Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The National Center for Science Education has a report on the latest entry in the "academic freedom" legislative ploy sweepstakes, House Bill 656, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives. Besides the excruciatingly vague language usual in these bills, intended to allow individual teachers and local school boards to pour as much creationism into the interpretation of the words as possible, House Bill 656 has an interesting change from the 2008 version, which read:
This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.
This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote philosophical naturalism or biblical theology, promote natural cause or intelligent cause, promote undirected change or purposeful design, promote atheistic or theistic belief, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence.
Given the Religious Right's -- opps, sorry, the Religious Lunatic Fringe's -- general definition of "discrimination" against their beliefs as "anything that anyone does that in anyway contradicts or even questions our beliefs," the provision against construing the bill to allow "discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas" will doubtless get a good workout if this should become law.
Including "logical inferences based upon evidence" within science might seem uncontroversial but, given the history of "creation science" and ID, recently exemplified in Wild Bill Dembski's claim that the "fact" that "no human engineer has designed technology that can hold as much information in such a compact way as the DNA found in cells" is somehow a scientific inference in favor of a "Designer," the term "logical" is likely to have a very loose definition. Expect to see the IDeologists' very favorite "logical" inference, "whatever casts any doubt on any aspect of evolutionary theory, past or present, is evidence for ID," to proliferate in Missouri classrooms in the unfortunate circumstance, for Missouri students, that this bill is signed into law.
But, nerd that I am, the item that interests me most is the provision about not promoting either "undirected change or purposeful design." This plays into a notion that I've had for some time about the endless debate over creationism and evolution. Anyone who has followed it even casually will be familiar with the scene: creationist (ID advocate, promoter of "academic freedom," "controversy" teacher, etc.) calls down doubt (logically, of course) on the power of random evolution to bring into existence the "amazingly" complex vertebrate eye (bacterial flagellum, human mind, etc.). Scientist (science nerd, rational human being, etc.) points out that evolution is not random because natural selection takes the random variations in organisms and promotes the ones best fitted to the environment while tending to eliminate the less fit.
The scientist (science nerd, rational human being, etc.) is thinking of "random" in the "Epicurean" sense: of atoms moving aimlessly about suddenly coalescing into some object -- the tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747 example -- that is certainly a part of creationist thinking. After all, it was Epicureanism that William Paley was arguing against and why should creationists, 150 years behind in their science, be anymore up to date in what they think they are opposing?
But I think creationists are mainly using a different sense of "random," which accounts for their seeming blindness to the nonrandom nature of natural selection. And that other sense of "random" is neatly summarized in this bill. More often than not, when a creationist (ID advocate, promoter of "academic freedom," "controversy" teacher, etc.) uses the term "random," what they mean is "unintended." To them, anything which is "undirected" and not "purposeful" is "random."
I'm not sure if the recognition of this different usage by creationists will be of any use to our side. I doubt that pointing it out to creationists will change their minds or arguments one little bit -- if logic and consistency was of any concern to them, they wouldn't be creationists in the first place. Maybe it would have some impact on the vast majority of people in the middle who have no opinions on evolution that are clearly thought out or firmly held but, if their eyes didn't glaze over at the nuances of the science and the "debate," they probably wouldn't be sitting on the fence anyway.
Still, it is always good to understand one's opponents better ... if for no other reason, that it reduces the head-scratching you have to do.
Update: John Wilkins has a nice post on the different meanings of the related term "chance" and what Darwin intended by the term, which was not the "Epicurean" sense of chance.
Regarding "random," when I was a teaching assistant for a college Ecology class, an exercise asked the students to describe how they would select random samples. The responses indicated a high proportion of the students did not have a clear understanding or randomness.
Randomness is a lack of order, purpose, cause, or predictability.
Although this entry seems a tad shakey, as Wiki also points out.
So this notion that randomness means lack of deliberate purpose is in places other than the fetid swamp of creationist writings.
Which is why on more than one occasion I've argued that the acronym "ID" really stands for "Intentional Design."