Monday, February 28, 2005

This is Depressing

You know what I hate most about the evolution/creation debate? It isn't the ignorance peddlers of the Discvoery Institute or the gibbering insanity of Answers in Genesis. It's not the semi-literate know-nothings who pollute the comment boards of blogs with their reptitive drivel. It isn't even the fawning press coverage these dangerous right-wing ideologues occasionally receive.

No. What I really hate is the child-like naivete of some scientists who really ought to know better.

Take Richard Gallagher, for example.

He is the editor of The Scientist, a usually very good science magazine. He wrote this editorial(registration reauired) for the current issue endorsing the teaching of ID alongside evolution in science classrooms. As with all such editorials he is remarkably vague about what teaching ID actually entails.

We consider his remarks in full.


The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.

There, I've said it. And no, I'm not a fundamental Christian, a creationist, or a right-wing ideologue. What I am is someone who sees an outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysayers, and a rare public examination of a set of ideas that are pretty much taken as Gospel – sorry for the blurring of metaphors, but it drives home my point – by us in the scientific community. Played the right way, everyone – yes, including scientists – should come out enriched by the interaction.


So we should be happy that a group of lying ignoramuses, motivated entirely by religious and political concerns, are wasting the time of school boards that have real issues to deal with? Were we lacking in opportunities to exchange views with the naysayers prior to their assault on science education?

I'm all in favor of engaging the naysayers. That's why I do this blog, after all. I just don't think science classes are the right venue for that engagement.

And does Gallagher really not understand that the public examination of evolution he finds so nifty does not, for the most part, involve the public actually educating themselves about what scientists do or why they believe what they believe? That instead it involves them responding to cheap soundbites about teaching the controversy or opposing censorship or presenting all sides? Does he really think that the widespread public opposition to evolution is simply the result of people not having heard a clear presentation of the evidence on both sides?


For those who haven't been following developments, here's a précis: Conservative forces, likely buoyed by the recent election, are applying pressure on the science education system to adopt the teaching of a theory called “Intelligent Design.” The nub of intelligent design is that Earth and particularly the life on it are much too complex to have evolved; simply, it must be the work of an intelligent creator.

The squeeze is on in legislatures and school boards in at least 18 states, from Alabama to Alaska. The movement is even becoming a US export to the United Kingdom, according to a story on page 12 of this issue.


As with most people who endorse “teaching the controversy” Gallagher never gets around to telling us what, exactly, he wants taught. If I satnd in front of a classroom and say “Some people believe that life is too complex to have evolved by natural means alone,” have I just taught ID? Or am I supposed to say something else?

I have no objection to the assertions of ID proponents being raised in science classes. I would only object to those ideas being presented respectfully. Indded, I'm not sure what it would even mena to present them respectfully. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

ID'ist: Certain biochemical structures are irreducibly complex, meaning they are composed of several, well-matched indispensable parts. Therefore thy could not have evolved gradually.

Evolutionist: That's not true. Here are three or four scenarios for how irreducible complexity could arise gradually. Here are specific examples like the blood clotting cascade or the mammalian ear structure to show how those scenarios play out in practice. Here are computer simulations that model evolution and show that irreducible complexity frequently arises by gradual processes.

ID'ist: Well, I still don't believe it.

The fact is that ID consists of nothing more than a bunch of people folding their arms and shaking their heads. If Gallagher has in mind something like what I just described, then I'm all for it. If he has something else in mind, I'd appreciate it if he would tell us what it is.


Opponents have two possible responses. The dominant one is something close to panic: fear that a generation will be brainwashed into accepting intelligent design and that science itself is under threat throughout the country. That response results in avoiding the topic altogether and refusing to debate. In fact, some scientists regret using words such as “design” in published studies, for fear it will be used by intelligent-design advocates (see p. 12).


The dominant reaction is not panic, it is disgust. And it is a simple fact that science is under threat from conservative forces; “teaching the controversy” is the least of their ambitions. As for refusing to debate, that's just silly. Countless scientists have been willing to engage and debate the ideas of ID proponents. The issue here, again, is whether that debate should take place in science classes.


The other response is to accept the challenge and rise to it, even to relish it. That's the approach I would urge, and here's why:


Gallagher now gives three reasons for “accepting the challenge” whatever that means. Here's the first:


It's rare to have a full-blooded public debate about the school curriculum. And one about the science curriculum is as rare as rocking-horse droppings. We should play it for all it's worth, bringing a clearer sense of evolution to a wide cross-section of the population.


