Dealing with creationism

by Chris Bertram on September 12, 2008

There’s much anger circulating around the blogosphere about “the comments of Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Royal Society”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/sep/11/michael.reiss.creationism about how to deal with creationism and ID in school science classes. In fact, the whole thing could stand as an example of how on some issues (of which this is one) people only want to hear an unequivocal assertion of a party line and get unreasonably annoyed (and purport not to understand what they understand perfectly well) when someone says something nuanced or pragmatic.

Here’s the question Reiss asked:

bq. What should science teachers do when faced with students who are creationists?

To which he gave the answer that simply ignoring them is wrong and counterproductive. Rather, in his view, it is better pedagogical practice to engage with their doubts about evolution. He also adds that teachers have a duty to explain the scientific position but that they should not expect the doing so will displace creationist beliefs in students. His thought there is that explaining that evolutionary theory provides the best _scientific_ explanation is not necessarily going to cut ice with people who don’t accept the scientific way of looking at the world.

All reasonable enough, or so it seems to me. But then you get headlines like “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article4734767.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1 Of course, strictly speaking that’s true, since he advocated that teachers be open to the discussion of creationism with their students. But it gives the impression that he wanted creationism (and its ID variant) to be given house-room in the curriculum as “valid” alternative explanations of life. And that he didn’t say.

Incidentally, the Times also devoted “a leader to the controversy”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article4735469.ece , comparing _inter alia_ Reiss to Sarah Palin:

bq. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, while not a creationist, has courted the support of those who want to teach biblical creationism alongside evolution in science classes by saying that schools should “let kids debate both sides”. Both Governor Palin’s populism and Professor Reiss’s well-meaning intervention are based on the same mistake – that it is acceptable to teach faith as if it were science.

Since Reiss’s clearly expressed view is that creationism is no part of the scientific world view, that is a gross distortion by their leader-writer who is clearly neither a careful nor a charitable reader.

{ 99 comments }

1

Kevin Donoghue 09.12.08 at 4:14 pm

The reaction of the Nature blog seems reasonable. Who is getting excited in the blogosphere? PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson struck me as the obvious suspects but neither of them seems to have picked this up.

2

Doormat 09.12.08 at 5:12 pm

Hear hear! I thought The Times coverage was terrible: if you compare it to the story in The Independent then it’s like you’re reading about two different stories.

3

Diane 09.12.08 at 5:24 pm

If kids should be able to” debate both sides” of the evolution/creation theory, then I think they have the INTELLIGENCE to being taught sex education.
My goodness, if you are smart enough to be able to grasp scientific theory, biology should be a cinch!

4

PeWi 09.12.08 at 6:21 pm

Well, I think these things can be part of the science lessons, but only as part of “history of science” alongside earth on turtle (Native American) and the world being created out of a pig (Native Irian Jaya).
Put it in its historical context 2900 years ago as going scientific theory of that time and why should it not be discussed?
It can also be used as a warning for scientist that are too full of them selves proposing to know all the answers to all the questions. Because those people 2900 years ago thought that as well.
It can then also be discussed as a theory that has not a nature-centric base. And why not?

The world is a scary place. Give its people some comfort.

The anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr described this in one of his books this way.
He was walking on a beach in the Pacific’s with a friend past a nice tree – he said what a nice tree. he then went swimming and nearly drowned, but while as a rational westerner he knew it was his physical strength that enabled him to get away from the undercurrent he said the story of his friend comforted him more. He told him, the nymph of the tree he complimented had fallen in love with him and then rescued him from the nasty greedy water creatures.

As I said greater comfort, historical place. Why not? What are you afraid off? (-:

5

Uncle Kvetch 09.12.08 at 6:43 pm

It can also be used as a warning for scientist that are too full of them selves proposing to know all the answers to all the questions.

I have yet to meet one of these scientists. I’m sure they exist, because they get talked about in every blog discussion of creationism–but I’ve never met (or read) one. Could you provide some names?

Similarly, in many parts of America you’ll find people driving around with a bumper sticker that says “God said it; I believe it; That settles it.” I would expect there to be an analogous bumper sticker for these full-of-themselves scientists, where “God” is replaced by “Science,” but again, I’ve never seen one. Am I just not looking in the right places?

6

Dave Weeden 09.12.08 at 7:15 pm

When I first saw this story in my RSS reader (I don’t think it was the BBC, but I can’t remember where I else I can have seen it), I was pretty horrified. I don’t think what Rev Prof Reiss said, having read further, is all that shocking, though I do think the following. Teachers should be able to decide how to lead class discussions themselves; I certainly don’t think “debate evolution/creationism” should be on the curriculum. If a debate comes up in class, so what? The qualification for teaching biology is a biology degree; teachers are therefore already trained in this stuff. Pupils don’t have set ideas; maybe a few are coached by fanatics at home, but Reiss’s “one in 10” figure seems very unlikely: it doesn’t work the other way up – “nine of 10” families don’t have an “evolutionary” view, do they?

I don’t know the right way to teach biology, but anatomy and homology look like good places to start. Once you’ve established that humans really are very, very similar to chimpanzees the next step is easy, and it’s the creationist logic that’s hard. “God just happened to create species which are almost identical to us (and him/her) because er … well, he’s unfathomable, being divine and everything…”

And why does no one teach the controversy in geology? A lot of fundamentalists live in oil-producing areas (Alaska, Saudi Arabia), but there aren’t many working geologists who believe in a young earth.

7

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 7:24 pm

And why does no one teach the controversy in geology?

That’s a good question. It seems obvious to me that Biblical literalists should place more importance on separating man from animal if they’re in the soul-saving business, but there’s a lot of science out there that should make fundies nervous.

It’s something of a blessing that kids seem to like dinosaurs.

8

Harry 09.12.08 at 7:30 pm

No-one teaches the controversy in geology because that is almost absent from the school curriculum, whereas every kid (in the Uk) will be taught biology and the basics of evolutionary theory. Science teachers are typically very ill-equipped to deal with these disagreements in a way that is either sensitive to the kids or illuminating about scientific endeavour (I’m not being rude: talk to them, they know that they are ill-equipped), and Reiss (who is a major figure in science education in the UK) is trying to prepare them better and give them tools for dealing with these things. If kids came to school ready to do battle with their teachers on this question as a kind of skirmish in the culture wars things might be different; but many of them come with pre-existing views that are false and a willingness to learn. My guess is that whoever wrote the Times leader hasn’t spent a lot of time in classrooms or observing or talking to teachers; and, regrettably, that they didn’t receive the kind of education that enabled them to read carefully. Probably went to a private school.

9

Roy Belmont 09.12.08 at 7:44 pm

It’s not about the subject matter, it’s about the presenter and the presentation. Reiss recognizes the big demographic chunk of nonsense-believing parents that are sending their children to publicly-funded schools. Rather than confront them, which they’re well-prepared to engage, many of them hoping for direct conflict, he suggests the mirando al publico .
But the line isn’t between teaching creationism/ignoring creationism.
It’s between teaching creationism as subjectively-held belief and teaching creationism as an erroneous belief held by the misfortunate and ignorant.

The only reason to teach Biblical creationism in publicly-funded classrooms now is to kiss the gigantic political ass of Christian delusionists, to placate them so they don’t shut down the schools and run all the infidel teachers out of town coated in tar and feathers.
Or burn them at the stake.

This is not a morally valid reason to engage their nonsense, nor is it an honorable motive, but it is pragmatic for the time we live in, and very sensible in that regard.

10

PersonFromPorlock 09.12.08 at 8:24 pm

I know I’m a bad, bad person but: “What should science economics teachers do when faced with students who are creationists marxists?”

11

virgil xenophon 09.12.08 at 8:25 pm

It seems to me that Harry has it about right insofar as he goes, and I tend to agree with him on balance. However, let me strike an alternate pose for purposes of discussion, if I may. In some respects regarding this issue I must say that because of many existing, real anomalies in the historical record not that are not well defended/explained by “Darwinists,” there is part of me that takes a very jaundist view of those defending the “consensus” viewpoint presently extant. I am old enough to remember a time before the discovery of the DNA double-helix and the acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. The scientific “consensus” as to how the world “really” worked was quite different then, I can tell you. And the then scientific “consensus” just as fervently defended against and viciously attacked claims by “outliers” espousing “unproven” claims such as plate tectonics. Although looking at a globe as a fifth grader, it was intuitively obvious that South America and Africa somehow fit together, we were told, “oh, no, it just “seems” that way little johnny, it’s quite different and really more complicated than that, etc. Well, it turns out the fifth-graders were more right than most of the “really smart” grown-up teachers/scientists of that time, weren’t they?

So please humor me in my skeptical views regarding the stern defenses
propagated by “establishment” science types in denigrating those who propose alternate viewpoints and challenge the foundations (or at least some of the mill-work) of their cherished theoretical monuments.

12

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 8:32 pm

So please humor me in my skeptical views regarding the stern defenses propagated by “establishment” science types in denigrating those who propose alternate viewpoints

As far as creationism goes it really isn’t an alternative in a scientific sense.

Although looking at a globe as a fifth grader, it was intuitively obvious that South America and Africa somehow fit together, we were told, “oh, no, it just “seems” that way little johnny

I got called “perverted” for noticing that.

13

harry b 09.12.08 at 8:33 pm

Oh, I’m pretty sympathetic to everything personfromporlock says, btw. Science is often taught dogmatically, and frankly not very scientifically, and some of this at least is down to poor preparation of teachers, and som to the way that science is treated in the public culture. Reiss, by the way, knows all this very well — his work is extremely sensitive both to what science is and what constitutes effective pedagogy, and he’s a good influence.

14

virgil xenophon 09.12.08 at 8:38 pm

Addendum: I must say that what drove me to the above post is that I am very agnostic about most things, or, put another way, I have very “Catholic” tastes. Thus I am always skeptical of the party-line and have all too often seen it come to pass that today’s outrageous “idiocy”
is tomorrows accepted orthodoxy–and visa versa.

15

virgil xenophon 09.12.08 at 8:45 pm

“I got called ‘perverted’ for noticing that.” Mheh.

16

virgil xenophon 09.12.08 at 8:50 pm

Addendum II: I must say that I’m just as open to the view that we are the product of genetic gene-splicing done by alien visitors, but that’s only because I’ve probably read too much science fiction. (I was a charter member of the old Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, btw)

17

Colin Danby 09.12.08 at 8:56 pm

Do note that Reiss’ view is not only quite different from the Times’ account but also more limited and nuanced than “teach the controversy.”

