Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Strib on Bush's attack on science - a good, short, editorial

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial: Origins/Don't mix science, religion

Straightforward, short, clear, well written. Our home town paper is improving lately!
President Bush says both evolution and "intelligent design" should be taught in schools "so people can understand what the debate is about." Trouble is, there is no real debate; you can't have a debate between a religious belief and science. They're apples and oranges. They don't equate. Sure, you can discuss the intelligent design concept in schools, but that should happen in a humanities or social science course. Evolution should be taught in biology class. Mixing is not wise, especially in the biology class.

In the study of knowledge, researchers refer to the "cognitive domain" and the "affective domain." Cognition involves processes like comprehension, analysis and synthesis. Affective learning involves awareness and valuing. Science is cognitive. Intelligent design is from the affective side. The problem is that intelligent design seeks to disguise itself as cognitive. It is not.

Intelligent design argues that science can't explain all of creation's complexity and that, therefore, there must be an intelligent designer behind it all. Actually, all it means is that science's job is unfinished. It will always be unfinished. Maybe there was an intelligent designer and maybe there wasn't, but the question is irrelevant to science.

This is a tired but dangerous topic. Science is so incredibly valuable to human society -- indeed, you could say that the ability to do science defines humanity -- that we should no longer tolerate the nonsense that seeks to place intelligent design and evolution on the same plane, in competition. Scientists don't try to explain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and the theologically inclined shouldn't try to connect the natural selection of evolution to an intelligent designer -- at least not in a science class.

Lest we totally offend those with religious sensibilities, we have great respect for the earnest worship of a deity. That, too, enhances humanity greatly. But religion and science are a bit like cornstarch and water: You can add water to cornstarch, but the reverse doesn't work well. It's OK to add science to religion, but adding religion to science yields an unusable product that dishonors both the religion and the science.
In a sign of the times this article is accompanied by online ads, including some for some esoteric books.

One by one biologists have presented plausible hypotheses and experimental data to resolve the "exceptions" favored by the ID people. This work has advanced our understanding of natural selection; often adversity is strengthening. Biologists are showing their spine, and strengthening their reasoning.

There is one argument biologists cannot refute -- because it's about religion, not science. If you begin with the assumption that humanity is the 'end point' of evolution, then natural selection utterly fails. Natural selection is random and highly contingent, there is nothing inevitable about us. That's the real clash. Almost every religion has the underlying assumption that we are "the point", the reason for things. That attitude is indeed utterly inconsistent with our theories of natural selection and evolution.

That's ok. If you believe that, then you believe the absolutely logical and reasonable position of the catholic church -- that evolution occurs guided by the Hand of God the Designer. That's utterly plausible -- but thus far it's not science. If we start to be able to do experiments with godhood then it may become science; but thus far all the experiments we've tried (prayer studies mostly) have failed.

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