Monday, February 25, 2008

Academic Integrity

I was published last week in our local paper for the first time. The following essay made it in the opinion page of Thursday's News Herald. If you've read my other blog on intelligent design, there's some definite overlap, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

The evolution debate would greatly benefit if people who put forth their opinions quit using bogus information to justify their position. Those against evolution should therefore:

1-quit using the evolution-is-just-a-theory argument. This has been successfully debunked in the News Herald many times. Evolution is considered a working theory, which, like gravity, has enjoyed widespread acceptance among scientists.
2-Quit using the second law of thermodynamics as an attack. It’s a law of thermodynamics, not a biological law. It may make logical sense as an argument, but it isn’t justification to debunk evolution.

The bulk of this piece will focus on the other side of the debate, however. I've read and heard many pleas for scientific rigor in the science classroom. Nonetheless, I think the other side is so focused on stamping out any vestige of faith from the I.D. or creation side, they have done little to correct misinformation on the evolution side that has found itsway into textbooks.

It is true that bringing God in to answer scientific mysteries is nothing short of metaphysics (or religion), but I feel that popular evolutionary theory has been doing this for over a century: by removing the word “God” and inserting “evolution” or “natural selection” or “punctuated equilibrium” in its place-i.e., replacing theist leaps in logic with materialist leaps in logic. And, yes, I do understand that there is evidence for natural selection and evolution on some level, but much of the accepted understanding of macroevolution and evolutionary theories of origins are so faith-based, I don’t understand how it constitutes science because it’s not testable, provable or falsifiable.

How can I say that evolution is not falsifiable? Because it still chugs along even though quite a number of its holy grail moments have been weighed by years of scientific scrutiny and found wanting. The Miller, Urey experiment is one of those cases. To this day, the experiment is still taught as a proof of evolution (see Glencoe's 2007 High School Biology Textbook at http://glencoe.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0078695104/student_view0/unit4/chapter14/concepts_in_motion.html), even though for over thirty years scientists have known that the substances used to perform this experiment may not have adequately recreated the earth's ancient atmosphere.

Bill Bryson, in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, has this to say about it: "Despite half a century of further study, we are no nearer to synthesizing life today than we were in 1953 and much further away from thinking we can. Scientists are now pretty certain that the early atmosphere was nothing like as primed for development as Miller and Urey’s gaseous stew” (287). If we were really concerned about the integrity of the scientific education, why is an experiment known to be inaccurate for over thirty years still taught?

Currently, no one is quite sure how life formed originally, because any experiments are at the very best semi-educated guesses due to the amount of time that has passed. This explains the occurrence of the following kinds of statements whenever origins are addressed in science textbooks:

"What modern cells do scientists believe to be close relatives of the Earth's first cells?" (from Glencoe Biology, Chapter 14 Test Practice, question #7 at http://glencoe.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0078695104/student_view0/unit4/chapter14/chapter_test_practice-english.html, emphasis mine).

I did a survey of another high school textbook when I was teaching at Arnold High School, and I made the discovery that suppositional words like "believe" and "speculate" appeared much more frequently in the chapters addressing origins and evolution than any other chapters I perused. Granted, my study was not exhaustive, but any time I found those words used in other chapters they were describing old ways of thinking that have since been proven wrong. So scientists believe certain things? That’s great! But according to the logic of those criticizing our School Board for their "bigoted" decision those beliefs should be relegated to religion class.

My point in all this is to ask the question, "Why are we teaching origins at all?" I'm not talking about testable and provable microevolution and adaptation, but macroevolution and the origins of life. Keep teaching the stuff that's verifiable, but if we're going to remove metaphysics from textbooks, can we at least be fair about it?

A good show of faith on the side of those who support the teaching of evolution would be to:

1-Remove those traces of mythology that have worked their way into popular evolutionary theory and have gone unchecked in the school system for over two decades.
2-Quit the lowbrow sucker-punch rhetoric of branding creationists or I. D. proponents as illiterate bigots, and start policing the religious extremism that is being displayed by the supposedly enlightened side.
3-Remove Haeckel's embryos, remove the bogus peppered moth data, and remove the notion that Miller and Urey proved that life did originate without intelligent help. In short, start teaching science again.

Sincerely,
Ford Seeuws

20 comments:

lauren (mf) shows said...