18

PeWi 09.12.08 at 9:12 pm

Uncle Kvetch – well as a non-creationist I don’t frequent those pages, so don’t know – and yes there is probably a little bit of hyperbole in that phrasing of mine. However, while the scientist I know are behaving the way that you are describing them, the comments I read by R Dwarkin seem to imply a rather fundamentalist attitude towards the capabilities of once brain. But as an ignoramus I am probably wrong and he is perfectly open to allowing non-current-non-science explanations of known un-knowns (D.R)

19

David Wright 09.12.08 at 9:33 pm

Three cheers to Reiss for moving beyond the culture-war-driven attempts to ensure that only their side’s “facts” are regurgitated at school.

I taught physics for many years, and I would have loved nothing more than to get a real, live Ptolemain in the classroom to argue that the Sun moves around the Earth. I would expect my students to cite evidence, propose tests, and recognize ambiguities. In the absense of real, live Ptolemains, I took on this role myself many times.

More philosophical readers should recognize that, true as it may be, evoution (like creationism) has serious problems with falsifiability, as Popper pointed out.

20

peter 09.12.08 at 9:36 pm

In support of virgil xenophon, the scientific consensus is so often wrong that one can only laugh: we were taught at school that only our own solar system had planets, and that water went down the plughole in one direction in the southern hemisphere and in the other in the northern hemisphere. When our own bathrooms disproved this latter statement, we were call idiots and liars by our science teacher. Only recently have scientists publicly admitted that the local factors (the water pressure from the tap, the location of the tap relative to the plughole, etc) overwhelm the hemispheric gravitational factors, producing hole-by-hole variation in the operation of this “law”.

Yet another instance of the decontextualization programme of western science initiated by Descartes, and currently ruining a planet near you.

21

noen 09.12.08 at 9:50 pm

Yeah, Dawkins is a good example of the current fashion in Atheistic Fundamentalism. I don’t care for him and I consider myself an atheist. But back on topic, yes, teachers should be able to teach and they should be able to do so without browbeating the student. The controversy should be taught in the science classroom, have a separate subject for that. Call it “Origins” or something like that. The problem of course is that the creationists object to such courses even more than they do to Evolution. They really do want to teach religious dogma in the schools. It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes I think that some of our European friends don’t know what it’s like in some school systems here in the US. There are school systems where a daily prayer is piped into every classroom over the loud speakers and everyone bows their head and prays a very fundamentalist/evangelical prayer. Jewish families that have moved into such school districts have faced extreme discrimination. America is a continent and in some small towns religion and government have been intertwined for a long time.

22

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 9:51 pm

we were taught at school that only our own solar system had planets, and that water went down the plughole in one direction in the southern hemisphere and in the other in the northern hemisphere.

Until 1988 nobody had detected an extrasolar planet although they had been a common assumption among astronomers for a century at least. The Coriolis effect is a widely abused concept like the uncertainty principle.

It may be possible that your teachers did not represent the whole of western science in their efforts.

If your teachers

23

noen 09.12.08 at 9:52 pm

Correction “The controversy should NOT be taught” – sorry.

24

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 9:54 pm

The controversy should be taught in the science classroom

No, it shouldn’t. It should be dealt with as it comes up, if it comes up, which seems to be what Reiss is saying.

25

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 9:55 pm

Sorry noen. Also deep deep apologies for the stray sentence fragment above which can be safely ignore.

26

Donald Johnson 09.12.08 at 10:11 pm

“More philosophical readers should recognize that, true as it may be, evoution (like creationism) has serious problems with falsifiability, as Popper pointed out.”

Rubbish. It has no more problems than many other scientific theories, such as continental drift. That’s another theory that claims a gradual slow process actually observable in real time will have gigantic effects over millions of years, though obviously we can’t wait around for millions of years to watch those effects taking place in front of us.

And this is nothing like creationism, unless the creationist sticks his or her neck out and makes predictions about what should be true. Which they do, in some cases–a young earth creationist expects to see human remains and footprints next to dinosaurs. Their predictions are falsified, but they don’t admit it. That’s a bit different from science.

Now speaking for myself, I’m one of those Christians who think God used evolution–a totally nonfalsifiable belief on my part.

As for Reiss’s viewpoint, it just seems like common sense to me. If you want to teach students you have to meet them where they are without giving in on what the scientific evidence shows.

27

Donald Johnson 09.12.08 at 10:13 pm

Got so involved typing my rant I forgot to ask–Is it true that Palin isn’t a creationist? I’ll google it, but in case I just get a lot of irrelevant links, can anyone point to something that settles the issue?

28

Katherine 09.12.08 at 10:25 pm

“Similarly, in many parts of America you’ll find people driving around with a bumper sticker that says “God said it; I believe it; That settles it.” I would expect there to be an analogous bumper sticker for these full-of-themselves scientists, where “God” is replaced by “Science,” but again, I’ve never seen one. Am I just not looking in the right places?”

I suppose the scientific version is the XKCD “Science Works, Bitches” t-shirt. I’m afraid that I have met “fundamentalist scientists”, and they are about as able and willing to defend their corner as the fundamentalist Christians. Ie Not At All.

29

David Wright 09.12.08 at 10:36 pm

Donald Johnson:

The problem with macro-evolution’s falsiability isn’t simply that its prehistoric and practically impossible to reproduce. As a physicist, I dealt with big bang nucleosynthesis, a theory even more prehistoric and less reproducable. But big bang nucleosynthesis makes clear, testable predictions regarding the ratios of interstellar hydrogen, helium, and deuterium. If those ratios had come out wrong, physicists would stop believing in big bang nucleosynthesis. If you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in macro-evolution, it isn’t a scientific theory. (At least under the most common epistimological frameworks.)

30

Steve LaBonne 09.12.08 at 11:07 pm

If you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in macro-evolution, it isn’t a scientific theory.

There is an uncountable infinity of possible falsifying observations. Fossils in the wrong strata; molecular data that completely conflict with well-established trees; that sort of thing.

Your being a physicist gives you zero standing to comment on biological matters of which you know nothing, so just fuck off.

31

Dan S. 09.12.08 at 11:11 pm

If you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in macro-evolution,

well, I hope that wouldn’t be the case for anyone with a decent knowledge of evolutionary biology, since there are quite a few.

32

Dan S. 09.12.08 at 11:13 pm

As Steve demonstrates, if a bit more . . . rigorously.

33

Steve LaBonne 09.12.08 at 11:17 pm

My problem with Reiss’s statement is that I find it so vague that I really don’t know for what practices he is advocating. I could find it completely unobjectionable or total garbage, depending on how he would flesh it out with concrete examples. Which, I suppose, makes it typical education-professor-speak.

34

Righteous Bubba 09.12.08 at 11:53 pm

My problem with Reiss’s statement is that I find it so vague that I really don’t know for what practices he is advocating.

As I read it the whole of it is this: So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion.

Part of the confusion may be in the use of the word “lesson” which I’m taking to mean “class” and not “curriculum”. He speaks about when it might be appropriate to talk about creationism and the propriety seems to hinge on whether or not any of the students care enough to raise it.

35

Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 12:03 am

What competent teacher would dissuade students from raising doubts? (Yes, I know there are plenty of incompetent teachers, but he seems to presume to be giving advice to the good ones.) If all he’s saying is “be respectful to the doubters but teach the science”, he’s not saying anything that should require one to be a Director of Education to figure out.

And the trouble continues with his amateur epistemology about “non-scientific worldviews”. What does he mean by that exactly? What pedagogical consequences, specifically, follow from describing creationism as a “non-scientific worldview”? Hell, man, we know perfectly well it’s not scientific; tell us something we don’t know.

Still sounds to me like somebody trying to sound important without really saying anything.

36

Donald Johnson 09.13.08 at 12:11 am

David Wright–What Steve LaBonne said, though I’d be less rude about it. Popper was simply wrong. You seem to think all science has to be exactly like physics, with quantitative predictions of phenomenon that can sometimes be accurate to 8 or 9 decimal places. But set aside Steve’s excitable way of giving you advice and he’s got a point–you can’t have thought very much about what falsifiability would mean in evolutionary biology.

There’s a faq at talkorigins devoted specifically to evidence for macroevolution. I’m too lazy to go get the link, but you can find it if you’re interested.

37

Dan S. 09.13.08 at 1:34 am

There was a NY Times article a few weeks back about a U.S. teacher who takes a (possibly) somewhat similar approach. But it also highlights what noen says about about how different things are here in the U.S., to an extent that perhaps isn’t always grasped elsewhere.

With no school policy to back him up, he spent less time on the subject than he would have liked. And he bit back his irritation at Teresa Yancey, a biology teacher down the hall who taught a unit she called “Evolution or NOT.” Animals do adapt to their environments, Ms. Yancey tells her students, but evolution alone can hardly account for the appearance of wholly different life forms. She leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusions. But when pressed, she tells them, “I think God did it.”

And while Reiss notes that “ 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,” in a 2007 Gallup poll, 39% of Americans said that “Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” is “definitely true“, with an additional 27% adding that it’s “probably true” .

38

Dan S. 09.13.08 at 1:46 am

There’s a faq at talkorigins devoted specifically to evidence for macroevolution.

yep.

And see also, from the Index of Creationist Claims,
CA211: Evolution can not be falsified, and
CA211.1: Karl Popper said Darwinism is not testable.
(which notes among other tihings that Popper later changed his mind, saying “I mention this problem because I too belong among the culprits. Influenced by what these authorities say, I have in the past described the theory as ‘almost tautological’, and I have tried to explain how the theory of natural selection could be untestable (as is a tautology) and yet of great scientific interest. . . . I still believe that natural selection works in this way as a research programme. Nevertheless, I have changed my mind about the testability and the logical status of the theory of natural selection . . .

39

David Wright 09.13.08 at 2:17 am

Steve Labone, since Reiss is the education professor and you are not, I guess he doesn’t need to explain his reasoning, but just point out that you have no standing to have an opinion and should “fuck off.” Right?

