Friday, October 26, 2007

Fundamentalism in Science Education?

The Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle, has published an article titled "Dr. Pigliucci and Fundamentalism in Science Education" on its Evolution: News & Views website.

The article criticizes SUNY professor Massimo Pigliucci - who has PhDs in genetics, botany and philosophy - and who wrote an essay titled "The Evolution-Creation Wars" for the McGill Journal for Education.

Here is the abstract for the essay:

The creation-evolution “controversy” has been with us for more than a century. Here I argue that merely teaching more science will probably not improve the situation; we need to understand the controversy as part of a broader problem with public acceptance of pseudoscience, and respond by teaching how science works as a method. Critical thinking is difficult to teach, but educators can rely on increasing evidence from neurobiology about how the brain learns, or fails to.

The Evolution: News & Views article was written by Michael Egnor, a colleague of Dr. Pigliucci's at SUNY. Egnor takes issue with several of Pigliucci's assertions and characterizations in his essay, namely: the conflation of Creationism with Intelligent Design; and that a better science education is a "tonic against belief in Heaven"; the conflation of philosophical naturalism with methodological naturalism. Additionally, Egnor claims that it is misleading for Pigliucci to claim that there is no controversy over the teaching of Intelligent Design.

Allow me to address these issues in turn:

First, I actually agree with Egnor that "Creationism" and "Intelligent design" are ostensibly different things; however, the history behind the Intelligent Design movement puts the lie to the prima facie difference between the two.

The seeds of the Intelligent Design movement have been shown to be found in the Supreme Court case of Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987), where the Court ruled

that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools whenever evolution was taught was unconstitutional, because the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religion. At the same time, however, it held that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."

One of the textbooks the creationism advocates proposed to be used was Of Pandas and People, which was originally published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, whose original purpose was "promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective." The defeat in the Edwards vs. Aguillard case led the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement - who are also the leaders of The Discovery Institute - to substitute the references to creationism and creation science with Intelligent Design. As noted in the more recent court case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District (2005):

As Plaintiffs meticulously and effectively presented to the Court, Pandas went through many drafts, several of which were completed prior to and some after the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards, which held that the Constitution forbids teaching creationism as science. By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge:

(1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID;

(2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and

(3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content .... The weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates, as noted, that the systemic change from “creation” to “intelligent design” occurred sometime in 1987, after the Supreme Court’s important Edwards decision."

As if that wasn't enough to indict the Intelligent Design movement, there is the infamous Wedge strategy, the goal of which is

To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies.

To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So for Egnor to claim that "Intelligent design isn’t a religious belief" is the height of disingenuousness; an accusation he himself levels at Pigliucci.

Additionally, he claims that Pigliucci's assertion that a better science education would dissuade people of a belief in Heaven is "jaw-dropping." What is jaw-dropping is the fact that many adults (75% according to Pigliucci) still cling to a childhood notion of Heaven as a physical place. Egnor laments the fact that not only are scientists not investigating Heaven, but that it would be impossible for them to do so because the "natural world is the only domain to which science appertains." But if Egnor is a scientist, and if he claims that Heaven and the existence of an afterlife are not investigable by the methods of science, then how would anyone know that there is a Heaven?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The onus is on those who make an assertion. If someone says, "Heaven exists", it's only fair to ask, "What is your evidence?" It is not incumbent upon the scientists to go around disproving every outrageous claim. Egnor wonders how science could possibly prove the non-existence of things that are outside of nature. But since theists like Egnor make claims about things that purportedly exist outside of nature, a better question would be, "How can you prove the existence of things outside of nature?" An even better question would be, "Why would you want to teach such things to young people in a science class?"

I should also point out that, contrary to Egnor, what Pigliucci recommends as a "tonic" to unsupported beliefs about the world is not science education per se, but critical thinking. As Pigliucci notes in his essay:

The most revealing thing was that most of the non-science students in the survey (those with a lower belief in the paranormal) were in fact philosophy or psychology majors, who actually take courses on the scientific method and critical thinking.

Could it be that it's not just the amount of education (scientific or otherwise) that matters, but the way in which that education is administered?

He goes on to answer "yes" and then gives his reasons why.

