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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Monday, December 08, 2003

good science/ bad science

Like evolution, creation science purports to explain how the world and all that's in it came to be, but it does so by taking the Bible as an infallible account of the world's history. More and more people believe in creation science, and not a few of them have taken the inevitable line that their belief is infused with sufficient respectability to be included in the school curriculum. In response to this, many scientists rush to defend evolution by seeking to banish creation science. In doing so, they sound much like those legislators who in 1925 prohibited by law the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. In that case, anti-evolutionists were fearful that a scientific idea would undermine religious belief. In the present case, pro-evolutionists are fearful that a religious idea will undermine scientific belief. The former had insufficient confidence in religion; the latter have insufficient confidence in science.

Good science has nothing to fear from bad science, and by our putting one next to the other, the education of our- youth would be served exceedingly well. I would propose that evolution and creation science be presented in schools as alternative theories. Here is why:
In the first place, Darwin's explanation of how evolution happened is a theory. So is the updated version of Darwin. Even the "fact" that evolution occurred is based on high levels of inference and supposition. Fossil remains, for example, are sometimes ambiguous in their meaning and have generated diverse interpretations. And there are peculiar gaps in the fossil record. which is something of an enigma, if not an embarrassment, to evolutionists.

The story told by creationists is also a theory. That a theory has its origins in a religious metaphor or belief is irrelevant. Not only was Newton a religious mystic but his conception of the universe as a kind of mechanical clock constructed and set in motion by God is about as religious an idea as you can find. What is relevant is the question, To what extent does a theory meet scientific criteria of validity? The dispute between evolutionists and creation scientists offers textbook writers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to provide students with insights into the philosophy and methods of science. After all, what students really need to know is not whether this or that theory is to be believed, but how scientists judge the merit of a theory. Suppose students were taught the criteria of scientific theory evaluation and then were asked to apply these criteria to the two theories in question. Wouldn't such a task qualify as authentic science education?

To take another example: Most useful theories invoke unseen forces to explain observable events. But the unseen forces (e.g.. gravity) should be capable of generating fairly reliable predictions. Does the invocation of God in creation science meet this criterion? Does natural selection?

I suspect that when these two theories are put side by side, and students are given the freedom-to judge their merit as science, creation theory will fail ignominiously (although natural selection is far from faultless). In any case, we must take our chances. It is not only bad science to allow disputes over theory to go unexamined, but also bad education.

Some argue that the schools have neither the time nor the obligation to take notice of every discarded or disreputable scientific theory. "If we carried your logic through," a science professor once said to me, "we would be teaching post-Copernican astronomy alongside Ptolemaic astronomy." Exactly. And for two good reasons. The first was succinctly expressed in an essay George Orwell wrote about George Bernard Shaw's remark that we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages. Shaw offered as an example of modern credulity the widespread belief that the Earth is round. The average man, Shaw said, cannot advance a single reason for believing this. (This, of course, was before we were able to take pictures of the Earth from space.) Orwell took Shaw's remark to heart and examined carefully his own reasons for believing the world to be round. He concluded that Shaw was right: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was "wrong" and Copernicus was "right," but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This way of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief. Real science education would ask students to consider with an open mind the Ptolemaic and Copernican world-views, array the arguments for and against each, and then explain why they think one is to be preferred over the other.

A second reason to support this approach is that science, like any other subject, is distorted if it is not taught from a historical perspective. Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that very reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity; that what we think we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

Of course, this is not to say that every new or resurrected explanation for the ways of the world should be given serious attention in our schools. Teachers, as always, need to choose-in this case by asking which theories are most valuable in helping students to clarify the bases of their beliefs. Ptolemaic theory, it seems to me, is excellent for this purpose. And so is creation science. It makes claims on the minds and emotions of many people; its dominion has lasted for centuries and is thus of great historical interest; and in its modern incarnation, it makes an explicit claim to the status of science.

It remains for me to address the point (not quite an argument) that we dare not admit creation science as an alternative to evolution because most science teachers do not know much about the history and philosophy of science, and even less about the rules by which scientific theories are assessed; that is to say, they are not equipped to teach science as anything but dogma. If this is true, then we should take action at once to correct a serious deficiency, i.e., by improving the way science teachers are educated.

Neil Postman. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. How the past can improve our future [New York, Knopf, 1999 pp 167-170]

If I may borrow terminology from Professor Postman's own wise remarks I would make this comment: There is no such thing as "creation science"; there is only good science or bad science, science that fits the evidence and science that does not. And though "creation science" has become a popular short hand descriptive term among some young earth creationists they surely do not believe that it is another "kind" of science...

7:28:00 pm