RNCSE 23 (1)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Issue: 
1
Year: 
2003
Date: 
January–February
Articles available online are listed below.

Cobb County Clarifies: Teach Only Science in Science Classes

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Cobb County Clarifies: Teach Only Science in Science Classes
Author(s): 
Skip Evans
NCSE Network Project Director
Volume: 
23
Issue: 
1
Year: 
2003
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
4
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On January 8, 2003, the Cobb County, Georgia, School District issued guidelines that clarify the new "Theories of Origins" policy (see RNCSE 2002 Sep/Oct; 22 [5]: 11-2). The guidelines are available on-line at http://www.cobbk12.org/~boardpolicies/I_Policies/idbd_r.htm.

Although the "Theories of Origins" policy — adopted by the Cobb County Board of Education on September 26, 2002 — explicitly stated that it is "not to be interpreted to restrict the teaching of evolution; [or] to promote or require the teaching of creationism", its treatment of evolution is not entirely satisfactory. Although it is certainly true, as the policy states, that evolution is a "subject [that] remains an intense area of interest, research, and discussion among scholars", no attempt is made to clarify that evolution, as the common descent of living things, is not a matter of dispute within the scientific community. The "interest, research, and discussion among scholars" is about controversies over how — not whether — evolution occurred. Thus the policy as worded is likely to encourage those wishing to promote "alternatives" to evolution.

The new guidelines largely rectify the problem by clarifying the nature of the controversy over evolution: "It is recognized that instruction regarding theories of origin is difficult because it is socially controversial and potentially divisive" (emphasis added). There is no mention in the guidelines of any supposed scientific controversy over evolution or of any supposed scientific "alternatives" to it. Curt Johnston, the chairman of the Cobb County Board of Education, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2003 Jan 9) that "Encouraging discussion of that might be illegal", evidently alluding to faith-based views such as "intelligent design".

Reviewing the guidelines, Eugenie C Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, commented, "When the 'Theories of Origins' policy was adopted, I said that the Cobb County Board of Education was sending mixed signals to teachers and citizens. With these guidelines, the board's message is loud and clear: teach only science in science classes. This is good news for the education of the children of Cobb County."

The clarification of the "Theories of Origins" policy also won approval from the American Civil Liberties Union. Michael Manely told the Marietta Daily Journal (2003 Jan 9) that, in light of the guidelines, the ACLU has decided not to file suit over the "Theories of Origins" policy. "It certainly seems that the board is telling the teachers to back down on the teaching of creationism, 'intelligent design' or other faith-based theories", he said. In August 2002, the ACLU filed suit over the textbook disclaimer mandated by the Cobb County Board of Education that refers to evolution as "a theory, not a fact" (see RNCSE 2002 Sep/Oct; 22 [5]: 9-11).

Prominently mentioned in the Daily Journal's article was the recently formed Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education (www.georgiascience.org), a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting scientific literacy and excellence in science education in Georgia's public schools. "The members of GCISE have worked hard to ensure that evolution is taught in the Cobb County public schools as the unifying, important, and vital science that it is", said NCSE's Scott. "Everyone who cares about a quality science education for the students of Georgia's public schools is indebted to them."

About the Author(s): 
Skip Evans
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
evans@ncseweb.org

My Favorite Pseudoscience

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
My Favorite Pseudoscience
Author(s): 
Eugenie C. Scott
NCSE Executive Director
Volume: 
23
Issue: 
1
Year: 
2003
Date: 
January–February
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Paul Kurtz’s letter inviting me to write this article suggested that I describe “my own personal involvement” in the skeptical movement. My introduction to skepticism was a fascination with a particular pseudoscience, “creation science”. From the day I first heard this phrase, I was hooked.

In 1971, I was a graduate student in physical anthropology at the University of Missouri. One day, my professor, Jim Gavan, handed me a stack of small, brightly colored, slick paper pamphlets from the Institute for Creation Research. “Here”, he said, “Take a look at these. It’s called ‘creation science.’”

Wow. Here I was studying to be a scientist, and here were people calling themselves scientists, but we sure were not seeing the world the same way. They were looking at the same data: the same fossils, the same stratigraphy, the same biological principles, and so on. But from these data, creationists were concluding that all living things had appeared in their present form, at one time, a few thousand years ago. I was concluding that living things had branched off from common ancestors over scarcely imaginable stretches of time. They were concluding that the entire planet had been covered by water, and that all the present-day geological features of earth had been determined by this flood and its aftermath. I could not see any evidence for this at all, and much evidence against it. Why were we coming up with such different conclusions? The data were not all that different, but the philosophy of science and the approach to problem solving sure were.

I began collecting “creation science” literature as an academic enterprise: an interesting problem in the philosophy of science and critical thinking. Due to the pressures of graduate school and my first teaching job, I was not able to pursue it especially deeply, but students would occasionally bring up the topic. I would tell them that even if proponents of “creation science” claimed they were doing science, one cannot claim that one is doing science if one is doing something very different from what scientists are doing. “Creation science” was a good foil to use in teaching students about the nature of science.

Philosophers of science can — and do — argue incessantly over the definition of science. I do not know how many academic papers have been written attempting to solve the “demarcation problem”: what qualifies as science and what does not. Some partisans even go so far as to claim that science is impossible to define. I confess to having little tolerance for such “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” type discussions. In my present job as executive director of the National Center for Science Education, I regularly encounter the public’s misunderstanding of the most basic elements of science. I deal with people who nod in agreement with a typical creationist statement that “neither evolution nor creationism is scientific because no one was there to observe it”. I deal with people who agree with creation scientists stating that “evolution is not scientific because evolutionists are always changing their minds”. A very popular view is that we should “give the kids all the options” in a science classroom, and teach them both data demonstrating that evolution took place and “the evidence” for the “alternate theory” that God created everything at one time in its present form — two mutually exclusive views.

Against such a background, the philosopher’s discussion of the nuances of the demarcation problem become an intellectual luxury far removed from what people need to hear. Doubtless to the frustration of my colleagues in the philosophy of science, my job requires me to simplify — probably far beyond what they consider acceptable. But in doing so, I can make a little progress in helping the public to understand why science works, and also why “creation science” is not science. Maybe down the road the nonscientists I encounter can tackle falsificationism and the demarcation problem; right now, I would be happy if they understood two basic rules of science that I believe the majority of scientists would agree upon — however much they might disagree on others. And — more importantly for this discussion — “creation science” can be rejected as science based even on this simplest of understandings of what science is.

The nature of science
There are two basic principles of science that creationism violates. First, science is an attempt to explain the natural world in terms of natural processes, not supernatural ones. This principle is sometimes referred to as methodological naturalism. In time, a consensus of how some aspect of nature works or came about is arrived at through testing alternate explanations against the natural world. Through this process, the potential exists to arrive at a truly objective understanding of how the world works.

Please allow a digression here. I am not presenting a cut-and-dried formula — “the scientific method” — as if the process of science were a lockstep algorithm. It is much untidier than that. Of course science reflects the time and culture in which it is found. Of course scientists, being human, have biases and make mistakes. Yet the growth of knowledge in a field is not the result of individual achievement, but rather is a function of a number of minds working on the same and different problems over time. It is a collective process, rather than the result of actions of a solitary genius. Individual scientists may be biased, closed-minded, and wrong, but science as a whole lurches forward in spite of it all thanks to its built-in checks.