The trouble with fossil records, and to a lessor extent measurements of genetic drift, is that you can tune your cladogram to accomodate a very wide variety of results. So that data is not such much testing the macro-evolutionary framework as specific, proposed histories within it. The trick is to come up with a prediction that, if falsified, would cause you to throw out the entire macro-evolutionary framework.

Donald Johnson, I don’t dispute that there are many facts that can be accomodated within the framework of macro-evolution, which is what you are calling “evidence for.” But a falsifiable prediction is a very different animal than “evidence for.” (Note that a theory can make a falsiable prediction in the absence of any evidence for it whatsoever.) And that distinction is what makes the difference between a narriative framework and a scientific theory.

But all of this veers perhaps to far into off-topic epistomological debate. My point is really that Reiss is right and Steve Labone is wrong. Good science eduction does not consist of telling students what the experts have determined to be true, telling anyone who questions it to “fuck off” because they have no expert standting. Good science education consists of fostering a scientific mode of thinking, in which experimenters form consistent, predictive theories and subject them to endless tests, and scepticism is welcomed.

40

Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 2:31 am

The trouble with fossil records, and to a lessor extent measurements of genetic drift, is that you can tune your cladogram to accomodate a very wide variety of resultsThe trouble with you is that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. There’s no need for fancy doubletalk here; anybody can understand the basic concept. Extremely simple-minded example: I predict that no rabbit fossils will ever be found in a Jurassic stratum. Finding one would set evolutionary biology on its ear. As I said, there is a truly enormous number of possible falsifying instances of this kind.

And fossils are maybe about 10% of the evidence. The truly massive dataset is molecular. It should also be observed that regarding both morphological and molecular characters, the fact that consistent hierarchical classifications are possible at all is a striking fact to be explained (and it could not be explained before 1859), not something to be assumed. It does not have to be thus and would not be in a non-Darwinian universe.

Stick to physics and leave evolution to biologists.

41

Colin Danby 09.13.08 at 2:36 am

More to the point, a classroom is a social space and you need a certain level of respect and sympathy for your students. Reiss is thinking about that classroom situation, and about how a student who comes in with a very different understanding of the world is going to experience it. How do you reach that student?

42

Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 2:38 am

To my surprise, there is quite a good article on Wikipedia on the evidence for common descent.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence_of_common_descent

43

Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 2:40 am

And the Wikipedia article references a very extensive t.o faq, which I’d forgotten about: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

44

Righteous Bubba 09.13.08 at 3:33 am

What competent teacher would dissuade students from raising doubts?

Well none of the teachers I would call competent but I don’t have a whole lot of say over such things and there do exist bad teachers. It’s okay to give guidance even if it seems mundane.

45

Jim Harrison 09.13.08 at 3:33 am

Craziness is contagious. Back in grad school, there was a full-blown paranoid in my dorm. It took an absurd amount of time, months and months, to get the powers that be to recognize that this nut case was on the loose. By the time the episode was over, we were all pretty insane because we found ourselves trying to come up with good arguments against the possibility of assassination by ESP and the kinship of blond headed people with Satan.

Creationism and ID are no less cranky than a belief that the Earth is flat. If evolution were not associated with hostility to various extreme religious systems, nobody would dream of trying to dispute the mountains of evidence that show that it is true.

46

David Wright 09.13.08 at 3:41 am

Steve LaBonne, thanks for taking the time to write back. And thanks for notching down from “fuck off” to “you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”; I guess that’s an improvement. If you manage to notch down to “thanks for enganging with me” you might someday make a decent teacher.

I’ll grant that your “no rabbits in the Jurrasic” as well as the FAQ’s “the fossil record is not static” statements are, technically, falsifiable predictions. They are just very unimpressive ones. The reason they are so poor is that the alternative space (“anything that is not a rabbit can appear in the Jurrasic” and “the fossil record shows any variation over time”) is vastly larger than the predicted space. A good scientific prediction is specific: “the value of x is 5” is a much, much better prediction than “the value of x is not 5”.

That said, your remark “that consistent hierarchical classifications are possible at all is a striking fact” did get me to thinking: it really is true that, of all thinkable fossil records, only a minority are organizable into a cladogram. So “the fossil record will be organizable into a cladogram” really is a non-trivial falsifiable prediction. (Not a really, really great one, since there are still an awful lot of thinkable cladograms, but certainly a non-trivial one.) So color me convinced: macro-evolution as a framework does make non-trivial falsifiable predictions.

Look at that: by engaging, you managed to convice someone! Of course, it had to be someone thick-skinned enough to engage despite your insults and someone reflective enough to think beyond where you were leading him — not characteristics of many high-school students. But still…

By the way, I am less impressed by the genetic record than you seem to be. For one, we really have a testable generic record only for one time-slice, so it is easy to explain almost any measured genetic relatedness between species by adjusting the presumed speciation time. For another, we only have measured generic relatedness for a very tine minority of species. If, some day, we have clear generic records of many species far back in time, and can explain them all in terms of a single, constant drift rate, that will have been an impressive test.

47

Dan S. 09.13.08 at 4:43 am

, I don’t dispute that there are many facts that can be accomodated within the framework of macro-evolution, which is what you are calling “evidence for.”

Oh, that’s cute.

molecular data that completely conflict with well-established trees;

Indeed, evolutionary bio hit a major (and quite drawn out) set of falsification opportunities with genetics, DNA, and the development of molecular genetics. It could have turned out that heredity worked in a way that made evolution impossible. It could have turned out that that every organism (or “kind”) had its own absolutely unique hereditary material. It could have turned out that the apparent relationships and evolutionary histories seemingly revealed in DNA were simply absurd – tigers more closely related to starfish than to lions, dogs closer to cacti than wolves, etc.

To bounce off something Donald Johnson said, do you feel that continental drift has serious falsification issues?

I taught physics for many years, and I would have loved nothing more than to get a real, live Ptolemain in the classroom to argue that the Sun moves around the Earth. I would expect my students to cite evidence, propose tests, and recognize ambiguities. In the absense of real, live Ptolemains, I took on this role myself many times.

Sure. But of course, not only is the idea of a real live Ptolemaist mostly an amusing conceit (mostly, although this bizarre collection of Texas GOP officials and Christian Reconstructionists may not be Ptolmaists but some other brand of geocentrist), there hasn’t been an ongoing struggle over much of the last century to drive heliocentrism out of the science classroom, or at least require you to “teach the controversy.” – And remember, this isn’t a dry academic joke (however pedagogically useful) but a flashpoint culture-war issue of immense emotional and cultural importance for countless students. (And as the debate, in the US at least, is over secondary education, generally we’re talking early adolescents getting their first exposure to high school science – possibly even middle school science – were you teaching at the secondary level, or college, or?) Imagine if many of them were taught by trusted parents and religious leaders that geocentrism is in the Bible, and that to question it is to question the literal truth of God’s Word, and if you do that . . . if they were taught that one couldn’t be a Christian and a heliocentrist, etc. I doubt there are that many kids who have been exposed to Bouw’s rantings about how heliocentrism undermined the authority of the Bible as the utterly inerrant Word of God, led to moral relativism (and of course, moral degeneracy), the bloody French Revolution, and Marxism. But when it comes to evolution, that’s the sort of thing that many kids -and their parents – have been told by trusted and culturally esteemed authorities, to say nothing of an entire industry – books, websites, videos, homeschooling materials, museums, etc. aimed at attacking evolutionary biology and spreading creationism. One doesn’t run into students saying that “I think a big reason heliocentrists believe what they believe is they don’t want to have to be ruled by God, or refusing to answer test questions about evidence for heliocentrism – but via that NY Times article, one does get the creationist equivalent. One doesn’t have students bringing in copies of “10 questions to ask your astronomy teacher” and consuming class time repeating misleading geocentrist attacks on heliocentrism, claims they may not even understand – but that’s what happens with creationism. And remember, for many students this isn’t seen as anissue of gathering evidence, testing hypotheses, etc. – For them, it’s often whether they defend or reject their and their family’s beliefs, reject their community, reject Jesus, reject morality, reject salvation.

Which is why I think the kind of approach that Campbell takes in the Times article – discussing how there are questions science can’t answer, and that science and faith are very different things – can in some situations be absolutely vital, even if there are aspects that make me rather uncomfortable. But note also that this was (at least seemingly) a few minutes alongside weeks of relatively intensive discussion of evolutionary biology. If that’s the generalish kind of thing Reiss is advocating (and that seems very possible), that’s great. It is slightly unclear, though.

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Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 12:31 pm

That said, your remark “that consistent hierarchical classifications are possible at all is a striking fact” did get me to thinking

Next time do your thinking BEFORE you post. Now go play in traffic. Biologists have enough trouble over evolution with nonscientists without also having to argue with condescending but monumentally ignorant and conceited physicists.

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Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 12:46 pm

It could have turned out that the apparent relationships and evolutionary histories seemingly revealed in DNA were simply absurd – tigers more closely related to starfish than to lions, dogs closer to cacti than wolves, etc.

One can flesh that out in a more quantitative way with the following excerpt from the t.o. common descent faq linked above:

The stunning degree of match between even the most incongruent phylogenetic trees found in the biological literature is widely unappreciated, mainly because most people (including many biologists) are unaware of the mathematics involved (Bryant et al. 2002; Penny et al. 1982; Penny and Hendy 1986). Penny and Hendy have performed a series of detailed statistical analyses of the significance of incongruent phylogenetic trees, and here is their conclusion:

“Biologists seem to seek the ‘The One Tree’ and appear not to be satisfied by a range of options. However, there is no logical difficulty in having a range of trees. There are 34,459,425 possible [unrooted] trees for 11 taxa (Penny et al. 1982), and to reduce this to the order of 10-50 trees is analogous to an accuracy of measurement of approximately one part in 106.” (Penny and Hendy 1986, p. 414)

For a more realistic universal phylogenetic tree with dozens of taxa including all known phyla, the accuracy is better by many orders of magnitude. To put the significance of this incredible confirmation in perspective, consider the modern theory of gravity. Both Newton’s Theory of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity rely upon a fundamental physical constant, G, the gravitational constant. If these theories of gravity are correct, independent methods should determine similar values for G. However, to date, very precise independent measurements of the gravitational constant G disagree by nearly 1% (Kestenbaum 1998; Quinn 2000).

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Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 12:47 pm

Sorry- forgot that the blockquote tag gets canceled by a paragraph break. Everything following my one sentence is quoted from the t.o. faq.