2-Quit the lowbrow sucker-punch rhetoric of branding creationists or I. D. proponents as illiterate bigots, and start policing the religious extremism that is being displayed by the supposedly enlightened side.

i think you've managed to succesfully brand yourself both a creationist and highly literate, and for this i say, "well done". thanks for saying, with a considerable amount of authority, what myself and many of my acquaintance would like to say, and for saying it in the public arena. it's stuff like this that begins to inform people that, in fact, christians are not all idiots.

Dustin said...

speak for yourself lauren. I am a Christian AND an idot!

Laura said...

I agree with Lauren. You just very literately put things into words that some of us don't know how to. Awesome! Thank you.

Bradley said...

Well said, Ford (though the contractions make this writing tutor cringe). I agree with much of what you have written there and am pleased to see the News Herald had the wisdom to publish it.

However: I am still inclined to look at the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as a sufficient standard to compare to the general nature of depreciation in our world. Consider that not only does our world cause depreciation through aerodynamics, but also depreciation is proven to be prevalent in many other facets of our world - the steady and sobering depreciation of our languages, for instance (comparing ancient Sanskrit to modern English and it is as though comparing gold to concrete). Also, I have little evidence to incline me to believ that Cro-Magnon man, with his significantly more brutish physic and notably larger brain capacity, was anything less than a more efficient and effective model of human.

Personally, I believe there is range enough within the Bible to believe that both evolution and the story of creation can coexist, but I am thoroughly disinclined to acquiesce to such a perspective on almost purely a scientific level.

Anyway, keep up the good thoughts!

Note: you have written "please" when I believe that "pleas" was intended.

Ford said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Thanks Bradley for the correction. I must have read over the thing twenty times and never noticed that error.

I was really hoping to get into a debate on this with someone. I wish now I had added my email address to the piece in the paper, but I was not sure if they were going to publish it.

As for the Second Law of Thermodynamics issue, every time it is mentioned as a rebuttle to evolution, it is rebuffed with sarcasm and disdain by the credible PHD's in Biology or the Life sciences out there. So, while it makes a good logical argument, I don't think it necessarily makes a good scietific argument. Your comparison of languages, for instance, is a philosphical argument not a scientific argument. And if you are to use that as an example of entropy, then I could use the computers vs. abacus as an example of progress.

My intention was to level a criticism at the lack of science being employed in all the rhetoric, not to posit logical or philosophical arguments. This debate has spiraled out of control because both sides have been employing folk-tales to advance their beliefs: from pre-Darwin with Paley on the one hand (with his watchmaker allegory) to the current generation with Dawkins on the other (with his fable that if we assembled a bunch of monkeys in front of computers and had them type for a long period of time, after a while, one of them would tap out a line of Shakespeare).

It is time for BOTH SIDES to stop pumping out baseless conjecture, silly anecdotal and circumstantial evidence and start putting for the science of it.

rob said...

"This debate has spiraled out of control because both sides have been employing folk-tales to advance their beliefs"

What we don't know so incalculably outweighs what we do know about almost anything.
As humans, I don't believe we are capable of employing pure science.
We are children, wildly waving our arms and legs after jumping off the high dive, scrabbling for a point of reference in the free fall.

Your argument is, as I understand it, that faith is employed by both sides of the issue, so those who openly embrace the faith of their position shouldn't be unfairly criticized or ostracized because of it. Doesn't a call for a purer science almost undermine that position? Wouldn't the argument seem more "winable" if we called for a leniency for faith? I don't know...I'm just asking.

Brilliant article Ford. I'm proud to say I'm friends with someone with a mind like yours.

Mike said...

We have varying degrees of confidence about all fields of science. Everything we know is "belief", and some of what we believe is certainly speculation. That doesn't diminish its value. In order to summon more than a passing glance, such an idea must first conform to everything we already know -- no small challenge. And in order to survive, it must withstand the scientific process.

What differentiates scientific belief from religious belief is falsifiability. As Einstein said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." We don't test an idea by verifying it. (That's called affirming the consequent.) We do so by seeking to disprove it. Intelligent Design is unfalsifiable. For this reason among many others, evolution and intelligent design should not be weighed against one another. They are apples and oranges.

I would agree that science education in this country is severely lacking. That's more than tragic. It is a serious threat to our future. No student should complete his education without a thorough understanding of the scientific endeavor and the fundamentals of the current state of our knowledge. Science education should be complete, accurate and up-to-date.

