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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

21 September 2010

We call them IDiots for a reason

Satirists used to be clever, but this one seems not to have the knack. It might be fun to respond to his canards, however.

 The troublesome issue of intelligent design (known simply as ID) is one that every science educator needs to be prepared to deal with. The issue threatens our society on several levels. For example, how can our nation hope to compete in an increasingly technological world unless our budding new scientists believe life is a purposeless cosmic accident? The very integrity of science is in danger. In fact, the continued existence of civilization might be at stake.

True science must always provide purely naturalistic answers, not simply follow the evidence where it leads. Unless we restrain the range of acceptable answers to scientific problems, we cannot guarantee appropriate, scientific conclusions. Such is our duty as educators. The following suggestions should make your job of shaping young minds somewhat easier.

   We aren't troubled by you at all, at least not any more than we might be troubled by bedbugs or mosquitoes. Your existence is unfortunate, sometimes we feel the need to swat you when you're being particularly irritating, but you haven't a leg to stand on. Funnily enough, we do follow the evidence where it leads, and that isn't to your deity.

1. Be vague about what exactly is meant by the word "evolution".Use the term in the most expansive way when referring to support for or the importance of the theory ("evolution is supported by a vast amount of evidence" or “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” ). You can imply that any kind of evolution (cosmological, chemical, biological) is strongly supported by the evidence, but when pressed to defend this, drop back to the less significant but well-proven things like antibiotic resistance.

Under no circumstances should you allow any distinction between what your opponents will call microevolution (small, observable changes like antibiotic resistance) and macroevolution (major changes whose causes and even existence can only be inferred); that way you can imply that the strong support for the former is really support for the latter as well. You should implicitly assume (as you were taught) that many small changes can (and did) lead to new highly complex systems, and allow no questioning of this assertion.
  Ah ,yes, screaming for evidence that is sitting right in front of you. Might I suggest actually reading the literature on the topic, since you claim to be scientists? Knowing full well you won't, have a look at articles on biogeographyDNA and molecular biology, and fossil evidence. I've kept the references simple, although they may be above the reading level of the average fundie. As for not being clear what is meant by evolution, I'll happily retreat to biological evolution by natural selection as understood by the modern synthesis. We don't allow distinction between micro and macroevolution because it happens to be a false distinction. If you'd like better evidence of that, there're always the Lenski experiments and Endler experiments, both of which deal with organisms with a more rapid generational turnover than humans. If you're trotting out the Humean problem of induction here (last sentence of the quote), you're going to tar yourself with your own brush.

2. Be prepared to reframe the argument. If you should encounter any doubt or criticism of "evolution", immediately reframe the criticism as being a promotion of intelligent design. Then stress that "intelligent design is not science", which was, of course, scientifically proven by Judge Jones in the Dover case. This has the important effect of rendering as non-science all possible criticism of our side! Logically, it works like this:

any criticism of "evolution" = promotion of ID
but ID = religion
therefore any criticism = religion!

Try to find occasions to repeat "ID is not science" in class as often as possible; if necessary, practice this several times each day in front of a mirror until you can say it convincingly. Because science has come to mean absolute truth, everything else is at best mere opinion, so it is critical that you keep ID out of the science category.

But when establishing that ID is not science, try not to use actual science to make your point. The more that facts are discussed, the more obvious it will become that both sides use the same facts, and that the different viewpoints result from philosophical biases rather than good or bad science. If your students at any point realize that ID is based on science as much as "evolution" is, you may have made converts of the most dedicated kind for the other side. The best approach is to immediately relegate ID to the category of religion or philosophy, and never let the issues be discussed.
 Demarcation can present its own issues, yes. I'm perfectly happy to let ID be science. Feel free to run properly controlled experiments. test your hypotheses, and publish in the peer-reviewed journals that the rest of us use. Of course, that would mean subjecting your complete lack of evidence to criticism, or more likely getting completely flamed in the review process for not bothering to examine the body of work on whatever you're attacking (see Behe at Dover on irreducible complexity of the human immune system for an example). If we're deciding what is and isn't science, we can't use actual science to make our point, because that's called circular reasoning, rather we have to resort to philosophy of science and epistemology. ID could be considered science of the poorest form: working from an a priori supposition and then using the evidence that stems from it to support that supposition. This is what we call circular reasoning, kids.

3. Avoid the tough issues. If despite your best efforts the issues begin to be discussed, do your best to keep the conversation away from dangerous topics like "how did life get started?" and "how did complex features like cellular machinery come about?". Again, it helps to be rather vague about what you mean by "evolution"; when you point out that evolution is well-supported by the evidence, use examples of minor observable changes (bird beaks, etc.) while implying that the major, unobserved changes are also well-supported. In general, try to subtly downplay the complexity of living things.

For example, you can imply that the abundance of life on Earth means that the complexity must not be such a big deal. The popular notion that there has to be life on other planets will work in your favor, as will the abundant science fiction your students are no doubt familiar with. For example, the recent discussions of the possibility of life on Mars can easily be presented as the likelihood of life there, especially if you stick to the headlines rather than the articles themselves.

Your students' inexperience with the facts will help. If by chance there should be a more knowledgeable student in your class with the nerve to speak up, imply somehow that the student is either ignorant or superstitious. For example, you might say something like "religious fundamentalism has a place, but not in science class."
 Your first "tough issue" isn't in fact within the realm of biological evolution, so that's a fun aside. Nevertheless, if we wish to address that, you might consider that a) the problem is being addressed, albeit slowly, and b) a gap in knowledge does not automatically validate your claims, it simply means we don't have an answer to that. The notion of complexity being too much to evolve amounts to an argument from ignorance (look up logical fallacies, please), despite the fact that we have clear examples of such evolution. Since you're repeating yourself, I'll refer you again to the Lenski experiments, wherein a new metabolic pathway arose in the cultured bacteria. That's pretty complex, it didn't work in each and every sample, and it blows a gaping hole in your non-argument. I suppose you'll dismiss that by calling it microevolution, despite no naturally occuring E. coli possessing that pathway. And no, I don't think religious fundamentalism has its place anywhere, including a science classroom. Espousing the viewpoint that your invisible friend created all life on earth because you can't imagine it happening another way is ignorant and superstitious.

