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May 8, 2005 - Late Comment on the New and Improved Scopes Trial

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Think of it this way. 
America used to lead the world in pure science, and in applied science (technology). 
Is that what God really wanted?

Early in the week, as noted in Not the Only News, it seemed the hearings opening Thursday in Kansas were being reported rather spottily.  The six days of courtroom-style hearings were to begin on Thursday in the capitol Topeka and more than two dozen witnesses were to give testimony and be subject to cross-examination, with the majority expected to argue against teaching evolution.  No much in the news on that.  Then, late in the week, after the hearings got underway, this was all over the news.

On the web there was endless commentary.

Some pointed to Stephen Jay Gould in Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes, Further Reflections in Natural History


Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.


That aside, what did happen in Topeka?

Friday, the New York Times points out this


Beaming from a laptop to a wide screen, the scientists showed textbook pictures of chicken, turtle and human embryos to try to undermine the notion that all species had a common ancestry. Diagrams of complex RNA molecules were offered as evidence of a designed universe. Dr. Harris displayed a brochure for his Intelligent Design Network, which is based in Kansas, depicting a legal scale with "design" and "evolution" on each side and the words "religion" and "naturalism" crossed out in favor of "Scientific Method."

"You can infer design just by examining something, without knowing anything about where it came from," Dr. Harris said, offering as an example "The Gods Must be Crazy," a film in which Africans marvel at a Coke bottle that turns up in the desert. "I don't know who did it, I don't know how it was done, I don't know why it was done, I don't have to know any of that to know that it was designed."


Ah, lots of things he doesn’t know – but he knows something. God did it. You can infer that, just as that Coke bottle in Africa presupposes that multinational company in Atlanta and a bottling plant somewhere or other.

Of course.

Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly is not impressed


Can any of you folks out there tell me how looking at pictures of chicken and turtle embryos proves anything at all? "You can infer design by just examining something"? What is that supposed to prove? Meantime, the real scientists and their allies are across the street trying to get a fair hearing from the media by plying them with food, and the whole thing gets weirder by the minute. MAYBE THE WORLD REALLY IS FLAT.... I've been ignoring the recent outbreak of idiocy over evolution in Kansas because it's just too depressing to think about….


And then he cites this snippet from the Los Angeles Times -


The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations.


Oh yeah, that will fix everything.

Drum then adds this –


Why yes, that would alter the definition of science, wouldn't it? Perhaps while we're at it we should also alter the definitions of history, literature, and religion. Seems like those fields have been stuck in a rut for a while too and could use a swift kick from the Kansas state board of education.

By the way, I'm glad to see that the Kansas folks aren't wasting time pretending that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion or creationism. Newly elected board member Kathy Martin is open about where she stands: "There are alternatives. Children need to hear them....We can't ignore that our nation is based on Christianity — not science."

Quite right. And what do the "scientists" have to say for themselves? Check out this guy from the University of Kansas: "If you want to know about science, ask a scientist. If you want to know about faith, ask a minister."

That is so lame. Why would I want to ask a scientist about anything?


Yeah, ask them and you get stuff like this


To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like 'God was always there', and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say 'DNA was always there', or "Life was always there', and be done with it. - Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design p. 141

Intelligent Design isn't a scientific theory and it isn't an alternative to natural selection or any other scientific theory. The universe would appear the same to us whether it was designed by God or not. Empirical theories are about how the world appears to us and have no business positing why the world appears this way, or that it is probably designed because of how unlikely it is that this or that happened by chance. That is the business of metaphysics. Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, but a metaphysical theory. The fact that it has empirical content doesn't make it any more scientific than, say, Spinoza's metaphysics or so-called creation science.

Intelligent Design is a pseudoscience because it claims to be scientific but is in fact metaphysical. It is based on several philosophical confusions, not the least of which is the notion that the empirical is necessarily scientific. This is false, if by 'empirical' one means originating in or based on observation or experience. Empirical theories can be scientific or non-scientific. Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is empirical but it is not scientific. Jung's theory of the collective unconscious is empirical but it is not scientific. Biblical creationism is empirical but it is not scientific. Poetry can be empirical but not scientific.