Now, if I understand you correctly, you believe we should not be teaching at the frontiers of science. Students should not be exposed to the questions we are just beginning to ask ourselves, or the answers we are just starting to formulate. Erase the fringes, and replace them with question marks. I disagree. Exploration is essential to science. It's how we awaken young minds. It's how we advance the human species.

We might never know how life arrived on earth. The conditions required for the emergence of the first simple organisms may have never existed here. Perhaps life originated elsewhere, and was deposited here by one of the many comets that impacted our young planet. Yes, pure speculation, but it's consistent with the current state of our knowledge. And now we have two fascinating ideas to ponder and explore.

I'll close by referring you to an essay you might find interesting: "Evolution and Philosophy: Is evolution just another religion?", posted on the TalkOrigins Archive here:
http://talkorigins.org/faqs/evolphil/metaphysics.html

Ford said...

Rob-
I'm going to have to think for a while before I respond to your question. Thanks for the comment and the interest.

Mike-
Thanks for stopping by. I'm currently reading:
Theobald's "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent" at The Talk.Origins Archive, and I must admit I am quite underqualified. I think I've already come to a better understanding of the whole idea of common descent.

So before I launch any more essays, I'll finish that out. That being said, i still think the point of my letter remains true.
If science is supposed to be objective and falsifiable, then these evidences like the peppered moth hoax (because that's what it is), and the Miller Urey experiment either need to be removed or taught with a BIG caveat.
I actually disagree with your anaysis of ID. Certain aspects, granted, are dead ends for science: the whole God-in-the-gaps fallacy. But Behe has laid out a gauntlet: if scientists can show that an irreducibly complex system can be observed evolving without intelligent help, then it's falsifiable. Isn't observation necessary to good science? I'm not a scientist, so I don't know fully, but I thought that was pretty integral. So, I could be wrong on the ID thing. I have read that Behe's notions of irreducible complexity are arbitrary, so perhaps the fault lies there.

I don't care to see ID or Creationism taught in schools, but I do wonder why experiments used to bolster evolution and have been falsified are still being taught. Do you concede that this is a problem?

Ford said...

Okay-the peppered moth issue may not be as locked as I thought. I should have checked more closely before publishing-I'll give a deeper look into that when I get some more time.
ford

Mike said...

Of course! No one wants to propagate bad information. Hoaxes and fakes should be deleted from the curriculum. Flawed experiments should be revisited. Our teachers need continuing education, and our students need updated textbooks. Absolutely.

(Zealots will undoubtedly point to such corrections and insist that the entire theory is therefore flawed. Some will say that all evidence in favor of evolution is faked. These people are under-medicated, under-educated or both.)

Michael Behe is the anointed standard bearer for the Intelligent Design movement, but he's not a particularly compelling figure. He's been disowned by his colleagues at Lehigh University. He withered under cross-examination in his Kitzmiller v. Dover testimony. He sells a lot of books, but his ideas are questionable to say the least.

Mud Puppy said...

Ford - A well written piece. Congrats on getting it published. And thanks for stopping by the blog!

Ford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ford said...

Let me try this again:

Thanks Mudpuppy for visiting. I had fun reading your very extended blog as well. I think I'll run back over there in a minute as a matter of fact...

Mike:
Zealots will undoubtedly point to such corrections and insist that the entire theory is therefore flawed. Some will say that all evidence in favor of evolution is faked. These people are under-medicated, under-educated or both.

Unfortunately it happens far too often. The peppered moth thing for instance-I've heard about it being a hoax for years, and while I've disowned most of the conspiracy theories I heard or read as a student in a Christian school, this one stuck when a well-respected friend (who has a much better scientific background than I) wrote a paper extolling "Of Moths and Men," Judith Hooper's book about Bernard Kettlewell's faked evidences. It seems that from a cursory bit of googling,that the book may have been unfair. It still seems to me that if there are 29+ overarching reasons to much evolution compelling, those should be taught in schools rather than questionable results like Bernard Kettlewell's. Nonetheless, I now realize how easily I was swayed into buying the debunking of peppered moths selection without actually having read any firsthand accounts myself. So "hoax" may be too strong a word for the moth situation-apologies.

Mike said...

Haeckel's embryos is a better example: an influential scientist propped up a flawed theory with faked evidence. That's scandalous to say the least. Of course, his work was discredited more than 100 years ago. No one should be teaching it as anything other than an example of how not to be a scientist. There are plenty of valid observations and explanations to work with.

