is disingenuous.  I haven't read the new Ohio standards, but I will accept her stipulation that those standards do not define creationism as a religious teaching.  But does she want us to believe that creationism (along with the variant, Intelligent Design) is not inherently a religious issue?  If it is not a religious issue, then why is it that so many (if not all) promoters of creationism are Christian fundamentalists?  And why are they so adamant about the evolution/creationism issue, and not out there campaigning for equal time for other scientific controversies?  After all, there are controversies in every  branch of science.  Some of them are even worth talking about.  If creationism is not a religious issue, why do busloads of church congregations go to staged "debates" about creationism. 

Back to Schlafly:

The new lesson encourages students to consider both supporting and "challenging" evidence for evolution. The challenges to the theory are understated and are backed up with facts.

For example, the lesson says that the fossil record supports evolution with its increasing complexity of living forms. But the lesson also observes that "transitional fossils are rare in the fossil record" and "a growing number of scientists now question that ... transitional fossils really are transitional forms." The lesson notes that some changes in species occur quickly in the fossil record relative to longer stretches that manifest no change.

What does the BSA essay have to say about this?  Are the challenges to evolutionary theory backed up with facts?  Is there a "growing number of scientists" who question the fossil record?  What has the number grown to?  From two to seven?  Maybe there are now as many as twelve scientists who question that transitional fossils are in fact transitional forms.  The BSA essay contains a response to her assertion that "the challenges to the theory are ... backed up with facts."

The hypothesized speciation events were actually recreated, an accomplishment that allows plant biologists to breed new varieties of emmer and bread wheats. Using this speciation mechanism, plant biologists hybridized wheat and rye, producing a new, vigorous, high protein cereal grain, Triticale.

[...]  Creationism has not made a single contribution to agriculture, medicine, conservation, forestry, pathology, or any other applied area of biology. Creationism has yielded no classifications, no biogeographies, no underlying mechanisms, no unifying concepts with which to study organisms or life. In those few instances where predictions can be inferred from Biblical passages (e.g., groups of related organisms, migration of all animals from the resting place of the ark on Mt. Ararat to their present locations, genetic diversity derived from small founder populations, dispersal ability of organisms in direct proportion to their distance from eastern Turkey), creationism has been scientifically falsified.

One of the best ways of testing the validity of a theory is to see if it works when applied to a practical problem.  This has been done in the case of evolutionary theory, but we still are waiting for the first practical application of creationism. 

Near the end of her piece, Ms. Schlafly states:

Diehard evolutionists have enjoyed censorship of any criticism of their beliefs for 100 years, and they won't willingly give up their academic turf. Their censorship demands became so irrational that Rich Baker, the Ohio board's vice president, called them "a bunch of paranoid, egotistical scientists afraid of people finding out (they) don't know anything."

I happen to be in a position to say something about this, having completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Michigan, and having spent time in classrooms, labs, and in the field with numerous proponents of evolution.  (You can't hide paranoia while living in a tent in 100+ degree heat for a summer.)  Mr. Baker is wrong.  Evolutionists are not paranoid, as a rule.  I think there were one on two undergrads who were paranoid, but they didn't get far in their academic careers.  Is the evolutionist's behavior due to ego problems or turf battles, or is there a reasonable explanation for why they argue against creationism?

While creationism explains everything, it offers no understanding beyond, "that's the way it was created." No testable predictions can be derived from the creationist explanation. 

Creationism is predicated upon miracles.  Any observation can be explained by saying it is/was a miracle.  Miracles are not testable, at least by mortals.  Even paranoid, egotistical turf-deprived scientists do not try to test miracles.  In science, validity is tested by replicability of observations.  Miracles are one-time events.  I suppose that if there were some way of producing miracles on demand, we could do some real science with them.

Is there any evidence that evolution proponents encourage censorship?  If so we would expect to see scientists making systematic efforts to shut out opposing views.  Thinking back to my high school days, I clearly recall many instances of scientists -- including biologists -- mentioning opposing views.  In fact, I believe that Lamarckian  evolution and spontaneous generation  still are mentioned in classrooms.  They are mentioned because they are historically significant.  This is evidence that evolutionists are not  categorically shutting out all opposing views.  They do, justifiably, pass over views than have no merit.

Ms. Schlafly concludes by pointing out:

Ohio has become the cutting edge in the long-running evolution debate. Georgia, New Mexico, Minnesota, West Virginia and Kansas have all wrestled with science standards and curricula on evolution in recent years.

The Alabama Senate Education Committee last week approved the "Academic Freedom Act," which says that no teacher or professor in public schools or universities may be fired, denied tenure or otherwise discriminated against for presenting "alternative theories" to evolution. The bill would also prohibit any student from being penalized because he held "a particular position on biological or physical origins" so long as the student demonstrated "acceptable understanding of course materials," which include evolution.

Again, if this is not a religious issue, why is it that so much effort is going to this one topic?  If the interest truly were secular, we should be seeing similar efforts toward giving equal time to minor theories in all areas.  Did Shakespeare really write all those sonnets?   Is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder   really caused  by anal fixation?  Why aren't there any fundamentalists out there campaigning for equal time for the anal fixation theory?