4. Be prepared to misdirect the conversation. If things get bad and your class begins to question how random events could ever result in really complicated living things, there are at least a couple of effective strategies. One is to mention how all scientists accept evolution. If one of your students should happen to know that 700+ PhD scientists have signed a "dissent from Darwinism" statement, respond that these are only a tiny minority and imply that they are probably religiously motivated.

(As an aside, our universities simply must begin doing a better job of screening these people out, and look into revoking the degrees of trouble-makers.) Another effective ploy if ID begins to be discussed is to divert the conversation with the trustworthy "Who designed the designer?". You can easily use up half a class period that way, and be prepared next class to direct the conversation more appropriately.
  Your 700+ "scientists" include a large number of people who have PhD's in something that isn't in fact science, or were awarded by places like Patriot Bible University. Have a real read of Kent Hovind's doctoral dissertation for an example of their scholarly work, just don't do so with a mouth full of liquid.
 Hello, my name is Kent Hovind. I am a creation/science evangelist. I live in Pensacola, Florida. I have been a high school science teacher since 1976. I've been very active in the creation/evolution controversy for quite some time.
That, and you're making an argument from popularity. Why not just point out that more than half of U.S. citizens believe in a creator? It would be equally unimportant, but lack the assumed authority of people claiming to be scientists, that's why.
 Asking who designed the designer is a reasonable question for anyone who wants to halt the explanatory regress created by positing one in the first place. For that matter, positing a designer is less parsimonious than posting an undesigned universe, and therefore a hypothesis to be rejected even if it managed to explain all the facts as well as not positing one. 

5. Do not hesitate to mischaracterize ID's motives. Although ID proponents, unlike creationists, are really quite good about sticking to scientific arguments, it is to your advantage to not distinguish between the two. In fact, we recommend that you always append the term "creationism" to ID so that it reads intelligent design creationism.
 I would happily do so, if you hadn't done so already. You aren't sticking to science because you haven't bothered to find anything out or publish results of the research you haven't done. That, and stating that life was created is, well, creationism. Putting make-up and a dress on a pig doesn't make it a beauty pageant contestant.

6. Remember who is on your side; rely on your allies.
  I'm not going to quote this entire section because it's absolutely fucking ridiculous. If this is intended as a faux communication to actual K-12 science teachers, then preparing them for each and every one of the absurd canards you and yours are likely to trot out is a great idea. We don't ask science teachers to be scientists, whether or not we actually should, and the topics involved are broad enough to escape anyone's discipline unless  they make a point of knowing what you might want to ask. Is it better that our teachers remain ignorant of the scientific consensus on (fill in topic here)? Yes, you probably think so.


  1. I looked over the Hovind dissertation and to say that it represents a flawed and poorly written grade school report would be an understatement. The accrediting body or lack there off should be embarrassed by his work.

  2. Yeah, I don't know if you're familiar with the self-titled "Dr. Dino," but he is currently in jail for tax fraud and formerly ran theme park along those lines (think 'Flintstones' as documentary and you have his gist). I invite you to examine the tolerance and loveliness put for on his website (http://www.drdino.com/) complete with bullshit polls, flat-out lies about "the effects of evolution on society", and a blog article that states that "God commands them to shut atheists' mouths." He's a piece of freakin' work.
    To be fair, I attacked the easiest of the potential targets, so I'll list the ones that c-design proponents-ists would like you to know about, and discredit them too:
    Michael Behe- best known for irreducible complexity arguments and getting his ass handed to him in court by Ken Miller over shit he hadn't bothered to read.
    William Dembski- philosopher and a 'professor' at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He argues for irreducible complexity using probability theory, demonstrating a horrendous lack of comprehension of quantum mechanics and plain old numbers. Oh, also, he's not a fucking scientist
    Steven C Meyer undergraduate science degrees in physics and earth science, worked as a geophysicist, but his PhD is in history and philosophy of science. Unfortunately for him, he tends to publish on cells (like a book using DNA as evidence for ID) and education strategies(see wedge document), which might put him a bit out of his depth.
    Jonathan Wells Wells is an actual biology PhD, but also is a PhD in theology and a Moonie. He blatantly states that he went for his doctorate in bio to "destroy Darwinism," and his writing, while on topic, has a certain tendency to misrepresent, exaggerate, or outright fucking lie. (see 'Icons of Evolution', and his wonderful stance on HIV/AIDS. Yes, that's right, he's a brilliant enough biologist to deny the retroviral cause of AIDS is actually the cause.
    There're others hiding in the woodwork, but I'm not giving them any space here, since many of them are about on par with Hovind.

  3. I'm being a bit uncharitable towards Dembski, after examining what it was he was actually getting at. Information theory has a component that functions in the same manner as entropy does (2nd Law of Thermodynamics), and he was applying it to DNA as generated information and erroneously assuming that information can't be created. The error is the same one that creationists/ID proponents make every time they trot out that tired old argument: the cell isn't closed system, nor is Earth, therefore your constant influx of energy means that you can increase complexity, in whatever form you like, because it simply has to decrease elsewhere (like the Sun, which is providing all that energy). The decay, death, and potential nova of stars covers that quite nicely.