An important check is that explanations must be tested against the natural world. Thus there is an external standard against which a scientist’s views are measured, regardless of his biases or the biases of his opponents. Unpopular ideas may take longer to be accepted, and popular ideas may take longer to be rejected, but the bottom line determining acceptance or rejection is whether the ideas work to describe, predict, or explain the natural world. The Soviet geneticist Lysenko foisted a “Lamarckian” (inheritance of acquired characteristics) theory of heredity upon the Soviet scientific establishment because Lamarckian genetics was more politically compatible with Marxism than Mendelian genetics. His politically biased science set Soviet genetics back a full generation, but today Russians employ Mendelian genetics. Wheat raised in refrigerators does not grow any better in Siberia than regular wheat, and after a series of 5-year plans gone bust, eventually the Soviet government figured out that Lysenko had to go. “Mendelism” works; “Lysenkoism” does not.

Science is nothing if not practical. The explanations that are retained are those that work best, and the explanations that work best are ones based on material causes. Nonmaterial causes are disallowed.

The second minimal principle of science is that explanations (which is what theories are) are tentative, and may change with new data or new theory. Now, do not misunderstand me: I am not claiming that all scientific explanations always change, because in fact some do not. Nonetheless, scientists must be willing to revise explanations in light of new data or new theory. The core ideas of science tend not to change very much — they might get tinkered with around the edges — whereas the frontier ideas of science may change a lot before we feel we understand them well.

Here then are two critical strictures on modern science: science must explain using natural causes, and scientists must be willing to change their explanations when they are refuted. Viewed in the light of these two basic tenets of science, “creation science” fails miserably.

Explaining through natural cause
When a creationist says, “God did it”, we can confidently say that he is not doing science. Scientists do not allow explanations that include supernatural or mystical powers for a very important reason. To explain something scientifically requires that we test explanations against the natural world. A common denominator for testing a scientific idea is to hold constant (“control”) at least some of the variables influencing what you are trying to explain. Testing can take many forms, and although the most familiar test is the direct experiment, there exist many research designs involving indirect experimentation, or natural or statistical control of variables.

Science’s concern for testing and control rules out supernatural causation. Supporters of the “God did it” argument hold that God is omnipotent. If there are omnipotent forces in the universe, by definition, it is impossible to hold their influences constant; one cannot “control” such powers. Lacking the possibility of control of supernatural forces, scientists forgo them in explanation. Only natural explanations are used. No one yet has invented a theometer, so we will just have to muddle along with material explanations.

Another reason for restricting ourselves to natural explanations is practical. It works. We have gone a long way towards building more complete and, we think better, explanations through methodological naturalism, and most of us feel that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Also, being able to say, “God (directly) did it” is a “science stopper”, in the words of philosopher Alvin Plantinga (2001). To say “God did it” means one does not need to look further for a natural explanation. For example, creationist literature abounds with criticisms of origin-of-life research. Because scientists have not yet reached a consensus on how the first replicating molecule came about, creationists argue, this is an intractable problem that should just be attributed to “God did it”. Well, if we stop looking for a natural explanation for the origin of life, surely we will never find it. So even if we have not found it yet, we must nonetheless slog on.

“Creation science”, for all its surface attempts (especially in its presentation to the general public) to claim to abide by a strictly scientific approach, relying solely on empirical data and theory, eventually falls back to violating this cardinal rule of methodological naturalism. Sometimes one has to go a bit deep in an argument, but eventually, as in the well-known Sidney Harris cartoon, “then a miracle occurs”.

For example, to a creation scientist holding to Flood Geology, Noah’s Flood was an actual historical event, and representatives of all land animals plus Noah, his wife, their sons, and their sons’ wives were on a large boat. Q: All land animals? A: Sure. The Ark is the size of the Queen Mary. Q: But there are thousands of species of beetles alone! How could all land animals be on the Ark? A: Oh, Noah did not take two of every species. He took pairs of each kind, and kinds are higher taxonomic levels than species. Q: But how could only 8 people take care of a Queen Mary-sized boat full of animals? How could they feed, water, and clean out the stalls? A: They did not have that much work, because the rocking movement of the boat caused most of the animals to estivate, or go dormant, obviating the need for feeding, watering, and stall-cleaning. Q: But the Ark floated around for almost a year before landing! Small mammals, such as mice and shrews, have a high surface–area: body–mass ratio, and have to eat almost their weight in food each day just to keep their metabolism up. These animals could not have survived estivation. A: Well, then, a miracle occurred.

Push a creationist argument far enough, and sure enough, it will become necessary to resort to a miracle. But miracle-mongering cannot be part of science.

In addition to the familiar “creation science” that got me interested in this particular pseudoscience, in the last ten years or so a newer form of anti-evolutionism has made its appearance: “Intelligent Design” (ID) creationism. ID harks back to the 1802 position of clergyman William Paley that structural complexity (such as the vertebrate eye for Paley or the structure of DNA for his latter-day bedfellows) is too complicated to have come about through a natural process. Therefore it must have been designed by an “intelligence”. The “intelligence” of course is God, and attributing natural causality to a supernatural power of course violates methodological naturalism. Recognizing that methodological naturalism is the standard of modern science, ID proponents argue that it should be scuttled, and replaced with what they call “theistic science”, which possesses the enviable ability to invoke the occasional miracle when circumstances seem to require it (Scott 1998). ID proponents are content to allow methodological naturalism for the vast amount of science that is done; they wish to leave the possibility of supernatural intervention only for those scientific problems that have theological implications, such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, the appearance of “kinds” of animals (the Cambrian Explosion), and the origin of humans. The strength of methodological naturalism is perhaps best illustrated by its general acceptance by both the ID and “creation science” wings of the anti-evolution movement — except when it comes to religiously sensitive topics.

The importance of changing your mind
So creationists violate the first cardinal rule of science, the rule of methodological naturalism, but they also violate the second cardinal rule — that of being willing to change or reject one’s explanation based on good evidence to the contrary. This is most clearly revealed by the creationist treatment of empirical data. Now, the problem is not that creationists sift through the scientific literature to find data that support the creation “model”; that in itself is not out of line. Scientists do seek confirming data (in the real world, as well as in the literature). But creationists ignore evidence that disconfirms their view, because they are not willing to change their explanations in the light of new data or theory.

Judges are not famous for their scientific acuity (witness Justice Scalia’s dissent in the 1987 Supreme Court’s Edwards v Aguillard case), but one judge got it remarkably right. William Overton, in the decision in McLean v Arkansas, wrote,
The creationists’ methods do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter reach the conclusions stated in section 4(a).
Instead, they take the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it.
While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology used as scientific, if they start with a conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation.
A theory that is by its own terms dogmatic, absolutist and never subject to revision is not a scientific theory.
For decades now, creationists have claimed that the amount of meteoritic dust on the moon disproves evolution. The argument goes like this: Based on scientific measurements, the amount of meteoritic dust falling on the earth is X tons per year; a proportionate amount must also fall on the moon. If the earth and moon were ancient as evolutionists claim, then the amount of dust on the moon would be several hundreds of feet thick, since in the scant atmosphere of the moon, the dust would not burn up as it does on the earth. When astronauts landed on the moon, they found only a few inches of dust, proving that the moon is young, so the earth is young, so there is not enough time for evolution, so evolution did not happen and therefore God created the earth, moon, and everything else in the universe 10 000 years ago.