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Dan S. 09.13.08 at 1:36 pm

Cursed italics. *They* definitely have kinship with Satan (common descent?)

Look at that: by engaging, you managed to convice someone!

Damn. This may be the . . . hmm . . . third time I’ve seen that happen on the internet. Sweet. Yay, reason and openmindedness!

All the same, though, being a small and dour person, I want to comment on . . . well, certainly not that you dared question evolution, or even suggest that it was, in some sense, a Theory In Crisis [scary sound effect]. As you note, that sort of attitude is definitely not part of a good science education. And not even how you went right to the somewhat hoary ‘Popper said evolution wasn’t falsifiable’! – which, other issues aside, my understanding is that even Popper later changed his mind about.

It’s how the whole thing was almost Palinesque – I mean, I tried to put it a bit more delicately than LaBonne or even Johnson, but stuff like “If you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in macro-evolution, it isn’t a scientific theory (*mostly* because I read #29, perhaps wrongly, as seeming to suggest strongly that one can’t, rather than being an abstract exploration of epistemological issues) really does make it sound like there isn’t a ton of familiarity there.

And that’s fine – you’re a physicist, not a biologist. Except . . . I guess it’s sort of the difference between somebody going, ‘look, I just don’t understand how big bang theory can be tested, can be really science’ (which is what the xkcd comic mentioned above is referring to)*, and somebody going:’ well, as a biologist, I can see evolution happening in the lab, make clear, testable predictions, etc. – But if you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in big bang theory, it isn’t a scientific theory, then . . . is it, punk? ‘ [ok, last bit exaggerating a bit; also, replaced ‘big bang nucleosynthesis’ with ‘big bang theory’ to make a better parallel].

Now, to the second statement, one might very well reply, well, that’s certainly true, and also, well, here are some such measurements – but perhaps a gentle reminder that knowledge and expertise in one field doesn’t necessary carry over to another might not be untoward. Or maybe so – this can be a sensitive topic. Anyway, my point, before I lose it completely in the wordy undergrowth, is that I wonder if antievolution works like political smears. That is, sure, there seems to be a set of rather low-information voters/fearful rightwing racist xenophobes who really think that Obama is a cryptofascist secret Muslim rabidly anti-American black liberation theologist pastor-following marxist (or whatever), (see also the endless accusations of even more unlikely Clinton scandals, from Whitewater to tying people to train tracks and such) But it may also be the case that for many others, while such claims are dismissed, ignored, or virtually forgotten, they leave a sort of unconscious residue, a faint bad odor, a vague suspicion that there’s something not right here, all the more resilient for not being the product of rational, conscious consideration. (wasn’t there some recent research along these lines?). Certainly there are over here no shortage of straight up creationists, but I wonder if it also manages to subtly influence folks – especially folks not very engaged in it – that evolutionary biology is, well, just sorta . . . y’know . . . not quite dependable.

Or maybe not, and this is more an inhouse dispute between different disciplines and philosophical/methodological approaches. Etc.

* which makes it perhaps not quite an equivalent to those bumper stickers, I think.

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Steve LaBonne 09.13.08 at 3:05 pm

Dan, I admire your politeness- my patience with Wright’s sort of nonsense completely wore out a long time ago. Because common descent is not a theory– it’s one of the most massively and overabundantly confirmed facts in all of science. (Evolutionary theory as such deals with the contributions of selection, drift, and other more recondite processes on the pattern of change in the biosphere over time.) People who deny it are not one whit better than flat-earthers. And when those people are scientists themselves, one can only say, “for shame!”

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Jon 09.13.08 at 6:35 pm

The best way to deal with this simply is to oppose creationism to the theory of evolution: Science by far bids the better, more coherent, and more fact based narration. Otherwise it would seem as if science is afraid of creationisms concept could be stronger.

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Barry 09.13.08 at 9:46 pm

Agreed; it’s amazing how many people find major flaws with evolution, but not with other fields.

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KAS 09.13.08 at 10:28 pm

Jim Harrison

“Creationism and ID are no less cranky than a belief that the Earth is flat. If evolution were not associated with hostility to various extreme religious systems, nobody would dream of trying to dispute the mountains of evidence that show that it is true.”

Fantastic!

Steve LaBonne,

Your nature in this forum is nothing short of accosting verbally; David Wright, as a physicist, is not necessarily ignorant because Biology is not his field; just as you might discuss physics as a presumed Biologist. To not be open to discussion is the true revelation of being conceited, as you do not understand knowledge unless you understand its malleability and ability to progress. In order for anyone to discover something new, they must concede to new thoughts and questions. The truly and remarkably intelligent minds question EVERYTHING; even what you propose is fact and not a theory should be up for grabs, (agnostic here who absolutely agrees with evolution.) But, to touch on your disposition to the word ‘theoy’ -isn’t a theory but an idea proposed based on some strong indisputable facts? Is that not the definition of the scientific method that precludes a theory? As we do not yet have a list of facts from point A – Z and only some (albeit exciting and detailed) letters in between; I would say that evolution is open to ALL questions and is still a theory not a fact (you need all ingedients to make fact, not just some or even most.) No questions are stupid and no people that question are either. For Mr. Wright to be open to agreeing that his perception was wrong and that yours was right – makes him the winner here. You got lost in trying to disprove as opposed to delving into what a forum like this is about – sharing and debating (not arguing) information (or in my case -learning.) Now, before you go off on me with a ‘fuck you’ or ‘go run in traffic’ be prepared with this ammo; I am not highly educated in any manner. I just run around using my noggin to think… is that o.k. Mr. LaBonne or must all of our pursuits of understanding align with yours in order to enjoy intellectual discussion and to not be unjustly insulted?

I spend my days learning and discovering new things – what is left to discover does not make me ignorant – it is the lack of ability to be open to learning and understanding the ‘new’ as well as questioning the old, that makes a person ignorant.

Furthermore, if you just take the information and refuse to think about it differently or to try and consider something new about it; you haven’t used you mind for anything other than storage. So, again, though someone else’s idea may be easily refuted – at least they used their mind to construct a question! Everything you know, someone else discovered by asking ‘hmm, but what if the world isn’t flat; or, hmmm, maybe the earth isn’t the center of the universe’ or, even, hmmm. I wonder what this looks like smaller/closer/under water/in cold/heated etc. etc. etc. These are questions. Just because you absorb someone else’s discoveries based on the same questions you so easily mock, that does not make you all knowing.

Information and knowledge are like stacking blocks; sometimes when the next level is reached you discover that one of the founding level’s is no longer conducive. Now, you have to modify and restart the ‘knowledge’ you already had. So, do not confuse your education with irrefutable and non debatable knowledge; as knowledge is as volatile as everything else in this huge existence we share with far more hydrogen than flesh.

Now on to my comment about this post; I think it’s a shame that this was lumped in to Palin (who did in fact say that she supports creationism being taught in school and furthered her answer with something like ‘don’t be afraid of information’.) She is a fool. Michael Reis is not. Mr. Reis is simply saying that as an educator you should bring up the debate in a scholastic manner. Please explain your position; this is mine and the facts that support it. Moving on to the lesson. I don’t think educators should tell students that their family’s religious beliefs are lies or fancy as that is treading on the careful line of insulting a person’s religious beliefs; I also think they should spend as little time as possible debating ‘belief’ and instead show the argument with supporting facts and let the person conclude themselves.

KAS

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J Thomas 09.13.08 at 11:17 pm

But big bang nucleosynthesis makes clear, testable predictions regarding the ratios of interstellar hydrogen, helium, and deuterium. If those ratios had come out wrong, physicists would stop believing in big bang nucleosynthesis.

I’m fairly knowledgeable about evolution, but I know nothing about big bang nucleosynthesis, and very little about the sort of physics that leads to the big bang. Could you give me a clear, plain explanation why it is that you can’t tune your assumptions to give different ratios?

While I’m truly interested in the question, for rhetorical purposes you might like to present your explanation in a form that you would expect an Intelligent Design proponent to understand. For a real tour-de-force you might explain it to a fundamentalist who is sure that God created the world in 6 days and there was no big bang. But those are for arguing about the topic. I really am interested in how you’d explain about big bang nucleosynthesis to a biologist.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 12:33 am

Dan, I admire your politeness

*shrugs* temperament.

KAS – a link that expands what Steve was saying about “fact” and theory. See also here.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 12:34 am

oh, I forgot that asterisks get translated into boldface.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 12:53 am

KAS – I do agree with much of your last paragraph, though. And I rather like “Information and knowledge are like stacking blocks “. Don’t forget, though, that the background to our comments (esp. here in the US) is a neverending assault on science education, with the one of the results being that 31% of teachers surveyed in 2005 said they felt pressured to include creationism (including ID) in the classroom, with 30% reporting pressure to deemphasize or omit evolution altogether.

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Steve LaBonne 09.14.08 at 1:18 am

David Wright, as a physicist, is not necessarily ignorant because Biology is not his field

I didn’t say that. I said he’s ignorant of evolutionary biology because his uninformed remarks demonstrate very clearly that he is.

So are you. Did you bother reading any of the rather extensive material to which I linked?

Why is evolutionary biology one of the few subjects on which the entirely uninformed feel free to pontificate with the utmost arrogance?

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David Wright 09.14.08 at 2:59 am

J Thomas: Sure! The basic idea of big bang nucleosynthesis goes like this:

When enough high energy electrons and neutrinos are around, the weak interaction can change protons into neutrons and vice-versa. In such a high-energy plasma, the relative abundances of neutrons and protons is determined by thermodynamics: because neutrons weigh more than protons, there will be more protons than neutrons, but how many more depends on the temperature.

As the temperature goes down, eventually there will no longer be enough high-energy electrons and neutrios arround to inter-convert protons and neutrons. The temperature at which this occurs is called the “freeze-out” temperature, because when the temperature drops below that level the proton:neutron ratio is frozen. The proton:neutron ratio at the freeze-out temperature turns out to be ~7:1.

Now imagine that we assemble those neutrons and protons into helium (2 protons + 2 neutrons) and hydrogen (1 proton) nuclei. We will have 12 hydrogren atoms for every 1 helium atom. The ratio of hydrogen:helium atoms that is observed in interstellar space is ~12:1.

A more complex calculation allows one to also compute the ratios of deuterium (1 proton + 1 neutron) and helium-3 (2 protons + 1 neutron), which are produced at a very much smaller rates. All the values agree with observation, and some are measured to 3 significant figures.

If I were having this disucssion with a fundamentalist, I would ask him to sketch some alternative theories and explain how they could be tested. (“God made them in that ratio” is a fine alterantive theory; the point is to get him to propose a test of it.) I would point out that really this is just about the cooling of an expanding plasma, so maybe we have seen how God used an expanding plasma to create the elements He used to build the Universe.

But I wouldn’t really expect to convince him that big bang nucleosynthesis is right. (Maybe it isn’t!) What I would expect to convince him is that science deals with alternative theories by thinking of experimental tests and carrying them out.

In the introductory astronomy courses I mentioned earlier, I’d similiarly rather my students forget that the heliocentric view is correct and remember that science deals with controversy by creating experimental tests and carrying them out. And I would hope that any good introductory biology teacher would similiarly prefer his students forget that evolution is correct and remember than science deals with controversy by creatng experimental tests and carrying them out.

That is why, in the culture war in which Steve expects me, as a scientist, to be on his side, I am not. I don’t want to ensure that only his prefered theory is taught, beautiful and explanatory as it may be. I want to ensure that science is taught, which means that students see that scientists deal with controversy not by court cases and school board policies, but by creating experimental tests and carrything them out.

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John Landon 09.14.08 at 3:23 am

What should science teachers do when faced with students who are creationists?
Hard to say…
Here’s a better question:
What should the public do when faced with Darwinists who can’t see through Darwinism, when apparently know the theory’s flaws?

The problem isn’t just creationists in the Bible. The problem is the unreasonable abuse of the Darwinian scenario of selectionist explanation, as a de facto metaphysics that students are under no obligation to accept.
Apparently this insight is beyond 1. the net total of rocket scientists, 2. mainstream scientists, by and large, 3. academics, except those who have been silenced.
If the guardians of rocket science can’t figure out an idiot evolution theory, I am saddened but not a bit surprised the religious public simply refuses to knuckle under to the Darwin propaganda machine enforced by 1. rocket scientists, 2. mainstream scientists, by and large, and academics, except those who haven’t been silenced.

The situation shows the dangers of propaganda passed off as education. The graduates can’t solve this silly problem.

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John Landon 09.14.08 at 3:45 am

The simple solution here is to teach evolution, but declare science’s ignorance, and biology’s inability, so far, to solve the problems of theory, making sure sure design arguments are properly critiqued and not allowed to fill the vacuum. The obsession with natural selection has to go. That approach might regain the trust of the public in science, confronted with the obvious deception, obvious at least to creationists, prompted by the ID group that has every flaw cornered, perpetrated by paradigm promoters of Darwinian orthodoxy. This is a problem that should have been solved in the sixties or seventies or in the Gould era. Instead we have had a generation indoctrinated in the fine points of the Dawkins loudmouth routine, in the name of science. It’s the end of Darwinism, or the end of science, your move. Small wonder some people are worried about the educational system.
from Darwiniana

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 4:00 am

What I would expect to convince him is that science deals with alternative theories by thinking of experimental tests and carrying them out.

Do you have a lot of experience with creationists?

I want to ensure that science is taught
So do I, David.

which means that students see that scientists deal with controversy not by court cases and school board policies, but by creating experimental tests and carrything them out.

Hmm. This is a very . . . interesting image of the current situation. Perhaps the big problem here is presenting “court cases and school board policies” and having “students see that scientists deal with contriversy . . . by creating experimental tests [etc.]” as mutual exclusives, when instead, the first is necessary to be able to do the second, indeed, to “ensure that science is taught”. (Nor is it clear why ‘court cases and school board policies’ would be crammed into lesson plans (except perhaps as a brief social/historical-aspect sidebar) – it’s the other folks who impose things like administrators wandering into classrooms to read bizarre statements, or stickers slapped on textbooks singling out (only) evolution for critical consideration, and repeating the fact/theory canard.)

Dealing with this kind of controversy in the classroom – there’s the Campbell/Reiss? NOMA-like ‘avoid the controversy’ approach (stressing how science only works on things it can test, faith and science ask different questions, etc.) While that explicitly gets at the way science works, it seems to me that you might lean more towards a “teach the controversy” approach, thinking of your occasional mock-Ptolomaism. If so, I’m not sure you appreciate how different the situation can be with teaching evolution, and how taking .
such an approach can be very non-conducive to your goal.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 4:14 am

The problem is the unreasonable abuse of the Darwinian scenario of selectionist explanation, as a de facto metaphysics that students are under no obligation to accept.

No.

It isn’t. The problem is people who because of their association with specific non-mainstream sectarian religious beliefs believe that good science education is a hideous and evil lie threatening morality, public order, religion, and their children’s souls.

and academics, except those who haven’t been silenced.
Help, help, I’m being opppressed!!

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Jim Harrison 09.14.08 at 4:40 am

For the record, Jack Landon is a promoter of eonic periodization, the magic key to human history. We await further news from the ether.

People used to say Artificial Intelligence is the wave of the future and it will always be the wave of future. In the same spirit, can we agree that Darwinism is on the verge of collapse and it will always be on the verge of collapse?

So long as there is still a market for goat glands…

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David Wright 09.14.08 at 5:12 am

Dans S: I see the distinction in teaching styles you are drawing, but I don’t think I quite advocate either.

If “teaching the controversy” means just saying “some people believe man evolved and others believe he was created; write an essay on which one you believe and why”, that certainly doesn’t count as teaching science.

But saying “man evolved and is a member of the ape family, which also includes chimps, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos; the speciation point between the ancestors of humans and chimps occured about 5M years ago…” also doesn’t count as teaching science. That’s because nowhere are students seeing hypothesis formation and testing at work.

I’m sure that as a physicist I don’t face the level of hostility from fundamentalists that biologists do, but I certainly do encounter many people who, when I mention that I did cosmology, immediately say “I don’t believe in the big bang”. I don’t say “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Instead I say “maybe the big bang is wrong; it does seem to explain x and y and z, though; can you suggest an alternative theory that might, too? how could we go about testing our theories?”.

If I were teaching introductory biology (perish the thought, Steve L!), I wouldn’t hesitate to massively scale back the number of “facts” to communicate and instead use the time to teach how science works. If my textbook had an “evolution is just a theory” sticker on it, I would use that as a stepping-off point to talk about basic epistimology: “what is a fact and what is a theory and how does one distinguish?” And if no student brought up any alternatives to Darwinin evolution, you can be damn sure I would bring some up myself: “what about Lamarkian evolution? what about ID? how can we test these theories?” So no, I wouldn’t adovate avoiding controversy, but instead using it to show how science works.

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David Wright 09.14.08 at 6:43 am

I just wanted to address J Thomas’s “parameter tuning” question explicitly before retiring from the fray. The most straitforward way to tune parameters to get a different He:H ratio from big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN) is to change the proton mass, neutron mass, or weak interaction constant. But of course, you can’t do that, because those are measured in lab experiments on Earth that have nothing to do with BBN. It turns out that there is one tunable parameter, whoose influence is subtle enough that it didn’t even show up in my simple explanation, called the baryon-to-photon ratio. The value of this parameter has little effect on the He:H ratio, but it does affect the abundances of D, 3He, and 7Li. So BBN has one tunable input parameter and four measureable outputs. That’s more than enough to make it a testable theory.

Thanks to all of you engaging with me. And thanks to Steve L. for helping me learn something, although I’m sure glad you were never my teacher.

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J Thomas 09.14.08 at 8:52 am

David Wright, thank you! That’s beautifully simple.

However, you left out important parts. It makes intuitive sense that given a choice between hydrogen and helium, the ratio would be determined only by the ratio of protons to neutrons. But you point out that there are 2 other choices which happen at much lower frequency, and you give no indication at all why they happen at the frequencies they do. When I think about it, what would happen if not all the neutrons wound up in atoms? That would change your ratio.

I don’t know much about this sort of thing, but doesn’t a neutron have a halflife of about 10 minutes? So you’d need almost all the neutrons to get into helium nucleuses immediately or that would change your ratio.

It seems striking that your results come out so simply. But if they had come out a little different, aren’t there various fudge factors that could account for it? Couldn’t you have made extra conclusions about the details of the big bang that would account for them?

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Katherine 09.14.08 at 9:24 am

The problem, David Wright, is that you appear to assume good faith on the part of al the debaters. In an ideal world, for example, were I to bump into a cosmologist at a party (god forbid!) maybe I would say, “I read some articles recently saying that the Big Bang Theory might be in some trouble. I’m a layman, so I don’t fully understand all the ins-and-outs, but it looked quite serious to me. What do you think?”. Hopefully, an interesting and informative discussion would ensue. What fun we’d have!

However, if this dear cosmologist had just spent the last several years dealing with lies, attacks and concerted bad faith political pressure forcing him/her to constantly defend the Big Band Theory against people who really had no interest in learning and debating, then I might expect a slightly different reaction. I might, in fact, be a bit more circumspect in voicing my doubts and explaining the source of my almost-entirely-uninformed opinions.

When you say “I’m sure that as a physicist I don’t face the level of hostility from fundamentalists that biologists do” I don’t think you understand the half of it. You surely don’t think that an ID advocate would give a flying fuck about getting a terribly reasonable response that acknowledges doubts and gaps and discusses where the research is going to fill those gaps and explain those doubts.

They’ll grab that doubt and that gap, assume (because they want to) that that validates their entire world-view and go running around to the school boards shouting “Doubts! Doubts! Gaps! Gaps! Those scientists are lying when they talk about “facts”! It’s Just A Theory!”

“Teaching the debate” is, alas, shorthand for “Evolution is wrong and God made us all 5 thousand years ago”. It’s disingenous to pretend otherwise.

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virgil xenophon 09.14.08 at 9:59 am

Everyone here (or most anyway) seem to talk only of “large” ID and to equate it with Creationism. Fair enough, given the zeal with which Creationists have seized upon ID. But there are many fairly serious scientists out there advocating “small id” (or at least admitting the concept has some interesting things to say) and I for one feel it wrong to lump them in with the Creationist/Large ID crowd. One such person is the British astronomer Brian Darling. Checkout his Biography/Bibliography on Wiki and hit his web site. He holds some interesting views.

