Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Cobb County Case Discussed on The Abrams Report

The MSNBC show The Abrams Report did a segment on the Cobb County Evolution trial last night. The transcript is available here (scroll down to the bottom, it was the last segment of the show).

Representing the forces of sunshine and goodness was the always excellent Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Defending darkness and malevolence was Matthew Staver, an attorney for the Liberty Council. And with a name that Orwellian, you can be sure they are actually the “Cower Before Our Angry God!” council.

Abrams kicks off the segment in fine style:

ABRAMS: The theory of evolution may be settled science as far as most biologists are concerned. But it remains a political and legal flash point for conservative groups, including some who believe children exposed to evolution in the class room should also learn theories more in tune with the literal word of the bible, like so-called creation science and intelligent design.

Exactly right. There is no important difference between intelligent design and creation science.

Abrams then mentioned the recent anti-evolution decisions of the School Boards in Dover, PA and Cobb County, GA. There followed a brief background segment. Then Abrams weighed in with this excellent thought:

ABRAMS: Thanks, Don. My take—Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, crystal clear on this issue when it rejected a Louisiana law which said that evolution could only be taught in public schools unless so-called creation science was taught with it. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan wrote the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.

Bottom line, parents and religious schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques can guide kids and teach them a wide variety of theories. But when it comes to public schools, there‘s only one theory, evolution, if separation of church and state is to have any meaning. One of my guests will not agree.

Attorney Staver then launched his first salvo:

STAVER: Well, in the case you‘re talking about in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard, the court specifically said that its decision should not imply that you could not critique these kinds of theories. And in fact, that‘s not what the decision was about. That case actually required the prohibition of the teaching of evolution and you could only teach it if you taught creation science. So if you didn‘t teach creation science, you couldn‘t teach evolution at all.

But the court clearly left open the idea that theories such as evolution could be scientifically challenged. I think in Georgia, that‘s really what this case is about. This shouldn‘t be pigeonholed as a religious issue or a religious controversy. It should be look at for what it is, a discussion on the issue of evolution. In fact, the actual disclaimer says that the textbook contains material on evolution.

Evolution is a theory and not a fact regarding the origin of the universe. It goes on to say the next sentence that there ought to be approached with an open mind. I think we can all agree that it is not an established fact. There‘s contentious issues on both sides and we ought to look at this open mindedly and not pigeonhole it...

Staver's characterization of Edwards v. Aguillard is correct, and, unfortunatly, he's also right that the Cobb County case isn't really about teaching creationism. That is why the Cobb County label might just barely pass constitutional muster. Of course, Staver knows perfectly well that the purpose of this label has nothing to do with a critical discussion of scientific issues. That's just the cover story. But the story might be just persuasive enough to convince the judge.

But Staver goes completely off the deep end in describing evolution as a theory about the origins of the universe. As I have discussed before at this blog, it's not even a theory about the origin of life. Staver is also confused about the distinction, such as it is, between theory and fact, and about the epistemic status of evolution.

In fact, as becomes clear after Staver's next broadside, he is confused about a lot of things:

STAVER: Well, I think a lot of evolutionists, even Neo-Darwinists, question many of the theories. In fact, that‘s why we have Neo-Darwinism because the theories of Darwin didn‘t pan out, and so now you have a Neo-Darwinism theory...

I think it's safe to say that Staver hasn't the foggiest idea of what he is talking about here. He knows that evolution contradicts certain idiosyncratic religious views, and apparently that is enough for him. He clearly has never bothered to learn anything about evolution.

If he had, he would know that Neo-Darwinism emerged in the 1940's and represented the vindication of Darwin's ideas, not their rejection. Essentially, Neo-Darwinism represented the unification of the then new theories of genetics with the work of evolutionary biology. It was during this period that natural selection was restored to its status of being the primary mechanism of evolution, just as Darwin argued. In the early part of the twentieth century the importance of natural selection was downplayed for reasons that were plausible at the time but were later shown to be incorrect.

I suspect Staver could not give a coherent description of any current disputes in evolutionary biology. If he could, he would know that the various expansions of evolutionary theory over the last twenty years have all been in the direction of enriching the theory, not calling it into question.

The idea that “even Neo-Darwinists, question many of the theories,” is nothing but a silly talking point Staver has learned to use at the appropriate time.

Abrams called him on this assertion, and the following exchange took place:

ABRAMS: Wait. But that‘s not suggesting that it—that‘s still not the answer to the question, which is which scientists have concluded that evolution—forget about aspects that have come over, over the years, but evolution as a whole, is there any current science—and you‘re the one who said it‘s not religious, so I‘m trying to focus on the science...

STAVER: There‘s...

ABRAMS: ... yes, go ahead.

