What’s *really* wrong with Intelligent Design (an even shorter blog piece)

Design is nothing without fabrication.

William Paley by George Romney.jpg

William Paley (1743 – 1805 ) by George Romney, National Portrait Gallery London

Mechanical watch, Nature September 22, 1887, pp. 485

 

 

 

 

 

Centre for Intelligent Design Launches Naked Creationist Attack on SecScot Petition

Dr Alastair Noble, educational consultant and director of the Glasgow ...

Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design

Until yesterday, it may just have been possible to accept the claim by Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) that the view it promotes differs from old-fashioned creationism. Not any more. Dr Noble, the Director, writing for C4ID, has used a whole range of traditional creationist arguments in a full-blooded attack on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, currently before the Scottish Parliament, in which the Society requests

official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

Answers in Genesis has also attacked us, here and here [1], using cruder versions of the same arguments. We feel honoured.

Predictably, the C4ID submission [2] attempts to disguise the fact that “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than a blend of creationism and obfuscation. This has famously been established in court (Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board), and elsewhere. Most relevant to the present petition is the statement to this effect from the Association for Science Education, the UK-wide association of science teachers at all levels, and the UK’s largest teaching subject organisation.

“Macro-evolution … unobserved and speculative”

More interestingly, the C4ID submission illustrates precisely the disinformation that we seek to guard our children against, by itself embracing creationism. It does this by driving a wedge between “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution,” and admitting that the former of these occurs, while describing the latter. Such dismissal of macro-evolution can have only one implication, the separate creationism to which we are objecting, and the denial of the results of almost two centuries of careful scientific observation. As the submission puts it:

Few people, including the most ardent religious believers, deny that evolution in the form of adaptation is an empirically observed phenomenon. This can be described as ‘micro-evolution’ and it is the sort of variation, in, for example, the beak sizes of finches that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands. However, those findings say nothing about how finches arose in the first place. The speculation that evolutionary processes can explain the origin as opposed to the distribution of finches can be referred to as ‘macro-evolution’. This is an unobserved and speculative feature of the theory of evolution. It is therefore inaccurate and confusing to refer simply to ‘evolution’ without clarifying which aspect of the theory is being dealt with.

Some minor points: C4ID mention religion; we did not. C4ID, like all creationists, cannot resist referring back to Darwin, much as some demented opponent of atomic theory might keep on referring back to Dalton. But the main point regard evolution: if macro-evolution didn’t happen, the only alternative is separate creation.

As a commentator (David Bell at FB Secular Scotland) points out, Macro and Micro evolution are the ID version of Ken Ham’s “historical science” and “observable science”.

Moraine in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ansel Adams (1941) via Wikipedia. Public domain

In a sense, of course, macro-evolution is unobserved, but only in much the sense that the Ice Ages are unobserved. Macro-evolution has not been directly observed over the 3000 or so years of recorded scientific observation because it takes more time than that, and the Ice Ages have not been directly observed by scientists because they happened too early, but in both these examples the evidence is incontrovertible.

From Gatesy et al,. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Volume 66, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 479–506

Regarding the Ice Ages, we have evidence such as erratic boulders transported by glaciers, scratches on rocks, and massive moraines left behind, as far south as Lueneberg Heath in Germany and Minnesota in America. Regarding macro-evolution, we have, to choose just one well-explored example out of the enormous range available, the evolution of whales from terrestrial hoofed mammals. Here we have two completely independent lines of evidence ; a fossil record showing at least 10 well-defined intermediate forms, either on or close to the ancestral line leading to modern whales and porpoises, and molecular phylogenies (no different in principle from the DNA evidence used every day in our courts to establish family relationships) that show whales as first cousins to a hippopotamus and second cousins to a cow (for a general reader level open-access review, see here).

If the evolution of the blue whale, purely aquatic and the largest animal ever known on this planet, from a small terrestrial wader, does not count as macro-evolution, what does? If this kind of evidence does not remove macro-evolution from the domain of the “unobserved and speculative”, what would?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through http://www.sculpturegallery.com

Or I could have chosen human evolution, where some 20 distinct hominin species have been identified, with steady progression in bipedality, cranial capacity, dentition, and all the other features that distinguish us from apes [3].

Or birds from non-avian dinosaurs, with the step-by-step evolution of feathers and then of flight. Or amphibia from lobefish. Or sheep and goats. Or dogs, bears, walrus and weasels from a common ancestral carnivore. All beautifully documented in the fossil record, and now supported by molecular phylogenies, along with numerous other examples. There is no lack of well written books explaining these things in highly accessible language [4], a major website has an entire section devoted to such transitions, and if C4ID are really ignorant of these evolutionary facts, the ignorance is self-imposed.

Having once placed C4ID in its rightful place in the evolution of delusion, their other arguments fall readily into place. We have the usual complaint that we want to put all talk of creationism off-limits, when we explicitly state that we intend no limitation on the discussion of ideas; merely on the misrepresentation of facts. We have the usual claim that an intelligence (or Intelligence) is required to generate new information, as if otherwise information were some kind of conserved entity like energy. We have the claim that all DNA has been shown to be functional – a travesty of even the most extravagant claims made in the current “junk DNA” controversy. We have the vulgar error that the forces driving evolution are random, whereas in fact organisms are sculpted by natural selection. We have the usual inversion of burden of proof, where the unexplained is deemed unexplainable, while those who seek natural explanations for what we do not yet understand are called closed minded. We have the argument that since natural selection sometimes works by elimination (and indeed it does), it can never really work by addition. We even have (was nothing learnt from the debacle at Dover?) irreducible complexity.

