Friday, March 28, 2008

Science Expelled

In April, a new film called Expelled will attempt to poison the well of public opinion about science education. It is a propaganda piece for Intelligent Design. Even astronomy teachers should be aware of its message. Here's why.

Science is not a dogma. It is a process.

A major responsibility we have in teaching any introductory science course, including astronomy, is to discuss how the scientific process works and the differences between science and pseudoscience. In the curriculum I have put together for my Astro 101 course, I include a few days on these topics (I should really have more!). In class, we discuss Occam’s Razor, falsification, peer review, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies, just to name a few topics. A major issue that I feel is important to bring up is that science has built in agnosticism. The idea that there is an invisible, omnipresent and omniscient God (or gods) that created the Universe and the life within it is an un-falsifiable hypothesis. There are no observations that we can make of the Universe before time zero. If anything was happening before the Universe started, we will probably never know about it. Any predictions made about what was happening before the Universe, whether they are the colliding branes of string theory, or the machinations of deities, are un-testable and so cannot be verified by science. Science must be agnostic when it comes to the origins of the Universe.

Science is also apolitical. It is merely a process by which we can discover ever more useful models that explain the workings of nature. The results of these models do not tell us whether we should join a Kyoto Protocol, they only give a range of possible outcomes. The results of scientific models have never said outright that the manufacturing industry should be regulated. The results only give detected levels of heavy metals in soils and water sources. Science has nothing to say about what people and politicians should do. It only provides data and models that can possibly be used in making pragmatic decisions.

Teaching science in the science classroom

An introductory science classroom should be about learning the results and processes of modern mainstream science. If I went to my curriculum committee and said that my school should teach Newton’s Laws in the World Religions course, I would be laughed at. But this is the kind of scenario we are witnessing across the country. Politically and religiously motivated people have decided that the results and processes of modern science are incongruous with their deeply held beliefs. They petition local school boards to adopt new definitions of science that inject supernatural causes into models of nature. They ask that equal time be given to other explanations (well, just one actually) of the Universes origins. They ask that if evolution is taught, then students should be subjected to a laundry list of (logically and scientifically unsound) “problems” with evolution.

The people who oppose the results and processes of modern science know that creationism and Intelligent Design will not gain a foothold within the scientific community. The reason is simple: these explanations make ZERO useful predictions that can be verified through observation and experiment. I have been careful to place the word “useful” in the last sentence. Certainly predictions can be made from following the reasoning of creationism. If the Biblical story of creation is to be taken literally, then we should occasionally find human fossils (or even horses, etc) among the ancient strata that actually do contain fossils of less developed organisms. In all of paleontology, no such observation has been made. Does this mean that it will not be made? No, but the likelihood is so small as to make the search for a human fossil there a waste of time. The best creationism and Intelligent Design can do is to generate philosophical and scientifically illiterate objections to evolution. Merely making objections does not qualify a set of ideas as a modern science.

Because of the failure of creationism and Intelligent Design to make any useful predictions about nature, there are very few peer-reviewed journal articles published that promote these ideas. Creationism and Intelligent Design are not likely to contribute any new and exciting ideas to modern science. Any scientific model of nature that wishes to become the dominant explanation of biology needs to be at least as useful as the current model. The current model is evolution. Modern biological evolution is useful and makes many novel predictions and retrodictions. However, contrary to what the anti-evolutionists say, biological evolution has nothing to say about what caused life to appear on the Earth in the first place.

Creationism and Intelligent Design have failed to gain traction within the scientific community because they are useless ideas. So, proponents of these ideas go to the courts and the school boards. It does not appear difficult to convince a school board to adopt educational standards that include the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science classrooms. It does, however, appear difficult to get a court to agree on that point (just look at the Dover, PA court case on Intelligent Design).

ID proponents claim that scientists are part of a conspiracy

A new tactic has become the norm within the creationist and Intelligent Design community. It is a psychological tactic, meant to prey on the sense of fairness that Americans largely have. ID proponents now claim that mainstream science is suppressing their research and actively engaged in keeping ID out of the classroom. If ID is being kept out of the science classroom, it is because of the reasons I outlined above. It is not a useful model of nature and has no foreseeable promise as a part of modern science. But that is not what ID proponents are giving as the reason their ideas are rejected. They say that mainstream science is filled with “materialism”, a emotionally-loaded and nebulous term which asserts that scientists deny God and any sort of spirituality.

It is true that an individual scientist may be an atheist. But if they have that position, it is not because the process of science dictates it. Remember, science is agnostic. When ID proponents call mainstream scientists “materialists”, they are poisoning the well of public opinion. A scientist may just as well be a Christian or a Buddhist or an atheist. Such a position does not matter in the overall scope of the scientific process. But, of course, this is not the message ID proponents want people to know about.

To disseminate the message that scientists are close-minded “materialists”, ID proponents, mainly funded by the Discovery Institute (the major pro-ID organization), have produced a film called Expelled (subtitle: “No Intelligence Allowed”). It appears to be a documentary containing interviews by the mildly-recognizable Ben Stein. The ads for the film have taglines that say “Big Science has expelled smart new ideas from the classroom”. Did you see what they did? “Big Science”. It sounds like “Big Tobacco” or “Big Oil”.

Reports are in from those who have seen the advance prints of the film. Expelled tries to equate evolution with eugenics, implying that evolution was the cause of the Holocaust. The producers filmed interviews with prominent evolutionary scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers. The interviews were under false pretenses. Dawkins and Meyers were told that the film was called “Crossroads” and that it was about science and religion. They were not told it was an Intelligent Design propaganda piece.

To Ben Stein, and creationism and ID proponents, I say this: “If you want to teach ID in the classroom, that is fine with me. Now, what is the specific, useful, and testable model that you will you teach?” This simple question should be enough to give pause to anybody who thinks scientists are trying to “expel” ID from the classroom.

This issue matters to all science teachers

So why am I writing about this in the Teaching Astronomy blog? Inevitably, when teaching about the nature of science and the difference between science and pseudoscience, you will have students ask you about this film (either in class or after class). It is best to know about these major salvos before you are told about them by students. You do not need to engage in a debate with students over religion, but you should have a stock of responses to the main points that the ID proponents are making today. You do not need to know how to respond to every claim that creationists make, but you should know where to direct students to find reliable information, such as the Index to Creationist Claims.

Introductory astronomy, earth science, astrobiology teachers must all discuss ideas that are controversial to the creationist set: the age of the Earth, age of the Universe, formation of stars and the creation of heavy elements, to name a few. I'm sure that we all understand the dangers of allowing creationism to enter the class through school boards and the courts. But now we must be aware of this new campaign based on emotional nudging. If a students says that science is "materialistic", remind your class about the agnostic nature of science. Science is not a dogma, it is merely a process.

~Paul Robinson

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