February 19, 2008

Will Science Education in Florida Evolve Today? Some Don't Get It...

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have a column by Alva James-Johnson appearing in today's South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Teach evolution, but don't block creationism from schoolhouse door

Why is it OK to teach evolution in public schools, and not intelligent design?

I just don't get it. Both are theories that would take a person older than time to confirm. Both raise more questions than answers. And both, if we really want to be honest, require some level of faith.

For creationists, it's faith in the existence of a higher being. For evolutionists, it's faith in assumptions that would take millions of years to disprove. And who has the time?

...Evolution, of course, is the theory that life began spontaneously with a single-cell organism that evolved over time. Proponents of intelligent design argue that life is so complex it had to be created by a higher being.

I, for one, have no problem with the "e" word becoming part of the curriculum. Evolution by any other name is still evolution. If you're teaching it to my children, I want to know about it. Don't disguise it. Just give it to me straight so I can de-program the kids when they get home. It's part of living in a society where people are free to have different views, and I accept that...

But it goes both ways. Not everyone is convinced the theory is true. And those who don't are also taxpayers who should have a say in the curriculum. If evolution is allowed in the classroom, intelligent design should be, too. It's only fair, since Gallup polls have found that the majority of Americans believe life began with a supreme being anyway.

But the debate has never been about fairness, but about "censorship," a term used by some libertarians when it comes to anything that religious people want banned, but is never associated with attempts to keep the mere mention of "God" out of schools.

Evolution proponents argue their theory is a proven science, and intelligent design is not. Yet, many scientists would disagree. In a book titled In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, experts from several disciplines use scientific research to make their arguments. They challenge, for example, the notion that the Earth is millions of years old, using the laws of thermodynamics and other scientific standards...

As for the theory of evolution: Andrew McIntosh, a combustion theory expert at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, bases his argument on the second law of thermodynamics, which establishes that a spontaneous, natural process could only lead to increased chaos and less complexity over time. The theory seems to contradict evolution, which asserts that the universe has become more orderly and complex.

I'm not a scientist, but such arguments at least warrant a debate. But you'll never hear those scientists quoted in a public classroom...
Where does one even begin with such a steamy heap of codswallop? Should I start with the utterly incoherent assertion that nobody uses the word "censorship" when it comes to attempts to maintain a secular learning environment in public schools? I'm sure it would take less than 3 seconds to find someone applying that word in that context. Why, look... here's a whole article that does exactly that, and for ease of reference I've used a Google cache to highlight the word "censorship." That was easy.

Or shall I point out that what this columnist knows about the second law of thermodynamics is... nothing. I mean, I could point out easily that earth and everything on it are open systems and that the increase of entropy under the SLOT applies only to the overall order and energy of an overall closed system. That is, looking at only a single aspect of a large system is a misapplication of SLOT and that if the entire closed system is examined, we do see the predicted increase in entropy. That order arises locally is no violation of SLOT; in fact, it is predicted by other physical laws as well as those of probability that we should see this occurring. What the columnist does here is typical; she's read a book, and so is now magically enlightened because she can refer to an authority and have no concern as to whether or not either she or the authority is taking things out of context. She knows because it's in a book that says what she wanted to hear and, dammit, they wouldn't print it if it wasn't true. We never see entropy decrease spontaneously in nature, right? Water only turns to ice because the freezer pixies make it happen! Her children will certainly be learning about Jack Frost and the Theory of Intelligent Freezing.

Or perhaps I could target her misstatements about evolutionary theory itself, like the one that states that evolutionary theory mandates that life began with a single cell. Evolutionary theory itself doesn't necessitate this; there's lots of factual information that points to the common ancestor of all living things having been something like a single cell, though. The columnist most likely is trying to apply a sort of scala natura, and more to the point life could have begun with something that wasn't a cell at all (in fact, there's a very high probability that it all started before cells ever evolved in the first place).

Or how about her knowledge of fifty scientists "from various disciplines" who don't "believe" in evolution? I mean, that's not even as much as the Dissent from Darwinism list that's so often trotted out by these people, despite it having been debunked time and time again. A single sizable university has more scientists on campus at any given time than the fifty with which James-Johnson is so impressed and you'd be hard pressed to find one that thought that school children should be taught Creationism. The reasons you don't hear those "fifty scientists" quoted in a public school classroom are probably manifold, but one is that their opinion isn't backed up by good science. It may also have something to do with those opinions not having anything to do with what those scientists (and who knows how "scientist" is being defined) are actually experts in. Here's a clue for ya: you'll never hear Albert Einstein's opinions on how to bake brownies being quoted in home economics either. Nobody cares, and nobody should. Why is it that Creationists demand that the opinions of scientists in matters outside of their field be respected as authoritative when those opinions happen to coincide with those of the Creationist, but opinions of scientists in the field are dismissed with a hand-wave when it doesn't? Oh, yeah, I remember now. It's because Creationists don't care about good science or about science education; they only want to make sure that their religious notions are perpetuated. I guess that's what the author must be referring to when she talks about "deprogramming" her offspring.

I could go into the logical fallacies here, too. The appeal to mob rule, for example ("...Gallup polls have found that the majority of Americans believe life began with a supreme being..." So what?) or the appeal to ignorance ("Not everyone is convinced the theory is true." So what?) The point of education isn't to simply reinforce what the majority of people believe, or even think they know, about things. If that were the case, there'd be no need for schools of any kind. There'd be no need for science or any other discipline, for that matter. The point of education should be, and ostensibly is, to give students an opportunity to learn things that they can't just pick up on their own on the street, under the tutelage of someone who actually knows what they're talking about. That schools sometimes don't live up to this goal is another subject that speaks to the need to improve the educational system — and ensuring solid science education is just one part of doing that. It doesn't lend support to the idea that education should be centered upon the most widely-held popular opinions.

You know, Alva James-Johnson could have saved herself a lot of trouble and the paper could have saved a good deal of ink if it had simply posted the two valid and cogent lines in this entire column:
I just don't get it. I'm not a scientist.
There we go. Brief and simple, this tells us everything Alva James-Johnson can teach us about science and science education.

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