Decades ago, creationists were told that the data they use for the amount of dust falling on the earth was inaccurate. More accurate measurements of the amount of meteoritic dust influx to the earth are degrees of magnitude smaller than the original estimates cited by creationists. Before astronauts landed on the moon, satellites had accurately measured the amount of dust occurring in space, and NASA predicted that the surface of the moon would be covered by no more than a few inches of dust — exactly what astronauts found. Even though this information has been available for decades, and evolutionists time and again have pointed out flaws in the creationist argument, the dust on the moon argument still is touted as “evidence against evolution”. If this were a normal scientific theory, it would have been abandoned and forgotten long ago, an empirical stake in its heart, but this creationist zombie keeps rising again and again.

It is hard to argue that one is doing science when one can never bring oneself to abandon a refuted argument, and “creation science” is littered with such rejects. More modern forms of creationism such as “intelligent design theory” have not been around as long, and have not built up quite as long a list of refuted claims, but things do not look very good for them at this point. Michael Behe (1996) has proposed the idea that certain biochemical functions or structures are “irreducibly complex”: because all components must be present and functioning, such structures could not have come about through the incremental process of natural selection. The examples he uses in his book Darwin’s Black Box, such as the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting cascade, appear not to be irreducibly complex after all. Worse, even granting the theoretical possibility that an irreducibly complex structure could exist, there is no reason it could not be produced by natural selection. A (theoretically) irreducibly complex structure would not have to have all of its components assembled in its present form all at one time. The way natural selection works, it is perfectly reasonable to envision that some parts of such a structure could be assembled for one purpose, other parts for another, and the final “assembly” results in a structure that performs a function different from any of the “ancestral” functions. As complex a biochemical sequence as the Krebs cycle has recently been given an evolutionary explanation of this sort (Melandez-Hevia and others 1996).

I am willing to give “intelligent design” (ID) a little more time to demonstrate that it is, as it aspires to be, a truly scientific movement. To be able legitimately to claim that ID is scientific, however, will require that its proponents be willing to abandon ideas in the light of refuting evidence — something that their ideological ancestors, the “creation scientists”, have been unable to demonstrate, and which we have seen precious little of from the leaders of the ID movement.

Logical problems
Needless to say, in addition to violating the two key principles of science, the “science” of creationism demonstrates other weaknesses, not the least important is its logic. “Creation scientists” posit a false dichotomy of only two logical possibilities: one being special creationism as seen in a literal interpretation of Genesis, and the other being evolution. Therefore, if evolution is disproved, then creationism is proved; arguments against evolution are arguments for creationism. “Creation science” literature is largely composed of a careful sifting of legitimate scientific articles and books for anomalies that appear to “disprove” evolution.

But of course, to disprove one view is not to prove another; if I am not at home in Berkeley, that does not mean I am on the moon. Accepting the “if not A, then B” form of argument requires that there are only two possibilities. If the only two possibilities are that I am in Berkeley or on the moon, then indeed, evidence that I am not in Berkeley is evidence that I am on the moon, but clearly there are more than two alternatives as to my whereabouts. Similarly, there clearly are far more alternatives to scientific evolution than biblical creationism. There are several Hopi origin stories, several Navajo ones, scores of other Native American views, several dozen sub-Saharan African tribal explanations, and we have not even looked at South Asia, Polynesia, Australia, or views no longer held such as those of the ancient Norse and ancient Greeks. Even if evolution were disproved, biblical literalists would have to find ways of disproving all of these other religious views, so the logic fails.

More than an academic exercise
For many years, then, my interest in creationism was largely academic. It was an interesting exercise in the philosophy of science. But a few years after I left Missouri, my professor Jim Gavan unwisely accepted an invitation to debate the ICR’s Duane Gish. Gish had perfected a hugely effective technique for persuading the public that evolution was shaky science, and that folks should really consider his “scientific alternative”. I and some of my Kentucky students drove from Lexington to Missouri to attend the debate, and it was an eye-opener. I counted 13 buses from local church groups parked outside the big University of Missouri auditorium, and after seeing the enthusiasm with which the audience received Gish and his message, the cold water of the social and political reality of this movement hit me for the first time. It was no longer just an academic exercise. People were taking this pseudoscience very seriously.

The late Jim Gavan was an excellent scientist, a former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, a smart and articulate man well-grounded in philosophy of science. He had done his homework: he had studied creationist literature for several months and came as prepared as anyone could be expected to be. Clearly, his scientific arguments were superior, but from the perspective of who won the hearts and minds of the people, Gish mopped him up.

So I realized that there was a heck of a lot more in this creationism and evolution business than just the academic issues. I went back to Lexington and my job of teaching evolution to college students with a new appreciation of a growing movement that had as its goal the undermining of my professional discipline, to say nothing of the scientific point of view. But still — there were pressures to publish, and a high teaching load, and I was still learning my job, so I did not take an active role in the controversy quite yet.

Then in 1976, I went to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, as a visiting professor. As I walked across campus one day, I saw a poster advertising a debate between two professors, Edward Wiley and Pat Bickford with Duane Gish and Henry Morris from the ICR. My first thought was, Do these guys know what they are getting in for? I jotted down the names of the professors and called up Ed Wiley. I told him that I had a collection of creationist materials that I was happy to make available to him, and offered to discuss the upcoming debate with him some time. We met and shared resources, and because of Ed’s strategy I began to think that maybe this debate would be different.

Gish’s usual stock in trade was to attack Darwinian gradualism because virtually all of his evolutionist opponents defended it. Ed Wiley had recently arrived from the American Museum of Natural History, where he had been converted to some new approaches to evolutionary biology that Gish had not heard of yet. Whereas Gish anticipated that his opponent would defend Darwinian gradualism, Ed merely sniffed that Dr Gish had not kept up on the latest scholarship and went on to explain punctuated equilibria and cladistics. Worse for Gish, not only did Wiley ignore Darwinian gradualism, he almost ignored evolution completely, concentrating instead on attacking “creation science” as being a nonscience, and as being empirically false.

This debate was a disaster for the creationism side. Gish did not know what to say: his target had disappeared, and he was faced with new information with which he was totally unfamiliar (needless to say, by his next debate, he had figured out a “refutation” of punctuated equilibria, and no other evolutionist opponent would ever catch him unprepared on this topic). It was pleasant to behold, especially after having seen my mentor and friend Jim Gavan skunked by Gish a couple of years before.

But the most memorable moment in the debate did not have anything to do with science. Geologist Pat Bickford was paired with the avuncular founder of creation science, Henry M Morris, and did a good job showing the scientific flaws of Morris’s “flood geology model” (according to which all the world’s important geological features were formed by Noah’s Flood), although I do not know how many in the audience understood much of his technical presentation. As with the Gavan/Gish debate, the audience was dominated by people who had arrived on buses from regional churches, and they were there to cheer their champions Gish and Morris. I was sitting behind a young girl of 11 or so and her mother.

Bickford began his presentation by pointing out that he was an active churchgoer, had been one for many years, and found this not at all incompatible with his acceptance of evolution. The girl in front of me whirled to face her mother and said, “But you told me —” and her mother, equally shocked and intent on hearing more, said, “Shhhhhhhh!” They had come to the debate convinced that one had to choose between evolution and religion. Bickford’s testimonial exposed them to empirical evidence that this was not true. I suspect that they wondered what else they had been told that was not true. I noticed that they listened to Bickford far more intently than they had listened to Wiley and left with a thoughtful look in their eyes.

