Sunday, November 05, 2006

Eugenie Scott at JCCC

Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education gave a very nice talk at JCCC titled Politics, Education and Evolution. Her talk, summarized her thoughts on why education has become so politicized in America. Her analysis centered on several basic areas. First the settlement patterns in America tied to the frontier led both to a decentralized educational system and to a variety of home grown religious traditions.

Next she gave a brief review of the meaning of evolution in a very general sense, dividing biological evolution into three big ideas. First is the notion of common ancestry-the genealogical approach to evolution. Next are the processes of evolution including Darwin's core idea of natural selection and finally the patterns of evolution. She noted that creationists often times make category errors, namely concluding that arguments about the mechanisms of evolution mean that evolution is wrong and she contrasted the genealogical approach to the great chain of being. She clearly explained that the great chain of being namely that fish evolved into amphibians which evolved into reptiles which evolved into mammals etc, is wrong since the common ancestors did not closely resemble their modern counterparts.

From my way of thinking the confusion between the genealogical notion of evolution and the great chain of being probably relates to a question I am often asked about humans, namely if humans evolved from apes why are there still other apes? My response is usually that modern apes and humans are descended from a common primate ancestor who doesn't exist any more. Modern apes and humans are adopted to their particular modern environments so that there is really no reason to ask why apes still exist.

She next discussed the history of the creationist movement in the United States focusing on "scientific creationism" and its current incarnation namely intelligent design. She traced the modern intelligent design movement to a book by Thaxton Bradley and Olson(1984). These authors argued that the origin of life categorically cannot be explained. From this developed the modern intelligent design movement, which she quite correctly I believe, categorized as old wine in new bottles and she defended evolutionary biologists from the charge that they are refusing to investigate other ideas. Scientists have investigated the claims of intelligent design carefully before rejecting them.

So why is intelligent design so popular inspite of the lack of scientific credability? In part she attributed this to Intelligent Design marketing around what she called the three pillars of creationism: evolution is weak science; evolution and religion are incompatible; and finally the fairness argument. Now the rhetoric of intelligent design is shifting language again to a mention of critical thinking, teaching the controversy or all theories. Of course as she noted, science is not some sort of democracy and "cheerfully discriminates against those ideas that don't work.

Another aspect of the staying power of intelligent design is public confusion over the way science defines terms such as theory, law and hypothesis are used in science versus the every day use of these terms. In science these terms have specialized meanings as "terms of art". Finally Intelligent Design advocates conflate the methological naturalism of science and its limitation to natural explanations, with atheism.

She also attributed the recent upsurge in antievolution activity to the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act and the notion that what is in curriculum standards will be tested, hence a demand for teaching the controversy and analyzing the weaknesses of evolutionary theory. She exhorted her audience, especially the students present to learn about the issues and candidates and vote, reminding the audience that we do get the officials we deserve.

It was a real treat to have her visit us given her schedule and I want to again thank her for coming, Kansas Citizens for Science especially Jack Krebs and Keith Miller for helping arrange her visit. She had given a lecture on Friday at Kansas State's Center for Origins and will next be in Kansas on November 16th speaking at Kansas University's series "Difficult Dialogues at the Commons".

Other Links:

National Center for Science Education

Kansas Citizens for Science

Kansas City Star Editorial on Kansas Board of Education

Evolution Resources from the National Academies

Darwin online

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