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engels 09.14.08 at 1:23 pm

What I want to know is when are we going to start ‘teaching the controversy’ about the value of Pi?

Also he made a molten sea of ten cubits from brim to brim, round in compass, and five cubits the height thereof; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about. (II Chronicles 4:2)

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jj2 09.14.08 at 2:05 pm

But wait! Wasn’t the earth terraformed 9000 years ago for colonial human habitation? That would explain not only the rational value of pi but also the irrational reliance on evolution.

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Righteous Bubba 09.14.08 at 3:07 pm

Fair enough, given the zeal with which Creationists have seized upon ID.

“Zeal” here meaning “created”.

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Righteous Bubba 09.14.08 at 3:07 pm

Fair enough, given the zeal with which Creationists have seized upon ID.

“Seized upon” here meaning “created”. Whoopsies.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 3:15 pm

Everyone here (or most anyway) seem to talk only of “large” ID and to equate it with Creationism

Yes, because that’s what it is – while there may have been occasional science speculative/theological/philosophical bits floating around independently beforehand, what we have now is just another version of creationism, pushed in part as a legal strategy by “cdesign proponentsists. Indeed, it’s largely just a kind of neo-Paleyism, resurrected zombie-like from its Victorian grave and tarted up a bit.

(of course, there is actual science concerned with the question of intentional biological engineering, by humans, but I don’t know if that’s what you mean by “little id”.

One such person is the British astronomer Brian Darling. Checkout his Biography/Bibliography on Wiki and hit his web site. He holds some interesting views.

I think you mean David Darling. While he does seem to hold some interesting views, it’s not clear what he thinks about ID creationism – although he does include the Discovery Institute tract “The Privileged Planet (written by DI Fellow Guillermo Gonzalez and DI program director Jay Richards), taking aim at cosmology, in his virtual bookshop.

David – I don’t know if we vastly disagree, although it I was teaching 9th grade bio (I should add that I’m not a scientist or science teacher, or even currently working in education) I certainly wouldn’t bring ID or other forms of creationism up as a hypothesis to be tested. I do think you might be underestimated the difficulties of responsibly fulfilling professional and ethical obligations in what can be an extremely emotionally and socially loaded situation (with young adolescents, yet!)

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 3:42 pm

while there may have been occasional science

strike “science” – editing error. Or I guess you could have it as “non-science” – that works.

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J Thomas 09.14.08 at 4:59 pm

I don’t know if we vastly disagree, although it I was teaching 9th grade bio (I should add that I’m not a scientist or science teacher, or even currently working in education) I certainly wouldn’t bring ID or other forms of creationism up as a hypothesis to be tested.

Hell no. If you teach evolution and ignore religion you can expect complaints.

If you teach evolution, and present ID as an alternative and then it looks like you’re criticising ID, if it looks like you’re making ID look stupid, you’ll get a *lot* of complaints.

To survive in the public-school bureaucracy you want to minimise parent complaints. Getting a bunch of nonparents aiming criticism at you is grounds for not getting your contract renewed.

The safest thing is to put evolution in the teaching plan at the end, and then drag out the preceding material until there isn’t time for it.

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virgil xenophon 09.14.08 at 8:03 pm

Dan S

Funny how the mind works. Brian Darling was an attorney friend of mine years ago in Louisville, Ky. Mental transposition, I guess. My take on David Darling is probably influenced by a Radio interview in which he expounded on “small” id somewhat and seemed very sensible in his treatment of the subject and where it fits in the scheme of things both in the academic and public mind.

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Michele 09.14.08 at 8:24 pm

The thing that most non-fundamentlist’s don’t understand is that these kids are terrified of anything that rocks their faith-based worldview. They may come across as self-righteous mini-fanatics, but at heart they are scared children who worry that their very soul and eternal salvation are at stake if they don’t make a passionate stand for the supremacy of “received truth” (as one poster pointed out the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” crowd) over scientific truth. I know, because I was one of them. It would have helped me no end to have a teacher who would have patiently and in a non-threatening manner talk about my beliefs vs. scientific knowledge. It probably would not have changed my views at the time, because going against the doctrine of the church leaves you isolated in a scary world (disobedience is punished by the family and friends you have had all your life turning their backs on you) and most children are not prepared to endure this. It is a little like children whose parent is abusing them, but they feel compelled to defend that parent even more aggressively because they are more terrified of losing the parent than they are of enduring more abuse.

You also have to remember that kids in fundamental religions are not seeking truth because they believe they already have it. Their questioning of science has more to do with proselytizing and earning salvation points than it does with an honest attempt to find the truth, so when you challenge them too aggressively, you are playing into their internalized “victims for Christ” meme. You can’t win anyway, because there is an answer for every scientific quandary in fundamental faiths. If you bring up the discrepancies in geological age, for example, some fundamentalists will claim that the Earth is older than 7,000 years (but not as old as scientists think) and that God did create the dinosaurs, but only because he knew humans would need fossil fuels (really– I’m not making this up) and that elements of the fossil record were planted by God to test our faith. I suggested once to my parents that that was a rather dick-ish thing for God to do and asked why they blindly supported a being who would be so pettily devious and mean-spirited. The fact is you simply can’t reason with people who choose not to use reason, so maybe Professor Reiss is right–engage them about their concerns and let them have their say. It won’t alter scientific fact and it might open some otherwise closed minds.

For the record, I am now 45 with two grown children of my own and still have not been honest with my parents about my atheism because they would shun me. Really. Fundamentalism (in any religion) is cruel and requires its adherents to deny their own humanity. My amoral atheistic self sees them getting older, knows they are going to need help very soon and can’t justify allowing the stupidity of a religious belief to interfere with my human duty to them. It’s just easier not to talk about it.

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Steve LaBonne 09.14.08 at 8:26 pm

Update- Reiss has issued the following clarification:

“When young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.”

So, in my not so humble opinion, I nailed it. He never meant to say anything non-blindingly-obvious in the first place. He might as well have shut up instead of blathering.

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Markup 09.14.08 at 8:53 pm

The safest thing is to put evolution in the teaching plan at the end, and then drag out the preceding material until there isn’t time for it.

While that may be safer in some senses it may well not be. Sort of like giving antibiotics without benefit of taking a culture. A reasonable guess as to what ails, a healthy body should be able to fight it off on its’ own. Then again…

Perhaps taking care of it on day one, or as they say, in the beginning. Of course it should not be limited to just that one new fangled western christian version of the creation, it too just a theory, but encompass all others. Hindu, Islam, and even Inuit, which by the way I know, well firmly believe anyways, that with another decade or two of warming revealed to me will be proof positive of the story of Sedna. There’s just too much ice to get under now to be able to find the first finger. That find will ultimately lead to the Ravens nest. Inside the Nest, we will [likely, this is just a theory till then] the Genesis device which will in turn take to the stars [or Heaven if you prefer] where we can then pass this whole question back in to the lap of our Superiors [assuming they have a lap]. Obviously for you non-believers this is just another instance that bears out the good that can had from melting a little old snow.

“Be”

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Markup 09.14.08 at 8:53 pm

The safest thing is to put evolution in the teaching plan at the end, and then drag out the preceding material until there isn’t time for it.

While that may be safer in some senses it may well not be. Sort of like giving antibiotics without benefit of taking a culture. A reasonable guess as to what ails, a healthy body should be able to fight it off on its’ own. Then again…

Perhaps taking care of it on day one, or as they say, in the beginning. Of course it should not be limited to just that one new fangled western christian version of the creation, it too just a theory, but encompass all others. Hindu, Islam, and even Inuit, which by the way I know, well firmly believe anyways, that with another decade or two of warming revealed to me will be proof positive of the story of Sedna. There’s just too much ice to get under now to be able to find the first finger. That find will ultimately lead to the Ravens nest. Inside the Nest, we will [likely, this is just a theory till then] the Genesis device which will in turn take to the stars [or Heaven if you prefer] where we can then pass this whole question back in to the lap of our Superiors [assuming they have a lap]. Obviously for you non-believers this is just another instance that bears out the good that can had from melting a little old snow.

“Be”

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David Wright 09.14.08 at 8:54 pm

J Thomas: You’re right, I did just give the “basic idea” picture of BBN. The full calculation addresses your concerns, all of which are all valid.

The right way to do the full calculation is to write down the network of all possible nuclear reactions, starting with p and n: p + n = d + g, d + p = 3He + g, 3He + d = 4He + n, etc. (The g in those equations is a gamma particle, i.e. a photon, released so that the total energy balance is maintained.) The rates of those reactions are known from labratory nuclear physics experiments. Then one solves the reaction network, starting from the initial conditions at freeze-out, using a numerical differential equation integrator.

Just as with chemical reaction networks, the rates of the various reactions involved often relate in ways that allow simplified, approximate solutions. In our case, the reactions that produce 3He and 3H are relatively slow, but the reactions that produce 4He from 3He and 3H are relatively fast. Also, reactions that remove 4He are very slow. That’s why essentially all the neutrons (that don’t decay) end up in 4He.

Neutron decay is one of the reactions in the network, but it turns out to have only a small effect, because the freeze-out occurs at ~1s and BBN is essentially complete by ~3m, so the times involved are shorter than the ~10m mean neutron lifetime.

By the way, you can also see from this reaction network how the baryon-to-photon ratio comes in. If there are lots of gamma particles arround, they can split up the d, 3He, and 3H that get created, which affects the trace amounts of these elements that are left over at the end.

You ask how physicists might try to “save” BBN, were its predictions to come out wrong. You might think that, with all those reactions involved, you ought to be able to tune some reaction rate, but since all those rates are known from lab experiments, and since the upshot of the network is basically that all the neutrons end up in helium, that really doesn’t give you much room to play.

One way to significantly change the output of BBN is to posit some exotic new particle that participates in the reactions but that we haven’t seen in the lab. If the original proposers had needed to do that in order to make BBN work, I doubt anyone would have taken BBN seriously. Nowadays BBN is used as a test when people propose exotic new particles for other reasons: “that particle is an interesting idea but wouldn’t it screw up BBN?” My work, for example, involved placing limits on proposed supersymmetric dark matter particles by calculating their impact on BBN.

I wish I could recommend a popular article on BBN, but I’m afraid I don’t know of one. Perhaps I should write one. Thanks for your interest!