I've read these three sentences a dozen times and I'm still not sure what point Gallagher is making. The debate, such as it is, about the school curriculum, takes place in front of school boards and on the op-ed pages of local newspapers. Many scientists have been using those venues to get the message out as best they can, but those are hardly the appropriate settings for genuine scientific discussion. In a battle of 800 word op-eds, the creationists win just by showing up.

The phrase “We should play it for all its worth,” is the sort of vague silliness that gets me so frustrated with people like Gallagher. What, precisely, should we be playing for all its worth? What does Gallagher think scientists should be doing that they are not currently doing?

I believe that popularization should be part of every scientist's job description. I would even go so far as to say that the scientific community deserves a small measure of the blame for the public's ignorance of what scientists do, since as a culture they tend to look down on popularization, and popularizers. But that hardly implies that a shouting match in front of a school board, especially one in which the anti-evolution side operates completely divorced from any sense of conscience or integrity, is a good thing for science.


While some of the commentary, with headlines such as “Religious right fights science for the heart of America,”1 suggests that the heart of America is some kind of science utopia, this could hardly be further from the truth. With the exception of isolated pockets of excellence, the heart of America could do well with engaging a lot more with science, and this is a chance to make headway. Debates can be won as well as lost!


Gallagher continues to miss the point. How is “this” a chance to make headway? How does forcing a school board to listen to a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense they are unqualified to judge, coming from people more interested in politics and religion than they are in science, provide an opportunity to educate people about evolution?

Gallagher would do well to heed Stephen Jay Gould's maxim that “The truth is only one weapon, seldom the best, in the debater's aresenal.” Having said that, I have written elsewhere that under the right circumstances I am in favor of scientists debating creationists. The issue, however, is the proper forum in which to do this.


At the level of the students who are, after all, the principles in all this, the study of different explanations for the diversity of life on Earth will make science class more compelling. Clyde Herreid talks on page 10, in this issue's Opinion, about the need for science teaching to connect to the first-hand experiences of students. The evolution-intelligent design debate will fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution.


And here, again, Gallagher needs to tell us what the ID explanation for the diversity of life on Earth actually is.


There is one caveat, and it's a big one: The topics must be taught on a level playing field. Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied, and there must be no further pressure on curricula or teachers. Given this, I'm in little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.


Gallagher doesn't seem to understand that for many kids in the “heart” of America, every cultural influence on them supports the creationist view of things. The one place they will ever hear about what science has to say on the subject is in a school science class. And now he wants us to water down that class by presenting respectfully a lot of propaganda and false information.

There is also the practical problem that most biology teachers are not well-enough trained to handle the minutiae of this subject. Presenting full information on ID would presumably mean introducing a lot of information on the Cambrian explosion, or flagellum architecture or “complex specified information” things that most teachers are not in a position to discuss.

The primary effect of teaching ID would not be that students would see ID for the fraud that it is. Rather, the primary effect would be that students would be given the false impression that there is a genuine scientific controversy on this subject. The details would be forgotten shortly after the test, but the phony controversy would remain in their minds.


In addition, scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution. Scientists must propose their case to as wide an audience as possible. This includes commercial television news, a medium of which scientists have been skeptical.2 Let's get out there and argue!


I'm all in favor of scientists getting the word out, but it is hard to believe that Gallagher has actually watched any news segments on this subject. If he had, he would understand why scientists are so skeptical of it. Let him have a look at how Bill O'Reilly or Joe Scarborough handle these issues, and then say that the problem is just one of scientists getting out there and making their case.

13 Comments:

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. The big problem with "teaching the debate" - aside from the obvious fact that there really isn't a debate in the biology community - is that it would be impossible to do it both truthfully and respectfully. The ID position is fundamentally one of "this can't happen, so let's stop trying to figure out how it may have happened."

How do you contrast the id position with the position of essentially all biologists? I would summerize (somewhat superficially) the equivalent position of evolutionary biologists as - "there are many specific processes of change for which we have yet to establish the exact set of genetic mechanims that were subject to selection or the exact nature of that selection, but there is a highly consistent set of data suggesting common ancestry and a set of specific systems where we have fairly clear ideas of how the changes occurred. Therefore, if would be perverse to withhold provision support for the position that it will ultimately be possible to explain a much larger proportion of our observations regarding both biodiversity and the fossil record using the fundamental paradigm of evolution with a prominent role for natural selection (and additional roles for sexual selection and drift)."

One position has empircal support, even if it (like all of science) doesn't have *every* single answer. The other is just an argument that there must be something fundamentally unmeasurable and unpredicatable (the "intelligent designer" -after all, we wouldn't want to call it God because we are scientists, after all) is responsible for life because we don't know every single answer now! Actually, it is a pretty absurd assertion. The only *scientific* thing we would ever be able to say would be either that some sort of naturalistic process (evolution) is supported or we simply don't know how life came about.

