Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fairness, balance, and banana pudding

Last week, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 6-1 to approve an industry-standard high school biology textbook, despite a desperate end run by anti-evolutionists to try to have it voted down.  The book, the naysayers claimed, did not teach the "controversy about evolution" nor present a "balanced representation of the debate over the theory's merits."

Well, predictably, my response is:  y'all just did my home state proud.

Equally predictably, the hue and cry started immediately.

Casey Luskin, of the Discovery Institute and the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, wrote, in an op-ed piece published yesterday, "So much for critical thinking... the Darwin lobby is taking the separation of church and state... and abusing it to promote censorship."  He also complained that because "75% of Americans" have doubts about evolution, the decision by the state school board was irresponsible.  "The students are the real losers here," Luskin said.

Let's take these objections one at a time.

First, Mr. Luskin seems to have the misapprehension that science is somehow a political process -- that a "lobby" promotes its own interests and crushes any others who stand in the way.  He states that "one can be a critic of neo-Darwinism without advocating creationism," and that the media is "confusing (articles) asking for debate with those asking for the teaching of religion."  I find this a curious claim.  If it is true, isn't it odd that evolution (and other models which run contrary to young-earth creationism, such as the Big Bang) are the only ones ever targeted in these discussions?  If "debate," and evidence against a prevailing scientific "lobby," are what he advocates, why stop with evolution?  Why is it "balanced debate" to introduce intelligent design (for which there is not a shred of evidence) into biology classrooms, when no one is suggesting introducing alchemy (for which there is not a shred of evidence) into chemistry classrooms?  The answer, of course, is that he has an agenda, whatever his claims to the contrary. 

Mr. Luskin includes a snarky comment about a question from the biology textbook -- "Describe five pieces of evidence for evolution" -- and wonders why the question doesn't ask students to consider the evidence against evolution.  The reason, of course, is that there isn't any significant evidence against evolution.  There's no less evidence for evolution than there is for any other branch of biological science, but of course he doesn't mention that.  His "balanced" approach, carried to its logical conclusion, implies that students should spend their time describing evidence against cell theory, the model for how nerves carry signals, DNA as the carrier for genetic information, and so on, and that this would somehow promote "critical thinking."

He seems to consider it unfair that responsible textbook writers don't represent ID and creationism as on an equal footing with evolution, that this is somehow silencing debate.  The fact is, of course, this isn't the way science works.  Science is the least democratic of fields; no one is "owed equal time" just because (s)he has a theory.  You may have a theory that the earth is actually made of a crispy graham cracker crust on top of a layer of banana pudding, but giving your theory equal time in a geology class isn't "balanced," it's "moronic."  Your theory, like all theories, stands and falls on the even playing field of the available evidence.  If yours has no evidential support -- well, sorry.  It may sound harsh, but you're simply wrong.

Secondly, it is not relevant that "75% of Americans" have doubts about evolution.  The fact that 75% of Americans (if Mr. Luskin's estimate is correct) disagree is more an indication of the level of science education in American schools than it is an indication of any problems with the theory.  Given this fact, I was unsurprised at the other big education news story released this week -- that students in China were outstripping Americans in science and math education.  If religious indoctrination is really creating a 75% level of doubt amongst Americans about something which is the underpinning of all of the biological sciences, that the Chinese are winning the education race is hardly to be wondered at.

Lastly, his statement that "students are the real losers" implies that if kids aren't presented with an opportunity to see religious views (i.e. intelligent design) branded as science, that science education has failed.  Myself, I think the opposite is true.  We should call ID and young-earth creationism exactly what they are -- religious statements with no scientific credibility whatsoever -- and let the proponents of these theories present what they think the evidence for these statements is.  I find it interesting that in every so-called debate on this topic, the focus of the anti-evolutionists is just that -- anti-evolution -- finding the bits and pieces that the evolutionary model has yet to explain.  I have never once seen any of them present any positive evidence for their own ideas.  How about a dinosaur fossil and a human fossil with contemporaneous radioisotope dates, sedimentary strata showing a catastrophic, worldwide flood five thousand years ago, and so on?  No?  Hmmm.  I wonder why that is?

In any case, I find the recent decision in Louisiana to be a hopeful sign that the nation's educational system may finally be getting behind the idea of teaching science in a realistic, evidence-based fashion.  It's too much to hope for that the likes of Mr. Luskin have given up, but at least we're making progress.

1 comment:

  1. Good article. The anti-evolutionists don't need evidence, they have "faith".