But my true baptism into realizing the depth and extent of the social and political importance of the “creation science” movement came in 1980 in Lexington, Kentucky, when the “Citizens for Balanced Teaching of Origins” approached the Lexington school board to request that “creation science” be introduced into the curriculum. Because I had a collection of creationist literature collected over the years, I became a focal point for the opposition to this effort. After over a year of controversy, our coalition of scientists and liberal and moderate clergy (who objected to biblical literalism being presented in the public schools) managed to persuade the Lexington Board of Education to reject the proposal — by a scant 3–2 margin.

Creationism and Pseudoscience
What happened in Lexington has happened in community after community across the United States, although the evolution side has not always prevailed. I learned from the Lexington controversy (and from observing creation/evolution debates) that “creation science” is not a problem that will be solved merely by throwing science at it. And I suspect that this is generally also the case with other pseudosciences. Like other pseudosciences, “creation science” seeks support and adherents by claiming the mantle of science. Proponents argue that “creation science” should be taught in science class because it supposedly is a legitimate science. This point must be refuted, and scientists are the best ones to make the point. But showing that creationism is unscientific (and just plain factually wrong) is insufficient, however necessary. People who support “creation science” do so for emotional reasons, and are reluctant or unwilling to relinquish their belief unless those needs or concerns are otherwise assuaged. I suspect the same thing can be said for believers in UFOs, or out-of-body experiences, or paranormal phenomena in general: these beliefs are meeting some emotional needs, and consequently will be very difficult to abandon.

In the case of creation science, the needs being met are among those associated with religion, which makes the adherence to creationism particularly difficult to give up. Creationism is most closely associated with a particular theology of special creationism; not all religion is inimical to evolution, as demonstrated both by scientists who are religious and religious non-scientists who accept evolution. But if your theology requires you to interpret your sacred documents in a literal fashion (whether the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or the Vedas), in most cases, evolution will be difficult to accommodate with faith.

Some anti-evolutionists — most of the ID supporters, for example — think that evolution is incompatible with faith not because their theology is biblically literalist, but because they believe that a God who works through evolution is too remote; their theology requires a very personal God who is actively involved with individual human lives and who therefore gives purpose and meaning to life. The God of the theistic evolutionist, the one who uses evolution to construct living things much as Newton’s God used gravitation to construct the solar system, is too distant; evolution to them is a step down the slippery slope toward deism.

But whether in the form of biblical literalism or not, religious sensibilities are the engine driving anti-evolutionism. Religion is a powerful force in human lives. If religion did not meet many human needs, it would not be a cultural universal; obviously we are dealing with many complex psychological issues. No matter how sound Jim Gavan’s science was during his debate with Gish, he failed to move most of his listeners because they came to the debate convinced that evolution was fundamentally incompatible with their religion. Pat Bickford’s casual mention that he was a churchgoer was critical to the success of the Kansas debate, because it forced audience members to grapple with a new idea: that one could be an evolutionist and also a Christian. In Lexington, scientists could point out that “creation science” was not science, but the clergy could assuage the public’s emotional concerns that by “believing” in evolution, they were giving up something important to them. Scientists alone could not have won the day. If 95 clergymen had not signed a petition stating that evolution was fine with them and that they felt that the schools should not be presenting a religious doctrine as science, community sentiment would not have allowed the board of education to make the decision it did.

Those of us concerned about pseudoscience and its attractiveness to the public would be well advised to consider the emotional needs that are met by beliefs in ESP, alien abduction, astrology, psychic powers, and the like, and address them as well as criticizing the poor science invoked by supporters to support the pseudoscience. We skeptics sometimes feel that the people we are trying to reach are impenetrable — and some of them are! The public is divided into 3 parts: confirmed believers, confirmed skeptics, and a much larger middle group that does not know much science, but does not have the emotional commitments that might lead it to embrace a pseudoscientific view. In the case of creation science, the emotional commitment (among many) is to the particular theology of biblical literalism; in the case of UFO abductees, it may be a need for a quasi-religious benevolent protector (or conversely, the fear of an omnipresent threat against which one is powerless). I have found that I am most effective with that large middle group, and hardly ever effective with the true believers; I suspect most skeptics have had similar experiences.

But after all, reaching that large middle group is also the goal of the proponents of pseudoscience. If, like most skeptics, you feel that we would all be better off with more science and less pseudoscience, then that is where we should be focusing our energies, rather than fruitlessly arguing with people who will never agree with us. But to reach that group that is potentially reachable, we must also be aware that a scientific explanation is necessary but not sufficient to change someone’s mind; if I have learned anything from over 25 years in the skeptic business, it is that it is necessary to deal with the emotional reasons that make our species susceptible to these beliefs, as well as the scientific.

[Reprinted with permission from Skeptical Odysseys: Personal Accounts by the World's Leading Paranormal Inquirers. Paul Kurtz, ed. Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2001, p 245-56.]

References

Behe MJ. Darwin’s Black Box. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Melandez-Hevia E, Waddell TG, Cascante M. The puzzle of the Krebs citric acid cycle: Assembling the pieces of chemically feasible reactions, and opportunism in the design of metabolic pathways during evolution. Journal of Molecular Evolution 1996; 43: 293–303.
Plantinga A. Methodological naturalism? In: Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics, ed. Pennock RT. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 2001. p 339–61.
Scott EC. 1998. “Science and religion”, “Christian scholarship”, and “theistic science”: Some comparisons. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1998 Mar-Apr; 18(2): 30-2

About the Author(s): 
Eugenie C. Scott
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley, CA 94709-0477
scott@ncseweb.org

Review: Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
19
Reviewer: 
Andrew J Petto, University of the Arts
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins
Author(s): 
Charles M Wynn and Arthur W Wiggins (with cartoons by Sidney Harris)
Washington (DC): Joseph Henry Press, 2001. 226 pages (with glossary, additional reading list, and index).
Back in Madison, Wisconsin — home of the quadrennial "Psychic Faire" — it should have been no surprise to see the half-page ad for angel medium, and angel therapist, Dr Doreen Virtue. She claims that she can see, communicate, and give people access to the power of angels all around us. But how do we know that angels are responsible? Well, because Dr Virtue tells us they are. This may seem like a cover story from the Weekly World News, but it appeared in a regular daily newspaper, and Virtue's appearance drew a full house at a local theater.

Quantum Leaps is just the sort of book that should be read by anyone interested in psychics, mediums, astrologers, and others who make real-world claims about the effects of invisible powers accessible only to a select few. It gets to the heart of what constitutes science — not only the content and the theory, but also the process and reflection. Using historical and contemporary examples, the authors show us science at work — accepting, modifying, and often rejecting hypotheses, theories, and even very plausible explanations for what we observe in the world around us. The strength of the book is in the first 50 pages. Here the authors elucidate the modern scientific process with the aid of abundant diagrams, charts, and the delightful cartoons of Sidney Harris. I do not know of a clearer, more accurate, and more accessible explanation of what science is and how it proceeds than that in the first three chapters of this book.

The second part of the book looks at five major, persistent pseudoscientific ideas, recognizing that there are many more that could be added. The Wynn and Wiggins "Top Five" are UFOs and visits from extraterrestrials, astrology, out-of-body experiences and astral projections, creation "science", and parapsychology. These are important ideas that engage many of our citizens, and Wynn and Wiggins review the main claims and some of the history of these ideas.

