August 22, 2010
June 7, 2010
From CTV, Canada’s largest privately owned television network, comes this interview with Stephen Hawking who is the first holder of the Distinguished Research Chair of the Waterloo based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and is spending six weeks pursuing research on quantum theory and gravity regarding the origin of the universe:
Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says science and religion are fundamentally incompatible — and the former will always come out on top.
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, (and) science, which is based on observation and reason,” Hawking told ABC News’s Diane Sawyer in an interview Monday.
“Science will win because it works.”
The British scientist, who has built his career studying the universe and its origins, flat-out rejected creationism and the possibility of a creator.
Let’s see how fundies, creationists, and religious apologists quote mine this one to make up seem to be down, black as a different shade of white, and Hawking a strident militant atheist in public but really a closet believer supportive that religion and science are really quite compatible.
April 9, 2010
Absolutely not. And this incompatibility has direct and dire and very real negative consequences on scientific literacy – a fundamental component necessary for a country to remain competitive in a technological and knowledge based world economy.
We are often told by well-meaning people that science and religion are compatible, that each ‘magisteria’ offers us a different way to know, and that each deals with different but equally important questions while providing us with different kinds of answers about human life. It is no wonder, then, that public education must tread a careful path keeping science and religion relegated to their separate spheres of influence.
As we are well aware, science and religion often are in conflict when their truth claims are in direct competition, and nowhere is this conflict more prevalent and rancorous than when religious belief in special creationism comes up against the theory of evolution that informs the biological sciences. The notion that we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge is simply not true. We are dealing with one kind of knowledge only, the kind that is informed by evidence or uninformed, either true or not true, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable. It is no wonder, then, that one of the main battlegrounds between knowledge informed by evidence and religious belief informed only by faith begins in the biology classroom (See the latest biology text book banning story here.)
How do American students compare in academic achievement with students from other countries? You know these studies; advisory panels and boards distribute and then gather the completed surveys and tabulate results which are then used to provide the evidence for educators and their political overlords to measure and compare and contrast how effectively we are passing on knowledge about the world to our children through the curriculum of our education system.
This year (2010) has seen a rather remarkable and intentional omission in the United States: the survey questions about evolution and the Big Bang have been pulled. The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics (evolution and the Big Bang) force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs. (Source)
What are we to make of this problem? To start with, if science and religion were truly compatible, no “choice” would have have to be made because each kind of knowledge would be separate. But they are not separate at all. They are in direct conflict. Why does this matter?
Well, if knowledge is based on what is true and truth matters, then only one approach – either science OR religion – yields ‘true’ knowledge. It is this ‘true’ knowledge that informs not only the technologies and medicines that work in the world but the moral and ethical framework in which they take place, and science has a solid track record of yielding exactly this. Religious belief, in stark contrast, yields no new knowledge and informs neither workable technologies nor medical practices in all the various fields of human endeavors, although the religious make claims to hold the higher ground in ethical and moral questions. But rather than face this blunt problem of allowing competing factual truth claims to both have recognized merit in spite of a revealed averaged knowledge deficit by all, the NSF has decided in its wisdom to avoid presenting the data that informs this evidence altogether by intentional omission.
Previous data clearly shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang and the reason for this lies squarely at the feet of religious belief. We know, for example, that science knowledge scores vary considerably across the EU-25 countries, with northern European countries, led by Sweden, recording the highest total scores on a set of 13 questions. For a smaller set of four items that were administered in both 1992 and 2005 in 12 European countries, each country performed better in 2005. In contrast, the U.S. data on science knowledge do not show upward trends over the same period. That lack of progress is alarming, which raises the question why not?
We know that in international comparisons, U.S. scores on two true or false science knowledge questions – “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion” – are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. In the United States, 45% of respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents . (The deleted text is here.)
In other words, basic scientific knowledge in biology and cosmology informed by overwhelming and mutually supportive evidence shows by this data that the US has been drastically influenced by religious truth claims that compete directly with scientific truth claims informed by enough valid evidence to establish scientific consensus. And that competition has a negative effect on passing on this foundational scientific knowledge to our children. Clearly, religious belief is not a separate but equal ‘magisteria’ from the findings of science nor a different kind of knowledge; religious belief is a direct competitor that is neither informed by evidence nor a consensus of knowledgeable opinion.