As I said over on mudpuppy's blog, evolution is one of the four unifying principles of modern biology. Understanding living things is important. Our knowledge in this area has helped us confront some of our most serious problems, and it may one day be crucial to the survival of our species. Our society's conflict over science education is not just shameful. It is suicidal.

Ford, I really admire the way you approach this subject. It's hard to overturn some ideas (especially the ones that "resonate"). Thank you for hearing me out, and looking into this stuff a bit further before staking out a final position.

Ford said...

Rob, I've been thinking about your comment. Here's what I got:

What we don't know so incalculably outweighs what we do know about almost anything.
As humans, I don't believe we are capable of employing pure science.
We are children, wildly waving our arms and legs after jumping off the high dive, scrabbling for a point of reference in the free fall.


I agree with you that this is an accurate description of our spiritual state, but science is about trying to peel away layers of misunderstanding or mysteries of the natural world. Without science, the computers that make this debate possible would not exist. If we all had a laissez faire attitude towards science (as I feel you and I probably share) these advancements could not happen. And while I don't think these advancements will save the world or give us access to God's mind, we all enjoy the benefits of science every day. It seems like turning a blind eye to the scientific method in a science class could in fact be destructive to science. So I sympathize with the scientists' arguments here. We're not looking for a unified approach to life in science class. It's about the facts of the natural world, not about art or the spirit world, and it's not furthered by employing unsubstantiated beliefs or unempirically verifiable conjecture. It's supposed to be about coming as close to accuracy in the factual realm as possible, and the higher maths and sciences come pretty close. Take the atomic clock, which is now accurate to one second to over a million years (see: http://tycho.usno.navy.mil/cesium.html).
So, while I agree with you that we shouldn't be proud because of science, I don't think we should denigrate it.

Your argument is, as I understand it, that faith is employed by both sides of the issue, so those who openly embrace the faith of their position shouldn't be unfairly criticized or ostracized because of it.Doesn't a call for a purer science almost undermine that position? Wouldn't the argument seem more "winable" if we called for a leniency for faith? I don't know...I'm just asking.

I have to admit that in the course of writing this essay and in researching since then my opinions have been doing some evolving of their own. I did start this piece with the intent of jabbing the scientists' side with the irony of their position, and your description of my argument would have charactized my intent well. But now I better sympathize with the scientists' plea to teach science as accurately as is possible.

Let's imagine for a minute that someone comes along saying that Rutherford's model of the atom was correct, and all these new guys have it wrong. Rutherford is the guy that posited that the atom looks like a solar system with a mass of neutrons and protons in the middle, which are orbited by planet-like electrons. Today, scientists know that atoms don't look like this-that electrons behave very differently from planets.

Now no one can see an atom, so the argument could be used by people outside of the science field that all these scientists are just employing faith, and that the fan of Rutherford's model should get just as much time in the science class as those teaching the current model. If we slackened scientific rigor, then Rutherford's model could be taught, and while that doesn't amount to a hill of beans for you and me personally, it really is pretty ignorant, and shouldn't qualify as good science teaching. It certainly doesn't qualify as academic integrity.

It has always bothered me when Christians settle for lies or misinformation to substantiate belief, and in these past weeks I've realized that I've done the same in the evolution debate. God desires truth in the innermost parts, and if we are going to venture into certain raging arguments and debates, we need to be sure that we are getting it right. If we don't care enough to probe for the truth, then we should just stay out of the argument. As the old saying goes: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

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onein6billion said...

"if scientists can show that an irreducibly complex system can be observed evolving without intelligent help"

Ah. Require the scientists to make an observation that might happen after 1000 lifetimes. Given what "starting point"? No wait - you should not have used that starting point - please start over again. Wise strategy. But...

Perhaps a scientist merely has to come up with a quite plausible explanation of how an "irreducibly complex" structure could have evolved. Or perhaps 3 or 4 plausible explanations. Can you prove that none of them could be correct? After all, there are lots of structures that are similar to a flagellum in genes and structure and there are different flagella that are slightly different. And there's obviously a lot of competitive advantage to an organism that evolves something close to this and then gradually makes it better through evolution. Do you wish to try to prove that evolution cannot under any circumstances evolve a flagellum over a period of a few hundred million years? (many quadrillions of bacteria evolving over a few billion bacteria lifetimes) It's really hard to prove a negative.

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