Unfortunately, the book misses an opportunity in this section to take the reader through a consistent examination of these ideas based on the characteristics of scientific investigation laid out in the first part of the book. Their rejection of these pseudosciences is often didactic, even authoritarian, and does not shed as much light on why we should reject these ideas as the introductory chapters seem to promise. None of their statements about these pseudoscientific ideas is incorrect; it is just that they often do little more than tell us that the pseudoscientific idea is wrong — only occasionally exploring which aspects of good scientific practice are violated by the pseudoscience in question.

Still, the book is valuable overall and a good resource for those interested in (or faced with confronting) pseudoscientific ideas in the classroom, in civic life, or in politics. It provides the framework within which one could hold the Wynn and Wiggins "Top Five" up to the scrutiny of the practice of real science, as laid out in the introductory chapters. There is also a solid glossary followed by a good selection of further readings for those more interested in particular topics. During our recent struggle in Pennsylvania over science education standards, I considered buying a copy for each member of the State Assembly's two education committees. It would have been a worthwhile investment.

About the Author(s): 
Andrew J Petto
University of the Arts
320 S Broad St
Philadelphia PA 19102-4994
editor@ncseweb.org

Review: The Antiquity of Man

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
22
Reviewer: 
Tom Morrow
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil, and Gene Records Explored
Author(s): 
Michael Brass
Baltimore: Publish America, 2002. 220 pages, bibliography.
When I learned that someone wrote a book-length rebuttal to Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson's Hindu creationist tract Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race — a 900-page exposé of "anomalous archaeological artifacts" that suggested modern people lived on earth 4 billion years ago — my first reaction was, "Why would somebody go to the trouble?"

It has been a long time since I read Cremo and Thompson's 1993 book, but I immediately recalled how they devoted hundreds and hundreds of pages to reconstructed drawings of "eolith" stones, lifted from reports published a century or more ago, for relics that no longer existed and could not be re-examined. By the time I reached their chapter that suggested that Big Foot and the Yeti were living hominids whose existence was being suppressed by "establishment scientists", I dismissed it as a typical creationist fantasy.

Just as Christian creationists attempt to harmonize science with the Bible, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson are Hindu creationists who attempt to harmonize science with their sacred Vedic scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana, which describes how men and women have lived on earth for a vast period of time called the Day of Brahma that encompasses a thousand "yuga" cycles totaling 4.32 billion years.

Michael Brass, an archaeologist from Cape Town, South Africa, wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Cremo and Thompson's book entitled The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored. But Brass's book is not a tit-for-tat response to Cremo and Thompson's book. Instead, he mostly summarizes the vast archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence for human evolution from a huge variety of scientific sources. His specific criticisms of Cremo and Thompson are sparse yet devastating because he shows how they borrow the same discredited tactics that Christian creationists have used in their literature for ages.

For example, Brass shows how Cremo and Thompson selectively quote paleoanthropologist Russell Tuttle to imply that he believed that the 3.5 million-year-old Laetoli footprints were made by an anatomically modern human, despite the fact that Tuttle's report clearly said they were made by a hominid of indeterminate species. Cremo and Thompson give enormous weight to Solly Zuckerman's and Charles Oxnard's dissenting opinions of the Australopithecine fossils while completely ignoring the dozens of scientific papers that thoroughly document Zucker-man's and Oxnard's errors.

Brass also reveals how Cremo and Thompson misunderstand basic scientific principles. For example, they reject the recent radiocarbon date of the Hans Reck skeleton because they allege that it could have been contaminated by an intrusive burial. But even if that happened, such an error would make the specimen appear incorrectly older than its actual age, not younger. Cremo and Thompson also endorse Louis Leakey's discredited opinion that Neanderthals were hybrids that resulted from interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus. But if, as they insist, modern humans lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years without change, these Homo sapiens would have been genetically incapable of interbreeding with another species.

I do disagree with Brass's discussion of the biological role of homeobox (Hox) genes that guide the construction of the axis and limbs of animals. Brass's presentation primarily relies upon Jeffrey Schwartz's Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes and the Emergence of New Species (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999). Schwartz is a paleontologist, not a biologist, and most biologists I have talked to insist that Schwartz's book has serious flaws.

For specialists, a more reliable book about Hox genes is Wallace Arthur's book The Origin of Animal Body Plans: A Study in Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; see review by Laurie Godfrey on page 35). For the non-specialist, I recommend Carl Zimmer's breezy book At the Water's Edge (New York: Touchstone Press, 1999).

But this is a minor disagreement. Michael Brass's book is an excellent resource that thoroughly covers the most current archaeological and paleoanthropological findings in human evolution.

About the Author(s): 
Tom Morrow
662 Hogskin Valley Road
Washburn TN 37888
felidae990@msn.com

Review: The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
20–22
Reviewer: 
Brian Alters, McGill University
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom
Author(s): 
James W Skehan and Craig E Nelson
Arlington (VA): NSTA Press, 2000. 56 pages.
One of the greatest needs for biology instruction is an understanding of why many students consider a fundamental theory of science to be faulty and what to do about it pedagogically. A deeper understanding of students' underpinning religious beliefs concerning evolution, the age of the earth, and science in general benefits biology instructors (and other science instructors as well) in helping to comprehend students' learning roadblocks, why the roadblocks exist, the history of the roadblocks, and why everyone does not share such roadblocks. Naturally such an understanding is helpful, but also important is how instructors can nevertheless increase student understanding of such a publicly controversial topic as evolution.

Appropriately, the National Science Teachers Association published a 56-page booklet containing two chapters responding to these two needs of understanding and strategies: The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom. The work is divided into two chapters, each addressing one of these needs: "Modern Science and the Book of Genesis" by James Skehan and "Effective Strategies for Teaching Evolution and Other Controversial Topics" by Craig Nelson.

In his chapter, Skehan — an NCSE Supporter — starts by taking readers through why people believed in a young earth in the past and why some still do today. He explains that both scientific education and religious education are important in a civilized society. He personally believes that the God of the Bible created the universe and the physical processes driving physical and biological evolution — identifying himself as a theistic evolutionist. In explaining the genesis of Genesis, Skehan succinctly recounts St Augustine's reasoning, the external evidence for the biblical authors, the evidence from the Genesis document itself, varying traditions of scripture scholars, and how creationists differ from those in the mainstream of scriptural studies. The significant difference between creationists and most biblical scholars is the creationist belief that the Bible is to be taken literally and must not be interpreted by techniques used on other literary works.

A transition is then made to creationist attempts to determine the age of the earth from the Bible. Skehan explains how and why biblical scholarship and science have changed over the years, including sections on the age of the earth as calculated from the Bible, and the physical and biological data concerning the age and evolution of the earth.

The chapter ends by summarizing the creationists' ultimate position: if there is a conflict between science and a literal interpretation of the Bible, then science is wrong. Skehan explains how religious and scientific endeavors are two different kinds of knowledge, explaining that those who misrepresent the Bible as science, rather than a theological document, are damaging religion.