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Will 09.14.08 at 9:17 pm

Pe Wi,
I teach high school science (chemistry and physics). I think your “history of science” suggestion offers a good place for students to view creationism/ID on the same field as other, largely overlooked, cosmologies. They may leave the conversation wondering “what makes this belief of mine special, aside from that, I’m the one doing the believing?”
However, to suggest that it is an appreciable “theory of the time” errs in the same manner as does much of the creationist/ID debate. That is, creationism/ID did not exist in an era that had “theory” as science education uses the word today. Science after the enlightenment, is empirical. Today, we understand there is no such thing as proving a theory right. If the theory is a good one, then there is simply a long period before it is proven wrong (vis: the theory of gravity is still going).
In biblical times, there was no understanding of creating knowledge through a system of reproducible facts. This means, there was no structure for such concept as a theory that could not be proven wrong. Today, because God’s act of creation cannot be measured empirically (without reduction to some act of faith), creationism/ID cannot be considered a theory. Not now, not even then, really. It does not fall within the domain of science. Therefore, we can safely say it has no place in a public school classroom that honestly maintains a separation of church and state.

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Ted 09.14.08 at 10:03 pm

If you people are scientists/teachers, I can see why home schooling is becoming so popular.

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 10:08 pm

The safest thing is to put evolution in the teaching plan at the end, and then drag out the preceding material until there isn’t time for it.

Sadly, too many folks agree.

a Radio interview in which he expounded on “small” id somewhat and seemed very sensible in his treatment of the subject and where it fits in the scheme of things both in the academic and public mind.

I have to admit, I’m curious.

with another decade or two of warming revealed to me will be proof positive of the story of Sedna

Now that might make a good speculative fantasy tale . . .

I certainly do encounter many people who, when I mention that I did cosmology, immediately say “I don’t believe in the big bang”. I don’t say “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Which is good. I think Steve got irritated because you sort of played the role of a biologist taking part in the conversation who starts going in about how well, don’t you know that big bang theory has serious problems with falsifiability, and while my work, makes clear predictions, if you can’t think of a measurement that could be made that would make you stop believing in macro-evolution, it isn’t a scientific theory . . .
While it’ll be great if the biologist eventually announces himself partly swayed by part of your utterly standard explanation (if still underwhelmed by others) – even in the face of somewhat rough language . . . well, it would suggest that said biologist hadn’t bothered to look very deeply beforehand. You could imagine being a bit annoyed that they had been making these kind of confident pronouncements without taking it seriously, as it were, especially if there was a organized and extremely resilient sociopolitical movement aimed at undermining physics education (and ultimately bio, and chem – indeed, science itself, but starting with physics), no?

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Dan S. 09.14.08 at 10:33 pm

I’m badly struggling with the bbn account – very much my fault, not yours – but as I sometimes do, I’m getting tiny faint tantalizing glimpses of how, well, beautiful physics can be, in that look! look! it works sense.

the wikipedia page has some general audience links

And here is a post by Canadian ID creationism advocate Denyse O’Leary musing “Will the rarity of the element lithium endanger the Big Bang theory?

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Al 09.15.08 at 1:30 am

I was a radical creationist in high school in rural Indiana 1974-1977 and wanted to have a career in the sciences. I would regularly and intentionally get into arguments with my teachers. But they always kept it respectful, as scientific as possible and used them as “teachable moments”. As I’m sure they hoped or guessed, when I got to college and had to make a choice between the scientific method and religious certainty I went with rational knowledge. Now a college professor I had declared to a student request to cover creationism during the semester that there wasn’t enough time to teach just the things that scientists agreed on, such as evolution, much less things that that a few wanted to argue about and that there was a comparative religion class that might interest them. I can see where both responses were appropriate for their situation.

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Tim Fuller 09.15.08 at 2:14 am

The UK article neglects to note that teaching RELIGION in public schools is illegal in America. There is always a pro forma acceptance that the creationism that will be debated is one of a Judeo Christian Muslim variety, but that excludes many other (just as unscientific IMHO) religious belief systems. We have plenty of native Americans here whose creation stories are just as real to them as any of those befitting the sons of Abraham. Like it or not, there are a plethora of Scientologists who see our creation as a product of Xenu. As I get older I am more inclined to believe that the Egyptians were correct all along.

What seems necessary isn’t to waste classroom time on creationism drivel, but to simply teach the logical fallacy involved in believing we need an intelligent designer to exist and then ignoring the question of who designed the designer.

Enjoy.

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Dan S. 09.15.08 at 2:57 am

As I’m sure they hoped or guessed, when I got to college and had to make a choice between the scientific method and religious certainty I went with rational knowledge

What sort of things swayed you?

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J Thomas 09.15.08 at 4:34 am

Neutron decay is one of the reactions in the network, but it turns out to have only a small effect, because the freeze-out occurs at ~1s and BBN is essentially complete by ~3m, so the times involved are shorter than the ~10m mean neutron lifetime.

Ah, how was it determined that BBN was complete by 3m? That didn’t obviously follow just from what you said so far.

Could the density of the plasma matter at all?

Would your results imply that all the physical constants were the same back then as they are now when the lab experiments get done?

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Lex 09.15.08 at 9:08 am

“As I get older I am more inclined to believe that the Egyptians were correct all along”…

IOW, it’s all a load of wank….

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abb1 09.15.08 at 9:37 am

I haven’t read the thread, perhaps this had been discussed already, but does creationism (except for the most naive sort) contradict evolutionary science? Why can’t you say: here’s the science and it’s not necessary inconsistent with some forms of deism. Adjust your dogma accordingly. End of story.

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Steve LaBonne 09.15.08 at 10:50 am

You can, abb1 (though IMHO it’s rather pointless since you have to carefully specify that your sky fairy isn’t responsible for any observable phenomena at all); viz. actual biologists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who have written books expounding such a viewpoint.

That’s not what the ID movement (of which those guys are fierce opponents) is about at all. It’s just the latest ruse (basically, a legal strategy, though it ain’t working) to try to smuggle biblical creationism into public schools under yet another disguise.

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Dan S. 09.15.08 at 11:39 am

Just for a bit of background, from the Dover trial

Q [Board member] Mrs. Geesey, I ve just handed you a copy of your deposition transcript from I believe it was March the 10 .
A Yes.
Q And you recall that deposition?
A Yes.
Q I just handed it to you now because we might be referring to it.
I’m not sure I heard the last point you made. You say you did not want your children being exposed to evolution?
A No, I do.
Q You do want them?
A Um-hum.
Q And what was it about the Christian school that you didn’t like as much as you like about the Dover schools?
A At the time that — he’s in eighth grade now, so when he was going to kindergarten they did not teach everything, they didn’t teach different views.
Q What do you mean “everything” and “different views”?
A They didn’t teach evolution, you know, it was Christian, they just taught one thing.
Q What was the one thing they taught?
A Genesis, you know, Genesis.
Q And you don’t have a background in science, do you?
A No.
Q And your educational background involves finishing high school?
A Yes.
Q And you haven’t had any science courses since then?
A No.
Q You attended all of the board meetings in March — I’m sorry, in 2004 except one?
A I believe it was two; I was certain of one.
Q And you were not on the curriculum committee in 2004?
A No.
Q And you weren’t involved in curriculum committee discussions?
A No.
Q So you wouldn’t have been involved in any of the curriculum committee discussions about the Miller and Levine textbook?
A No.
Q And you weren’t involved in the committee discussions about Pandas?
A No.
Q And you weren’t involved in the committee discussions about changing the curriculum to include intelligent design?
A No.
Q Now, in the summer of 2004, you didn’t do anything to learn more about the Miller and Levine textbook, did you?
A No.
Q And you didn’t take any steps to learn more about the whole concept of intelligent design?
A No.
. . [snip]. . .
Q Now, you said you voted for the October 18 curriculum change because you liked it.
A Yes.
Q You supported the change.
A Yes.
Q It — because it gave a balanced view of evolution.
A Yes, I mean . . .
Q It presented an alternative theory?
A Yes.
Q And the policy talks about gaps and problems with evolution?
A Yes.
Q Yes. You don’t know what those gaps and problems refer to, do you?
A No.
Q But it’s good to teach about those gaps and problems?
A That — yes, that’s our mission statement, yes.
Q But you have no idea what they are?
A It’s not my job, no.
Q Is it fair to say that you didn’t know much about intelligent design in October of 2004?
A Yes.
Q And you didn’t know much about the book Of Pandas and People either, did you?
A Correct.
Q So you had never participated in any discussions of the book?
A No.
Q And you made no effort independently to find out about the book?
A No.
Q And the administration had made copies of the book available to board members.
A Yes.
Q But you never read the book.
A No.
Q And no one ever explained to you what intelligent design was about.
A No.
Q And you never got any instructional materials or tapes about intelligent design.
A No.
Q And you never viewed any or read any books about intelligent design.
A No.
Q And you didn’t study it independently.
A No.
Q You didn’t go on the Internet and look it up.
A No.
Q So you didn’t really think too much about intelligent design.
A No.
Q You just knew it was something else that the kids were going to learn?
A Yes.
Q And it was a theory that was different from Darwin’s view.
A Yes.
Q And what you testified earlier is that you were relying on the recommendation of the curriculum committee.
A Yes.
Q And that was their job.
A Yes.
Q And because they were recommending the introduction of intelligent design, you were going to go along with that.
A Yes.
Q And you thought it was a good idea to introduce an alternative to evolution.
A Yes.
Q Now, it wasn’t the entire curriculum committee that was recommending this change, correct?
A I don’t know.
Q Well, who was on the curriculum committee?
A Bill, Allen, and I can’t remember the other one.
Q Was Sheila Harkins on it?
A I don’t know.
Q Do you know if Sheila Harkins was supportive of intelligent design?
A I don’t know that. I don’t know. I never really thought about it.
Q So the two people you were really listening to and talking to about this were Bill Buckingham and Allen Bonsell.
A Yes.
Q And Casey Brown, I’ll just tell you, Casey Brown was the last member of the curriculum committee. Does that sound right?
A Yes.
Q And she was not supportive of this change.
A No.
Q In fact, she was adamantly opposed to introducing intelligent design into the curriculum.
A Yes.
Q But you weren’t listening to her, were you?
A She wasn’t — she was ignoring me, she wasn’t mentoring me, so . . .
Q But she was there advocating against introduction of intelligent design, so it wasn’t like the curriculum committee was unified?
A Right.
Q But you chose to listen to Mr. Buckingham and Mr. Bonsell?
A Correct.
Q Now, I know you said you don’t have any background in science, correct?
A Correct.
Q And do you know whether Mr. Buckingham has a background in science?
A No, I do not.
Q Do you know that in fact he doesn’t have a background in science?
A I don’t know. He’s law enforcement, so I would assume he had to take something along the way.
Q Did he ever tell you he knew something about biology?
A No.
Q How about Mr. Bonsell, do you know what his background is?
A No.
Q Do you know what he does for a living?
A He’s a business owner, I believe.
Q He’s not a scientist, to your knowledge?
A Not to my knowledge, no.
Q He’s not a science teacher?
A No.
Q Now, there are people employed by the school district who do know a little something about science, correct?
A Correct.
Q And that would be the teachers.
A Yes.
Q And you know Ms. Bertha Spahr?
A Yes.
Q And she’s been with the school district a long time.
A Yes.
Q And she’s head of the science department.
A Yes.
Q And you know Ms. Miller.
A Yes.
Q And you know Mr. Eshbach.
A Yes.
Q And you know Mr. Lanker?
A I don’t — I wouldn’t be able to place him, but I know the name, I know he’s a teacher.
Q And he’s a science teacher?
A Yes.
Q And you knew that the science teachers were all opposed to introducing intelligent design?
A Correct.
Q And the teachers had in fact told you that they were concerned about introducing intelligent design because they were worried that they would get sued.
A Correct.
Q And specifically they were worried about teaching from the Pandas book, correct?
A I don’t — I don’t know.
Q Do you recall in August of 2004 you had a discussion about approving the new Biology book?
A Yes.
Q And at that time Mr. Buckingham did not want to vote to approve the Biology book unless Of Pandas and People was approved?
A Correct.
Q And do you recall Ms. Spahr making any comments about Of Pandas and People?
A No. No.
Q Could you look at page 63 of your deposition, please. Are you there?
A Yes.
Q Let me read to you starting on line seven, and this is Mr. Schmidt asking a question.
“And I understand that the afraid of being sued referred to something that she said about teaching religion in the science curriculum.
“Answer” — that’s you — “correct.”
“Question. Can you tell me any more about your understanding of what she meant when she said that?
“Answer. She thought we were going to make them teach religion.
“Question. Again, what did you understand her to be referring to when she said that?
“Answer. I don’t know because we weren t, we weren’t doing that, so to me it was an unfounded statement.
“Question. What do you think she was referring to?
“Answer. The Pandas book.”
Now, did I read that accurately?
A Yes.
Q So your understanding in March, when you were deposed, was that in fact they were concerned that teaching the Pandas book would be teaching religion?
A It says “at some point during the summer of 2004,” and right now, I answered the way I did because I’m thinking that she did all this in October.
Q So does this refresh your recollection?
A It does, I know she said that. I would have to sit here and really think to see when she said it, but that was — that’s how it happened.
Q But you’re not disputing now, after you ve looked at this, that in fact the teachers were concerned about teaching Pandas because they thought it was religion?
A No, I was just — I was thinking it was October, that’s why I answered your question the way I did.
Q And you didn’t frankly agree with the teachers that Pandas was teaching religion, right?
A No, no, I did not agree with the teachers, no.
Q And you thought their position that Pandas taught religion was unfounded?
A Right.
Q But you never read Pandas, right?
A No.
Q Now, prior to the October 18 vote to change the curriculum, do you recall the science teachers explaining that intelligent design was not science?
A Yes.
Q And you never asked them any more questions about their position why they didn’t think this was science?
A No.
Q And you will recall also that Ms. Spahr expressed concerns that she thought intelligent design was religious?
A Yes.
Q And you knew that the teachers were opposed to introducing this intelligent design change because they were afraid they were going to get sued for teaching religion?
A Yes.
Q And so the only people in the school district that you’re aware of that have a science background were opposed to introducing intelligent design; they thought it wasn t science, they thought it was religion, and you ignored that?
A Yes.
Q And you voted for the proposal because Mr. Buckingham and Mr. Bonsell encouraged you to do so?
A I agreed with them, that’s why I voted for the proposal.

