Sunday, December 12, 2004

Hartwig on Cobb County

ID proponent Mark Hartwig has offered these thoughts on the trial over the Cobb County textbook warning labels about evolution. We consider his remarks in full:

It's hard to imagine a more innocuous statement than the one the Cobb County, Ga., school board recently ordered pasted into their biology textbooks: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Yet this disclaimer is the subject of a nationally publicized lawsuit, in which the plaintiff alleges that the wording violates the separation of church and state.

So what's the problem? After all, evolution is indeed a theory. And it seems ironic at best that calling for open-minded, critical thinking would somehow be construed as religious advocacy.

Hartwig knows perfectly well, of course, that it is neither open-mindedness nor critical thinking that is being construed as religious advocacy. Nor is it the wording that is objectionable (well, not on constitutional grounds anyway). Rather, it is singling out evolution for special treatment that should be construed as religious arvocacy.

No one objects to encouraging students to think critically about things they are taught in school. Let's stop pretending that's the issue here. The objection is to lying to school kids about the status of one particular theory for the purpose of promoting religion.

Nonetheless, there are many - folks who insist that evolution is a fact, or well-nigh to it - who read dark intentions between the lines. To them, any talk about critical thinking is simply religiously motivated rubbish.

Hartwig is so fond of that little jab, he decided to repeat it!

As is perfectly clear to anyone who pays attention to these things, and as Hartwig will effectively admit later in the column, what we were seeing from the ID side in this is an elaborate dance. The label exists because some religious parents in Cobb County see evolution as a threat to their beliefs, and therefore want to protect their children from it. They would love to have evolution removed altogether, or barring that require some sort of creationism be taught alongside it. Sadly, the courts have ruled against such measures. So, in a desperate bid to do something, anything, to persuade their children that evolution is a lot of bunk they came up with these silly warning labels.

The labels exist solely to promote religion, and the motivations of everyone who supported these labels were religious. Hartwig knows that as well as anyone else. The only legal issue is whether they some plausible sounding “secular purpose” can be concocted in defense of the labels.

We are told that the popular distinction between “fact” and “theory” - that one is certain and the other a matter of guesswork - is naive and conflicts with how scientists view the terms. In place, critics offer “more scientific” definitions of “theory” - which exorcise the notion of uncertainty. A theory is not a hunch, an educated guess or even a hypothesis, they tell us, but a well-substantiated naturalistic explanation for related facts.

Hence, evolution's status as a theory indicates strength and durability, not uncertainty. And if you want critical thinking about evolution, why not include other theories, such as germ theory or the theory of relativity? Indeed, we are told, singling out evolution smacks of a religious agenda masquerading as science.

If only everything Hartwig wrote were so sensible! Not to worry, Hartwig will return to form in the next paragraph:

To many, this is entirely plausible. But it is seriously flawed.

If you look in the science journals, you'll see that the use of the word theory often diverges from this definition. There, you can read of such things as tentative theories, failed theories, controversial theories, promising theories, and unconfirmed new theories.

Yes, indeed, the word “theory” can be used for several different purposes. Occasionally, a sloppy writer will use the word “theory” when it would be more appropriate to say “conjecture” or “hypothesis.” So what? The fact remains that in referring to the “theory of evolution” scientists intend the technical meaning Hartwig described earlier. And in no case is there some simple dichotomy between fact and theory.

Thus, contrary to the definition championed by Darwin's defenders, scientific theories vary greatly in their trustworthiness. And a school district is fully warranted in singling out such theories, especially when they have been a source of widespread, ongoing controversy - like Darwinism.

The logic here seems to be that since occasionally a particular writer will use the word “theory” to suggest something that is unreliable or unproved, it is perfectly acceptable for the school district to identify evolution as such a theory.

The simple fact is that the small portion of evolutionary theory that is being taught to high school kids is, indeed, uncontroversial among scientists. That does not mean that you can't occasionally find someone with a PhD who prefers to fold his arms and shake his head. It means, rather, that the consensus in support of evolution among scientists is as strong as it is for any other major theory. Since, again, Hartwig knows this, we can safely conclude that he is simply lying when he says there is “widespread, ongoing controversy” about the issue.

Hartwig seems to think that it is perfectly acceptable for a scientifically ignorant school board to substitute their judgment over that of the scientific community in assessing evolution's trustworthiness. Lovely.

Not only is the theory controversial at the cultural level, but some pro-evolution scientists have nonetheless expressed skepticism about Darwin's theory: The processes that produce bacterial resistance to drugs or changes in birds' beaks, they say, simply can't generate the massive diversity that characterizes the living world - much less produce the bursts of wildly disparate animal forms found in the fossil record.

Such skepticism, long evident in scientific literature, has made its way into textbooks. Indeed, one major college text, Biology, reports that “many evolutionary biologists now question whether natural selection alone accounts for the evolutionary history observed in the fossil record.”

Actually, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any scientists who believe that natural selection alone accounts for evolutionary history. If Hartwig simply wants more emphasis placed on such things as genetic drift, self-organization or symbiosis then we have no disagreement at all.

But that's not Hartwig's intention. Rather, he wants students to come away with the impression that no one has a plausible naturalistic explanation for how complex adaptations have come into being. And that is not the case. In reality, scientists are often confronted with several possible explanations, and lack the data for deciding between them.