From a recent national survey of high school biology teachers in public schools we find it shows that there is a large variation in how teachers approach the topic of evolution. How they teach evolution, in turn, affects public knowledge. High school teachers who completed the most number of college-level credits in biology and life science classes and whose coursework included at least one class in evolutionary biology devoted 60% more time to evolution than teachers with the fewest credits in these areas. More specifically, teachers who expressed the religious view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” devoted 35% fewer class hours to evolution than all the other teachers.
This data reveals quite clearly cause and effect: those teachers who hold religious beliefs that compete with scientific knowledge have a direct and negative effect on the quality of teaching that scientific knowledge within the public education system. That is a very important finding. For whatever excuse and rationalization the National Science Board cares to drape over their decision to omit that data from its advisory report to the White House, it is highly unprofessional and, in the words of Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, “Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools.” I will add that it also downplays how that controversy between scientific knowledge and religious belief regarding truth claims affects in a negative way the scientific literacy of the general population.
So next time you hear that well-intentioned person argue that religious belief and science are compatible but different ways of knowing, remember that such a claim is wrong, and the data to prove it is wrong is available to all. Such an unfounded assumption of compatibility is doing real harm to the next generation by disarming them of the foundational knowledge necessary to compete in a technological and knowledge based world economy. Unequivocally, religious belief and science are in direct competition, and when all is said and done, I think the words of Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne shall prove to be prophetic:
“In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”
And, I will add, the only contribution religion can make to the ideas of science is to actively impede the acquisition of knowledge in all areas of human concern.
Update: there is another terrific post with a slightly different take about this over at Why Evolution Is True by Greg Mayer.
March 24, 2010
March 17, 2010
Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.
I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.
Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.” That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview. His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.
That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?
The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)
The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.
And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.
March 14, 2010
First the dash of humor:
How often we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both the designing and the execution of some of His works. Take the fly, for instance. The planning of the fly was an application of pure intelligence, morals not being concerned. Not one of us could have planned the fly, not one of us could have constructed him; and no one would have considered it wise to try, except under an assumed name. It is believed by some that the fly was introduced to meet a long-felt want.
and then a bit of the aplomb:
We hear much about His patience and forbearance and long-suffering; we hear nothing about our own, which much exceeds it. We hear much about His mercy and kindness and goodness—in words—the words of His Book and of His pulpit—and the meek multitude is content with this evidence, such as it is, seeking no further; but whoso searcheth after a concreted sample of it will in time acquire fatigue. There being no instances of it.
March 10, 2010
Why not contrast the teaching of evolution with a little creationist “cdesign proponentsists” in biology class?
Excerpts indented from this article at the New Scientist:
One of creationists’ favourite claims is that an organ as intricate as the eye could never have simply evolved. Fresh evidence to the contrary has now arrived, courtesy of a creature related to jellyfish.
The tiny freshwater hydra has no eyes but it will contract into a ball when exposed to sudden bright light. David Plachetzki and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that hydras “see” light using two proteins closely related to those in our own eyes.
“If you look at something as complex as an eye, you might be at a loss to explain how the whole structure evolved at once,” says Plachetzki, now at the University of California, Davis. “But if you look at its components you can start to piece together how it happened.” That’s especially feasible now that genes from the earliest animals, such as the hydra, are being sequenced.
Rod and cone cells in the human retina contain proteins called opsins that change shape when light strikes them. This causes another type of protein, an ion channel, to generate an electrical signal along nerves connecting the eye to the brain – a process called phototransduction.
Hydras have the same types of opsins and ion channels as we do.
Why? Why does a critter with no eyes have the same opsins and ion channels as we do? According to creationists, the ‘explanation’ is that god made the freshwater hydra this way, an explanation empty of meaning because it is empty of evidence to inform it. “God made it this way” is an unverifiable assertion, an assumption that the hypothesis is true without any means to test that truth claim. “god made it this way” is not a meaningful explanation because it provides no meaningful answer. Its explanatory power is zero, the equivalent of a null set. Many people think that this null set approach is legitimate ”science’ (creationists call it by another name in the world of scientific education: Intelligent Design, a term substituted into newer texts from older creationist tracts to present a different more modern face to this very old theological belief). Proponents of ID pretend that some ‘force’ must have produced the complexity we find in nature, making it, they claim, a legitimate alternative scientific theory to evolution without also proving us an explanatory framework within which we can find various ways and means to produce testable, verifiable, falsifiable, and predictable causal and correlational answers informed by evidence rather than meaningless assertions of supernatural intervention and divine design based on an assumed belief that such an assertion is true. On this scientific scale, ID is theological creationism repackaged and re-branded.
