Friday, February 14, 2014

You Say You Want No Evolution, Well, You Know...

Drawing: Capt. James Cook voyage 1768-1771
(scientific, pre-Darwinian)
... you're too late to change that world. An old friend of mine from middle school through college, a fundamentalist Christian who home-schooled his kids, nonetheless taught them that facts cannot be debated. No doubt he and I differed on what establishes an assertion as a "fact." But a Missouri legislator has decided to test that concept in the most aggressive way possible: he has proposed a law that would
... require the school district or charter school to notify the parent or legal guardian of each student enrolled in the district of:
(1) The basic content of the district's or school's evolution instruction to be provided to the student; and
(2) The parent's right to remove the student from any part of the district's or school's evolution instruction.
The late lamented Stephen Jay Gould once presented a touring lecture appearing (among many other places) at Rice University in Houston. The title of the lecture began "The Fact of Evolution..." and concluded something like "as Explained in Darwin's Theory," or something similar. The distinction is absolutely critical to the understanding of science education: some things are facts established beyond a reasonable doubt by physical evidence and/or experiment, on the one hand, and on the other, some things are theories created by human minds, explanations of facts consistent with all known established facts.

For example, "evolution," in the sense of "descent with modification" is such a fact: the fossil record proves to any observer with an unbiased mind that later life forms derived from earlier ones. By contrast, "Darwin's theory of evolution," a very specific explanation of the mechanisms by which the established physical fact of descent with modification took place, is a theory. Theories are debatable; indeed, in a scientific context, theories can even be replaced with better theories more consistent with known facts, including new facts learned over time. Facts, on the other hand, in general are not subject to wholesale replacement.

Occasionally, as with the onset of quantum physics, facts previously established are found to be in error to a degree or in a manner that requires a re-evaluation of their particulars. But the whole of physics did not collapse with the first evidence for quantum mechanics, nor was Newton's work literally replaced by Einstein's, Bohr's etc. Some ID creationists are quick to shout "A-HA! Newton was never right in the first place! No eternal truths there!" Perhaps not, but Newton's work was good enough for humankind to navigate from the Earth to the Moon and back, to place satellites in geosynchronous orbit, etc., even if it took Einstein's work to insert the relativistic corrections to make your GPS work properly.

Such deliberate misconstructions might be merely silly, and one might legitimately simply mock people who insist on them. But in today's America, some of those people have in mind to establish their "higher [religious] truths" in our system of public education, by statutory law. Such people must be stopped.

In America, people are free to establish their own religions according to their own beliefs, however nutsy those beliefs may be. People may even form their own schools within the context of their religion, and teach their own kids all sorts of unsupported or even contrafactual things. But religion is not science, ever, even in the best of cases, and the First Amendment to our Constitution assures us that our government may not establish a religion, and that is exactly what the introduction of religion-based "science" contrary to best available present-day scientific thinking into government-sponsored schools amounts to.

Enough is enough. If the courts will not put a stop to this willful distortion of our kids' science education, the show is over, and we might as well strike the set and close the theater.

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