There is thus every good reason to state that “evolution is a theory, not a fact,” even in some popular senses of those terms. Of course, that doesn't mean the label's backers are free of religious motivation. But motivations notwithstanding, there's a legitimate secular purpose in urging kids to approach the theory with an open but critical mind.

That's far healthier than defining critical thinking out of the classroom. I only hope the judge agrees.

As promised, here is Hartwig tacitly admitting that what is going on is a dance.


At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Earwig to such an extent that I think the warning labels should be required on any 'holy' text, something like: “God is a theory, not a fact. Moreover, people claiming to receive communications from God often produce contradictory information. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Neurode said...

Jason - You're a mathematician, correct? So I'm sure you'll be able to follow me here. Consider the mapping

M : T --> U

This represents an interpretative mapping M of the theory T to its universe of discourse U. Where a valid interpretative mapping exists, we call it a model (M, of T in U). The inverse mapping M^-1 : U --> T is not generally unique; in many cases, there are many possible theories which admit of a model in U, and it is not always possible to identify one as more valid than another.

In mathematics, we require of a theory that it come equipped with a core structure of axioms and rules of inference from which the rest of it can be derived. However, the empirical sciences define "theory" less exactingly, requiring only that a theory tentatively describe its universe in the interpretative sense given above...i.e. that irrespective of derivation, it comprise a collection of hypothetical descriptive expressions regarding some set of observations. Darwinism is a theory in the latter sense, and is thus dependent on empirical validation (to which certain limits naturally apply).

Although Darwinism was first presented as a possible theory of speciation, it made no attempt to account for the diversity of reproductive mutations. Similarly, while the Modern Synthesis attributes mutation exclusively to random (unguided) dna copying errors, this explanation has not yet been empirically verified. That is, without a procedure by which to compute the expectations of various pathways, to reconstruct in detail the evolutionary history of any given organism, and then to check the results against observation and experiment, the hypothesis that chance mutation suffices to account for phenotypic diversity remains speculative.

Indeed, all we can say of the neo-Darwinian hypothesis at this point is that, when formulated something like this:

"Organisms undergo cumulative modification by natural selection of the phenotypic outcomes of reproductive genetic mutations, regardless of how those mutations originate or the causal factors which influence them,"

it has a "partial model" in its universe. That is, while it can be shown that genetic modification and natural selection play a part in microevolution, it can be shown neither that they suffice as a complete explanation of microevolution, nor that they explain speciation to any extent whatsoever.

Obviously, a theory can be described as "factual" only where it has a model. Where Darwinism lacks a model, i.e. with regard to its purported sufficiency to explain speciation or to completely explain microevolution, it does not qualify as a fact. This establishes the correctness of the following statement by the Cobb County School Board:

"Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

That is, the above statement is mathematically and scientifically valid with respect to neo-Darwinism, and thus admirably consistent with sound educational principles. Indeed, you already seem to understand this. However, you then appeal to scientific consensus (presumably among biologists) as a reason to consider Darwinism "uncontroversial" and "plausible", and to accuse others of masking a religious agenda behind their valid statements regarding it.

Of course, there's a serious problem with this. As I've just shown, there are exact criteria for distinguishing between facts and theories. However, as you know from your extensive background in mathematics, we've only grazed the surface here. Behind these seemingly straightforward criteria lurk hidden but nonetheless exacting complexities, and it is simply too much to expect that just anyone can recognize and keep track of them all. Indeed, the academic consensus is that without specialized knowledge, it is difficult if not impossible to follow all of the complexities in question.

Yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of empirical scientists are not extensively trained in this area, one hears repeatedly that the opinions of many otherwise well-informed ID advocates should be ignored because they are not biologists, and that the opinions of biologists have maximum weight in the ID-evolution controversy. But although biologists are qualified by training to argue for (e.g.) the existence of certain biological pathways, as opposed to the absolute probability of their involvement in speciation, and for the influence of natural selection on any hypothetical results thereof, they are not generally qualified by training to argue for such things as:

(1) the nonexistence of alternate pathways or mechanisms, or the non-involvement thereof in evolutionary processes (even where the sufficiency of standard pathways can be scientifically demonstrated);

(2) the "randomness" of mutation, or its independence from fitness; or

(3) the true nature of natural selection, i.e. the source, philosophical meaning or explanatory sufficiency of the natural laws involved in it.

The fields best suited to answering questions related to these matters (1-3) are philosophy and logic, and secondarily physics and cosmology (as regards some aspects of natural law). Since arguing coherently against ID requires careful consideration of these and other related questions, the vast majority of biologists and other empirical scientists are underqualified to argue against ID. Indeed, they are underqualified to argue against any superficially self-consistent theory that is not demonstrably inconsistent with the existing partial model of Darwinism per se.

So why are you, a mathematician who is supposed to know better, appealing to what we are forced to assume is a purported consensus regarding the "plausibility" of Darwinism among empirical scientists? Even if such a consensus exists, and I doubt that it does, what difference should that make when it comes to the validity of statements like that of the Cobb County School Board?

You say that your opponents are dancing around these issues, and maybe in some respects you have a point. But if so, then let me compliment your own dancing ability. For by any reasonable standard, this hyperopinionated blog of yours is a one-man terpsichorean extravaganza crying out for Broadway.


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