It’s like the song that never ends … 2

Two small-potatoes news items demonstrate that the on-going attacks on evolution are not over, despite the substantial legal defeat of intelligent design in Pennsylvania.

The two events are minor in scope and media coverage, compared the Dover, Pa., school controversy, but they highlight the tenacity of anti-evolutionists.

One, coincidentally in Pennsylvania, involves a public school science teacher proposing a public debate on whether evolution is science or a faith, since it is atheistic. (Their words, not mine!)

The other, in Lancaster, Calif, involves “teaching the controversy” about evolution in the local public schools, by allowing student challenges and questions about evolution in class.

Both developments demonstrate the level of obfuscation anti-evolutionists reach in their war on science.

Tom Ritter teaches high school chemistry and physics at Annville-Cleona High School in Annville, Pa. Last month, he and the Constitution Party of Pennsylvania announced they would stage a debate in May between Ritter and a challenger on whether evolution is a science or a faith.

The exact wording of the resolution is convoluted, which might explain why no one has yet taken up the challenge, despite the possibility of winning a $2,000 pot. The party is also offering a $500 finder’s fee, the deadline for which ends tomorrow.

The question reads, “Unless the teacher acknowledges an alternative, teaching materialistic evolution as an explanation for the origin of life, the variety of sexual species or the existence of the human mind is an article of faith.”

Or to put it more clearly, “Resolved: Materialistic evolution is a matter of faith, not of science, unless another explanation for the development of life is acknowledged.”

On the surface, this viewpoint is worth discussion, since it might provide some clarity about what constitutes science and what constitutes faith. The venue and the underlying rationale for the debate, however, lead one to question if Ritter and the Party have any clue what science (or faith) is.

Before detailing my problems with the views of Ritter and the Party, I should say that I sent Ritter, a fellow member of the American Association of Physics Teachers, an e-mail asking him to clarify some statements he made to his local newspaper. He replied that he did not have the time to answer my six questions, and directed me to the Party website. So, in keeping with the request, my comments will directly address the arguments on their website.

They are attacking evolution on three simultaneous fronts: first, evolution is not scientific; secondly, materialism cannot answer all questions; and thirdly, evolution is a religion, a matter of faith.

They contend that evolution cannot demonstrate three critical points:

1.  No one has demonstrated that life can evolve where none existed before.
2. No one has demonstrated that a new sexual species can evolve.
3. Evolution theorizes the human brain evolved from lower forms of life. Over 50 years into the age of computers, we can build machines that can crunch numbers far better and faster than humans, recognize and use language and tools, and beat us in chess. Yet science has yet to build even a rudimentary computer than can contemplate its own existence, the hallmark of the human brain.

Then, the website brings in theory of the Big Bang, and implies there is a fatal weakness in the materialist conclusions of the theory:

… there will come a predictable time in the future when the universe will run out of useful energy and all reactions will cease for a lack of energy. This so called Heat Death and the Big Bang are recognized by virtually all physicists around the world and serve as a bookends to our present existence. So can materialism explain what there was before the Big Bang, what there will be after the Heat Death, and what caused this present interval of existence?

Finally, the Party (and we must presume Ritter as well) make the connection between evolution and atheism as a religion.

… when the evolutionists say that a Creator cannot exist, they are saying God cannot exist. This is a profession of Atheism.

Evolution may be right, at least in parts. But it is not treated as science and materialism is a faulty theory to rely upon. Thus anyone who insists it is the only possible explanation employs evolution as an article of faith.

Frankly, I could see this debate, if it is actually held, going on for days to address all these presumptions and conclusions. In the meantime, let me summarize the California situation before critiquing them both.

On March 22, the five-member Lancaster, Calif., school board, at the urging of a parent, voted unanimously “to implement a ‘philosophy’ of science instruction that encourages students to question Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and that permits science teachers to insert critiques of the long-standing and accepted scientific theory into the curriculum,” according to local newspaper reports.

The parent, Alex Branning, championed the policy as a way to give students the “thinking skills” to compete in today economy and to ensure the local schools give them a “world-class education,” according to the Antelope Valley Press.

Board member Mel Kleven said the “new philosophy will bring ‘scientific reality to the classroom’ and promote an ‘open environment’,” the Press said.

Well, there are so many wrong premises and conclusions inherent in both the Pennsylvania and California cases that it is hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with Ritter-Party accusation against materialism, one of the basic foundations of modern science.

Methodological materialism, in a nutshell, says science can only base its conclusions on real-life experiments and observations. Theories like evolution and the Big Bang depend solely on “hard” evidence for support. As in criminal cases, investigators must sometime infer logical conclusions from limited available evidence, but these conclusions need to be consistent with existing scientific understanding.

We have no evidence for what came before the Big Bang, or for what might have caused the Big Bang, so there are no scientific theories that address either question. Current theory does an exceptional job in explaining what happened after the Big Bang, however.

Philosophical materialism holds that science can only address questions that are based on real-life phenomena, what our five senses and our instruments can detect. Materialism rejects debate over supernatural influences and explanations, since by definition there can be no natural (scientific) evidence for either.

Thus, scientists argue that debating what happened before the Big Bang or what will happen after the Big Crunch or the Heat Death is a matter for religion or philosophy, not for science.

Essentially, then, the Ritter-Party argument against materialism has no merit. Likewise, their contention that science denies the existence of a Creator is overly simplistic. Materialism denies the need for and advisability of invoking divine or supernatural causes. It says nothing about whether such causes exist, since the question lies outside the parameters of science.

Scientists who believe in God typically do not mix their religious beliefs with their professional methodology. This practice does not make them atheists, or science atheism.

The Ritter, et al., protests that evolution cannot “demonstrate” (1) abiogenesis, (2) new sexual species and (3) human intellect similarly belie a fundamental misconception of how science operates.

