August 2009
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Presenting Science

Today I stumbled across a somewhat recent post by Luskin of the infamous Discovery Institute. Luskin observes some comments made by Eugenie Scott, in regard to how scientists should portray their results, so as not to be pounced upon by the creationists. He accuses Scott of instructing scientists to “spin it [changes in science] positively and never acknowledge they were wrong”. Worse, he concludes with:

When scientists in a field are instructed to avoid publicly admiting when they’re wrong, and are advised that improving the public’s perception of science is not best served by doing better science, then you know that field is steeped in intolerance towards dissent, and political pressure to give assent to orthodoxy. These are not the signs of a healthy science.

Which, while technically an accurate statement, is very misleading in this context. When we look at what Scott actually said, she’s effectively counseling scientists to be careful about their phrasing. Importantly, those working in evolution should avoid hyperbole about their discoveries. She wants scientists to be aware of the following problem:

So people get confused when scientists discover things and change ideas?

Yes, all the time. This is one of the real confusions about evolution. Creationists have done a splendid job of convincing the public that evolution is weak science because scientists are always changing their minds about things.

So, Luskin (and other creationists) are actually responsible for Eugenie’s reaction! They’ve been pouncing all over science, politicizing evolution with a “Teach the controversy” campaign and continuous whining about “being blacklisted from the journals”. They’ve been rejected from journals because they have no falsifiable claims, nor associated experiments; they then tried to push the creationism into schools, but were thrown out in the Scope’s Monkey Trial and again in Dover, Pennsylvania; and now they’ve jumped on an “equal-time in science classrooms” even though the comparison is akin to astrology vs astronomy.

Chemistry vs Alchemy, Phrenology vs Psychology, Astrology vs Astronomy, Creation vs Evolution, Let the kids decide!

This has really gone on for long enough that Eugenie feels she must remind scientists that:

What’s the current state of the effort to keep schools teaching evolution?

Sometimes it feels like the Red Queen around here, where we’re running as hard as we can to stay in the same place. The thing is, creationism evolves. And for every victory we have, there’s pressure on the creationists to change their approach. We constantly have to shift our response. Ultimately the solution to this problem is not going to come from pouring more science on it.

What should scientists and people who care about science do?

I’m calling on scientists to be citizens. American education is decentralized. Which means it’s politicized. To make a change … you have to be a citizen who pays attention to local elections and votes [for] the right people. You can’t just sit back and expect that the magnificence of science will reveal itself and everybody will … accept the science.

Though Luskin takes warps these comments to imply that science itself isn’t healthy, he should be reminded that the whole political situation is the fault of the creationists! They’ve got a strategic attack with the Wedge Document that’s mostly taken the scientific community by surprise. Then, when scientists make outrageous claims (like when New Scientist had a cover proclaiming Darwin was Wrong) the creationists blow it all out of proportion. That’s why Eugenie is recommending that scientists not try for these kinds of claims; it’s inaccurate and the distortion is too easily inflated by creationist cohorts.

So, Luskin, like all creationists before him, has once again reversed cause and effect and confused his premise and conclusion. It’s not that science is dogmatic because Scott has to encourage carefully worded discoveries; It’s that the political climate surrounding evolution has become so highly charged that it can no longer tolerate the hyperbole that scientists naturally inject into their claims to sell their importance to other scientists. And the entire problem was manufactured by the creationists! And Luskin continues to flame the distortion in his post that prompted this whole rant.

Oh, and one more thing: Any time that a creationist claims the Earth was created in 6,000 years, point them over to Yes, Millions of Years! and then ask who’s rejecting what evidence!

4 comments to Presenting Science

  • Anonymous

    Do you think we can convince Bible school to equally teach evolution?

  • Unfortunately, and Eugenie pointed out in her interview: American education is decentralized. I mostly think this is a good quality, but it does leave a significant opportunity for the creationists. Because Bible schools are mostly independent of the rest of the education system, It’s very difficult to enforce a particular curriculum. They do have to pass standardized tests, and mention all the topics of a general outline, but there isn’t any way to ensure that the presentation of required material is factual and unbiased. Even assuming it was, there is also plenty of opportunity to override that with all the other classroom hours.

    Unfortunately, passing laws to teach evolution on an equal footing really doesn’t solve the issue (because of problems with enforcement), and actually makes the evolution side more dogmatic.

    I once had a look at a high-school chemistry text being used in a bible school, and it was crammed with crazy quotes by Pasteur supporting his belief in God. Everything was summarized with a ‘how this supports Christian belief’. I was appalled. The relentless mention of God throughout the text is totally unnecessary: I found it oppressive, heavy-handed, and there was so much that I know they had to sacrifice scientific material to put it in.

  • Chris Millett

    Interesting point, and she has a couple of good one’s as well, but I wonder if you’ve properly identified the other side? The people you are talking about with the schools are ID’ers (those who believe in Intelligent design), which, while a form of creationism, a very specific narrow form, unrepresentative of the larger body of creationist. Like … Read Morewise for the young earthers, another narrow branch of creationists that believe earth to be 6000 and some change years old.

    Young earthers and IDers (so far as the ones who try to push it in science class) have either no understanding of science or just enough to be disingenuous, and scientists are right to rail against their false claims of good science and the unfalsifiable nature of their theories. Creationist though is a term that covers such a broad swath of people, the bulk of which recognize that it isn’t scientific theory to be presented in class, and that our fair globe is far more than 6000-years old.

    Deeming this narrow (while granted, statistically significant) subset of the creationist population as the whole of the creationist population has problems. It makes me a) wonder if your writers have any idea just who they are railing against, and b) remark on just who is politicizing what? By choosing to lump the… Read More entire population of creationist under the banners of young-earth IDers, they ideologically attack certain allies, and polarize the discourse.

    I’m not claiming they are the first too. But as such proud scientists, especially when publishing, they ought to be able to use their rational minds to overcome the emotionalism of their own defense, and not counter attack against a people that aren’t their enemy by making claims too broad.

  • You’re completely correct in pointing out that I’ve made a generalization error. Perhaps a more appropriate label would be evolution-denier?

    In my defense, the wikipedia article on creationism says:

    In relation to the creation-evolution controversy the term creationism is commonly used to refer to religiously motivated rejection of … Read Morenatural biological processes, in particular evolution.

    So the error seems to be part of common parlance. But, by using the term creationists I have actually included ‘progressive creationism’ (a.k.a. guided evolution), for which an entirely different rant would be necessary.

    I do actually mean to reject all the different forms of creationist belief, but it’s not fair to lump them all together in the post above. I really should make more distinction, and use separate posts for each issue.

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