On the other hand, if by 'empirical' one means capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment then Intelligent Design is not empirical.

Neither the whole of Nature nor an individual eco-system can be proved or disproved by any set of observations to be intelligently or unintelligently designed. …


Is that prose too dense?

Are the scientists picking on the poor Christians? An attack of the secular on the believers? Note that George Will, one of the intellectual lights on the conservative right, this week in the Washington Post suggested the evangelical Christians in America just get over this idea that the are victims - what he called the "persecution complex" of the new core and essence of the Republican Party. And he doesn’t like conservative politicians whining about how everyone one is out to get them because they are simple men of God with unshakable faith in the unseen. No one is picking on anyone, just raising issues about what we teach in the schools and whether judges are supposed to follow the constitution or the Bible.

Over at the Wall Street Journal you would find this week a face off on the issue of faith, government, evolution and persecution between an odd couple, Christopher Hitchens and the Journal’s own James Taranto.

From Hitchens?  This


At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?

Perhaps one could phrase the same question in two further ways. At the last election, the GOP succeeded in increasing its vote among American Jews by an estimated five percentage points. Does it propose to welcome these new adherents or sympathizers by yelling in the tones of that great Democrat bigmouth William Jennings Bryan? By insisting that evolution is "only a theory"? By demanding biblical literalism and by proclaiming that the Messiah has already shown himself? If so, it will deserve the punishment for hubris that is already coming its way. (The punishment, in other words, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed had struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. How can it be that such grotesque characters, calling down divine revenge on the workers in the World Trade Center, are allowed a respectful hearing, or a hearing at all, among patriotic Republicans?)


Hitchens doesn’t “get” the new Republican Party, of course.

And he adds –


Then again, hundreds of thousands of young Americans are now patrolling and guarding hazardous frontiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is there a single thinking person who does not hope that secular forces arise in both countries, and who does not realize that the success of our cause depends on a wall of separation, in Islamic society, between church and state? How can we maintain this cause abroad and subvert it at home? It's hardly too much to say that the servicemen and -women, of all faiths and of none, who fight so bravely against jihad, are being stabbed in the back by the sunshine soldiers of the "crusading" right. What is one to feel but rage and contempt when one reads of Arabic-language translators, and even Purple Heart-winning frontline fighters, being dismissed from the service because their homosexuality is accounted a sin?

… The need of the hour is for some senior members of the party of Lincoln to disown and condemn the creeping and creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular Republic.


Hitchens doesn’t “get” the new Republican Party at all. A free and pluralist and secular Republic is not what they now want.

Taranto here


I am not a Christian, or even a religious believer, and my opinions on social issues are decidedly middle-of-the-road. So why do I find myself rooting for the "religious right"? I suppose it is because I am put off by self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and contempt for democracy and pluralism - all of which characterize the opposition to the religious right.

One can disagree with religious conservatives on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, creationism and any number of other issues, and still recognize that they have good reason to feel disfranchised. This isn't the same as the oft-heard complaint of "anti-Christian bigotry," which is at best imprecise, since American Christians are all over the map politically. But those who hold traditionalist views have been shut out of the democratic process by a series of court decisions that, based on constitutional reasoning ranging from plausible to ludicrous, declared the preferred policies of the secular left the law of the land.

For the most part, the religious right has responded in good civic-minded fashion: by organizing, becoming politically active, and supporting like-minded candidates. This has required exquisite discipline and patience, since changing court-imposed policies entails first changing the courts, a process that can take decades. Even then, "conservative" judges are not about to impose conservative policies; the best the religious right can hope for is the opportunity to make its case through ordinary democratic means.


In short? George Will is wrong.  These innocent folks who want their point of view recognized, and school science classes changed for everyone, and judges to do the Biblical thing for a change, are indeed being picked on.  Why not recognize their view?  What’s the big deal?