Regarding Egnor's claim that Pigliucci is muddling the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, philosopher Barbara Forrest wrote a paper titled "Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection", in which she writes:

In response to the charge that methodological naturalism in science logically requires the a priori adoption of a naturalistic metaphysics, I examine the question whether methodological naturalism entails philosophical naturalism. I conclude that the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion, given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.

In contrast, Egnor writes:

In point of fact, Dr. Pigliucci proposes to teach students philosophical naturalism veiled in scientific naturalism. His purpose is ideological....Fundamentalists of all stripes can't seem to keep their religious views out of science. Dr. Pigliucci — a professor of philosophy as well as of evolutionary biology — knows the difference between atheism and science. His choice not to be forthright about the difference is emblematic of the fundamentalist approach — the Darwinist approach — to science education.

But the simple fact is that Intelligent design is not science, and thus shouldn't be taught in science classes. Egnor further claims that there is a controversy over Intelligent Design:

The real controversy— and it is a raging controversy— is about intelligent design. Intelligent design is the scientific theory that there is evidence for intelligent agency in some aspects of biology, for example in the genetic code and in the intricate molecular machines inside cells.

Scientists who support intelligent design are a very small fraction of scientists, at least a small fraction of biologists. Yet the controversy between intelligent design and Darwinism is a scientific controversy.

But there is no controversy - certainly not a "raging" one; and he even admits that only a very small fraction of scientists support it. The controversy is all in the imagination of the supporters of Intelligent Design. In the scientific community - those who "do" science - there is no controversy. As philosopher Daniel C. Dennett sums it up:

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Dennett also addresses the issue of whether or not Intelligent Design is science, so I'll end this post with a few more comments from him:

In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

But we do know who the designer might be, thanks to their strategy outlined in the Wedge document noted at the beginning of this post: it's the Judeo-Christian God.

The Trojan Horse is alive and well, unfortunately.

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tokyoguy said...

Sir, I'm not impressed in the least with your intellectual pontification. You must think people are dummies or something. First, for whatever reasons, you arbitrarily limit the playing field to methodogical naturalism. So from the start, you prevent people from considering even the possibility of any supernatural intervention. If anything even hints of the supernatural, you claim "Foul in the name of science." Then, since your methodological naturalism based science didn’t find any proof of the supernatural, you say that it’s logical to conclude atheism is true. How utterly ridiculous! How could the results be any different when you have eliminated “God” from the beginning? You can't use that kind of illogical argument and seriously expect people to believe you, can you? In choosing methodological naturalism as your worldview, you have effectively said that science cannot speak to that issue. Science cannot prove or disprove God. In fact, scientists cannot even prove the a priori assumptions they make in order to do the work of science. For instance, you claim that no supernatural power of any kind was involved in the emergence of our universe or life. Nice idea, but you can't prove that scientifically. Methodological naturalism is a beloved dogma of all Darwinites. If you like living in that little box, fine. That's your choice. But don’t tell everyone else that we have to live in there too. Don't expect everyone else to bow the knee to Pope Charlie along with you. Most people don't have enough faith to believe that over time, random, purposeless, chance mutations, genetic drift, etc etc can account for life. And we all know this is far from proven. You obviously have faith that one day it will be proven. Great. I don’t. Each to his own. But you insult people when you use circular reasoning to try and persuade them to believe that methodological naturalism is adequate proof for the religion of atheism. Not everyone is that gullible.

Tom Rees said...

tokyoguy, science is methodological naturalism, by definition. It's possible to imagine concepts that can't be tested scientifically. For these concepts (usually called superstition or religion) there is not and can never be any scientific rationale for believing them. This isn't circular reasoning - simply a question of definitions.

It is not proof for atheism. Atheism is the default condition. I don't believe in the existence of penguins unless there's some scientific evidence for their existence. Same goes for God.

You can, if you choose, believe in the existence of things for which there is no scientific evidence (fairies, perhaps). But that's your problem...

dogscratcher said...

In fact, scientists cannot even prove the a priori assumptions they make in order to do the work of science.

Wow, that's deep. I suppose if they could "prove" them, they wouldn't be "apriori assumptions?"