Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Blogs, the Enlightenment and Creationism

The ubiquity of the internet and the resources which it makes available have provided means of communicating and finding information, and of conveying opinions, which have an ease which would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. That includes blogs such as this one. The internet may well turn out to represent the biggest change in the way we think about information and validate it since the Enlightment of the 18th century.

It is curious therefore that the internet may also represent a serious challenge to the values which the Enlightment has left with us. These values are generally thought to be reductionism, rational human intercourse and the willingness to follow where the facts lead us free of predefined limits but always subject to the requirements of analysis and verification. In the area of science in particular, it has led to respect for the scientific method - the testing of ideas against experiment and other accumulated data - and in particular for peer review by others who are experts in the field in question: hence the importance of publication in the scientific community, and of the serious scientific journals and proceedings which enable that to take place.

By contrast the internet has made it trivial to create one's own reality, and to promote any semi-plausible point of view by reference to supposed facts which are impossible to verify or in respect of which no serious verification is attempted. It appears that any version of reality is possible - that we can all live in what has been described as our own epistemological bubble. There are groups out there, for example, who believe and persuade themselves that the moon landings at the end of the 1960s were faked by NASA, and that the supposed television pictures of the launches and of walks on the moon were fabrications.

This amounts to relativism projected onto the framework by which we conduct our lives and hold things to be true.

Curiously, given the opposition to relativism of those who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs, but appropriately given that Charles Darwin was born 200 year ago this year, one of the poster children of this trend is the growth of creationism. Creationism promotes the idea that the living organisms around us arise from a direct and spontaneous act of creation by a greater power (it may or may not also seek to defend the Genesis narrative), but it does this in reverse by arguing that Darwinian evolution is scientifically impossible or at least scientifically implausible. "Intelligent design" is the latest manifestation of creationism and so-called "creation science": it argues that the Darwinian explanation of speciation is impossible because of "irreducible complexity" - that as one traces the route of evolution backwards one reaches a brick wall, a point where the biological mechanism in question remains so intrinsically complex that it can only be evolved from and not evolved to, thus (so the argument goes) requiring an intelligent designer-creator to first construct those basic building blocks.

The way this feeds into opposition to the teaching of evolution at schools, which is where matters generally come to a head in the United States at least, where creationism is strongest, is the argument that (i) Darwinian evolution is "just a theory", (ii) there are alternative theories, such as intelligent design, (iii) it is the job of the teacher therefore to "teach the controversy" and put forward both the Darwinian and creationist view of how it is we are here.

The problem with this is that in scientific terms there is no such thing as "just a theory". For a particular scientific explanation to be elevated to the status of being a theory rather than a hypothesis, the hypothesis in question must be testable and tested, it must meet and explain a wide range of data relevant to it, and it must have the general support of others who are expert in the field in question. By contrast with the theory of evolution, intelligent design is barely testable (it can as mentioned only be tested in reverse), has not been tested and has virtually no support at all amongst the scientific community. Whilst "teaching the controversy" might sound plausible to your stressed politician with other things on her mind, particularly in the United States where creationism and fundamentalism is more of an issue, the fact of the matter is that there is no controversy to teach.

There is another major problem underlying the creationist approach. The intelligent designer is a synonym for God, but Darwinian evolution does not say anything about God other than challenging the literal construction of a particular biblical narrative. So far as concerns the Christian religion, there are in any event two different creation narratives in Genesis, the seven days version and the dust of the earth version. Few moderate and reasonable Christians, Jews or Muslims have difficulty containing Darwinian evolution within their religious world view.

As this blog is one with a legal emphasis, readers may wonder why I have raised the issue (other than by virtue of a general concern I may have about irrationality). I have done so because it is a matter which has been heavily litigated in the United States because of the No Establishment clause of the first amendment of the US Constitution, which has the effect amongst other things of prohibiting the teaching of religion in public (state) schools. So much is probably well known to us in Europe: what may be less well known is that this analysis has also required the court to examine the plausibility of creation science and to look at the evidence. This is because the court has had to examine whether "teaching the controversy" during science classes is a subterfuge for teaching religion, which in turn requires examination of whether there is any scientific credibility behind what a teacher may be being required to teach.

The best recent example of this is the Kitzmiller case, the judgment on which you can read yourself here (click on the link there marked "342") - and it is well worth doing so, both for the birds-eye view it gives of where we are on creationism and for the picture it paints for us of American life in a small town.

Some excerpts though on the first of those matters (where "ID" stands for "intelligent design"):
"After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents', as well as Defendants' argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.
To conclude and reiterate, we express no opinion on the ultimate veracity of ID as a supernatural explanation. However, we commend to the attention of those who are inclined to superficially consider ID to be a true "scientific" alternative to evolution without a true understanding of the concept the foregoing detailed analysis. It is our view that a reasonable, objective observer would, after reviewing both the voluminous record in this case, and our narrative, reach the inescapable conclusion that ID is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science."

"To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

No comments: