Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Good 'Ol Fashioned Monkey Trial In Kansas

From the KC Star:

Kansas' evolution debate will play out in a 10-day, courtroom-style hearing this spring, with experts from both sides testifying before a school board panel.

On trial is the theory of evolution, and the verdict could go a long way in determining the science curriculum taught in state schools.

Evolution critics want school curriculum to include alternatives, or at least challenges, to the theory.

Hearing dates are not yet set. The public may attend the hearings but will not be allowed to speak.

A three-member Board of Education subcommittee will hold the hearings and report its findings to the full board before members vote on the science standards.

Proponents of the idea of intelligent design say the hearing will give them an opportunity to show the evolution's weaknesses, and why alternatives to the theory should be taught too.

The big problem I have with most of these discussions is that they are usually framed in shockingly arrogant and ignorant ways.

For example, what do we mean when we refer to the theory of evolution? The fact is people are often referring to very different things. To me evolution is the "change over generations in a gene pool and its population of phenotypes." It is within this change that the processes for natural selection and random mutation play out. And at the level of genotypes (the actual genetic makeup of organisms) and phenotypes (the morphological, physiological and behavioral attributes of organisms) "evolutionary theory" is staggeringly well supported by the evidence.

However, for many, evolution does not remain at the level of genotypes and phenotypes. Because the theory works so well at the genotype/phenotype level many take it that some analagous process must be working at other levels. Depending on what exactly we are talking about, this idea can be more or less compelling or plausible. It has certainly led to some downright silly speculation, such as E.O. Wilson & Charles Lumsden's postulation of a "culturgen" as a base unit of "cultural evolution." It has also led to scientists assuming (I use the word deliberately) that evolution has greater explanatory powers than it actually possesses.

Take the case of Dr. Michael Behe and his argument in Darwin's Black Box. Dr. Behe's basic point is that the evolutionary models presented to explain many biochemical processes are seriously lacking. He's right, they are. In many instances they are non-existant. "Don't worry," evolutionary purists tell us, "Even if we don't know how these biochemical processes could have evolved, we are safe in assuming they did evolve." What Dr. Behe asked is "Why is it safe to assume that?" There has been no satisfactory answer from the "evolution is everything" camp to that question. One trouble lies in the underlying complexity of the biochemical processes involved. This complexity is often used by the "evolution is everything" camp to explain why no competent account of biochemical evolution has heretofor been produced. "It's just too difficult!" they exclaim. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't (Dr. Behe has his doubts), but that still doesn't answer the question as to what scientific principle allows you to take an explanatory theory from one level of analysis and assume it works at another level.

For example, Newtonian physics works just fine at the level of ordinary human life. Alright, now let's assume that you just scale Newtonian physics up to universal size. It still works fine, right? No, it doesn't still work fine. Ultimately new theoretical frameworks had to be created to handle this fact. The same thing happens if you scaled down physics to the sub-atomic particle scale. Does the failure of Newtonian physics to scale up (or down) invalidate the law of gravity on a human scale? Of course not. And were we to find out that evolutionary processes do not play out at the biomolecular level would that then invalidate evolutionary theory at the genotype/phenotype level? Of course not. Yet the "evolution is everything" club act as if it would. That is simple fear mongering, not science.

The KC Star article also says:

Intelligent design is the idea that a higher power has directed life's development.

This statement is misleading. Proponents of ID such as Behe do not argue that evolution does not take place at the level of the genotype/phenotype. To simply lump them in with the creationist crowd is intellectually dishonest.

The controversy over evolution is “the big dog on the porch … the 800-pound gorilla,” said board Chairman Steve Abrams, of Arkansas City, who also leads the subcommittee. Abrams said the hearings could be “useful and enlightening” to everyone in the state.

Topics will include how to teach evolution, its validity as a theory and the definition of science.
But supporters of current standards say the hearings could make Kansas the laughingstock of the nation, much as in 1999, when the board voted to de-emphasize evolution in the state's curriculum, leaving the decision to teach evolution up to local districts. Supporters also worry that the hearings will favor rhetoric over hard science, especially before a panel that is critical of evolution.


“The perception among many of my colleagues is this is rigged,” said Steve Case, a University of Kansas research scientist who leads the state science curriculum committee. “I have a terrible fear for Kansas that this could be portrayed as a Scopes trial.”

Case was referring to the 1925 trial of Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes, who was charged with breaking the law by teaching evolution.

Case, asked by the committee to find scientists to defend evolution, said he wasn't sure he could find people who would submit to the hearings.

I wish the reporter had asked the begged for follow up question at this point. You can't find biologists to speak at the state's science curriculum committee meeting? Why? Isn't Kansas paying the salaries of dozens of them at state Universities? Is rubbing elbows with religiously minded people really that odious? What gives?

Thursday's hearing brought out about 150 residents, mostly from Manhattan, Topeka and Lawrence. They represented the diversity of the debate: defiant creationists and unapologetically secular professors, as well as Christian evolutionary biologists, scientists who reject the theory and professors who worry new standards would disadvantage students in an increasingly high-tech society.

I've heard such statements in the past that not teaching kids evolution in high school would somehow "disadvantage" them and it has always struck me as being a completely vacuous argument. The only "disadvantage" I can see is not knowing what evolution really is, and it seems that this "disadvantage" could be remedied by 30 minutes of reading by a college student. There are hundreds of evangelical high schools in this country that are not teaching evolution as a matter of course, but I've yet to see a single study pointing out that those kids are unable to finish college because they have been "disadvantaged" by not being taught evolution in high school.

I don't hold with creationism. It is a theory, if such it can be called, that cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Intelligent Design, at least as Dr. Behe proposes it, can stand up to scrutiny, and will until the evolutionists can produce verifiable evidence to the contrary.

What should this mean for schools? Well, I honestly do not have a problem with schools not teaching evolution in public high schools if people are morally offended by it. I seriously doubt that any meaningful knowledge of evolutionary theory is being imparted by curriculums today in any event. I also do not think that ID can be effectively taught to the average high school aged person. Creationism should never even be considered.

I guess I'm wondering if shoving evolution down the throats of evangelical christians is really a goal worthy of this much time, money and energy. I tend to doubt it.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Without getting into a detailed debate about whether we should be teaching evolution at all, or as you phrase it, forcing it down creationist's throats (I disagree with that pathway, as it seems to foster ingorance, and your argument about not really needing it is something that could be applied to an awful lot of high school class- I mean, personal hygiene, who needs it?), I agree there is a tendency towards hysteria when it comes to the evolution v creationism debate. (And I would submit that hysteria is fomented, on both sides of the debate, by the lack of understanding of what evolutionary theory is.)

But a couple of your points warrant comment. One, you allude to overreaching by scientists in the evolution explains all camp. While certainly too many scientists (and others- let's recognize that the media will overplay anything) overstate their cases, I think it is important to recognize that it is crucial for scientists to "reach for the stars" (for lack of a better phrase) and overreach and consider how many phenomena are explained by a grand theory such as evolution. Their assertions should be based on science, and when they are not, they should be called on them. But sometimes they will be based on sound science, but still be proven wrong by others. That is a crucial way that our understanding of the natural and social worlds advance. If anything, science can be too conservative, and reluctant to accept overreaching (a point that Kuhn makes in the Structure of Scientific revolutions).

More importantly, you give too much credence to ID. It simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. From everything I've read about Behe's work (including brief descriptions of it by him), is that does not measure up to two of the most basic scientific principles, testability and falsifiability. There is no way to test for the existence and no way to prove that ID doesn't exist. It is essentially a post-hoc explanation. "Well, something's going on here that evolution doesn't explain, so it must be some sort of intelligent design." Which they generally assume to be God or a God-like power. It's like obscenity- they know it when they see it.

Where proponents of ID might be valuable is showing where evolutionary theory is incomplete (and not knowing enough of the biology literature, I don't know how much of these weaknesses are already common knowledge among evolutationary biologists). But there criticism of evolutinary theory jump from a scientific debate to a metaphysical one, as they attempt to explain the gaps in the evoluitionary theory with the suggestion that there could be some larger power at play, but which they don't define or explain how it might operate.

