Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Jumping into the Evoluion and Intelligent Design Fight

I've been stewing on this topic for a while and finally wrote my thoughts down as a comment on The Senate Site: Bill Text: Curriculum and policy on theories relating to the origins of life.

It took me so long to write the thing that I thought I'd better get some more milage out of it, so here it is. You should probably make comments over at the Senate Site to be part of that forum instead.

Props to Senator Buttars for proposing a bill that he feels strongly about. I like to see politicians acting on their principles. However, I think the bill is a bad idea for two reasons.

First, the biggest problem with the bill is that forced combinations of science and religion cheapen science and weaking religion. Let us resolve to teach science in science class and religion in religion classes (or even better at home!). The religious scientists that I know and have read about have a remarkable amount of personal humility which allows them live with unanswered questions about both religion and science.

Steve Urquhart has an insightful letter from a real scientist on this topic at his self-titled blog.

Second, looking more directly at the text of the bill, the problem with the bill is that the fact that not all scientists agree on a thing is not surprising. Oddly, top-flight scientists are just normal people. Like normal people, many different scientists have many different opinions on many different things. When a non-expert attempts to make judgements about the validity of a scientific theory, the non-expert is well advised to stick with the mainstream. Just because a scientist has an opinion about a topic in that scientist's area of expertise does not make that opinion correct or even accepted.

If we follow the logic of Sen. Buttars bill, then we should also teach different theories about, well, just about everything. So we should have a bill that requires teaching Stephen Jones at BYU (no less) thinks that the WTC was brought down by internal charges. Other scientists think that it was brought down by the fires caused by two large airplanes. Try reading the bill with "origins of life" replaced by "destruction of the WTC".

And we should teach Linus Pauling's ideas on vitamins as a treatment for psychological illnesses in psychology class. And we should think about teaching William Shockley's ideas on eugenics in social studies.

An appeal to pure logic doesn't work to resolve these differences of opinion because pure logic is surprisingly un-useful in answering questions about the real world. The problem is that when connecting logic to the real world it is difficult to agree on what the axioms should be. Even worse, pure logic isn't that good about reasoning about pure logic--even though the axioms are completely artificial.

I think the one redeeming quality of this bill is that a future version of the bill may drop all the origins of life language and simply require that students be taught that not all scientists agree on lots of different and important topics.

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