With that in mind, you may want to check out:

http://www.startribune.com/images/26/118594.html

(this cartoon is also up on: http://evolvethought.blogspot.com/)

I think scientists should focus on simply presenting the true situation to school boards - that *virtually* all people directly involved in with biological research find the support for the basic idea of evolution highly convincing and that there really is no debate in the scientific community.

I would disagree mildly with one of your assertions though. I don't consider many of the ID people/creationists to be untruthful. I think they have a world view that is simply so different from that of a secular researcher who values empiricism that we simply can't understand their thought processes. At one level, ID is more absurd than young Earth Creationism. If you were to postulate the existence of a God that is capable of creating the Earth the way it appears today *and* capable of bringing forth all organisms (including the 350,000 described species -- plus the many more undescribed species -- of coleoptera) by "snapping its fingers" you might actually get something similar to the world we inhabit. Of course you might get any other world as well, so there is no predictive value...

But the ID position, as I understand it, is that microevolution "within basic kinds" occurs but some biological structures are too complex to have arisen without intelligent intervention, so God must have designed the bacterial flagellum (even if he is fine with the transition from one type of enteric bacterium to another). Why *only* intervene to generate specific systems? Why not just make all species by some sort of fiat?

I should probably get bact to actually doing science rather than feeling depressed by the advances ID has been making with the general public. I sincerely hope ID really isn't making inroads in the UK as well - I always thought the Brits were too sensible (though it reminds me of a Jerry Springer interview I saw on the BBC five or six years ago when traveling - Springer was talking about doing his show in the UK, and the interviewer made some noises suggesting Springer couldn't do his "rock-em sock-em" type of show in Britain. Springer disagreed, much to the interviewer's chagrin... Perhaps Springer was correct!) Now I'm really depressed.

Edward Braun

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Edward wrote:

'But the ID position, as I understand it, is that microevolution "within basic kinds" occurs '

The phrase "within basic kinds: is actually tied to Young Earth Creationism. It's not, as far as I know an ID position.

Hope this helps.

Salvador T. Cordova

 
At 10:57 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

I think you have a point, Dr. Rosenhouse, when you asked, "what is the ID theory that would be taught?"

There is not a consensus ID theory, nor do I expect there to be one.

At best, I think the most common themes of the various ID theories could be presented.

I could be mistaken, but I do believe the ID leadership would be very happy to not teach ID in public schools, but rather the controversy. I believe the DI has had a recent change of heart as they see it would be safer to criticize Darwinian evolution without having to expose ID to critical scrutiny in the public school classroom.

Thus a debate of ID verus Darwinism in a public school classroom would not serve the ID cause. A debate of pros and cons of Darwinism however would. The Ohio model was the most effective for the DI. Teaching ID in public schools would backfire on the advance of Intelligent Design, but "teaching the controversy" would be an effective strategy.

However, at the college level, my view is opposite. A more open debate and exploration on the college campuses would help further the ID.

So I would have to disagree with Gallagher for high schools, but agree for colleges.

Salvador T. Cordova

 
At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question about the ID position then. When Salvador stated that the idea of microevolution "within basic kinds" is a young Earth creationist position it did jog my memory that I have seen that phrase in connection with more traditional creationism. But what is the position of ID then?

Fundamentally, the central ID tenent of certain structures in the cell being too complex to have arisen by chance suggests one of a few possible models:

1. Evolution occurs, including "macroevolution" (to the extent that macroevolution can be seperated from microevolution, which I would personally contend is not possible), but a designer intervenes at specific points to add some spiffy no feature (e.g., adding a flagellum here, a blot clotting cascade there, etc.).

This is rather like the more common religious position that God intervened to add a soul at some point in evolution, but at least the religious position postulates the addition of something unmeasurable (the soul) as opposed to something we have the potential purify biochemically, image using cell biological techniques, or clone the genes encoding.

2. Only microevolution occurs. Although they may not use the specific words "within basic kinds" this idea would be philosophically identical to the "only within basic kinds" position.

