Friday, March 24, 2006

Michael Ruse and Evolution as Religion

Here are some quotes from Michael Ruse's book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Ruse is a noted philosopher of science, an agnostic, and an outspoken supporter of evolutionary theory.
What about evolutionism, with its progress, moral exhortations, world pictures, and so forth? Is it proper to speak of this as a religion . . .?

. . . .

An ideology, to be sure. But would the term "religion" also be appropriate? Considering the nature of the beast, it truly seems so. The concept of a religion is notoriously hard to define, but one thinks in terms of a world picture, providing origins, a place (probably a special place) for humans, a guide to action, a meaning to life. There are other prominent features of many religions, such as belief in a deity and a formalized and recognized priesthood, but these features are not absolutely essential to the definition. Buddhists (and many Unitarians) would probably flunk the God question, and Quakers (by explicit design) have no clergy. Rather than getting too flustered by counterexamples, let us allow the oxymoron "secular religion" and cast our question in these terms. And the answer does seem positive.

Popular evolution--evolutionism--offered a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans in the scheme of things. At the same time, it delivered moral exhortations, prescribing what we ought to do if we want things to continue well (or to be redeemed and a decline reversed). These things hardly came by chance or in isolation. In asking about origins, evolutionism was answering a question posed by Christianity (and Judaism before this), and in focusing on the status and obligations of humans, evolutionism was trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.

. . .

To use a phrase invented by Thomas Henry Huxley's biologist grandson, Julian Huxley, the evolutionists were truly in the business of providing a "religion without revelation"--and like all fanatics, they were intolerant of rivals.

This raises an important question: what exactly is conveyed to students when they learn about evolution in public school and when the evidence that undermines macroevolutionary theory is banned? Do students get pure science? Or does a little religious "evolutionism" seep in as well? If it does seep in, how does that affect the constitutionality of teaching it with no alternatives? How can public schools avoid establishing evolutionism as a state religion?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Truth and the Culture of Science

There is an interesting article in the NY Times on how science really works. It is about a new book by Allegra Goodman. Some excerpts:

Scientists who have read the book say that somehow, Ms. Goodman has managed to write a tale about life in a science lab that rings so true and includes details so accurate and vivid that they say they are left reeling.

. . . .

"It understands the psychology, the dynamics, the processes and pressures that exist in the current culture of science," Dr. Groopman, who reviewed "Intuition" for the online magazine Slate, said in a telephone interview. "I was stunned. I was really stunned."

. . . .

She thought of science, and the gray areas, the times when experiments stopped working or results were questioned and it was so hard to figure out what had happened. Was it human error? Was it sloppiness? Was it a natural human tendency to believe in a hypothesis so strongly that somehow data that do not seem to fit are edited out? Or was it fraud?

. . . .

Reading the scene, Dr. Schwarz said: "I had a tingle in my spine. How did she know?" The book, he noted, "also beautifully puts its finger on the ideals of science" the tension between the need to tell the truth and the need to present research in its most promising light.

This is one of the many reasons why skepticism and critical thinking are so important for science to move forward. Science is no different than other human endeavors, and scientists need to be aware of motivations other than the evidence that can influence them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Orwellian Newspeak in Ohio

Here is the entry that Merriam-Webster has for "newspeak":
Function: noun
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: Newspeak, a language "designed to diminish the range of thought," in the novel 1984 (1949) by George Orwell
: propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings

You cannot get a much better example of Newspeak than the op-ed piece by Martha Wise, who is a member of the Ohio Board of Education, and one of the chief proponents of banning any questioning of Darwinian theory in Ohio schools. We have all heard (a million times) the ridiculous assertion that intelligent design is nothing more creationism with a new label. She takes this a big, absurd step further. She asserts that the critical analysis of evolution is the same as creationism:
Until last week, Ohio had its own relabeling program for creationism, using the term "critical analysis" instead of ID.

Of course, her assertion could be true, and we would have to look at her evidence for it. You might think that she backed up her claim by citing examples from the Ohio Critical Analysis of Evolution lesson plan, which is where she claimed the "creationism" was lurking. But no, here is the "evidence" she provides:

At least one backer of "critical analysis" on the board expressed religious motivation.

Evolution was singled out, specifically targeted for disparaging and denigrating treatment. Other sciences were not.

The science lesson writing committee was packed with creationists.

Ah yes. But of course. Two ad hominem attacks and one assertion that evolution was "singled out," with nary a quote from the actual lesson plan. And note that Wise leads her piece with this nauseating flag-waving:

I believe in God the creator. I believe in freedom. I believe in America, and the state of Ohio, and the Republican Party, fiscal conservatism, fairness and honesty.

These values guided me last week to lead the Ohio Board of Education to remove creationism from our state's Science Standards and Model Curriculum.

So she can express religious motivation for her actions, but then attacks others who (she claims) are doing the same thing? What blatant hypocrisy.

Of course, we know why she fails to quote from the lesson plan. It says absolutely nothing about "creationism" or anything remotely approaching "creationism":
Function: noun
: a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis

That is pretty clear. And it is pretty clearly not "critical analysis of evolution."

Ohio should be ashamed to have such a person on its Board of Education, and extremely concerned for its children. That sort of hypocrisy, misinformation and propaganda should be voted out of office.

I was not surprised to see that someone else was independently struck by the Orwellian nature of her op-ed piece.