March 14, 2005

The Battle Over Evolution

The whole "evolution is a theory, not a fact" debate pisses me off, because it is a prime example of willful ignorance. The issue comes up again in an article in today's Washington Post. And it turns out that one of the big proponents of the so-called Intelligent Design "theory" (it's a belief system, not a true disprovable scientific theory) is based here in Seattle. Oh, joy.

As far as I can tell, the only opponents to evolutionary theory are the religious nuts. There's no one who doesn't have a political/religious axe to grind who doubts evolution. And Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, so casting it as an "alternative" to evolution is misleading at best.

People are free to believe whatever they want in the context of religion. But to force those beliefs into a science context (in this case, in public school science classes) is not only a breakdown of church/state separation, but a disservice to the future of this country.

Posted by Tom Nugent at March 14, 2005 08:57 AM

As a science teacher, I'll throw my cent-and-a-half in:

Teaching biology without evolution is like teaching physics without Newton's Laws.....with genetics, it is the foundation of modern biology.

However, I think biology teachers have shot themselves in the foot over the decades. Here's why:

When I talk to kids about physics, I also like to talk about the reasons why a theory sounds so ludicrous, and why it might sound like bunk. I do that because that is the source of misconception, and if you address where the theory/concept actually addresses that misconception, the kids become more open to seeing where the theory has strength. I consider this a part of the duty of open scientific inquiry, and teaching not only the dry facts and concepts of science, but the framework that acts as the basis of all science (philosophy and such).....that a true scientist must in fact consider observable, reproducable alternatives, as well as the incompleteness of a theory (and that it may be incomplete because it is wrong, or because we) lack the technology or time to push on further...another example that I use is that quantum mechanics so far cannot explain large scale phenomena, and relativity does not accurately descrive small scale phenomena...that doesn't make them wrong, just limited, and we continue the quest to see if those limits are real, and if so, why.

A lot of my biology teacher friends are adamant in refusing to examine the holes that do exist in modern evolutionary theory (that isn't to say that the theory is flawed, just not yet complete). When I question them, they are concerned that kids will see this as an admission that the theory is flawed or wrong. I think, sadly, that in coming across with the "it is right, it is truth, it is fact, accept or be ignorant" has put a lot of kids on the defensive, and consider such "absolutism" to be the sign of a weak idea. Any course in scientific philosophy shoots that approach down, and it makes biologists look like they are defending an indefensible theory (much like the medieval scientists who forced all to believe in a geocentric model, or be labaled a blasphemer). It is exactly that which these people are currently attacking.

I think teachers should discuss the holes that exist, and be ready to explain why they are there...that over such a long time, and only 150 years of serious fossil hunting, the picture of life on Earth is incomplete, and while that this theory is a work in progress, and continued to be modified (like many good scientific theories). Instead, they leave themselves open to attacks based on poor science, but wonderful twists of semantics and philosophy. In a sense, science is being defeated by its own wepaons.

Posted by: Tom at March 14, 2005 04:59 PM
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