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.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Leading the way into darkness

New from the "I Thought We Already Settled This" department, we have: the West Virginia State Legislature has passed a bill, and the Governor is expected to sign it, which would allow the teaching of Intelligent Design and other "alternative theories" to evolution in public school biology classes.

It doesn't state this in so many words, of course.  The Dover (PA) decision of 2005 ruled that ID is not a scientific theory, has no place in the classroom, and to teach it violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.  No, the anti-evolutionists have learned from their mistakes.  State Senator Amy Grady (R), who introduced the bill, deliberately eliminated any specific mention of ID in the wording of the bill.  It says, "no local school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist" -- but when questioned on the floor of the Senate, Grady reluctantly admitted that it would allow ID to be discussed.

And, in the hands of a teacher who was a creationist, to be presented as a viable alternative to evolution.

I think the thing that frosts me the most about all this is an exchange between Grady and Senator Mike Woelfel (D) about using the words "scientific theories" without defining them.  Woelfel asked Grady if there was such a definition in the bill, and she said there wasn't, but then said,  "The definition of a theory is that there is some data that proves something to be true.  But it doesn’t have to be proven entirely true."

*brief pause for me to scream obscenities*

No, Senator Grady, that is not the definition of a theory.  I know a lot of your colleagues in the Republican Party think we live in a "post-truth world" and agree with Kellyanne Conway that there are "alternative facts," but in science you can't just make shit up, or define terms whatever way you like and then base your argument on those skewed definitions.  Let me clarify for you what a scientific theory is, which I only have to do because apparently you can't even be bothered to read the first paragraph of a fucking Wikipedia article:

A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world and universe that can be (or a fortiori, that has been) repeatedly tested and corroborated in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results.  Where possible, some theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment... Established scientific theories have withstood rigorous scrutiny and embody scientific knowledge.

Intelligent Design is not a theory.  It does not come from the scientific method, it is not based on data and measurements, and it makes no predictions.  It hinges on the idea of irreducible complexity -- that there are structures or phenomena in biology that are too complex, or have too many interdependent pieces, to have arisen through evolution.  This sounds fancy, but it boils down to "we don't understand this, therefore God did it."  (If you want an absolutely brilliant takedown of Intelligent Design, read Richard Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker.  How, after reading that, anyone can buy ID is beyond me.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Hannes Grobe, Watch with no background, CC BY 3.0]

And don't even get me started on Young-Earth Creationism.

What gets me is how few people are willing to call out people like Amy Grady on their bullshit.  People seem to have become afraid to stand up and say, "You are wrong."  "Alternative facts" aren't facts; they are errors at best and outright lies at worst.

And if we live in a "post-truth world" it's because we're choosing to accept errors and lies rather than standing up to them.

As historian Timothy Snyder put it, in his 2021 essay "The American Abyss":

Post-truth is pre-fascism...  When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.  Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.  If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions...  Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

But Carl Sagan warned us of this almost thirty years ago, in his brilliant (if unsettling) book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking.  I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

People like Amy Grady are leading the way into that darkness, and it seems like hardly anyone notices.

We cannot afford to have a generation of children going through public school and coming out thinking that ignorant superstition is a theory, that sloppily-defined terms are truth, and that pandering to the demands of a few that their favorite myths be elevated to the status of fact is how science is done.  It's time to stand up to the people who are trying to co-opt education into religious indoctrination.

In the Dover Decision, we won a battle, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that we have not yet won the war.


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