Since this is the high-class version of creationism, we also have the lofty argument that, in C4ID’s words,

The neo-Darwinian position that life and the universe, including conscious thought, are the result of blind and purposeless processes gives no reason to believe that our investigations and conclusions have any validity or truth. Students should be aware of this.

This is absurd, as I like many others have said before. If our investigations and conclusions had lacked validity or truth, we would simply not have survived. Indeed, there is now a flourishing if controversial subdiscipline that considers our minds, with both their strengths and weaknesses, as the products of natural selection.[5] Given this, C4ID’s claim that “Students should be aware of this,” when “this” is a doctrine residing only on the philosophical fringe, is breathtaking in its arrogance. (There are of course environments, such as creationist universities and seminaries, where survival is more likely if one’s conclusions lack validity and truth, but the cradle of mankind was not one of them.)

Finally, the C4ID submission accuses the petition, which I helped draft, of making an unwarranted prior assumption of philosophical naturalism; here the author, Doctor Noble, is echoing the ideas of his mentor, Phillip Johnson. As it happens, my one and only contribution to professional-level discussions on the philosophy of science  is to prove that in reality we neither need nor use any such assumption. Naturalistic explanations stand or fall in science, as in all human endeavours, on their merits; we use them because they work. Our reason for rejecting non-natural (supernatural? praeternatural? unnatural?) explanations is that they cut no ice. In every case studied, their predictions have turned out to be wrong, or unnecessary, or ambiguous to the point of utter uselessness, and the sorry history of Intelligent design research merely bears this out.

KenHam.JPG

Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis

After C4ID, Answers in Genesis comes as comic relief, even if the gag lines are rather predictable. Evolution is a religion and an attack on Christianity (never mind that the spokesperson for BCSE, which supports the petition, is an Anglican priest; as far as AiG is concerned, he’s the wrong kind of Christian). Historical science is in a separate category because it deals with the past and is therefore not testable (what does AiG think geologists and palaeontologists do all day?) Evolutionary naturalism is atheism. Secularists (meaning, I imagine, everyone who does not use Genesis as a geology textbook) are in rebellion against God. Reaching these profound new conclusions the work of any one individual, butrequired the help of AiG‘s research team. And only one thing spoils the joke for me – the knowledge that People with a Mission Ministries, who promote AiG‘s materials, are made welcome in schools throughout Scotland.

Which is why the petition is needed in the first place.

I thank Maarten Boudry, Catherine Matthews, the Rev. Michael Roberts, Clare Marsh, and  Mark Edon, Mark Gordon, and my other colleagues in BCSE and SSS, for stimulating discussions on these issues .

[1] I have made these links “no-follow”, to avoid boosting the site’s ratings.

[2] Full text at  http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_A_Centre_for_Intelligent_Design_UK_10.10.14.pdf (warning: extreme boredom alert).

[3] Some would say “other apes”, since if apes are a clade – a complete set of descendants from some common ancestor – then we are part of it.

[4] For the fossil record and its tie-in with phylogeny, my personal favourite here is Don Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

[5] I refer of course to evolutionary psychology. Here my own position is that all psychology is evolutionary, since I have no other way of explaining the existence of our atavistic shortcomings.

Bone marrow donor urgently needed for my daughter-in-law. Mixed south Asian/Euro ancestry best chance

Hi,

I desperately need your help to find a bone marrow donor for my daughter-in-law, Nikki Braterman who has acute myeloid leukaemia. Being Irish-European/Burmese, she has an extremely rare genetic make-up and we have not been able to find a match.

 Please help by doing three things:

 1- REGISTER as a potential bone marrow donor

 A simple swab or spit test will then determine whether you’re likely to be a match. If you are, then donating bone marrow is a fairly standard procedure these days, almost hassle free for the donor (it’s not a whole lot different to giving blood) and with a good success rate.

 Anyone who has European/Southeast Asian heritage – especially with a Portuguese name like De Souza or De Castro – would definitely be of interest.  However, all are encouraged to be tested as Nikki’s match may be from someone outside her ethnic grouping or you may save somebody else’s life.

 Please register with one of these organisations:

§  UK, aged 16-30: The Anthony Nolan Trust 

§  UK, aged 18-49: The British Bone Marrow Registry 

§  UK, aged 18-55: Delete Blood Cancer 

§  Australia (there’s a large Anglo-Burmese community in Perth): Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry

§  US: Be the Match

§  Canada: One Match

§  Worldwide: Bone Marrow Donors World Wide

 2 – FORWARD this email to everyone you know, and especially anyone who has a Southeast Asian heritage

 3 – SHARE my Nikki’s story via the social media channels below to help raise awareness

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-iw5wP1oXdK8/UK22ETSLiGI/AAAAAAAABsw/Q4Ni6oTNMkE/s1600/CSS3+Coded,+Responsive+Ready,+Social+Media+Buttons+styles.png  http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-iw5wP1oXdK8/UK22ETSLiGI/AAAAAAAABsw/Q4Ni6oTNMkE/s1600/CSS3+Coded,+Responsive+Ready,+Social+Media+Buttons+styles.pnghttp://1.bp.blogspot.com/-iw5wP1oXdK8/UK22ETSLiGI/AAAAAAAABsw/Q4Ni6oTNMkE/s1600/CSS3+Coded,+Responsive+Ready,+Social+Media+Buttons+styles.png

 

For more information please visit Nikki´s site at Perfect Ten Match

Thank you!

