Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Inching toward science

For as long as there have been science classes, creationists have wanted to teach creationism as science. And in many countries, including this one, they have often done so. In some countries, much more so than the US, they still do. But in the US they have suffered a long series of court defeats on the basis that creationism is religion, and not science, and therefore does not belong in science classes. And it often seems like a battle that can't really be won, because as soon as they lose one court battle they repackage and try again. But considering that history as outlined in this NYTimes article gives me a sense that while we will never convince them to give up entirely, in the long run they are gradually being forced to adopt positions with more and more resemblance to science.

At first, of course, they simply outlawed the teaching of evolution where they could. These laws didn't stand up in the courts, so they decided that creationism and evolution would be taught side by side. That didn't stand up either, so they came up with the bright idea of wrapping creationism in a thin film of scientific lingo and calling it 'creation science.' That didn't stand up to examination for very long either. Next they decided that rather than creationism painted science-color, they would have the nugget of creationism with many layers of scientific sounding text, language, calculations and books wrapped around it, and call it Intelligent Design Theory. No explicit mention of any particular intelligent designer, just a very selective use of scientific knowledge and concepts with the goal of concluding that evolution can't explain the universe, and therefore there must be a creator. Some of them even went so far as to acknowledge microevolution (the modification of existing forms) while still rejecting macroevolution (the accumulation of those modifications to the point that it seems to us to be a really different form). That, as you know, didn't stand up in court either. Partly their arguments made no sense, and partly there was plenty of documentation of the fact that they had started with a conclusion and worked backwards, making up results to support that conclusion, making up methods that would lead to those results and then trying to figure out what question they should pretend to have been trying to answer. In other words, they were demonstrably engaged not in science, but in fraud. But for all its repugnance, ID had the desirable property of getting the creationists to agree that they needed to make evidence based arguments, even if they then failed to do so. ID, exposed as the cynical lie that it is, is now dying from too much light. Thus always to imposters.

But creationists have too much faith in their own infallibility to give up and go home. So the Discovery Institute and its usual corral of quacks are designing a new and improved 'science curriculum' intended to highlight the 'strengths and weaknesses' of Darwinian evolutionary theory. I have absolutely no doubt that this is just the same spoiled sausage in a shiny new casing, but at least they have finally been forced to adopt a truly scientific casing. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of theories is what science is about. Now there are unscientific ways of going about it, and I have no doubt they will employ almost all of these, but the details of the curriculum can be challenged in court.

There are of course downsides to them having finally found a really scientific name to call their beliefs. They are adapting to the fact that their ideas are demonstrably not science by gradually phrasing them in a more and more scientific way. That may make it a little bit harder each time to prove that religion is still not science, and harder for the average person to understand exactly why it is not science. This time, instead of getting 'strengths and weaknesses' thrown out of the classroom entirely, we may have to fight item by item about what can be presented as a strength or a weakness, and how they can be presented.

But as long as we can continue to find judges willing to judge on the evidence (which I know is in some doubt), we will continue to win those fights. Religion really isn't science, and no matter how cleverly disguised will continue to not be science. We can explain the data without invoking non-scientific concepts like a benevolent omnipotent and omniscient creator, and they can't. So once the argument is on our turf, once they are arguing with us about what evidence and logic show, they can only lose. Not to say that it will be a sea-change. What we have accomplished to date is extremely incremental, and that will continue. But we are pushing them back, inch by inch, foot by foot, concept by concept. They will argue that the human eye is irreducibly complex, we will use data and logic to show that that is ignorant nonsense. The courts will be forced to rule in our favor. They will argue that the laws of thermodynamics make it impossible for order to arise from disorder. We will explain to the judges that this is true only in a closed system, with no input of order, and there will be a court ruling that says that their argument is not science. And on. And on. But as long as our country holds it together enough to continue having a judiciary that has to listen to evidence most of the time, and as long as the data and logic are all on our side, all they can do is stall, limit the rate at which they lose ground. And as that happens, they will be forced to incorporate more and more actual science into their arguments. Who knows, maybe some day they will be forced to admit to both microevolution and macroevolution, but continue arguing that their had to be a creator to get it all started. At that point, they will be in agreement with Darwin himself, who wrote in The Origin of Species, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." This view is of course still not science, but if they can be driven back this far they will be rendered, in my view, mostly harmless.

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