Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Now this really makes me angry..

I had the (mis)fortune to be busy with papers around the time of the great November cataclysm, so I had no time to obsess over election results. In retrospect, I find though that there are some issues that rile me up a lot more than politics, and one of them is evolution.

It was disturbing enough to start seeing, a few years ago, that school districts were trying to teach (un)intelligent design along with evolution theory in classrooms. It has become even worse though, with districts in Georgia, Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio and now Pennsylvania all choosing to teach such nonsense in classrooms (see the National Center for Science Education for more details)

The usual argument that has come up in discussion when I start spouting off is: "Well, the students who are really interested in science will learn the truth about evolution, so this doesn't really matter". This is of course correct: I can't imagine someone getting into a graduate program in biology without having been able to verify for themselves the basic facts of (micro)evolution under the microscope or understanding the fossil record. But scientists don't make their own policy or control their own funding; politicians do, and politicians are by and large people who got their science education in school and maybe a little in college, their background tending to be more in law/economics/business. It is crucial that we get this right, and get it right early on. If students are taught all kinds of gobbledygook in school, it messes up their fundamentals later on: we need only look at math education to see how that works.

I actually don't think everyone should be indoctrinated into the cult of evolution. Personally, I have been very confused myself about what statements regarding evolution are facts, and what is theory, and what is falsifiable: after all, a statement that we are descended from the apes is not inherently falsifiable. For more discussion, and a point-by-point elucidation of falsifiable tests of evolution, check out the fascinating FAQ.

What upsets me more is the undermining of the basic scientific foundation of theory based on falsifiable premises[1]. (un)ID is a a big fat negation: humans did NOT develop via evolution, because evolution can't explain everything yet, and there are discrepancies. It is not a working theory of the world, and it can't even be falsified ! I mean, how do I prove that some intelligent being did NOT intervene with my development from Nim Chimpsky.

To place it on a par with evolution, as a 'competing theory of biological development', is to indulge in the kind of fake 'fairness' that science journalists have picked up as a bad habit from the political reporters, and wilfully ignores the volumes and volumes of evidence that support both the facts of evolution and many of the theoretical mechanisms.

There is a lot that is not understood about how evolution works, specifically exactly how genes traits get passed on, and how species evolve. And this is a genuine discussion worth having. But we don't teach children Newton's Laws with a big warning sticker, and we don't because we know that this provides a good first approximation to the laws of mechanics, and to understand the discrepancies predicted by relativity requires a lot more sophistication.

Should we point out that a lot of the "theory of evolution" is just a theory ? Absolutely. But we should separate out what is theory from what is not. Painting with such a broad brush is ludicrous, and cannot in good faith be interpreted as anything but a political power play to subvert the very basis of scientific enlightenment where it matters the most.

Science is not a political football. It is not a game. It is the foundation of the modern world. Deal with it.

[1] Before you start beating me over the head with Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend, let me at least argue that falsificationism is a more accurate description of the day-to-day process of doing science.

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