Historian geologist school governor priest writes supporting petition against creationism in Scots schools

239Michael Roberts is a Church of England priest, a graduate in theology and geology, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, an honour reserved for those who have made “an original contribution to historical scholarship.” The Rev Michael’s contribution has been in the form of a series of articles regarding the response of Churches to the series of discoveries that throughout the nineteenth century made the acceptance of a biblical chronology increasingly untenable and the acceptance of evolution unavoidable. He has been a school Governor for 26 years, has dealt with church schools (of which, unlike me, he approves) for 40 years, and has published extensively (see e.g. here and here) on the history of religious responses to geology and evolution. So when he voices an opinion on

Scottish Parliament: Return to homepagehow creationism should be handled in schools, we can assume he knows what is talking about. And the Scottish Secular Society therefore particularly appreciates his backing of our petition seeking guidance to prevent creationism and Young Earth pseudoscience being taught as fact in Scottish state schools:

http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance

This petition closes on September 3, so there is still time to join the Rev Michael, three Nobel Prize scientists, and numerous others in showing your support. As to why you should do so, I cannot do better than let Michael speak for himself:

Henry Drummond: ” an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology”

The vast age of the universe and the earth has been known since the 18th century, and evolution since 1859 or earlier, and thus no science makes sense without these facts. Any worldview which rejects them must clearly be seen as false, including Creationism with its denial of such basic and well-proven science. In the 19th century Scots Presbyterians were in the forefront of accepting both deep time and evolution, from Thomas Chalmers to Henry Drummond, to name but two.

In the past few decades, a strain of thought, variously known as creationism, creation science, flood geology, and Intelligent Design, has arisen, challenging these plain facts. This resurgent creationism has its roots in Seventh Day Adventism, but has now spread to more main-stream churches. Proponents of such creationism are well organised, well funded, and represented by such groups as Creation Science Ministries, Creation ministries International, Truth in Science, and Answers in Genesis, as well as the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and its Glasgow-based offshoot Centre for Intelligent Design,  which may allow for an ancient earth but not evolution.

There has also been an influx of US-based (and occasionally Australia-based) fundamentalist churches, such as West Mains Church, East Kilbride (responsible for the distribution of creationist texts at Kirktonholme), Westwoodhill Evangelical Church (with representatives on the chaplaincy committees of five schools in South Lanarkshire), Craighalbert Church (providing the chaplain for four schools in North Lanarkshire), and Freedom City Church (also North Lanarkshire). In addition, Seventh Day Adventists are also represented on school chaplaincy teams, as are more traditional churches (Baptist, various Presbyterians denominations) that are often influenced by creationism.

It is almost impossible to determine the extent to which such creationism has influenced classroom teaching, especially as many Local Authorities regard the identity and affiliation of school chaplains as protected confidential information for Freedom of Information Act purposes. However, we note with alarm that, in addition to the reasons for concern listed above, the extreme anti-science West Mains Church was allowed to operate for eight years without question, that the Challenger Bus, which carries literature from Answers in Genesis, makes regular visits to many schools, and that at least two schools have organised debates or Q&A sessions with creationist speakers, thus placing creationism on an equal footing with scientific reality.

TruthBeTold (2)

Given out to all pupils at Kirktonholme Primary. Inside, dinos pulling dogcarts.

Present Scottish Government policy is to leave these things to the discretion of individual teachers. This is to place an impossible burden on them, especially as creationist utterances are liable to come from chaplains, who are not part of the teaching establishment, and may be put forward in contexts such as Religious Observance where they could hardly be challenged. Creationists are plausible, and well practice in presenting their arguments. They commonly make direct factual claims, based on spurious science, which pupils (or indeed teachers without a background in biology) will not recognise as the untruths that they are. The creationist tactic is to present their point of view as having an equal claim to be heard, thus appealing to reasonableness and fair play, and to maintain that the kind of policy sought in this petition is an unfair restriction of free speech. We would not accept such an argument in the case of Holocaust denial (or even climate change denial), and should not accept it in the case of evolution denial or old earth denial either.

 Rev Michael Roberts, M.A., F.R.Hist.S on behalf of the British Centre for Science Education

Michael has posted an interesting and informative commentary on his submission on his own website. He reminds us that Young Earth creationism was a minority view among Christian churches by the mid-19th century, and that Christians had generally accepted evolution by around 1880. The anti-scientific creationism, and grotesque imaginings of “creation science” and “flood geology”, have their roots in Seventh Day Adventism and have only become at all prominent in more mainstream churches since 1960.

The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee

Much that Michael refers to will already be all too familiar to my readers (see e.g. here and here and here), and creationist activities in schools, even before the Kirktonholme scandal, were among the factors leading to the formation of the Scottish Secular Society. Readers will also know of the presence of unelected representatives of religion on the Local Authority Education Committees to which teachers are answerable, and that these are on occasion known to be extreme creationists.