-David – a) what would you have said to her, if the school board had been gunning for the big bang instead of evolution?,
b) this sort of thing, repeated endlessly – can you see why it might get some folks a little annoyed when faced with a scientist and educator with advanced degrees seemingly not bothering to do their homework before insisting that that evolution has serious problems with falsifiability, etc?,
and – do you think kids in intro high school astronomy should be taught “gaps and problems” with big bang theory, not in any usual sense (this is how science works and progresses) but using materials that, for example, go into obsessive detail about relatively small differences in the observed and predicted abundance of lithium-7, at a level of detail completely inappropriate for the course, with kids not very familiar w/ stuff like “isotopes”

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David Wright 09.16.08 at 6:21 pm

On Topic: Yowzers! Reiss has been forced out of his Royal Society position for his remarks. This is exacly the sort of thought policing that makes scientists look bad. I very much agree with Lord Winton’s perspective: “This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

Off Topic: J Thomas, you ask excellent questions. Are you sure you don’t want to be a physicist?

You are right that the physics I’ve mentioned so far determines what temperature BBN occurs at, not what time. The time-temperature correspondance is a prediction of big bang theory that arises directly from thermodynamics and general relativity, entirely independent of BBN. Basically, once you know the temperature you’re interested in, you can just “look up” the corresponding time.

This weird “baryon-to-photon ratio” I keep mentioning basically is the plasma density. So the plasma density matters for the production of trace elements, but not for the H:He ratio. You can get an order-of-magnitude estimate of the plasma density by looking at the currently observed density of matter in the Universe and scaling back, but now that BBN is well-understood and the trace element abundances are well-measured, you can get a better value by fitting to the BBN model.

All our work assumes that the relevant physical constants were the same in the BBN era as now. The physical conditions as BBN are actualy not that far away from lab experience: the density of the Universe at that time was about the density of water and the relevant energies are those known from low-energy nuclear physics experiments that we were doing 50 years ago. You could use BBN to set limits on the rate of change of the relevant physical constants, but we get much better limits from observing the spectrum of distant, old stars; because we can measure spectral frequencies to ~15 decimal places, we know (assuming constant rates of change) that proton, neutron, and electron masses and nuclear binding energies have changed less than ~ppm over ~10B years.

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Robert O'Brien 09.16.08 at 8:33 pm

Steve LaBonne = pos. Perhaps he is choleric because he realizes he is in an inferior discipline.

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J Thomas 09.17.08 at 5:53 pm

J Thomas, you ask excellent questions. Are you sure you don’t want to be a physicist?

I like the idea, but it’s plausible that the big wins during my lifetime will bel in biology. Of course, the big wins come from breakthroughs nobody expects, so….

You are right that the physics I’ve mentioned so far determines what temperature BBN occurs at, not what time.

A creation-science type would take this admission and run with it. You admit that the creation could have been 6000 years ago! They can be quite annoying.

The time-temperature correspondance is a prediction of big bang theory that arises directly from thermodynamics and general relativity, entirely independent of BBN. Basically, once you know the temperature you’re interested in, you can just “look up” the corresponding time.

So you’re using the combination of multiple theories. Each of them is self-consistent and is compatible with all the available data, so you’ve built a complex picture that could easily be true, as far as we know.

This weird “baryon-to-photon ratio” I keep mentioning basically is the plasma density.

My prejudice when I hear “plasma density” is to think of just the density of the mass. Do the baryons and photons change into one another? Is the “density” of photons constant? Did I misunderstand completely?

So the plasma density matters for the production of trace elements, but not for the H:He ratio. You can get an order-of-magnitude estimate of the plasma density by looking at the currently observed density of matter in the Universe and scaling back, but now that BBN is well-understood and the trace element abundances are well-measured, you can get a better value by fitting to the BBN model.

That makes clear sense. Of course if you use data from BBN to fit BBN then you can expect a very close match indeed. ;-) But BBN is compatible with the estimates you made without using it.

All our work assumes that the relevant physical constants were the same in the BBN era as now. …. we know (assuming constant rates of change) that proton, neutron, and electron masses and nuclear binding energies have changed less than ~ppm over ~10B years.

That all looks pretty straightforward. If the answers had come out different you probably could have found complications to fudge them that you naturally ignore now. Physical constants could have changed fast back then and very very slowly over the last 10B years, etc. But your simpler model fits the known facts, which makes it more believable than the more complicated possibilities that might have fit the facts if the facts were different.

With evolution we can’t depend on simplicity. We try to use the simplest models that fit the facts out of a sort of maximum-entropy sense, but there’s every reason to think they’re wrong — we just don’t have the detailed data yet. It’s entirely predictable that evolution has resulted in genetic mechanisms that let organisms evolve faster. We can predict some approaches that would allow faster adaptation, but without the detailed work we can’t know whether any of them are in operation — they might have been outcompeted by even better approaches, or any one guess may never have evolved.

So when I look at what you say with a biological mindset, I naturally look for alternatives. (And lacking the background data it’s easier for me to imagine alternatives might fit.) One of the central things that living things do is to make enzymes. Chemical reactions have rates that they approach equilibrium, and enzymes work by speeding up that rate. They can’t affect the equilibrium, they only affect the approach to that equilibrium, by somehow tunneling through the required activation energy. Living things can also change the rates and direction of chemical reactions by changing the relative concentrations of reactants and products. It takes energy to change those concentrations, so to make one reaction go against the grain you need to couple it with another more energetic reaction.

Could there be something analogous for your case? Some special circumstance where protons and neutrons get switched without needing so much energy? Maybe a neutron switches to proton and the energy is somehow stored, waiting to convert a proton back to a neutron? Well, but to happen outside a big bang it would probably need to have hydrogen and helium getting switched back and forth too. It would probably have to be happening in interstellar space at some low frequency for a very long time. Given the amount of time available it could be an extremely low rate and still approach equilibrium.

I can’t say it’s possible, but from a position of massive ignorance I’ll guess that if there was a viable alternative it would look something like that. Didn’t some astronomer a long time ago propose hydrogen getting formed continually in empty space? Maybe his name was Hoyle. I vaguely remember they looked at the possibility and eventually even he decided that it just didn’t work. But that was a long time ago, how much effort has been put into showing that it doesn’t work given what you know now?

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