There is a fundamental problem with this position - it is that species concepts are quite difficult to pin down rigorously. About a year ago I was visiting colleagues at the American Museum and I went out for dinner and drinks with a number of the students, and for some reason the conversation turned to species concepts and I was trying to state that I found the topic tiresome, because it was really impossible to draw the lines rigorously. In some cases one can find species that are clearly distinct, in others there is no such distinction. The part that stuct in my mind is when we were joined by an older scientist joined us and jokingly said, "oh, this is the same conversation we were having 25 years ago when I was in grad school!" I smiled and added something along the lines of "25 years ago, 10 years ago when I was in grad school, now - the more things change the more they stay the same..." The big point is that species boundaries can be fuzzy when looked at carefully, contrary to any concept of fixity of species (this shouldn't be a surprise since it was the problems of models with fixity of species have explaining biodiversity, esp. in the tropics, that motivated Darwin and Wallace in the 19th century).

3. An intelligent designer started the process, but then evolution took over. If this is the case there is no problem with "Darwinism" but there is a problem with the origin of life.

Since the origin of life is on less firm scientific foundation, I actually wouldn't mind skipping that material in high schools. When I teach origins of life at the university level (in intro biology) I emphasize that experiments like Miller-Urey are a proof of concept that simple chemistry can give rise to somewhat more complex compounds, and that the link between prebiotic chemistry and the origin of life is far from clear. I'm not convinced the origin of life field is yet at a stage where it is useful for young students to understand the basic concepts. Heck, I am happy when my one grad students - who is teaching in a program at a local middle school - tells me that got her kids to understand the difference between genes and alleles. (She recently told me that she got them to understand all humans have the same genes but different sets of alleles at those genetic loci, which I think is pretty good for mid school students).

It seems to me, that if ID is going to "challenge" evolutionary theory. It has to stick with models one or two (even if the phrase "within basic kinds" is not used. Of course, I believe that ID is hooey (in my humble opinion), so I don't really care which position they take. But they should articulate their models at least to the point where it is clear what they are proposing. Perhaps the situation is clearer to ID proponents, but I am curious to hear exactly what it is.

 
At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Don T. Know said...

I can sympathize with Richard Gallagher as he seems at wits end to put a stop to the anti-evolution madness once and for all. However, someone should tell him that revelation-based religion has been a thorn in the side of reality-based progress for as long as progress has dared to challenge dogma.

As long as you have human beings believing that they have an inerrant book, written by the Creator Himself and that those humans are guided along in interpreting that book by God Himself (via the Holy Spirit), you are going to have ceaseless conflict between the "reality" the book paints versus the reality of what we encounter in our experiences and investigations.

Fortunately, history tells us that progress wins in the end - whether it is social, technological or medical. Even with setbacks, reason has been victorious over the last several centuries. That's not to say that progress has been easy; or that progress is inevitable.

However, fundamentalism (Islamic, Christian, etc.) does not offer a new paradigm shift or a new way of thinking about the world the way science did when it upended the claims of revealed religion. At best, creationism/ID re-packages long-discredited ideas. And, yes, it's a damn shame that serious scientists have to be bothered with exposing this re-packaged nonsense.

But, it has to be done. So, Mr. Gallagher is right about ID needing to be exposed and debunked in public. However, the science classroom is not the place for such debunking. Besides, does anyone really think creationists will sit by while the science classroom is used to discredit their re-packaged theology?

 
At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Don T. Know said...

And does Gallagher really not understand that the public examination of evolution he finds so nifty does not, for the most part, involve the public actually educating themselves about what scientists do or why they believe what they believe? That instead it involves them responding to cheap soundbites about teaching the controversy or opposing censorship or presenting all sides? Does he really think that the widespread public opposition to evolution is simply the result of people not having heard a clear presentation of the evidence on both sides?IMO, that point should not be overlooked. It never ceases to amaze (depress?) me how ignorant people are today even with the abundance of information at our fingertips.

Those in the public relations business know how easy it can be to sell an idea - even one that is bogus. Why is it "easy?" Because people are, for the most part, intellectually lazy. That includes right-wing fundamentalists as well as your non-church-going couch potato. It seems to be an anomaly of "modern" life.

Apparently, we are too distracted by all the amenities available to us. We like to be fed information and we have little inclination to do any sort of fact-checking on our own. And for those who are inclined to fact-check, they rely on filters (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, etc.) to do their fact-checking for them.

This is a sad state of affairs to be sure. However, simply observing the state of affairs or, worse, denying it, isn't going to make ID go away. If scientists ignore the PR efforts of IDers and challenge them solely on scientific grounds, it will be a case of winning the battle but losing the war. In modern times, it doesn't matter if you are right. It only matters if you have a mob to back you up.

 
At 8:23 PM, Blogger Barron said...

Gallagher falls, it seems to me, into the pollyanna side of science. I think most science types go through a "knowledge will make the world an untopia" sort of phase. It's characterized by thinking that everyone is reasonable and if you jsut sit them down in front of a white board you can bring them around.