There are some other features that I would mention. Creationism in the UK is closely linked to groups based in the US. Evolution denial is linked to climate change denial, both of which you will find on websites advocating Intelligent Design, and that this is not perhaps surprising when one considers their ultimate sources of finance. It is also worth noting that while the Intelligent Design movement in the US is associated mainly with Old Earth creationism, it has been notably promoted in the UK by Young Earth creationists, and has close links to the Orwellian-titled organisation, Truth in Science, whose distribution of creationist materials to schools led directly to the formation in 2006 of the British Centre for Science Education.

Michael also touches briefly on the question of quasi-compulsory Religious Observance in schools, and the resulting potential for abuse. This was the subject of Scottish Secular Society’s earlier petition, which led to formal reiteration of the oft-neglected guidelines and, more importantly, forced the opening up of debate, across the entire faith spectrum from Calvinists to Humanists, regarding the role of RO. This is just one facet of Scotland’s current process of self examination, which will continue whatever the result of the Referendum ballot.

And we expect the current petition to achieve no less.

3rd Nobel Prize winner backs petition: keep creationist teaching out of Scots schools

John Sulston.jpgSir John Sulston, of the Manchester University Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation, joins Sir Harold Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts as the third Nobel Prize winner to sign the petition

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time:

.

Sir John was joint winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Sydney Brenner and H. Robert Horvitz, “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”. This terse description hides a long saga of exploration, involving techniques ranging from DNA sequencing at a time when that was still a new and laborious technique, to watching cells divide in living nematode worms on microscope slides.

We are particularly proud that Sir John has joined this effort, for reasons that will be clear if you read his Nobel Prize biographical essay and the final sections of his Nobel Prize lecture. The Human Genome Project involved at one stage direct competition between publicly funded research, and a private company (Celera Genomics), for control; Sir John wrote about this in his bookThe Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome. This experience informed his thinking on a number of topics, including the purposes of discovery, and what he calls “the global consequences of ignoring common goods in the quest for short term profit.” Creationism (unlike the climate change denialism to which it is increasingly allied) may not be driven by the wish to protect profit, but is equally corrosive of one of the most fragile and important of common goods; an educated society that acknowledges scientific reality.

Some readers may wonder how Sir Harold, Sir Richard, and Sir John came to be involved in this project, or how I came to be involved with them. Here I claim no special eminence or entitlement. But I was in the audience when Sir Harold spoke memorably to Glasgow’s Cafe’ Scientifique on the subject of science education and communication in a connected world. This, together with the fact that he is an Honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, established in my mind a Scottish connection, so I initially approached him. Not only did he agree to lend his support, but he suggested three others whom I should contact, and whom I have approached armed with that introduction. Two of these (Sir Richard and Sir John) have now responded; the third is on holiday. I can only express my gratitude to scholars of such eminence, and with so many claims on their time, who have nonetheless given their attention to our concerns.

Socrates, Evolution, and the Word “Theory”

UWASocrates_gobeirne_cropped

Photograph through Wikipedia by Greg O’Beirne, digitally altered to remove graffiti from forehead.

What’s wrong with this argument? More than you think!

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

It’s perfectly valid, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. Despite this, as Bertrand Russell explained very clearly many years ago,[1] the argument is almost totally worthless.

There is no real doubt that Socrates is mortal. Just look at the poor chap, clearly showing his 70 years. Bent, scarred from the Peloponnesian War, his brow furrowed by decades of unhappy marriage, and even more unhappy attempts[2] to persuade his fellow citizens that the best form of government is a fascist oligarchy. Besides, he is on trial for doubting the existence of the gods, and the news from the Agora is not good. Take my advice, and do not offer him life insurance.

Even if we didn’t know about his circumstances, we would readily agree that he is mortal. We see decrepitude and death around us all the time, few people have been known to live beyond a hundred years, none beyond 150, and we have no reason to believe that Socrates is any different. In fact, from our experience, we are a lot more certain that Socrates is mortal than we are that all men are mortal. Ganymede, Elijah, and the Virgin Mary were all, according to various traditions, taken directly up into heaven without having to go through the tedious process of dying. However, no Zeus-worshipper or biblical literalist or devout Catholic would for such reasons doubt the mortality of Socrates. So the premise, that all men are mortal, is actually less certain than the conclusion, and if we seriously doubted Socrates’s mortality, we would simply deny that premise. In other words, this classic example of deductive logic tells us nothing that we didn’t already know.

Gustave Doré: Elijah's Ascension

Ascension of Elijah, Gustave Dore’, ca. 1865

We have run up against a very general limitation of deductive arguments about the world. Our reason for believing in Socrates’ mortality is not really deductive, but inductive, reinforced in this case by our knowledge of his own personal circumstances. Logical arguments of this kind do indeed have an important place, but in and of themselves their conclusions tell us nothing new; nothing that was not already implicit in the premises. They are important, not because they give us new reasons for believing the conclusion (they don’t)[3], but because they force us to clarify our premises. Ultimately, what we get out of them is already implicit in what we put in.

With this in mind, let us examine an argument sometimes applied to evolution:

All theories are uncertain.
Evolution is a theory.
Therefore evolution is uncertain.

The standard response, which I have used myself, is to point out that the argument is fallacious because it involves an equivocation, or bait-and-switch, between two meanings of the word theory. It is like saying that if all lemons are yellow, and my car is a lemon, then my car must be yellow. In ordinary speech, perhaps, you only say “theory” when you are uncertain, but we are now talking about scientific theories, which include examples that no reasonable person would now seriously doubt, such as atomic theory or the heliocentric theory.