The reader quickly comes to understand that the reasons why creationist students believe what they do about evolution often has as much (or more) to do with biblical illiteracy or marginal literalist traditions than with misconceptions in science. Because of this problem, Skehan goes as far as to state:
The education of every science teacher who is likely to face the creation science mindset should include something about the premises and procedures of modern biblical scholarship (p 16-7).
class="RNCSE"> Probably everyone would wholeheartedly agree that it would benefit science teachers better to understand the reasons for their students' learning roadblocks, but encouraging future teachers to take biblical scholarship training to become public high school science teachers will be suspect by some — including many practicing science teachers. Yet it could be plausibly argued that because the history and philosophy of science has included brushes and entanglements (to say the least) with biblical scholarship, and because the history and philosophy of science should be integrated in science courses, the education of science teachers should therefore include some biblical scholarship. However, Skehan goes further and states that:
Teachers must be able to help students from varied backgrounds ... realize that there is no necessary conflict between interpretations of data from scientific studies and religious beliefs based on the Bible (p 2).
class="RNCSE"> This is a stimulating statement. Most people would probably have no problem with students' coming to an understanding that no conflict exists between science and the Bible as a by-product of public school education. However, many more people might take issue with preparing public school science teachers to be able to help students to realize that their religious tradition is erroneous (or at least part of their religious tradition is erroneous). It is a subtle distinction that can be an intriguing point of discussion for educators.

This first chapter is a concise, detail-rich history of some of the relevant issues concerning science and biblical scholarship, with a good relevant criticism of creationism woven throughout for instructors wanting better to understand the biblical beliefs that may underpin their students' concluding that the science of evolution is unsound — all in only 18 pages!

Nelson's chapter on effective strategies for teaching evolution is also to the point, with a great number of useful ideas and strategies packed in a short read. His recommendations are useful not only for teaching evolution to a variety of students but also for teaching many other controversial issues. He believes that most other major scientific theories, which may be less well understood by the public than evolution is, would be rejected even more widely if the public understood these theories well.

The chapter begins with a discussion of key pedagogical strategies with corresponding problems, emphasizing the fundamental role of "active learning". The results of empirical studies supporting the use of these strategies in college-level education are given to show the significant positive effects of active learning compared to using only traditional didactic pedagogy and passive learning practices. Nelson then turns his attention to problems that arise from traditional content and curricula, emphasizing that instructors can make considerable changes here also. Some problems addressed are: (a) in the rush to cover the material, teachers often present just the conclusions, leaving out the importance of science's evidence-based critical thinking; (b) too often teachers appear to present all topics in science as equally well supported (even though evolution is far more supported than many other accepted scientific concepts); and (c) words are often used in science education in a way contradictory to students' common usage.

Not all pedagogical problems arise from using traditional pedagogy and content; many arise from outside traditional pedagogy and content. Nelson addresses some of these problems, such as public controversies that usually rest on disagreements about consequences of the science. Employing a "rusty hand-grenade" as his key metaphor, Nelson effectively illustrates risk analysis in a manner understandable to virtually all students. The intended result is that students can rationally disagree on how strong the evidence must be to justify various decisions based on the trade-offs — as recognized by students. This examination of trade-offs and consequences is then considered in light of teaching evolution. Students who perceive they have much more to risk (for example, eternal salvation) may require a great deal more evidence of the soundness of evolution than those students who feel they have little to risk.

Before Nelson proceeds to more explicit juxtaposing of evolution and types of creation, he effectively cautions his science-teacher readers not to incorporate the religious consequence approaches if they feel uncomfortable. The tools that he gives for bridging false creation/evolution dichotomies are certainly useful in post-secondary education, but some may be problematic to implement in public high school science courses due to their religious nature. However, even if some teachers are uncomfortable with personally implementing such approaches, the material is important for all teachers to understand.

More strategies are given for matters arising from outside traditional pedagogy and content. The ubiquitous problem of students' wanting teachers just to tell them what to memorize is countered with three separate strategies: (a) teaching the "game" of science — and explaining why evolution is good science, (b) drawing a clear distinction between what science does and what religion does, and (c) focusing on humans — because most students are quite interested in the details of the evidence for human evolution, they will be more motivated to do the necessary work for higher-level understanding.

The chapter ends with a table of 21 evolution questions with brief answers from "quick creation" (sometimes including "gradual creation") and basic science, including lines of evidence and applications. The information from the table is to be used in a very understandable "Big Mac" metaphor for helping students to learn the wide variation in strength of support among different statements about evolution. Nelson claims the strategies in the chapter make teaching more inclusive, effective, and fun. I certainly agree.

About the Author(s): 
Brian Alters
McGill University
3700 McTavish Street
Montreal PQ H3A 1Y2 Canada
brian.alters@mcgill.ca

Review: The Ghost in the Universe

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
29–30
Reviewer: 
David Eller
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science
Author(s): 
Taner Edis
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2002. 326 pages.
The French mathematician and scientist Laplace famously answered the question of why he left out any mention of God from his book on celestial physics with the words, "I have no need of that hypothesis." Edis’s book is a reaffirmation and extension of that answer, showing how there is in fact no ghost in the universe at all — no major conceptual or empirical problems that science has not solved or promised to solve without reference to any god(s).

The book is a wide-ranging discussion of issues both scientific and historical, from biological evolution to sacred texts and morality. He starts by asking the provocative question, Does God exist? While he remains respectful of religion, saying "we have a lot to learn from religion", he concludes that there are excellent reasons to disbelieve in God (a position known as positive atheism, as opposed to negative atheism, which merely claims that there are no good reasons to believe). Theistic scientists will find his secularism discomfiting, and avowed atheists will find his openness to religion frustrating, but his argument is worth setting aside one’s personal convictions.

The book contains nine chapters, of which two or three will most interest the strictly scientific reader. These chapters cover theological and philosophical notions of God, evolution, physics and cosmology, history and sacred texts, the historicity of Jesus, miracles, mysticism and the mind/brain problem, faith and reason, and morality. All of them are written for the informed generalist or layman, although a little scientific background helps. For the professional scientist, there is still enough insight and detail to make the discussion, especially outside of his or her own specialty, useful and engaging.

The chapters that bear most directly on science are the second and third, with relevant explorations in the seventh (mysticism) and eighth (reason). In the second chapter (evolution), there is a worthwhile examination of "intelligent design", with which all scientists need to be familiar. The third chapter (cosmology) naturally ranges over the Big Bang, quantum physics, and the so-called "anthropic principle" — another back-door theistic notion that scientists need to know about. The seventh (mysticism) reviews the "scientific" argument about mystical experiences and brain states, although without reference to Newburg and d’Aquili’s popular work on the subject. The eighth (reason and faith), which I might have placed earlier in the book, starts with a chilling quote from Martin Luther to the effect that reason is the greatest enemy of faith because it does not aid spiritual things. People who are looking to learn more about the nature of reason and the "postmodern" challenge to science (as little more than an opinion or a "worldview") would be well-served to spend some time there, but the Luther quote says everything that we need to hear about reason and its relation to faith. Reason is, to paraphrase Steven Weinberg, neither for nor against faith but profoundly disinterested in it.