STAVER: Yes, Dan, there‘s a two-volume set by Wendell Byrd, and it‘s called “The Origin of the Species Revisited” and it has two volumes chock full of information that questions the theory of evolution by evolutionists themselves. And I‘m not saying that they‘re not saying that they don‘t ultimately believe in evolution, but the issue ought to be more objectively considered instead of looked at as complete dogma considering which you can never object, you can never question, and I think that‘s where it‘s come today. We‘ve come 180 degrees post the Scopes trial.

Interesting. Abrams asks for current science challenging evolution. Staver replies with a reference to a two-volume set by Wendell Byrd, a lawyer. Of course, this is just another worthless talking point. Anyone familiar with Byrd's work knows he is, to put it mildly, not a reliable source of information on this topic, but that doesn't matter. Staver just needed something he could say to address Abrams' obvious question.

Barry Lynn went next:

LYNN: This is all a battle about religion from the same people who tried to ban evolution, then to give so-called equal time to this pseudo science creation science and evolution. And on the science, you know, Matt‘s just plainly wrong. And I‘m not a scientist. None of us are scientists.

But if you read the latest issue of National Geographic, the cover story is “Was Darwin Wrong”. The first word of the article is no. That‘s because all of the evidence is tending in precisely direction, Dan that you‘re talking about, evolution. There isn‘t any evidence pointing in the opposite direction. This is all about whether science teachers, science professors, and scientists get to write school books and not try to undercut with this religious dogma the idea that a theory in science means, of course, that you collect a lot of facts and this is a unifying principle.

It‘s not a guess. It‘s not a hunch, and no scientist in his or her right mind honestly believes that this is not fundamentally a religious issue. And Dan, just one other point, you can, in fact, talk about creation stories from a multitude of religions. It ought to be to be in a social studies class, not in a biology class like Mr. Staver...

I think that's about as good as you can do in this sort of forum.

Abrams went back to Staver at this point, and argued that any scientific theory can is potentially offensive to someone's religious sensibilities, and that once we start altering school curricula to worry about such things we will be effectively unable to teach any science. Here's Staver's reply:

STAVER: Well no, for example, there‘s no way to look at gravity in two different ways. The law of gravity is the law of gravity. The law of thermo dynamics is the law of thermo dynamics. There‘s no theories on that. There‘s no question on that...

I would reply to this silly statement, but Lynn saved me the trouble:

LYNN: Yes, another point is the theory of gravity, like the theory of evolution, is being refined on a regular basis. All you need to do is read the newspapers and you see that people who think seriously about this are moving the science forward. But this is a battle about religion. This is one more example of the so-called religious right trying to use clout to cloud an important issue. And if our kids and the kids in our public schools are going to compete in the 21st century with children around the world, we cannot ignore this cornerstone of science...

Well said.


At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings. I came across your blog while randomly browsing the web for blogs about things that interest me, and I'm pleased with this find.

I look forward to reading through more of your entries and browsing the links you have on this blogger. Thanks again for providing this resource! Keep up the good work!

Richard O., Titusville, FL

At 11:56 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Hi Dr. Rosenhouse,

I do like your blog and your insights and your concerns, but I have to comment on this claim by Lynn:
"we cannot ignore this cornerstone of science".

I keep hearing that repeated, but I just don't see that evolutionary theory is a cornerstone of science. Biology can be understood well without traditional evolutionary biology.

The few creationist biologists and physcians in the world are counter-examples to that claim. There is hardly a physicst who would deny the existence of gravity, but there have always been a minority of first rate scientists who doubt evolutionary theory (whatever evolutionary theory really is, the vague definition of the term "evolutionary theory" is suggestive it's no cornerstone of science at all).

I note:

"The practicing neo-Darwinists lack relevant knowledge in, for example, microbiology, cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and cytoplasmic genetics. They avoid biochemical cytology and microbial ecology. This is comparable to attempting a critical analysis of Shakespeare's Elizabethan phraseology and idiomatic expression in Chinese, while ignoring the relevance of the English language!" --Lynn Margulis

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If evolution isn't a cornerstone of biology, then why do most biologists accept it as such?

"creationism" is not science

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you like the blog!


I will do a separate blog entry addressing your comments.

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salvador wrote:
"The few creationist biologists and physcians in the world are counter-examples to that claim."

BS. Exceptions are not examples. Moreover, only a minority of physicians are scientists.

"There is hardly a physicst who would deny the existence of gravity, but there have always been a minority of first rate scientists who doubt evolutionary theory..."

No, there are NO first-rate scientists who doubt "evolutionary theory" (your ignorance is showing; evolution is a fact, the theory you are trying to attack is that of natural selection.

" (whatever evolutionary theory really is, the vague definition of the term "evolutionary theory" is suggestive it's no cornerstone of science at all)."

Coming from someone who portrays exceptions as examples, your semantic arguments are not impressive. Salvador, NO ONE is actually DOING creation science. Science is not writing books--it is testing hypotheses. Where are the creationists in the field? Any testing falsifiable hypotheses in the lab?


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