Sticker attached to textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia, from 2002 until removed by court order in 2006

And yet the argument really is alive and well. It was used, with deeply damaging effects on education in Turkey, by the then Minister of Education in the secular (!) government of the 1980s. Until 2001, the Alabama State Board of Education required biology textbooks carry a sticker saying “[M]acroevolution has never been observed and should be considered a theory.” Even where evolution is generally and officially acknowledge, it persists, and is used, by people who really should know better. There was a striking example recently on BBC TV, when the anchorman (Jeremy Paxman, who has a degree in English from Cambridge) turned portentously to Prof Alice Roberts, who was arguing against the teaching of creationism in schools, and actually uttered the words “Evolution is a theory”.

When, as here, a thoroughly bad argument persists in the face of what looks like a clear, much-repeated, logical refutation, when in addition it is readily expose as a piece of special pleading, when it is repeated in the media by intelligent and well educated people, and when it is even used to justify the actions of governments, it is worth asking why it has managed to survive.

There are several possibilities. The refutation may be emotionally unsatisfying, it may itself not stand up to close logical examination, or it may fail to address some deeper error which gave the fallacy its appeal in the first place. In any case, the correct response may be to bypass the fallacy by moving on as quickly as possible to the underlying facts. All of these, I maintain, applies to the “Evolution is a theory,” argument.

When confronted by Paxman, Prof Roberts responded in exactly the way I am advocating here. After saying that it was a theory like the Earth going round the Sun is a theory, she addressed herself to the factual evidence for evolution, leaving him floundering. That, I maintain, is the correct response. We should not waste time defending evolution from specious arguments, but go straight on to the attack by shifting the focus to the evidence.

As to why the two meanings defence fails to satisfy, the first reason to my mind is just this, that it is a defence, and thus gives unwarranted stature to the attack that it is meant to rebut. Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.

The second reason is that it feels like special pleading, and that feeling is at least in part justified. Words always carry with them a penumbra of possible meanings, and when Darwin speaks of “my theory” of the origin of species, or when Dalton spoke “my theory” of atoms, as they did, who are we to say that they were using words in the narrow technical sense that we assign to them now, after generations of subsequent discussion by philosophers of science?

Actually, it’s worse. Defenders of evolution have reacted to the “only a theory” argument by constructing their own implausible analysis of the word, and then upbrading the rest of us for not using it. To quote one of many examples, a much cited scientific American article reads

A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing…  A word like ‘theory’ is a technical scientific term… The fact that many people understand its scientific meaning incorrectly does not mean we should stop using it. It means we need better scientific education.

How patronising and presumptuous! If people are misled by the creationist’s use of the term “theory,” it’s not up to us to use less ambiguous language; it’s their own fault for not being better educated. And if they are misled when we insist on using language in a specialised technical manner, that’s their fault, not ours!

And it gets worse yet. The claim being made here is not only arrogant but untrue. Even within technical scientific discourse, there is no built-in assumption that a theory has, by definition, been substantiated. We speak of phlogiston theory, even though we know it to have lacked substance, and of string theory, for which a test that could substantiate it has yet to be devised. We even speak of a “theory of everything”, although we do not as yet possess such a theory and some even doubt whether it is possible. We also speak of, and use, theories that we know to be strictly untrue. Ideal gas theory makes unrealistic assumptions about the properties and behaviour of gas molecules, but from this starting point goes on to make useful limiting predictions (Boyle’s Law, Charles’ Law, and a justification of Avogadro’s hypothesis) that to a good approximation do describe the behaviour of real gases under normal conditions. Newton’s theory of celestial motion is also strictly untrue, and fails to predict the precise behaviour of the planet Mercury. Nonetheless, we carry on using it to predict next year’s tides.

Worst of all, the two definitions defence no longer works even on its own terms. For the creationists, helped perhaps by their Intelligent Design colleagues, have discovered Popper. They now argue like him that if evolution is a scientific theory, in the technical sense that Scientific American and others are advocating, it must in principle be falsifiable. This as prelude to sliding, by innuendo, from falsifiable to uncertain. So this month, the State Board of Education of South Carolina is considering language that “requires students to understand that the theory of evolution, like any other scientific theory, may change as new scientific information is obtained.” And since 2012, the Alabama State Board has deployed a new disclaimer, which uses the seemingly innocent utterance

Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.

(but what assumtions do they have in mind, I wonder) to soften us up for the highly specific and inaccurate

The theory of evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory that is included in this textbook. It is controversial because it states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things. Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed.

Of course large changes, as defined here, have not been directly observed, because by definition they need more time than scientists have been around to observe them. And of course the focus on what has been “directly observed” ignores multiple lines of evidence, each in itself conclusive. No matter. The State of Alabama still sees fit to single out evolution, telling its students that being a “scientific theory,” it is “subject to change”. Serve us right, for perpetrating the dangerous myth that there is something mysteriously different about science, that separates it from other areas of human activity. Of course our theories about evolution are “subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations”, but so is all our knowledge about the world.

