Sunday, September 10, 2006

Getting it Right the First Time

I generally consider it a waste of time and effort to engage the "Teach the Controversy" crowd - for various reasons.

First, they are unlikely to ever have a real impact. While it's true that they've managed to convince a school district or two here and there to include Intelligent Design as an "alternative to Darwinism" in their curricula, it doesn't seem likely to happen in any major cities anytime soon. Further, even assuming it did become the norm to teach Intelligent Design, it would still be taught alongside Darwinism. Students going into science-related fields would enter university and be told that there are actually virtually no biologists who subscribe to Intelligent Design - i.e. there would be no damage done to the future generation of scientists. As for the rest of the students, most of them go on to believe what they want regardless of what they were taught in high school. Adding Intelligent Design to the textbooks doesn't seem likely to actually influence anyone.

Second, bothering to argue with people like the Discovery Institute in public lends them a legitimacy they probably don't deserve. This is especially true when the tone of the pro-Evolution crowd gets unduly hostile. I realize that Intelligent Design proponents are annoying, but if we get annoyed back, the public gets the impression that we perceive ID and its proponents as a real threat, which is, of course, nonsense from a scientific point of view.

Third, debate is unlikely to convince ID proponents anyway. While there may be one or two real scientists in the mix who honestly come to their support from a rational look at the evidence, I have the impression that the overwhelming majority of ID proponents are on the bandwagon for religious reasons. In other words, they are hypocrites. They advance their cause as though it were an obvious scientific case, and yet none (or very few) of them arrived at it through scientific means. Such people are engaging in duplicity, plain and simple, and they know it, and your rational arguments simply won't get through to them. It's rather like trying to convince a mugger to give your wallet back by reminding him it's your property.

Fourth, ID is based on a flawed view of what Evolution teaches anyway, and taking up the debate is, in some degree, to accept their interpretation. Evolution is not meant to account for the origin of life but rather for biodiversity. Accepting a debate on their terms allows the mischaracterization to continue.

Fifth, and most importantly, ID is hardly the biggest threat to education at work in America today. There are all kinds of revisionist movements that have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the ID crowd. I'm talking here, of course, of the general "diversity" movement - which succeeds in teaching, contrary to all historical fact, that white people are inherently evil, that America is uniquely racist, that race is a valid basis for employment, etc. This crap is currently doing actual damage to our society, despite the clear case against it. I think it merits more urgent attention from rational people than the ID nonsense.

Sixth, it is simply a waste of time. They present no real intellectual challenge to the scientific community. Scientists and policy makers who spend their time wisely will move on to greener fields.

As a good look at the level of intellectual competence that characterizes the pro-ID crowd, I recommend this blog entry.

Here are some gems:

Consider this: Imagine that I took 100 people and put them in a room with a BMW. Then over a period of months, they were told over and over in various ways, by various authorities, that this BMW was NOT designed and NOT manufactured by a group of engineers, but instead it simply came into existence by random chance exactly as they see it before them. These people would understand what they were being told was ludicrous. Every person with a working brain would continue to see that it was OBVIOUS that something complex like this BMW was clearly designed by intelligent beings!

That's right - even after a period of months I would refuse to believe that the BMW was not manufactured. This stands in clear contrast to things like, oh, say, human beings, which I can easily be convinced are not manufactured. Now what does THAT tell ya?

A thinking person finds it very difficult to come to the conclusion that our complex, intricately designed world simply HAPPENED BY RANDOM CHANCE! Their brains reject the thought and say, "no way!"

This is my favorite pro-ID "argument." Somehow, we're expected to believe that "random chance" is any less plausible an explanation for how humans are here than "oh, yeah, there's this great magician in the sky whom you've never seen and never experienced, but trust me, he's there, and he's like, super-fantastico intelligent to the point where he can see and control and design every single little tiny cell in your body. Oh, and he's magic too. He made all this stuff around you from nothing, man, from NOTHING!" Next to that, "random chance" really isn't that hard to swallow, I don't think.

THIS is the calibre of opponent we face. Really, honestly, it's nothing to worry about.

As for ID as "science," I think it can be rejected on merely procedural grounds. Whether or not ID is true (and in a strictly philosophical sense, we don't know for sure that it's not), it has no place in science. Quoting again from the column above:

Darwinists start with a naturalist view that something can ONLY be labeled as "science" if it has a natural explanation. Since a super-natural explanation violates this presupposition it MUST be rejected, even if it is likely TRUE!

Dead right, ironically. We are often told that the purpose of science is to discover "the Truth," but that is only so up to a point. Science is actually only committed to uncovering a particular kind of truth through one highly specific method. It collects facts which can be used to make predictions. That is all, really. There is nothing in a commitment to science that forces one to reject the possibility that there are supernatural phenomena in the world. All that a commitment to science means is a commitment to attempting to explain everything without reference to such phenomena. Certain explanations are off limits by definition. It doesn't mean those explanations are not "true," it just means that they are not scientific. Science as such never claimed to know anything about God.

Which brings me to my real point in writing this: I think that this whole debate doesn't hafta be. It isn't the religionists' fault, strange as that may sound. They saw a rival faith and felt challenged. And given the way science is explained in school, it's not hard to see how they could make that mistake.

Schools haven't been doing a good job teaching what science means. And that is because (public) schools never teach Philosophy. Which is a shame, because Philosophy is critically important - and not just for getting the ID/Evolution monkey off our backs. It is the subject without which it is impossible to really understand other subjects.

In the case of science, Philosophy tells us that all scientific conclusions are "contingent." They are none of them known with absolute certainty. Science collects facts and makes inferences from those facts about the nature of reality. It tests its conclusions based on their predictive power. This necessarily commits it to a mechanistic view of the universe. Magical things may or may not exist, but if they do exist, they are the sorts of things that science cannot deal with - by definition. In other words, religious people are free to believe in a spiritual dimension over and above scientific reality if they like - science will have nothing to say about it, just as science, ultimately, has nothing a priori certain to say about the nature of reality.

But no one ever explained that to the religious crowd. And that's partly the fault of our crappy school system. It's also, I guess, partly the fault of a not-insignificant number of scientsts who do indeed take science to be a complete worldview.

Maybe I'm being optimistic by chalking all this up to philosophical ignorance. We are, after all, talking about people who can blithely ignore all of Physics when discussing the origin of the universe ("God spoke, and BANG! it happened..."), and yet fall into a crisis of belief when confronted with the suggestion that they are genetically related to apes. There's no piecing it apart, not really. But a little Philosophy never hurt anyone. Making the foundations of a subject clear is a sine qua non of any real education and is therefore something schools should make more of a point to do. And hey, if it saves us the trouble of having to have meaningless debates like the one over ID? Count me a fan.


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