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga over at The Daily Kos has a contributor named Hunter who suggests this is a big deal


My problem with this debate is that this isn't about being pro-religion or anti-religion or faith-neutral; it's about institutionalizing stupidity as a valid lifestyle choice.

… this debate continues to exist among the more fundamentalist flocks precisely for the same reason that race-based bigotries find root primarily among the less educated, and why the simple charms of gun-toting cowboy diplomacy find their adherents primarily among those who have, themselves, a deep mistrust of any foreign culture that has not personally sat down at their dinner table en masse to try the potato salad. Fear, and a deep seated, self-assured, prideful ignorance, a stubborn pettiness that David Brooks finds deeply American and the rest of us simply find vaguely embarrassing. Some people freely admit what they don't know; others hang on like a pitbull on a slab of meat, for fear that if that one instance of confident, willful belief be allowed to slip away, no other would ever appear.

We all are exposed to concepts which, though they may be true, we cannot possibly expect to fully grasp; I cannot fully comprehend the true size of a galaxy, or imagine in my head the cumulative effects of a million years history of a particular genus. Anyone who says they can is simply a liar; the human brain doesn't have references by which to judge such things. But it would be a profound conceit to proclaim that because I cannot understand it, it cannot be true. I understand that; there are those who do not.


So it comes down to fear in the end. 

Hunter adds –


.. there is no underlying religious requirement for claiming that man and dinosaurs walked the earth together, or that matter is bound together by "God's love" rather than quantum realm effects. There is no part of the Bible that says "woe unto him that owns a protractor", or "thou shalt not believe in surface tension". If you are a Bible literalist, and accept God's first task to Adam as the naming of the animals, than truly Darwin was doing God's work in the most literal possible fashion.

But if you are a creationist, or a believer in the identical but more pompously named intelligent design, your views on acceptable and unacceptable science will not coincidentally be delineated precisely along rather personal lines:

- If I understand it, it's science.
- If I don't understand it, God did it.

(In Kansas, then, we can imagine that those will be the only two boxes on each multiple-choice test question. And woe to the teacher that questions a ninth-grader's notions of God.)

Of course, there are grey areas:

- If I understand it from my own experience (e.g. gravity, electricity), it's true.
- If I don't understand it (dinosaurs, molecules), God did that part separately.
- If I really don't understand it (evolution, quantum effects), you're wrong, AND God made your test results look like that just to screw with you.
- If I really don't understand it, but you have evidence for it that I do understand, you're wrong, and God did the evidence, and shut up.

So for a creationist, God and magic are roughly indistinguishable.


Hey, Hunter, some people LIKE magic!  Are you telling them they cannot teach it in the science classes in all public schools?

Well, here is his problem with magic and fear as the basis for classroom science and public policy –


There are a great many people in the world who are frightened by that which they do not understand. And, among those, there are a great many who, when confronted with something they do not understand, would rather walk on hot coals (sometimes literally) than simply admit it and move on. But that doesn't mean that the rest of society needs to cater expressly to them, as some sort of least-common-denominator agreement that science can only move forward by the unanimous consent of the most absolutely, positively least interested among us.

It's a fiction. The whole "creationism" debate is, at heart, a fiction. It's not about religion, it's about education, and institutionalizing mental laziness and anti-intellectual prejudices as valid counterarguments to intellectual knowledge, so that the most conceited, uninterested and shallow among us don't have to think too hard or feel too challenged by intricacies of either their theology or their science.

If you have a hard time understanding the vertigo-inducing span of millennia between the time of the first primitive, microscopic life and now, don't blame me for it, and don't blame God for it. Blame yourself if you must, but don't react by attempting to institutionalize your own personal boundaries of knowledge as being equally valid to the entire history of mankind's accumulated knowledge. Bluntly, get over yourself.


Really?  Why does the secular left make everything such hard work?  Most Americans like things simple, and now, more than ever, seem willing to pay the price for that.

Think of it this way.  America used to lead the world in pure science, and in applied science (technology).  Is that what God really wanted?


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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