Monday, September 15, 2008

"Teach the Controversy"

Against those who would wish a controversy into existence between creationism and modern science (including but not limited to biology and geology), here's PZ Myers:

This is an important distinction that is blurred by most people who advocate that tired old slogan, "teach the controversy" or "teach both sides". There is only one side, the pattern of the evidence. There are, of course, cases where the evidence is still open to interpretation, and there it is appropriate to present a more ambiguous answer and explain how scientists are still working to resolve the problem. But nothing in creationism falls into that category! It's all long disproven and discarded, except by people who maintain a belief despite being contradicted by the facts. There is no scientific controversy, and there aren't two sides.
There aren't two sides, just as there aren't two sides on whether the earth is round or flat, whether germs or evil spirits cause disease, whether the sun orbits the earth or the earth orbits the sun. In all these cases, as in the case of science versus creationism, the evidence supports one side and not the other.

The "teach the controversy" camp now includes, distressingly enough, Michael Reiss, the director of education of Britain's Royal Society. But Reiss has an odd way of making his case for "teaching the controversy," one that discounts evidence in favor of counting heads:
[A]bout 10% of people in the UK believe that the Earth is only some 10,000 years old, that it came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur'an and that the most evolution has done is to split species into closely related species.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of biologists consider evolution to be the central concept in biological sciences, providing a conceptual framework that unifies every aspect of the life sciences into a single coherent discipline. Equally, the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the universe is of the order of about 13 to 14 billion years old. [emphases mine]
Talk of overwhelming majorities and 10% minorities has its place in politics, but not in science. And to the extent that they are functioning as scientists, they accept or do not accept patterns of evidence and inferences, hypotheses, and other reasoning arising from and responsive to the evidence; they don't "believe" or "disbelieve." Science classrooms should be about instilling the principle of following the evidence, not about "belief." Bluntly, it doesn't matter how many people "believe" or "disbelieve" the evidence. The pattern of evidence is what it is, and science is and ought to be firmly driven by evidence, not by popular appeal.

Reiss almost manages to say as much here:
If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.
Unfortunately, Reiss is not as clear as he might be about what he means by "illustrate a number of aspects of how science works." If by this he means that geology and biology instructors should respond to a creationist's assertions about a 6,000-year-old earth by demonstrating that the earth is not, according to proper scientific reasoning, anything close to 6,000 years old -- in other words, that the assertion is demonstrably wrong -- then he agrees with PZ Myers.

At Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram thinks the pro-science position on this is an overreaction, but I think he overlooks the succor given to popularity-based, non-scientific reasoning in Reiss's comments.


Anonymous said...

"Talk of overwhelming majorities and 10% minorities has its place in politics, but not in science."

Some of the greatest scientific discoveries were made by people who were in the minority at one point in time. I think this statement needs to be "rethunk!"

Dale said...

Anon., Uh ... as I said, science isn't driven by majority rule. In science, the best evidence joined with the best theory wins, period. Human passions can be expected to interfere, but in the end, science is and needs to remain evidence-driven.