Now of course neither the State of Alabama nor the State of South Carolina is seriously interested in the theory of evolution. They would not, for instance, be satisfied if we were to start telling students (as we should, and many of us do) that there has for more than 40 years been genuine controversy about the relative importance of natural selection and neutral drift. What they want to cast doubt on is the plain fact of common ancestry, and the implications of this for an ancient Earth. This is the solid ground on which we should be fighting, not the treacherous quagmire of terminology.[4]

When the creationists say “All theories are uncertain,” it looks as if they are making a factual statement about theories. If so, their argument would lose all credibility when we draw attention to other theories, such as atomic theory, which none would now contest. Yet it survives, because in yet another bait-and-switch, we are invited to assume that this uncertainty is part of the very definition of a theory. And so, if we are not careful, we find ourselves scrutinising the fine print of dictionaries, or, equally bad, coming up with the two meanings defence, which is itself another statement about definitions.

The absolutist (and creationists generally are absolutists) puts things in boxes, reads the label on the box, and uses what is written on the label to draw conclusions about the contents. Using two boxes instead of one sounds (is) artificial and defensive, and while it does sidestep the unwelcome conclusion, it commits the same logical error.

This error lies in pretending that we can answer a question of substance by examining the meaning of words. But the same error is present in the two meanings defence. Whether or not this or that definition of “theory” is correct, or is applicable in any particular case, has nothing to do with the real issue. Is evolution a theory? That depends on how you are using the word “theory.” Is evolution true? Yes.


[1] History of Western Philosophy, Ch. XXII

[2] Republic

[3] I suspect this really does apply to all simple syllogisms. More complicated examples are more interesting, rendering it important to distinguish between cases where the argument does generate new insights (e.g. theoretical physics), and those where it merely reinforces our original prejudices (economics, theology?)

[4] Didn’t we refute the creationist by pointing out that he has committed the fallacy of equivocation? Not so simple. As Boudry and Pigliucci point out (paper in preparation), naming a fallacy under conditions where anyone could credibly use it merely begs the question. Here, for example, we can only demonstrate that the equivocation is vicious by convincing the audience that evolution is not inherently uncertain. But that is what we have to do anyway!

I thank Maarten Boudry for access to unpublished material. An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

Scottish schools: we don’t invite antivaxxers so we shouldn’t invite antievolutionists

There is still time to sign the petition calling on the Scottish Government to give this badly needed guidance:

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

File:Hilleman-Walter-Reed.jpeg

Maurice Hilleman’s measles vaccine is estimated to prevent 1 million deaths every year (Washington Post obituary, April 13, 2005)

We don’t invite antivaxxers into our schools to present their “alternative point of view”. That is because what they say is untrue, yet dangerously persuasive, as shown by the re-emergence, thanks to them, of diseases such as measles that, in the industrialised nations at least, were almost extinct. No school would dream of hosting a debate between an antivaxxer and an immunologist, inviting pupils to make up their own minds. Nor would any school invite a group convinced of the wickedness of vaccination to send activity-filled buses. To do any such thing would totally undermine important teaching about health. The antivaxxers may complain that this is unfair, because although in a free society they have every right to express their point of view. Too bad; freedom of speech does not include the right to demand a platform, least of all the authoritative platform of a school assembly hall, and we do not give them that because they don’t deserve it.

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From Truth be Told; Exposing the Myth of Evolution, distributed to all pupils at Kirktonholme Primary, near Glasgow, September 2013

Yet this is exactly the way that we treat anti-evolutionists, whether they call themselves Creationists, Creation Scientists, Biblical Christians, or Intelligent Design advocates. It is almost impossible to determine the extent to which such creationism has influenced classroom teaching, especially as many Local Authorities regard the identity and affiliation of school chaplains as protected confidential information for Freedom of Information Act purposes. However, we note with alarm that the extreme anti-science West Mains Church was allowed to operate for eight years without question, that the Challenger Bus, which carries literature from Answers in Genesis, makes regular visits to many schools, and that at least two schools have organised debates or Q&A sessions with creationist speakers, thus placing creationism on an equal footing with scientific reality.

According to the website of PWAMM (People with a Mission Ministries), whose Challenger Buses pay regular visits to Scottish schools, and who sell Answers magazine, a publication of Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis,

The purpose of Answers magazine is to illustrate the importance of Genesis in building a creation-based worldview, and to equip readers with practical answers so they can confidently communicate the gospel and biblical authority with accuracy and graciousness.

“The purpose of Answers magazine is to illustrate the importance of Genesis in building a creation-based worldview”

PWAMM also offers schools materials for Religious and Moral Education, dealing with such questions as “what Christians believe the Bible is” (Primary) and “Information about the Bible; multimedia presentation summarising what Christians believe” (Secondary). I do not think it unreasonable to wonder whether these materials promote “a creation-based worldview”, with all that that implies, and how far they do justice to the wealth of Christian interpretations of the Bible, beyond mere blinkered literalism.

Present Scottish Government policy is to leave these things to the discretion of individual teachers. This is to place an impossible burden on them, especially as creationist utterances are liable to come from chaplains, who are not part of the teaching establishment, and may be put forward in contexts such as Religious Observance where they could hardly be challenged, or as part of professionally prepared packages for RME. Creationists are plausible, and well practiced in presenting their arguments. They commonly make direct factual claims, based on spurious science, which pupils (or indeed teachers without a background in biology) will not recognise as the untruths that they are. The creationist tactic is to pretend that their point of view as having an equal claim to be heard, thus appealing to reasonableness and fair play, and to maintain that the kind of policy sought in this petition is an unfair restriction of free speech. We would not accept such an argument from those who deny the benefits of vaccination, or the historical fact of the Holocaust, or that the Earth spins on its axis, and should not accept it from those who deny the reality of evolution either.