Walt

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

"More importantly, you give too much credence to ID. It simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. From everything I've read about Behe's work (including brief descriptions of it by him), is that does not measure up to two of the most basic scientific principles, testability and falsifiability."

But if you read Behe's book (which I do reccommend BTW) he points out that the evolutionary "explanations" for the processes he looks at ALSO are neither testable or falsifiable.

I'd disagree that Behe's work is unfalsifiable (untestable though it undoubtedly is). His argument centers around the idea of irreducible complexity. If you can show logically how the processes he is discussing FAIL to meet the standards of irreducible complexity then his argument is undone. To date I haven't seen anyone bother to even TRY to undermine his positions. Ad hominen's seem to be the favored course of action against Behe.

One might argue that Behe is mostly a critic who tears down without putting anything solid in its place, and that might very well be true. However that does NOT invalidate his criticisms. The evolutionists have far over-reached themselves here. Closing our eyes to that and assuming everything will work out in the evolutionists favor hardly seems to fall inline with the scientific spirit.

Anonymous said...

No, I haven't read Behe's book, so my comments can be qualified by that point. But I have read some of his own discussion (from lectures, short pieces), and that of others when they discuss ID.

When I talk about ID, and its problems with testability and falsifiability, I am not speaking directly to Behe's criticisms of evolutionary theory, but to his suggestion as to what "fills in the gaps." And that is where Behe is not providing any kind of scientific explanation. His irreducible complexity argument is fundamentally a critical testing of evolution; but the idea that there must be an intelligent designer tries to be a replacement for evolutionary theory, and it is not a scientific explanation.

I also don't think you've looked very hard to find legitimate criticisms of Behe. http://skepdic.com/intelligentdesign.html has several critiques of Behe's and they are not ad hominem. Another critique (which though at times overwrought) also deals with the substance of his work; http://www.reall.org/newsletter/v07/n12/black-box.html

Your suggestion that evolutionists (apparently all of them) have overreached themselves because they have condemned ID seems to revolve around the fact that they are not willing to examine criticism's of evolutionary theory, especially where it fails to explain things. I don't know if this is a fair charge, and I submit that you don't either. It would take a pretty extensive knowledge of the literature to know how critical biologists are of the application of evolutionary explanations to variety of issues. My guess, given the propensity of academics and scientists to quibble about every little thing, is that there is a healthy debate about in the biology literature about the application of evolutionary theory.

I agree that there should be skepticism, and that Behe's work should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it threatens mainstream science. But it also fair to hold Behe's, and others, ID work up to high level of scrutiny. And if one does, a key tenet of his work, the existence of intelligent design, does not hold water. Does that invalidate his criticisms about the misapplication of Darwinism, or how evolutionary theory fails to account for certain processes? No. But it certainly suggests a sloppiness of thinking on his part. Or at the least wishful thinking.

I don't know that we are this far apart on this. My fundamental problem is with the second part of Behe's work, and I would argue, fundamental and most controversial, while you're argument is that his criticisms of evolutionary biology should not be dismissed out of hand.


Walt

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

"I agree that there should be skepticism, and that Behe's work should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it threatens mainstream science. But it also fair to hold Behe's, and others, ID work up to high level of scrutiny. And if one does, a key tenet of his work, the existence of intelligent design, does not hold water."

All Behe has to do is show that some biochemical process satisfies the definition of being irreducibly complex. If he manages to do that then that would qualify as an example of ID. He makes a pretty strong case in the example of the biochemical "cascade" that produces blood clotting. It is highly suggestive (though maybe not definitive) of being irreducibly complex. No evolutionary approach to the problem, that he recounts in the book or that I have read elsewhere (limited though that might be) has exactly proven the opposite. Until conclusive proof is given it will remain an open question.

No we probably are not too far apart in general. There are larger philosophical issues that allow me to be open to other explanations of these issues, that are neither evolutionary nor religious in nature. But I think I've tried to get you to read Henri Bergson before unsuccesfully. Why should that change now?

Anonymous said...

Read a French guy? In this day and age?

