Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Questioning science

December 8th, 2008 Posted in Creationism, Education, Politics

I think I finally understand one of the major objections that Creationists without scientific training (if that’s not a tautology) put forward when arguing against Evolution and other associated theories. I realised something today when I was listening to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe┬ápodcast from a week or two back. They were discussing the wording in the Texas state education guidelines for science, which have included for some time the controversial wording concerning teaching the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of established scientific theories. This is the infamous rule 3A, and here’s a great article about it.

The wording of the current clause is this:

“3A. The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.”

So what’s so bad about that, you may ask? In fact, more strongly: “that seems to be a generally good thing, doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. The creationists’ argument is a strong one here – “surely every scientific theory is open to questioning, isn’t it? Scientists aren’t trying to claim that everything they say is infallible, are they?” This is becoming a very common anti-science argument – trying to claim that scientists are like a priesthood, dictating unquestionable truths to suit their own ends. And those ‘ends’ are usually some sort of world-domination for satanists or Nazis, as far as I can discern.

Of course, anyone who has worked in science would find that caricature laughable, but that’s not the point. The problem we have is that the language of clause 3A, inserted into the Texas education standards by Creationists decades ago, was basically a Trojan horse – a device designed to seem pleasant, but through which a host of crazy creationist ideas could be inserted undercover into the textbooks.

You see, there are several subtle problems with this wording. The main problem is not that it suggests that science should be questioned, but that it suggests that science should be questioned by school children (and school teachers, for that matter). The main problem with science at a school level is that it’s so much larger than any one child could learn at school, so the chance of that same child being able to come up with a coherent criticism of a scientific theory is vanishingly slim. And, as my encounter with Paul Taylor showed a few weeks ago, it’s very poorly understood by some science teachers, too.

But surely it’s good for school children to think critically, and to examine the limits of scientific theories? Well, I think that depends on what you mean by scientific theories. If you are talking about criticising the historical theories that we now know to be flawed, then that’s fair enough. We all know that Newtonian physics didn’t correctly handle motion near the speed of light, and that the wave-particle duality of quantum physics dealt with all manner of limitations that existed in previous theories. If, however, you think that it’s somehow a good idea to criticise existing theories, then I’m confused. If the theories had demonstrable flaws, then they wouldn’t be theories. The point of a scientific theory is that it is a model of the Universe that it well supported by evidence, models and analytical thought, which makes predictions and provides explanatory power.

So what kind of ‘limitations’ do people want to teach? Well, as ever, it all comes down to creationism; the wacky religious right is trying to get Bronze-age fairy stories taught in science lessons, and the only way open for them to do that now is to try to throw some doubt on evolutionary theories so that people will start looking for other explanations.

But of course, the ‘teach the weaknesses’ argument is massively dishonest. They only want to teach the weaknesses of one theory, and the weaknesses that they focus on are almost always either (a) misunderstandings or ignorance on their part [amazingly, several creationists stood up at the meeting where the new Texas science standards were being debated, and argued with the same old creationist arguments that have been refuted a thousand times], or (b) outright falsehoods [‘scientists cannot explain …’] or (c) perfectly reasonable deficiencies in the theory [such as the fact that we don’t have a 100% complete fossil record, or that we can’t watch thousands of generations of primate evolution occur real-time in a laboratory.]

It sounds horrible, but science isn’t a democracy – kids don’t get a choice as to what is right. This isn’t English literature, where they can choose to write an essay about pretty much any theory they want and they get marks for style. In science, there are right and wrong answers and, sadly, it’s way too complicated to explain in detail how we know that the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong. Oh, we can make an approximation, but the approximations will only ever do half the job. We can explain how discoveries were made, and we can explain who made them. We can explain the crazy theories that people used to believe, and how they were disproved. We can even explain the questions that are still baffling scientists, and the efforts that are going on to solve them. But, at the end of the day, the consensus of the scientific community is the absolute best model we have for the way the Universe works. If you have a different theory, then by all means put it forward with the evidence for debate.

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