The problem really is how do you "teach the controversy"? Who prepares the lesson plans? Is a teacher required to be "fair"? How can you be fair to an idea that's wrong and outdated? The only clear way to teach about design is to show how it was popular (like the ether, geo centrism or plum pudding model of the atom) and then was discredited by scientific advance. I can imagine a teacher saying "Okay, here's what people thought in 1800..." and then going through the next 200 years showing how design faded away. Somehow I don't think the ID crowd would be to happy with that lesson plan.

Really the issue is not ID, it's not poor public knowledge of science, it's about how we decide what to teach in science class. And the answer to that is to teach the best scientific knowledge. The best models, the best evidence, the best methods. And, of course, you teach it at a level the students can comprehend. If ID manages to become part of science, to offer any of those "bests" it will naturally be taught in schools. Until then it's a nice wedge issue for the political and religious right to raise money and garner media attention.

Is Gallagher worse then the dishonest people in the debate? No, I don't think so, but I agree with you, he's really naive.

 
At 5:14 PM, Anonymous "Rev Dr" Lenny Flank said...

I believe the DI has had a recent change of heart as they see it would be safer to criticize Darwinian evolution without having to expose ID to critical scrutiny in the public school classroom.

--------------


Actually, their "change of heart" came as a result of their debacle in Ohio, when they DID try to have ID "theory" (whatever the heck THAT is) taught. Alas, they failed so miserably that state authorities not only did not include any ID "theory" in their state standards, but they specifically and clearly banned "intelligent design theory", by name.

In short, IDers no longer try to teach their "alternative theory" because (1) they don't HAVE one, and (2) they lost, embarrassingly, the last time they tried.

 
At 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thinks what Gallagher says is not wrong. Why not benefit from the different points of view on one topic? I'm not a christian and I'm very much against religious intitutions (not the believers, just the institutions) but I think here we have to make things clear. I'm 27 years old and I've just graduated from university as a biologist and I strongly agree with the evolutionary theory but I also have some questions. Imagine that we could discover the unique common universal ancestor for every actual species of the earth, will that explain something? I mean, even though this was true, where did that common ancestor come from? Take for example the Bing Bang theory, we now know that Big Bang took place but, who or what generated the explosion? what was out there before the universe existed? I think that is the real Identity of God. God is our lack of answers, God apears when we have no apparent solution, when we don't know what to do or to say. I bet all of us said at least once "for god's sake" or think of Him when something's not going right. So the point is this, there is no need to argue and try to impose our own opinion on the subject when we can benefit all from the difference in our ideas. Teaching would be much better and rich if we could combine different opinions and ideas because, isn't trying to impose an idea some kin of Dogma? Think about it.

 
At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thinks what Gallagher says is not wrong. Why not benefit from the different points of view on one topic? I'm not a christian and I'm very much against religious intitutions (not the believers, just the institutions) but I think here we have to make things clear. I'm 27 years old and I've just graduated from university as a biologist and I strongly agree with the evolutionary theory but I also have some questions. Imagine that we could discover the unique common universal ancestor for every actual species of the earth, will that explain something? I mean, even though this was true, where did that common ancestor come from? Take for example the Bing Bang theory, we now know that Big Bang took place but, who or what generated the explosion? what was out there before the universe existed? I think that is the real Identity of God. God is our lack of answers, God apears when we have no apparent solution, when we don't know what to do or to say. I bet all of us said at least once "for god's sake" or think of Him when something's not going right. So the point is this, there is no need to argue and try to impose our own opinion on the subject when we can benefit all from the difference in our ideas. Teaching would be much better and rich if we could combine different opinions and ideas because, isn't trying to impose an idea some kin of Dogma? Think about it.

 
At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The intelligent designer, unmasked! To see what the theory of intelligent design leaves out, try www.theintelligentdesigner.com

 
At 9:38 PM, Blogger jgfellow said...

Something Dr. Rosenhouse accepts is that Scientists could be doing better holding up their end of the debate.

I really crave such a better attack. Someone once pointed out to me that ID is currently losing in court because they refuse to attack the issue like Scientists. I fear that Evolutinists are losing the debate in the media because they refuse to do anything but.

I would love to see a "Darwin Institute" that did nothing but refute the ID. For example, I recently googled "giraffe evolution" and only 1 out of the top 10 hits was pro-Evolution (and it sucked, as an argument).

On a personal note, I have great interest in the relationship between the clotting cascade and evolution. Is there any documentation you can push me towards? The less technical the better, but I'll take what I can get...

 
At 3:33 AM, Blogger zhengbin said...

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