January 05, 2008

The Low-Hanging Fruit Is Sweetest: Christian Broadcasting Network on NAS Evolution Book

In case you hadn't heard about it already on numerous science blogs, the National Academy of Sciences has just published a book called Science, Evolution, and Creationism intended to "give the public a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the current scientific understanding of evolution." The usual cast of deniers has since been opining about it, but a brief article on the Christian Broadcasting Network stands out for me in a number of ways (that's not to say it's outstanding). Video of the piece as delivered for television is available on the website, and here's the transcript:

Academia: Teach Evolution, Not Creation

CBNNews.com - The debate over evolution and creationism is common in classrooms across the country.

Now, the government's most influential scientific advisers are weighing it.

They say intelligent design should not be taught in public schools.

The new book Science, Evolution and Creationism has been released by the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers claim the evidence supporting evolution continues to grow, and that non-scientific approaches do not belong in science classes.

President Bush supports teaching both evolution and creationism so that students can understand the debate.

Recent polls show 61 percent of Americans believe the biblical story of creation.

"Why are the evolutionists so defensive?" posed The Creation Museum's Daid Menton. "If their ideas are so compelling, I would think they would welcome a challenge."

"Unintended ignorance is excusable. Unwillingness to learn is not," expressed Director of the Center for Scientific Creation, Dr. Walt Brown. "Preventing students from learning is reprehensible."

Scientists who wrote the new book say that the evidence for evolution can be "fully compatible" with religion.

However, the Bible says that sin preceded death, whereas evolution implies that death preceded sin. The troubled theory claims that "prehistoric life" existed hundreds of millions of years ago - well before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.
I find this a rather telling bit of fluff. Note how it uses "intelligent design" and "creationism" interchangeably; if ID isn't Creationism, clearly CBN hasn't gotten the memo. In fact, cdesign proponentsists have been saying for some time that what they want taught is a "competing theory" called Intelligent Design which, they've maintained, isn't the same thing as Creationism. CBN's writers certainly appear to consider the two supposedly divergent ideas to be one and the same.

There's the appeal to the crowd as well. 61% of Americans believe the Biblical story of Creation, we're told, and one of those Americans is President Bush. I wonder, at what percentage in the opinion polls does something become true? I recall from a recent poll that something around 25% of Americans believe in UFOs; is that enough to justify a class on the subject? At one time not too long ago, 83% of Americans supported invading Iraq — Dubya notably among them — but the weapons of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare still didn't materialize and today most of that 83% has come to realize that the war was a bad decision likely based on faulty information. Point being, science isn't concerned with what's popular and what's unfashionable. It's concerned with analyzing the empirical, and that's what science education should be most involved with. Science does this through scientific method; the biases of those engaged in it are diminished and ideally eliminated. That one believes, say, in a mutualistic relationship between two organisms has no bearing on whether or not they actually do. The investigator investigates, analyzes the resultant data, and finds out whether or not there's support for the hypothesis. As Mike Huckabee recently reminded us, it's a common belief that bumblebees fly contrary to the laws of aerodynamics; I don't know what percentage of the population believes this common myth, but it is absolutely untrue. Nonetheless, if more than 50% of the population believes it to be the case, is it incumbent upon institutions of education to "teach the controversy" in physics classes because the hard science regarding the issue is beyond the scope of the general population?

David Menton from the Museum of Fervent Religious Imaginings chimes in with what Muse has termed a fourth strategy "teach the controversy" argument. That's not to say that Menton is about to teach the controversy in his museum; it's easy enough to turn his argument around and say that if the arguments for Creationism are so compelling, why not display the evidence for evolution there and let visitors decide for themselves? As the CBN piece makes generally clear, though, such arguments are merely the tip of an increasingly desperate wedge strategy, all of which begs the most basic of all scientific questions: what's the evidence? In the real world, none exists by any useful definition of the term — just as there is no evidence supporting the museum's contention that humans and dinosaurs lived together in a garden at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and that Tyrannosaurus rex ate coconuts. It's one story, one myth, among a constellation of religious imaginings about the origin of the world that members of one group that happens to be prevalent in this country believe. Again, populism doesn't support a hypothesis. Evidence does.

The piece also makes clear that their concept of Intelligent Design includes Young Earth Creationism by slapping some quote marks around the concept of paleontology ("prehistoric life?" piffle and balderdash!) and then asserting that no such thing could exist because, as Genesis clearly tells us, there was no sin 6,000 years ago and so there couldn't have been death. In their minds, this makes evolution a "troubled theory." No matter the evidence to the contrary, no matter how many independent lines of research exist and mutually confirm one another, no matter how much of that evidence demonstrates that it is impossible for the earth to be only 6,000 years old, this group's creation story must be true, and anything that contradicts it will always be wrong. Mah book sez it, I beleevs it, dat settelz it.

I can haz coconut?

Still, I had to save the best for last. The quote by Walt Brown flipped the needle of my irony meter so far into the red zone that I found myself almost not needing my usual big mug o'coffee this morning. It sounds like such a reasonable statement, doesn't it? In fact, I agree with it, and how can one not? Of course unintended ignorance is excusable! Yes! And who would say that unwillingness to learn is an admirable trait? I don't know if its inexcusable; there are lots of things any one of us is unwilling to learn. If you sat me down to start giving me lessons on how to lay concrete — clearly a valuable skill without which society would grind to a halt — I'd find the first excuse possible to get me out of that room. Likewise, I'm sure that Brown hasn't exactly gone out of his way to bone up on the fine points of podiatric surgery, even though the information by which to do so is available to anyone willing to learn it. Still, I'm sure he's trying to say that we should keep our minds open to those things, and we should be willing to learn when we hold an opinion (a hypothesis) about anything. Who would disagree that it is reprehensible to stop a child — or anyone, for that matter — from learning whatever they want to learn? I couldn't agree more strongly. I wish that education were available to everyone free of charge, that each of us had the capability to pursue the study of anything in which we took interest without hindrance. Wonderful!

The thing is, Brown isn't really arguing for that sort of world. In point of fact, what he's saying is that he finds it reprehensible that his "creation science" isn't being taught in public school science classes. See, if anyone wants to learn ab out it, I'm sure there are websites. I know there are churches. There are books. Nobody is stopping anybody from learning about religion, and let's cut to the chase — that's what "creation science" is. I doubt that Brown is going to come out with a disclaimer, for instance, that the CBN story in which he's quoted violates scientific principles by demanding that a phenomenon for which no evidence exists be used as the yardstick against which to measure those supported by real data. The irony, then, is that while Brown says that preventing children from learning, he never goes the last step and says about what. The irony is that pushing unevidenced, faith-based ideas into science classrooms takes away time from (prevents learning) about science. It's already a difficult and time-consuming subject for most students, and the only way to include "creation science" or "creationism" or "intelligent design" (take your pick; they get swapped about freely enough) is to take time away from some topic in biology.

Is it really reprehensible to stop children from learning? There are plenty of things that most sane people don't want them learning. They could certainly learn how to spread accelerants to assist in burning down buildings. They could learn how to mug old ladies. They could learn how to make bombs in the basement. Brown's assertion is, in fact, just another appeal to emotion meant to whip up the faithful. It's awfully hard to make the case that 61% of Americans believe in something they've been prevented from learning about, and it's equally hard to make the case that every conceivable things is worth learning about. Brown's quote, in and of itself, is a soundbyte devoid of any real content.

In the end, that's the best that creation science/intelligent design has to offer.

Sphere: Related Content