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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Unresolvable “Science” Debate?

Will the controversy between evolution and creationism ever end? Is it destined to swing forever on the pendulum of public opinion? The entire controversy is sustained on both sides by too much emotional investment in unexamined assumptions. The latest pretext for acrimony is a Tennessee bill intended to permit teachers “to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” In case that wasn't clear enough, the bill repeats its intention from the other way round. No teacher shall be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

I read the bill. It is only two pages of plainly-worded text. It mentions creationism not at all. It does refer to scientific theories, of which there are many, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. However, creationism is not one of those theories because it is not science.

You see, science is all about collecting only evidence that can be perceived with just the five senses. The sense may be amplified as when we use a telescope or other instrument. Science is concerned with explaining data collected only with the five senses. Other data is not considered.

An explanation that tries to account for extra-sensual data is, by definition, not a scientific theory. Nevertheless, due to public confusion and the desire of some that creationism be recognized as a scientific theory, it will be in science class that students ask their questions. Teachers need to be prepared to answer them while respecting deeply held religious beliefs.

The bitter acrimony is really unnecessary. It is easy and reasonable for students to accept that science attempts to explain only sense-based data. Most of the problem stems from a widespread misunderstanding of what science is.

As far as evolution goes, it suffers from historical bar-lowering, as it has weaknesses that do not adequately account for the scientific facts. Even within my lifetime, scientists have weakened the definition so much as to create a near tautology: evolution is change over time. Many science texts state it just like that. Others pretty it up a little, “evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next.” However, such a definition in non-controversial. Organisms do change over time. The biblical Jacob realized it thousands of years ago when he made a deal to work for Laban, receiving only the spotted sheep as his wage. Laban promptly removed all the spotted sheep from the herd. Nevertheless, by careful breeding, Jacob was able to create a herd of mostly spotted sheep from a herd of un-spotted sheep.

Years ago the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) used a fairly stringent definition: "The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." Unwritten, but understood and unquestioned, was the additional idea that mechanisms of descent were robust enough to account for the change from say, sponge to zebra.

In fact, this unstated implication is the root of the controversy. Pro-evolutionists (as distinguished from scientists) believe the implication; Anti-evolutionists (again, as distinguished from scientists) do not. For many, the implication goes directly to deeply-held belief systems. Later, the NABT deleted the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” Today, there is no definition on the website at all. One of the reasons that the definition of evolution has gotten weaker and weaker is that the data, especially as regards speciation, is inconclusive, and fails to support the more robust definition. There are lots of instances where it is not at all clear whether two organisms are members of different species. A high-quality university level biology book addresses the speciation continuum and other issues, but it can be a tough read.

As inconceivable as it may be to some, it is possible to discuss the weaknesses of evolutionary theory without smuggling in creationism. Only ideologues would consider the mere mention of evolution's weaknesses as an attack upon evolution. For critical thinkers, it is the grist of intelligence-making. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

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