The theory of evolution offers an explanatory framework in which we can deduce that because both humans and freshwater hydras possess the same opsins and ion channels, we therefore should share a common ancestor. Critters who have different opsins and ion channels should not.
If biologists accepted this assertion and assumed that the word should means the same thing as the word does, without any further investigation to inform the assertion, then they would be open to the legitimate charge of merely holding a different belief than creationists. But real scientists don’t stop their investigations with assertions and simply assume them to be true. Real scientists must inform their hypothesis with something more than assertions and assumptions… a little thing called evidence. In the case of the freshwater hydra, real biologists ask the important question How might we determine, even indirectly, if we do share a common ancestor? and then attempt to account for any evidence that supports or refutes the hypothesis.
One avenue of investigation: as already mentioned, gene sequencing.
Plachetzki’s team then built a family tree of opsin gene sequences from 22 highly diverse creatures, and found that opsins in hydras and humans evolved from those in a common ancestor. Another line of descendants from the same ancestor gave rise to somewhat different opsins and ion channels in insect and mollusc eyes. This supports other indirect evidence, says Nilsson, that the hydras’ light-sensing equipment was the original model, and the insects’ came later.
The hydra is the most primitive animal with functioning opsins, so the team concludes that it represents “the very origin of animal phototransduction”, which was incorporated into more complex eyes as they evolved.
This finding is more evidence of the power of explanation that the theory of evolution offers us. That god made insect eyes to rely on a mutated version of the opsins and ion channels common to the freshwater hydra and humans is no explanation whatsoever answering the related question of why they are different so-called ‘designs'; using the theory of evolution, we do find an explanation that accounts for the evidence. The theory works. Again.
To those who promote creationism as an alternative explanation so beautifully explained by evolution’s overwhelming multi-branched mutually supporting natural evidence as just a different way to ‘know’, who wish to teach the next generation of citizens that a belief that offers no meaningful explanation is as good as one informed by one that consistently does, I say Shame. Shame on you for choosing to promote your supernatural beliefs as if they were equal methods to the harder but more rewarding obtainment of real knowledge through informed biological science. Shame on you for equating that the two explanatory approaches are equal in the quality their respective inquiries. They’re not, you know it, and you as the responsible adult and parent and citizen should know better than to lie to children to soothe your conscience in maintaining your superstitious beliefs as a legitimate but different kind of attainable knowledge about the natural world when it is no such thing: creationism in all its disguises that answers questions with “Because god made it so” is an unjustified belief in the legitimacy of supernatural causation. The explanation contains no evidence in which to inform it. Foisting that unjustified belief on the next generation masked as an equally valid scientific theory, implying without cause that there actually exists some imaginary scientific controversy, is an exercise in promoting and teaching willful ignorance.
March 8, 2010
In this article, the creeping dominance of a christian theology in home-school textbooks is examined with particular emphasis on how the fact of evolution is being intentionally misrepresented:
Christian-based materials dominate a growing home-school education market that encompasses more than 1.5 million students in the U.S. And for most home-school parents, a Bible-based version of the Earth’s creation is exactly what they want. Federal statistics from 2007 show 83 percent of home-schooling parents want to give their children “religious or moral instruction.” “The majority of home-schoolers self-identify as evangelical Christians,” said Ian Slatter, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association. “Most home-schoolers will definitely have a sort of creationist component to their home-school program.” Those who don’t, however, often feel isolated and frustrated from trying to find a textbook that fits their beliefs. Two of the best-selling biology textbooks stack the deck against evolution, said some science educators who reviewed sections of the books at the request of The Associated Press. “I feel fairly strongly about this. These books are promulgating lies to kids,” said Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago. The textbook publishers defend their books as well-rounded lessons on evolution and its shortcomings. One of the books doesn’t attempt to mask disdain for Darwin and evolutionary science.
“Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling,” says the introduction to “Biology: Third Edition” from Bob Jones University Press. “This book was not written for them.”