There is a naive view, perhaps fostered by textbook renditions of the scientific method, that science depends solely on laboratory experiment. Without concrete experimental results, this naive view contends, scientific conclusions are merely speculation, or opinion, or “just a theory,” or as Ritter, et al., contend, a matter of faith.

This view is more materialistic than methodological materialism is. In other words, it’s a “show me” definition of science. Show me life evolved from chemicals. Show me a sexual species evolving before our eyes. Show me how the human brain got such a large cerebral cortex.

Well, we can’t do that, at least with multi-cellular species. Evolution, of life or of the universe, has occupied billions of years of time. That time scale makes it impossible to conduct neat little laboratory experiments to verify our conclusions. We can model evolution and the universe with mathematics and computer simulations. We can study the genetic diversification of bacteria and viruses in real time, since they evolve so quickly. We can make logical inferences from the available evidence. It’s still science, even without the show-me experiments.

To draw an analogy from a popular television show, CSI, let’s suppose our investigators find a dead body, blood on the floor, and an abandoned pistol. There are two possible “materialist” hypotheses. The victim shot himself, or someone else shot him. (A non-materialist would perhaps further add, a demon, alien or ghost shot him.)

The investigators test the blood, examine the pistol for fingerprints, record the placement of the gun and the nature of the entry wound, and check the scene for other less obvious evidence. They conclude, based on the available evidence, that the victim’s jealous wife did him in.

Did they actually see her do it? No. Can they recreate the crime, using her and her husband as the subjects? Not if one of them is dead. Yet, the available evidence and the investigators’ inferences from it would lead to criminal charges and a trial.

It’s still science, and it’s still admissible, as they say in legal circles.

The California situation demonstrates other misconceptions about evolution and particularly how it should be taught. Those who question evolution consider it to be equivalent to a legislative proposal or legal argument, and that the teaching of it is “one-sided.” They want to “teach the controversy.”

Scientifically speaking, there is no controversy about evolution. With rare exception, scientists accept evolution as a valid explanation for the development of lie on Earth; the preponderance of evidence supporting evolution makes any other conclusions speculative at best.

The science as presented in most textbooks represents a condensation of the prevailing attitudes and theories of the day. Scientists have already worked through any controversies by the time the science enters the textbooks.

As an example, my father’s physics text from the mid-1930s addresses nothing about Einstein’s theory of relativity or quantum mechanics, which were both in their infancy when he attended high school. Both are discussed in some detail in present-day physics texts, because the controversy is over. Relativity and quantum mechanics are part of the “canon” of modern physics, despite there being some aspects of both that have not yet been fully verified experimentally.

The theory of evolution is not like a legal case or a legislative bill to be judged on its acceptability to a majority. We can debate its scientific merits and methodology, as long as stay within the parameters of scientific thought. In other words, we cannot challenge evolution with non-materialist arguments of divine creation or intelligent design, and still call it  a scientific debate.

To bring in another analogy, evolution is closer in spirit to the concepts that humans cannot be slaves and that all adult citizens can vote.  At one time, slavery was legally, socially and morally acceptable, and women and former slaves were believed to be intellectually incapable of understanding political issues.

The controversies regarding both issues were worked out long ago. The pertinent amendments to the Constitution bear witness that the controversy is now largely over. No history teacher would entertain discussion that slavery is now actually a good thing or that women and non-whites are now intellectually inferior to white male property holders. Such ideas are archaic, and potentially explosive issues .

Likewise, a school or a science teacher, if they actually understand what science is, should present evolution for what it is, the best available scientific explanation for the development of life on Earth. It is a theory supported by a multitude of “facts” — evidence — that is no longer scientifically controversial.

Evolution, like women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, is part of our modern age. To a large extent, its validity is not open to debate. Accept it. We’re in the 21st century now. It’s time to move on.

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2 thoughts on “It’s like the song that never ends …

  1. Reply Dave Eaton Apr 6,2006 4:32 pm

    Well said.

    One particularly galling aspect of this is that the scientific explanation is subject to an ever-shifting goalpost (e.g. any transitional fossil will never suffice, since one can always imagine another in between), and impossible standards of proof and rigor (I’ve never actually seen a atomic nucleus, or a tectonic plate, but they still work quite well as explanations of observations), yet the fall back position that the religites advocate boils down to “What else could it be but God?”

    The inadequacy of this position is why they dress up the pig of creationism in the (ill-fitting) skirt of intelligent design. It sounds sufficiently complicated to lay ears to seem scientific. They admit by inventing this bullshit that their real answer (Goddidit) is not satisfying. They admit that they need a ‘scientific’ explanation. But they won’t do the hard work of understanding the science, or can’t bring themselves to shake off the dust of creeds outworn.

    There may also be stuff we cannot figure out, ultimately. It would be nice to understand what forces were instrumental in the evolution of consciousness, or what occured before the big bang. I’m not ruling out these as having solutions, just opining that they might not. Even this does not force one into deistic explanations. It just might be true that we won’t ever know. I suppose I have ‘faith’ that there is some explanation, without ever having one appear, but I’m not sure this falls to the level these guys contend.

  2. Reply wheatdogg Apr 10,2006 8:04 pm

    When I last checked, no one had taken Ritter’s bait. The Constitution Party website still lists the April 7 deadline for the $500 “finder’s fee,” so they haven’t bothered to update the page.

    I suppose the Party and Ritter will use the absence of a challenge as proof the “evolutionists” are scared and the Party’s position is therefore correct. I know such a showdown would be painful, given the oddly worded resolution and the judging panel of “impartial” high school students, but I would hope someone in the Keystone State would take Ritter up on his challenge. Annville’s not that far from Philly.

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