Seriously, what I find appealing about your approach to issues like evolutionary theory and global warming is your skepticism, especially your absolute disgust at the application of certain scientific theories or other explantory factors to everything under the sun. That is, you rightly criticize people who want to apply the findings of a valid scientific theory to phenomena that bear no relation to the original theory. My favorite example is your complaint about whenever El Nino would take place, every weatherman would attribute local weather patterns to it, whether it made sense to or not.

But at the same time, I don't think you apply that same skepticism to contrarian theorists like Behe's or Bjorn Lomborg. You say that the critiques you have read about these two scholars have been ad hominem and essentially dismiss them out of hand, but in very quick searches, I found detailed critiques that question their findings in a very deliberate manner. And your support of them often leads you to ignore their motivations. You suggest that to lump Behe's with the creationists is intellectually dishonest, yet he's a fellow at a think tank that is heavily funded by Christian foundations, and routinely pitches his ID of intelligent design to religious groups who want to hear about it precisely because it reaffirms their belief in creationism and the involvement of a higher power. While lumping him in with these groups may be a way to dismiss his work without fair scrutiny, it certainly is not intellectually dishonest.

Also, you do a good job at breaking down the arguments of others (see your New London commentary) with very nuanced critiques, but then you turn around and lump groups together as if there is some kind of unified thinking ("Democrats", "Evolutionists, "Liberals, etc.). I understand that, especially for blogging purposes, it's a useful shorthand, but fails to recognize the debate within these groups. Just as many Republicans hate to be associated with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and others on the far right, so do many Democrats hate to be associated with the likes of Ward Churchill (or Michael Moore) and others on the far left. Yes, the Democrats do that to Republicans, and conservatives to liberals, but you're better than that to fall to their levels of demonization.

Walt

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

"You suggest that to lump Behe's with the creationists is intellectually dishonest, yet he's a fellow at a think tank that is heavily funded by Christian foundations, and routinely pitches his ID of intelligent design to religious groups who want to hear about it precisely because it reaffirms their belief in creationism and the involvement of a higher power. While lumping him in with these groups may be a way to dismiss his work without fair scrutiny, it certainly is not intellectually dishonest."

I will still maintain that it's dishonest. Here's why. The suggestion is made that ID is a theory that the direction of life is guided by some deistic entity. This proposition is demonstrably false. While ID would be consistent with the idea that a God "made" life, that is not the only idea that would be consistent with idea. There could be other processes involved that in no way need the presence of a god. Only Creationism requires God.

For example, the fact that I espoused an opinion on eminent domain cases that libertarians would agree with does not make of me (or you) a libertarian. Neither does it make of libertarians whatever the hell I am. Its an old logical fallacy.

If you believe in creationism, then you believe in ID.

Behe believes in ID.

therefore, Behe believes in Creationism.
This syllogism is of course incorrect, but that is the reasoning underlying statements like the one I criticized.

As for my imprecise use of language I will of course plead guilty. But I probably wont be changing anytime soon. I'm gonna assume that most people will understand what I'm saying. For example, when I call the Bush Admininstration "idiots" for submitting an amica brief in support of New London, I'm assuming that people realize that I'm not blaming people in the State Department or the National Transportation Safety Board or calling THEM names. Yes, that can lead to some statements that sound like sweeping generalizations (and sometimes they really ARE those) but I'd argue its pretty much standard operating procedure even for opinion writing in newspapers. If its good enough for Molly Ivins, George Will, Jim Hightower and Christopher Hitchens, who am I to turn my nose up at it?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that your syllogism respects what I said, as I never suggested that to believe in creationism is to believe in ID. And I didn't argue that Behe believes in creationism. But there is heavy metaphysical, if not outright religious, aspect to ID (and not just Behe's work). I think you understate the role of a supreme power, or God, in ID.

But my point was that, and I don't think you refuted it, is that it is not intellectually dishonest to lump Behe in with creationists, even if he may not be one, when he is so clearly trying to play to that audience.

And my point is that you are better than Ivins, Will, Hightower, and Hitchens. (heck, I feel like Eddie Murphy to Jesse Jackson, "You bigger than Harold Washington! You bigger than Harold Washington!")