Join two Nobel Prize winners in petition to keep creationist teaching out of Scottish state schools

[Update of last Friday's post]

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance  If you agree, please click on link to sign.

Sir Richard is among those presenting the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize to Daisuke Inoue, inventor of Karaoke (photo: Improbable Research)

On Friday, Sir Harold Kroto was the first Nobel Laureate to sign this petition. He has now been joined by Sir Richard Roberts, FRS, now Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs.

Sir Richard shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work onintrons and splicing in eukaryotic cells, i.e. cells of the kind found in all plants and animals, which unlike those of bacteria and archaea possess a well-defined nucleus. This, of course, gives him a direct interest in the mechanisms of inheritance, and evolutionary pathways.

Sir Harold with models of fullerenes. The simplest, C60, is shaped like a soccer ball

Sir Harold Kroto, FRS, Hon. FRSE, Nobel Prize winner, Professor Emeritus at the University of Sussex and Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University, has lent his support to this petition from the Scottish Secular Society to the Scottish Parliament requesting guidance to preclude the teaching of creationism as factually valid in Scottish schools.

Sir Harold is best known to the general public for his part in the discovery of a new form of carbon, C60 or the bucky-ball molecule, for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. But this represents only a small part of his interests in science and in science outreach. He is no stranger to Scottish affairs, being an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and his talk at the Glasgow Tron on science outreach in the age of digital communication remains fresh in the minds of those privileged to have witnessed it.

 Sir Harold joins human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society Andrew Copson and President of the National Secular Society Terry Sanderson who have all signed the petition.

 The Scottish Secular Society gratefully acknowledges Sir Harold’s support.

But why, in the 21st century, is any of this necessary? Here’s why:

TruthBeTold (2)

This was handed out to all pupils at Kirktonholme Primary, a non-denominational school, last September

Creationist school chaplains and chaplaincy team members. Creationist appointees on Local Authority Education Committees. Openly Creationist organisations targeting schools. Scandal when Young Earth Creationist materials distributed in school assembly. And still the Scottish government lags behind England, and refuses to give simple guidance, to the effect that Creationism should not be taught as scientific truth. The Scottish Secular Society (a faith-neutral organisation) is therefore petitioning the Scottish Parliament

to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

If you support us in this, click here to sign: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance The petition materials include details of how the Scottish Government has repeatedly refused to give guidance when asked, saying that the teachers themselves will be able to deal with the matter professionally. For details on why this is an inadequate response, and on why teachers themselves need protection from creationist pressures, read on: 1) Membership of Local Education Authority Education Committees By law, every local education authority in Scotland (the employer to whom teachers are ultimately answerable) has to include three unelected representatives of religious organizations. As of June 2013, these included four Baptists and five representatives of other infallibilist groups. Among these, the church of Rev David Fraser (Baptist, Clackmannanshire) recently announced the finding of Noah’s Ark; Michael Rollo’s Larbert Pentecostal Church/Assemblies of God (Falkirk) believes in biblical infallibility, bodily resurrection, and “the everlasting conscious punishment of all whose names are not written in the book of life;” Mark Fraser is Assistant Pastor/Youth Minister of The Bridge Church, Irvine (North Ayrshire), which believes in a literal lake of fire and in divine healing through the laying on of hands; Dr Nagy Iskander, of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church (South Lanarkshire) is an eloquent spokesman for Answers in Genesis and Young Earth creationism; while in the Western Isles the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Lewis, the Free Church of Scotland, and the Free Presbyterian Church vie with each other in their commitment to biblical literalism and, by implication, to the denial of evolution and deep time.

The Rev. David Fraser’s church  quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits, unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee

 

 

DinoPicAa

From Truth be Told, one of the books handed out to children at Kirktenholme Primary

3) Other interactions of creationist organisations with schools People With A Mission Ministries (PWAMM) is an unashamedly Biblical Evangelical organisation – and why not? However, it operate the Challenger bus which regularly visits schools in the North of Scotland and the Isles, displaying there Answers magazine, a Young Earth creationist publication put out by Answers in Genesis, which also features on the PWAMM book store site (http://pwamm.com/eshop/index.php?app=gbu0&ns=prodshow&ref=ANSWERS). PWAMM also offers RME courses, which it claims to be compatible with the Curriculum for Excellence.

“The purpose of Answers magazine is to illustrate the importance of Genesis in building a creation-based worldview, and to equip readers with practical answers so they can confidently communicate the gospel and biblical authority with accuracy and graciousness.”  — PWAMM website

In all these cases, and no doubt in many others that have not come to our attention, people with the best of intentions will be bringing creationist convictions into schools, and creating an atmosphere where it is difficult or embarrassing for teachers to challenge them. And as we have seen, some Heads will actively welcome them, either because they provide volunteer help, or because the Heads assume that all whoever claims to speak in God’s name is wise and virtuous, or both.

 Creationists sincerely believe that what they say is true. Many go further, and say that believing in Creationism is an essential part of salvation. In England, they are no longer allowed to promote this corrosive nonsense at the expense of scientific reality. Scotland’s children, surely, deserve the same protection.

Nobel Prize scientist backs (will you back?) petition to keep Creationism out of Scottish schools

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance  If you agree, please click on link to sign.

