Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Coddling Faitheist Inanity

Michael De Dora detects a constitutional breach in a biology textbook's reference to “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days.” De Dora claims that in the context of a public school science class, the word myth as used runs afoul of the principle of church-state separation:

[O]ur government -- and thus our public schooling system -- is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. Federal and state governments cannot aid one religion, aid all religions, prefer one religion over another, or prefer non-religion to religion. This means that while I agree with Myers that the Biblical creation story is a "myth," the public school classroom doesn't seem to be the place where our message should be pushed. More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology. [emphasis mine]
Did you notice the leap there? De Dora jumped from a claim made in a high school biology textbook to opinions in PZ Myers's (excellent) blog, yet Myers had no role in writing the textbook behind the controversy.

It's too bad for De Dora's argument that he could not successfully link the textbook's claim to PZ Myers, since it is an unimpeachable canon of American constitutional jurisprudence that PZ Myers, with his every utterance, and in his very bones, constitutes a walking, talking, blogging, squid-loving abridgment of the 1st Amendment. (The same is true of the 12th Amendment, and Article 1, Section 10, but I digress.)

De Dora clarifies, or claims to try to:
Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.
Sigh. It's generous of De Dora to grant biology classes the freedom to teach some background on scientific theories. Sarcasm aside, there are cases where schools would do a terrible job of teaching the science if they did not cover some background on theory -- in particular, in cases where people are working so hard to blur the line between science and non-science, or in other words, between science and myth.

And there's the salient point: science contrasts with myth not, or not necessarily, in its veracity, but in its methodology and its epistemology -- how its practitioners derive knowledge and on what grounds they establish it. This is a crucial contrast to draw, especially in science classrooms.

Scientific literacy requires distinguishing science from myth, and this distinction includes the insight that even truth-bearing myths* do not qualify as science. Likewise, countless tales about the origins of life, including the Bible's, happen to be false, but that's not what makes them non-science. Excluding non-science from science classrooms is right, proper, necessary, and -- even if PZ Myers's cooties get up in everything -- constitutional.

There's more on De Dora's muddled nonsense from Ophelia Benson and -- watch out, 12th Amendment! -- PZ Myers. Jerry Coyne -- from whom I've borrowed the term faitheist -- has also addressed De Dora's confusions, including this bit, which reinforces my take on it:
[T]eaching evolution and dispelling creation gives students a valuable lesson: it teaches them to think scientifically—surely one of the main points of a science class. They learn to weigh evidence and show how that evidence can be used to discriminate between alternative explanations. It’s of little consequence to me that one alternative explanation comes from a literal interpretation of scripture. Indeed, it’s useful, for this is a real life example—one that’s going on now—of how alternative empirical ideas are fighting for primacy in the intellectual marketplace. What better way to engage students in the scientific method?
What better way indeed? A myth is one of many terms for that which proper science pedagogy distinguishes from genuine science. Others in the category include creation myth, story, tale, fable, just-so story, guess, educated guess, blind guess, intuition, rumor, tradition, lore, folklore, common sense, hypothetical, what-if story, assertion, claim, opinion, WAG (wild-ass guess), counterfactual, and many others. Whatever the uses of these, and whatever their resonance or applicability, they are not science, and belong in science classes only as a means of fleshing out the contrast between science and non-science.


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* A broken clock tells the right time twice a day, right? Or, better: suppose a local tradition claims that whales' ancestors were terrestrial predators. This happens to be true, but not science. It's still only a just-so story, a tale, a fable, a guess, or a myth unless and until it is hitched to an explanatory framework of supporting reasons and evidence.

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