Walt

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

"I don't think that your syllogism respects what I said, as I never suggested that to believe in creationism is to believe in ID. And I didn't argue that Behe believes in creationism. But there is heavy metaphysical, if not outright religious, aspect to ID (and not just Behe's work). I think you understate the role of a supreme power, or God, in ID."

Logically, God is not necessary for the ID argument, it could fit in there but it isn't necessary. Behe makes that very clear in his book. Logically, something like ID is necessary in Creationism. The Creationist's use of ID always includes God, but that doesn't logically mean that ID needs God. I stress the logical connections because too often news stories use the "guilt by association" technique on ID. "Look," they say "Creationists believe in ID, it must be looney too."

"But my point was that, and I don't think you refuted it, is that it is not intellectually dishonest to lump Behe in with creationists, even if he may not be one, when he is so clearly trying to play to that audience."

My point is that if you are ascribing motives to Behe (eg. "he is playing to the creationist audience") that is not a neutral stand. If neo-Nazi's found something in John Rawl's work that they thought supported their cause (wrongly or rightly) that wouldn't mean that Rawl's was pandering to them would it? And if anti-neo-nazis took to mischaracterizing Rawls' work, it wouldn't be pandering if Rawls attempted to defend his work, would it?

Anonymous said...

"My point is that if you are ascribing motives to Behe (eg. "he is playing to the creationist audience") that is not a neutral stand. If neo-Nazi's found something in John Rawl's work that they thought supported their cause (wrongly or rightly) that wouldn't mean that Rawl's was pandering to them would it? And if anti-neo-nazis took to mischaracterizing Rawls' work, it wouldn't be pandering if Rawls attempted to defend his work, would it?"


But the difference is that Rawls is not going around speaking to neo-Nazi groups, and he's not joining institutes supported by neo-Nazis. Behe is speaking to Christian groups about ID and framing it in ways that appeal to their belief in creationism, and he's telling him that there's room for God in ID, which is what they want to hear, because it helps to validate scientifically their belief in the role of the creator. He is a fellow at the Discovery Institute, which is funded by the Christian organizations. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with him doing either.

But you suggest that it is intellectually dishonest to link Behe with creationists in any way. I argue that is intellectually dishonest on your part to act as if there is no relationship between the two.

I think it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss Behe's work as creationism, which is the point that you might be trying to make. (And I don't think that the orignial quote from the KC Star goes that far, but that's a matter of interpretation). But you're posts in this thread suggest that Behe and his ID have had nothing to do with creationists, and I don't think that's true. In very cynical terms, he may just be cashing in on his research (and as a former lowly paid academic, I can respect that), and in less cynical terms, Christian groups who subscribe to creationism may be the only audience he can get taken seriously by, and that may be the reason he is talking to them.

Walt

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

"But you suggest that it is intellectually dishonest to link Behe with creationists in any way. I argue that is intellectually dishonest on your part to act as if there is no relationship between the two."

No, its the linking of Behe's ideas to outright creationism that I object to. Who Behe hangs out with in his personal life doesn't affect the intellectual content of his ideas an iota.

Look I think the creationist's position is not based in reality. That is one reason that Behe's argument has appeal for them. If they want to pay to hear Behe speak so what? Should Behe shun them in order to maintain his PC bona fides?

" Behe is speaking to Christian groups about ID and framing it in ways that appeal to their belief in creationism, and he's telling him that there's room for God in ID, which is what they want to hear"

Heaven forbid an academic tells a particular audience what they want to hear! Look as I stated before, based on the logic of the argument there IS room for God in the ID argument (although it doesn't need to be there), and Behe may personally believe that God is responsible. Does that in any way affect the logic of his argument in his book?

Randy Black said...

The problem with evolution is that some of the textbooks that I have previewed have left off the word "theory" and have presented it as fact. Many of the "truths" that support evolution have been trumped up. I believe intelligent design and evolution can co-exist. To suppose there was no intelligent design is a bias and thus a fallacy that fails the tests of critical thinking.