Sir Harold with models of fullerenes. The simplest, C60, is shaped like a soccer ball

Sir Harold Kroto, FRS, Hon. FRSE, Nobel Prize winner, Professor Emeritus at the University of Sussex and Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University, has lent his support to this petition from the Scottish Secular Society to the Scottish Parliament requesting guidance to preclude the teaching of creationism as factually valid in Scottish schools.

Sir Harold is best known to the general public for his part in the discovery of a new form of carbon, C60 or the bucky-ball molecule, for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. But this represents only a small part of his interests in science and in science outreach. He is no stranger to Scottish affairs, being an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and his talk at the Glasgow Tron on science outreach in the age of digital communication remains fresh in the minds of those privileged to have witnessed it.

 Sir Harold joins human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society Andrew Copson and President of the National Secular Society Terry Sanderson who have all signed the petition.

 The Scottish Secular Society gratefully acknowledges Sir Harold’s support.

But why, in the 21st century, is any of this necessary? Here’s why:

TruthBeTold (2)

This was handed out to all pupils at Kirktonholme Primary, a non-denominational school, last September

Creationist school chaplains and chaplaincy team members. Creationist appointees on Local Authority Education Committees. Openly Creationist organisations targeting schools. Scandal when Young Earth Creationist materials distributed in school assembly. And still the Scottish government lags behind England, and refuses to give simple guidance, to the effect that Creationism should not be taught as scientific truth. The Scottish Secular Society (a faith-neutral organisation) is therefore petitioning the Scottish Parliament

to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

If you support us in this, click here to sign: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance The petition materials include details of how the Scottish Government has repeatedly refused to give guidance when asked, saying that the teachers themselves will be able to deal with the matter professionally. For details on why this is an inadequate response, and on why teachers themselves need protection from creationist pressures, read on: 1) Membership of Local Education Authority Education Committees By law, every local education authority in Scotland (the employer to whom teachers are ultimately answerable) has to include three unelected representatives of religious organizations. As of June 2013, these included four Baptists and five representatives of other infallibilist groups. Among these, the church of Rev David Fraser (Baptist, Clackmannanshire) recently announced the finding of Noah’s Ark; Michael Rollo’s Larbert Pentecostal Church/Assemblies of God (Falkirk) believes in biblical infallibility, bodily resurrection, and “the everlasting conscious punishment of all whose names are not written in the book of life;” Mark Fraser is Assistant Pastor/Youth Minister of The Bridge Church, Irvine (North Ayrshire), which believes in a literal lake of fire and in divine healing through the laying on of hands; Dr Nagy Iskander, of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church (South Lanarkshire) is an eloquent spokesman for Answers in Genesis and Young Earth creationism; while in the Western Isles the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Lewis, the Free Church of Scotland, and the Free Presbyterian Church vie with each other in their commitment to biblical literalism and, by implication, to the denial of evolution and deep time.

The Rev. David Fraser’s church  quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits, unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee

 

 

DinoPicAa

From Truth be Told, one of the books handed out to children at Kirktenholme Primary

3) Other interactions of creationist organisations with schools People With A Mission Ministries (PWAMM) is an unashamedly Biblical Evangelical organisation – and why not? However, it operate the Challenger bus which regularly visits schools in the North of Scotland and the Isles, displaying there Answers magazine, a Young Earth creationist publication put out by Answers in Genesis, which also features on the PWAMM book store site (http://pwamm.com/eshop/index.php?app=gbu0&ns=prodshow&ref=ANSWERS). PWAMM also offers RME courses, which it claims to be compatible with the Curriculum for Excellence.

“The purpose of Answers magazine is to illustrate the importance of Genesis in building a creation-based worldview, and to equip readers with practical answers so they can confidently communicate the gospel and biblical authority with accuracy and graciousness.”  — PWAMM website

In all these cases, and no doubt in many others that have not come to our attention, people with the best of intentions will be bringing creationist convictions into schools, and creating an atmosphere where it is difficult or embarrassing for teachers to challenge them. And as we have seen, some Heads will actively welcome them, either because they provide volunteer help, or because the Heads assume that all whoever claims to speak in God’s name is wise and virtuous, or both.

 Creationists sincerely believe that what they say is true. Many go further, and say that believing in Creationism is an essential part of salvation. In England, they are no longer allowed to promote this corrosive nonsense at the expense of scientific reality. Scotland’s children, surely, deserve the same protection.

Gaza: what you can do right now

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Photo: Iyad al Baba,via Oxfam

This shouldn’t be necessary, but it is:

https://donate.oxfam.org.uk/emergency/gaza?cid=rdt_gaza

Things are quiet in Gaza, at least for the moment. The Israelis have achieved their goal of destroying much of Hamas’s material base and tunnels. Hamas has achieved its goal of making the Israelis look bad, getting large numbers of their own people killed or made homeless, and Israel has certainly obliged. Hamas’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and Israel’s policy of indefinite repression, stand equally bankrupt. We can argue over how to distribute blame for the suffering, but there is no doubt who has suffered.   Meantime, there is much to be done, even in such elementary matters as basic shelter, and the provision of drinking water.In emergencies like the present one, such basic responsibilities fall, by default, on the shoulders of non-Governmental relief agencies. This is not how it should be, but it is how it is. If you have any feeling for the people of Gaza, give generously.

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