Wow. Since when was any legitimate science supposed to lie and misrepresent information to favour unjustified superstitious beliefs? If the science of something is not testable, falsifiable, predictive, and consistent, then it ain’t science. In this case, it’s theological creationism, which has not been, is not now, nor shall ever be science. What ever such a science textbook as the one that contains that bold face bit in the introduction purports to be, it most definitely is not biology but a very edited, grossly biased, extraordinarily poor facsimile of religiously sanctioned pap. Shame on parents who subject their kids to this kind of intellectual dishonesty masquerading as science and pretend it is a legitimate education. It isn’t.
Coyne and Virginia Tech biology professor Duncan Porter reviewed excerpts from the Apologia and Bob Jones biology textbooks, which are equivalent to ninth- and 10th-grade biology lessons. Porter said he would give the books an F.
“If this is the way kids are home-schooled then they’re being shortchanged, both rationally and in terms of biology,” Coyne said.
Because the article gave Jerry’s URL, he wrote up a redux article and was bombarded with comments so he wrote yet another one called Home-schoolers respond, where Coyne continued to refine his opinion about the home-school biology texts:
Sadly, there’s not much that is useful if you don’t want to force creationism down your kid’s throat.
But, as Lovan noted in his piece, “83 percent of home-schooling parents want to give their children ‘religious or moral instruction.’”
I weep for those children. For many of them are simply being brainwashed by their parents. Yes, that’s what it is—brainwashing. For a parent to ignore 150 years of solid science, feeding their children lies based on theology, is to deprive those children of the wonder of the universe—a wonder based on truth rather than medieval superstition. It kills off the part of a child that most needs nurturing: her sense of wonder, and all the possibilities of life that are opened up by that wonder. How many budding biologists have been stifled by their parents’ willful ignorance of science, and on their insistence that the Bible is the real source of biological information? Generation after generation of ignorance and religious dogmatism, all perpetuated by religously based home-schooling.
It is interesting to read the articles and follow the thread of comments and see for yourself just how malicious so many moral-teaching home-school parents can be when faced with very legitimate criticism about the weakness of some of the teaching materials by a world-renowned biologist who happens to know a thing or two about what constitutes good teaching material for biology. But again, Coyne raises an excellent point to all those who attacked him:
To those who are constantly whining about the “incivility” of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I suggest that you might first have a look at the behavior of some Christians.
It is the stark comparison that determines just how civil are the ‘militant’ atheists.
February 28, 2010
From Todd Wood’s blog post, bold included:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.
I say these things not because I’m crazy or because I’ve “converted” to evolution. I say these things because they are true.
If only he had left it there, but alas.
Todd is clear about one thing: although he recognizes what is true, he chooses to believe that it is not ultimately true. I’m not quite sure how something true cannot be true – ultimately or otherwise – but cognitive dissonance hasn’t slowed down many intelligent believers yet and I suspect it won’t start anytime soon. Believing that something is and is not comes with the territory of holding fast to religious faith. But at least such an admission about evolution from a creationist is a significant step up in the intellectual integrity ladder. It’s a start.
Tip to Panda’s Thumb under the heading Creationism really is a science stopper. Enjoy the comments.
February 12, 2010
It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
Very few religious skeptics have been made more open to religious belief because of ID arguments. These arguments not only have failed to persuade, they have done positive harm by convincing many people that the concept of an intelligent designer is bound up with a rejection of mainstream science.
The ID claim is that certain biological phenomena lie outside the ordinary course of nature. Aside from the fact that such a claim is, in practice, impossible to substantiate, it has the effect of pitting natural theology against science by asserting an incompetence of science. To be sure, there are questions that natural science is not competent to address, and too many scientists have lost all sense of the limitations of their disciplines, not to mention their own limitations. But the ID arguments effectively declare natural science incompetent even in what most would regard as its own proper sphere. Nothing could be better calculated to provoke the antagonism of the scientific community. This throwing down of the gauntlet to science explains not a little of the fervor of the scientific backlash against ID.
The question I am raising is whether this quixotic attempt by a small and lightly armed band to overthrow “Darwinism” and bring about a new scientific revolution has accomplished anything good. It has had no effect on scientific thought. Its main consequence has been to strengthen the general perception that science and religion are at war.