For those who are interested in the more specifically religious subjects, the chapters on scripture, the historical Jesus, and so on are worth a look. Also, these "non-scientific" chapters help to advance Edis’s main thesis, which is not stated explicitly until well into the book: that if there is a "ghost in the universe", it is randomness and accident. The mistake theists make, he asserts, is that they misrepresent science as narrowly concerned with "law" and nature as narrowly characterized by "regularity", leaving a gap of creativity and order that can only be filled with intelligence and intention. Edis makes the point — and supports it with illustrations from nature, scripture, and history — that the universe is in fact a unique combination of the regular and the random, the lawful and the accidental. History is the fundamental theme: a world that has evolved to this particular state is "a deeply historical world. The evolution of the universe is constrained by the frozen accidents of the past, but novelties also keep arising from, again, accidents. Ours is not a world to be summed up in a few equations" (p 106). Thus, as Gould has said, if we rewound the "tape of time" and let it run again, it might run very differently.

Edis drives his point home well with his analyses of scripture and religious history. Not only natural laws but also social facts are the result of specific identifiable events and the crystallization and institutionalization of successes, failures, or pivotal decisions. While not advocating a "science of history" — one can no more sum up human history than natural history in a few equations — it does show that, with a few diverging events, the religious face of the world could have been very different, too.

If there is one shortcoming of Edis’s religious discussion, it is that he focuses exclusively on the Judaeo–Christian–Muslim complex of religions. He does mention Buddhism in the mysticism chapter, but other religions, including traditional, animistic, "non-theistic" religions, are completely absent. But fair-minded observers of religion cannot allow one religious view to hijack and dominate the "god-talk", nor can we assume that everyone who uses the word "god" even means the same thing by it. In the end, the best argument against God may not be science but all the other gods.

Ultimately, in his main thesis, Edis probably has his finger on the issue that will distinguish the science of the future from the science of the past and that will forever remove the "gaps" into which theists thrust their god(s). While science cannot prove that there are no gods, it can do what Edis, along with Weinberg and Laplace, have suggested it does: demonstrate that there are no "ghosts" in the universe at all — no need for any other hypotheses than the ones naturalistic science offers.

About the Author(s): 
David Eller
PO Box 22174
Denver CO 80222

Review: The Primate Fossil Record

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
45
Reviewer: 
W Eric Meikle, NCSE Outreach Coordinator
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Primate Fossil Record
Author(s): 
Walter C Hartwig, Editor
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 530 pages.
This is an admirable effort to provide a concentrated and uniform treatment of the fossil record of that mammalian order of primary interest to our ever-anthropocentric selves. New fossil discoveries related closely to human origins and ancestry tend to be well-publicized and receive wide popular attention. Every year at least one or two new hominin specimens, if not species, make headlines. The pace of such significant fossil discoveries has quickened throughout the last century, and especially in the last three decades.

Those who are not primate paleontologists, however, probably are not aware how closely this pattern of increasing knowledge about our Pliocene and Pleistocene hominin relatives is paralleled by an increasingly rich fossil record for the entire Primate order, covering more than 50 million years. Essentially all fossil primate groups are much better known today than they were in 1960, or even in 1980. However, no comprehensive reference work on this topic has been published in recent years. This book fills that gap, and will serve as a starting point for professionals and advanced students for years to come. While technical, expensive, and not intended for beginners, it does contain numerous illustrations and extensive references to the primary scientific literature, as well as discussions of interpretations and implications of this wealth of primate fossils.

About the Author(s): 
W Eric Meikle
Outreach Coordinator
National Center for Science Education
PO Box 9477
Oakland CA 94709-0477
meikle@ncseweb.org

Review: The Quest for Truth

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
41–43
Reviewer: 
Lawrence S Lerner, California State University, Long Beach
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs
Author(s): 
Mano Singham
Bloomington (IN): Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 2000. 184 pages.
This is an interesting but perplexing book. The author, a fundamental-particle physicist at Case Western Reserve University, has been active in the effort to keep "intelligent design creationism" out of the Ohio science education standards. But creationism is only one of the factors — perhaps a minor one — that have motivated him to write this small book. Singham devotes most of the introduction to an outline of the conflict between science and three forms of creationism, which he felicitously dubs strong (6-days-plus-flood), weak (day-age), and superweak ("intelligent design") creationism. He then expands this discussion into a series of broader questions concerning the relationships and conflicts among what he dubs "elite science", "popular science", "elite religion", and "popular religion". But these questions lead the author to the use of such difficult terms as truth and objective reality. On reading beyond the introduction, it becomes clear that a discussion of the meaning of these terms lies at the center of his interest; the conflict between science and creationism seems to serve mainly as a segue into these broader and deeper matters. The author holds that his long digression is essential to further discussion of the science-religion conflict (and of creationism in particular). But aside from using creationist assertions as examples for some of his arguments, he never really provides a thorough discussion of this subject.

The middle and largest part of the book — 100 pages or so — is the most interesting and useful. The author attempts, with some success, to acquaint the nonspecialist reader with mainstream philosophical views of the nature of science. As one would expect, the discussion centers on the works of philosophers of science Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty; by far the heaviest emphasis is placed on Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions (Kuhn 1996). Inevitably, as the author warns the reader, the discussion cannot be complete — only so much can be conveyed in a relatively brief summary.

"Truth", the key word in the title, is a slippery term. In theology, it has at least one clear meaning: What is revealed in sacred scriptures is by definition true, and theological argument can proceed on this sound foundation — at least among those theologians who share faith in that particular revelation. Science, however, does not have such a starting point. Popper stressed the now widely accepted view that science can never achieve truth but it can make and then test assertions that are falsifiable. If a theory survives numerous and varied attempts at falsification, one can have a degree of confidence in the reliability of that theory over a broad range of phenomena. Moreover, if a statement is inherently not falsifiable (for example, "God is just"), it cannot be a scientific statement.

If a scientific theory cannot be "true", can it at least be "correct"? Certainly, in the sense that it accounts for a range of phenomena with good accuracy and can be used to predict the outcome of previously unknown events. Scientists, in contrast to philosophers of science, do not worry too much about this point. Given a particular problem, it is usually pretty obvious to the skilled investigator which theory will yield a satisfactory solution.

How are the sciences related? Singham argues that most scientists are reductionists. Perhaps he is led to this view in part by the hyperbolic titles that famous particle physicists give to their writings aimed at a broader public — and particle physicists do love to use such names as "The Theory of Everything" to describe their work, sometimes only partly facetiously (Lederman and Teresi 1993; Weinberg 1994). If Singham were to consider the views of scientists other than his fellow particle physicists, he might well take a different position regarding the philosophical stance of most scientists. Moreover, the reductionist position he frames is idiosyncratic; he argues that physics deals with the smallest objects (subatomic entities), chemistry with larger molecules, and biology with large chemical systems. He therefore sets up a reductionist hierarchy that is strictly one of scale. He continues,
the smaller the size scale of the discipline, the closer to truth that discipline is judged to be. Thus, a complete understanding of particle physics would explain how protons, neutrons, and other nuclear particles are formed and how they interact to form nuclei. Since these form the constituents of nuclear physics, all of nuclear physics also would be explained. Similarly, once we know how atomic nuclei form and interact with other atomic components, we would have explained atomic physics and chemistry. … And once we have completely explained chemistry, then we also will have explained biology, then upward through the latter to society and the universe.
This is, I think, a straw-man description of reductionist epistemology too naïve to convince most scientists. It founders immediately on the rocks of emergent properties. There can be no doubt, for instance, that biological systems obey the rules of chemistry without exception. But the rules of chemistry could never have predicted a priori that genetic information is carried by DNA, or that the bases A, C, G, and T comprise the alphabet that conveys that information as it does. Similarly, a thorough knowledge of a deer as a biological organism will not furnish a basis for explanation of the complex herd behavior of the species to which it belongs.

