Questionable Motives

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

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 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

What are home-schooled kids learning from their biology textbooks?

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.

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