Later, Singham digresses into a cogent and, I think, widely accepted criticism of the way science is taught at all levels below graduate school. He adopts the so-called constructivist view of education — the instructor should not simply assume that his students' preconceptions are wrong and then proceed to lecture them on the correct stuff, but should let them build on their own knowledge systems and arrive at the consensus of modern science through a process of adding new experience to what they already know. While I am sympathetic with this approach as a pedagogic technique, I do not see it as a basis for a philosophy of science. Moreover, I am not at all clear as to what the discussion of constructivist pedagogy contributes to the main argument of the book, except that it leads by inference to the view that pseudoscience has intrinsic intellectual value.

Singham finally comes to what I take to be his solution to the problems of public misconceptions of science and the conflict between science and religion. This solution lies in acceptance of the ideas that (a) all knowledge is valid and (b) science does not seek truth but control over the environment. In adopting this position, Singham comes close to abandoning the distinction between science and pseudoscience. As a corollary, he argues that the important court decisions that distinguish between creationism and science are not intellectually honest. Most scientists would maintain that, complex philosophical structures aside, it is not too difficult to distinguish between science and pseudoscience on the basis of straightforward criteria. In the same way, several courts have not found much difficulty in distinguishing between real science and religiously based programs disguised as science.

Singham further reconciles the Kuhnian concept of incommensurable paradigms (for example, Newtonian physics vis-à-vis quantum mechanics) by making an analogy with biological evolution. Just as species branch from pre-existing species — the metaphor is that of a proliferating shrub — new theories branch from pre-existing ones. In both cases, the process is contingent; if the pre-existing branching structure had been different, the new branching would have been, too. Singham argues further that this metaphor avoids the misconception that knowledge — at least, scientific knowledge — is finite and we will someday know everything there is to know about the universe. Rather, Singham's shrub branches out unendingly into the spaces available between and above the existing branches.

This metaphor is a pretty one and may satisfy many readers. My own view is that it is not very useful except for convincing those who are too much influenced by the idea of a Theory of Everything.

It is, I think unfortunately, never terribly clear how all this will solve the problem of widespread public belief in creationism and other pseudosciences. Nevertheless, the book is a good read and a good way for the educated but nonspecialized reader to approach both the current problems of the philosophy of science and its position in the scientific world.

References

Kuhn TS. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lederman L, Teresi D. The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Weinberg S. Dreams of a Final Theory. New York: Vintage, 1994.

About the Author(s): 
Lawrence S Lerner
lslerner@csulb.edu

Review: Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
23
Year: 
2003
Issue: 
1
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
34–35
Reviewer: 
Kevin Padian, NCSE President
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Author(s): 
Richard Fortey
New York: Alfred a Knopf, 2000. 287 + xiv pages, 16 plates.
Perhaps the title "Trilobite!" does not have quite the threatening ring of "Jaws!" or "Carnosaur!" (with or without the exclamation point), but the sub-title really gets to the meat of the book. The trilobites were eyewitnesses to evolution in many different ways. Richard Fortey, trilobite specialist at the Natural History Museum in London and a fine writer, is an ideal guide, not just for his expertise in the animals, but for his literate approach to the history of knowledge about trilobites and for his ability to use them to show how scientists approach evolutionary problems with fossils.

Fortey is the author of several excellent books, including Life, Fossils, the Key to the Past, and The Hidden Landscape. Far more than a taxonomic specialist, he has spent his career studying the importance of trilobites to major problems in evolution, including their relationships, their geographic spread and what this might say about correlating rocks from ancient ocean bottoms, and their morphological diversity and functions. Given the scope of his other books, it is not surprising that Fortey chose to introduce readers to his beloved fossils using a problem-centered approach (rather than a dry, taxonomic, textbook-like one). An especially pleasant added value is his penchant for literature, local history, and the development of the field with all its personalities, which allows the reader a vivid and close look at the science.

"Eyewitness" is an especially apt theme for the book. Fortey begins by taking us to a spot on the North Cornwall coast called Beeny Cliff. This is where Thomas Hardy famously situated a scene in his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes that became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose. In the novel, Knight, one of the protagonists, slips and tumbles over the edge of the cliff. Clinging to his life, desperately waiting for aid, Knight comes face to face with a trilobite embedded in the rock, which stares at him with stony eyes dead for millions of years. Instead of seeing his life flashing before him, Knight, an amateur scientist, sees the history of life — from primordial slime to iguanodons and mammoths. It has been known for some years that Hardy cribbed the paleontological knowledge in this passage from one of Gideon Mantell's popular books of the time. Fortey reveals another twist to the cliff-hanger: there are no trilobites in that particular geologic section.

But the eyes of the trilobite that stared at Hardy's Knight are amazingly complex and varied structures, originally formed of calcite. Trilobites retained this ocular legacy through their evolutionary history, but found ways to modify the crystal structure and the number and size of the lenses. Recent technology has enabled scientists to model and simulate the structure of these eyes in order to understand just what trilobites saw and how the eyes evolved. They certainly witnessed a great deal of geologic history.

Trilobites are distributed all over the world, from the Cambrian to nearly the end of the Permian, roughly speaking the first 300 million years of the good fossil record that we call the Paleozoic Era. From their earliest appearance they are quite diverse, and they are notorious for their rapid rates of origination and extinction of species. This is borne out by Fortey's remark that even in the Early Cambrian, trilobite faunas are different from one another in different parts of the globe. As continental shelves separated and collided and moved all over the world, the trilobites kept pace. Like few other groups, they point geologists to rock strata that have similar faunas that reflect deposition at about the same time. This has helped tremendously in correlating and connecting ancient pieces of real estate into a cohesive history of geologic strata.

Fortey's book also covers the people who have been witness to the developing understanding of trilobites, which were first interpreted as odd flatfishes. He paints fine portraits of geologists and paleontologists who have braved rain, cold, and provincial cooking to search out these petrified beasts in the remotest places. Fortey recounts how knowledge of the trilobites expanded through time as better-preserved specimens revealed a fantastic diversity of eyes, legs, segments, and spines. And he explains how recent advances in developmental biology have revealed the probability that Hox genes underlay these variations, just as they do in living arthropods. One of Fortey's most interesting portraits, to me, was his account of the Cambrian "explosion" of trilobites and other invertebrates. Fortey cuts through a lot of the silliness about "phyla" and timing of diversification that seems to flummox creationists like Jonathan Wells and Phillip Johnson — neither of whom is conversant with the evidence.

Readers should not expect to find an omnibus reference book on trilobites. Fortey has a lot to teach about trilobite structure, diversity, and evolution, but his book is far less pedestrian and far more engaging than a more text-like treatment would have been. Rather, he has used trilobites as a vehicle to explain a great many aspects of evolution, geologic history, and how we know what we know about these ancient animals and the problems that they illuminate. Besides, his prose is genial and knowledgeable and his diction is superb. We in the field of evolution are lucky to have a great many fine writers, and Richard Fortey is one of the best.

A word of caution: Trilobites are among the most popular and available invertebrate fossils — in particularly a number of species from Morocco, some of which Fortey figures in his book with elaborate spines, horns, tails, and legs. But caveat emptor: commercial purveyors often "restore" the finer and more lucrative details, and your local fossil emporium might not know this (or tell you).

About the Author(s): 
Kevin Padian
President, NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477