Friday, September 12, 2008

Freaky Friday?

What can I say, you get up Friday morning, buy the papers and start to think "oh my that's awfully trippy" when you see headlines like "Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools" and "One in 10 pupils believes in creationism", and then run to leaders and commentary akin to what you wrote the previous morning. Talk about being mildly prescient!

On the point made by the Anglican clergyman and scientist at the Royal Society though, I do actually get what he's trying to say. If there is indeed a growth in children either not being taught about evolutionary science, or just being taught that the world is 10,000 years old, then those sort of ideas should be discussed in the context of understanding what science is, and in that sense can exist in a classroom dedicated to scientific inquiry.

They don't have to be presented as an "alternative theory" in order to do this either. If the science curriculum took the starting point of outlinging what makes a theory scientific compared to what doesn't, and then took on - with the intent of identifying types of theories - the question of the evolutionary origin of the species in comparison to the contrary philosophical and/or theistic arguments, then it would do wonder for improving critical thinking in schools.

For me the instinctive opposition to having the discussion of non-science (and for that matter pseudoscience) in science lessons seems rather odd. After all, science has nothing to fear from such arguments because it can distinguish itself as a body of thought and method which has the ability to strengthen its position over time through experimentation unlike the linguistic formulations and argumentation which cannot.

Incidentally, and purely as an aside, I also find it odd that those that oppose these sort of changes of approach on dogmatic principles about what science is, rarely complain about the concept of "social science", which is of course not science at all in the sense of the theories it produces (no doubt that statement will put the cat amongst the pigeons for some people too). If philosophical or theistic arguments about origin cannot be discussed in science lessons beacuse they are not scientific, likewise "social science" should not be named as such.

At the end of day I think we should have schools that teaches kids how to understand what science is, and actually get to grips with what the purpose of an experiment is. Let's start teaching them that they're not trying prove something to be true, but are experimenting to test whether a theory is wrong. If they cannot produce a test for a theory to show that it is wrong then the theory is not a scientific one.

Outline the philsophical basis of science early, and then bring in those theories, like Aristotlian rationalism, Intelligent Design, Creationism and others, and have them criticially assess their value as scientific theories. In depth discussion of these things can be left for other lessons like philosophy and religious studies of course, but that doesn't mean they should be excluded from a biology lesson because their presence can actually further a greater understanding of science and excite young minds into further inquiry.

The one thing we don't want is for this issue to become a wedge one like in the USA. If we take the approach of outlining the philosophical basis of science, and then otuline the limitations to our understanding of "truth" then that can only be a good thing for the advancement of pupils. Rather than regimenting kids with "facts" we should be explaining the ideas and methods that led to how we consider those "facts" to be our strongest understanding of how things are. Philosophy (the angle to which I am coming from on this) and science have always gone hand in hand. Without the probing questions about reality by the first, we would not have reached the method and finding of the second.

Also, and one final thing on the whole evolution, ontology question. Let us not forget that the random chance of things coming together in such a way as to create the conditions for the evolutionary process to begin is currently as untestable as the idea that some form of intelligence kickstarted the whole thing dame thing with a specifc purpose. We can know that a process existed, but the cause of that process still comes down to two untestable positions. Random Chance, or desired purpose. There is of course a third option that it was both. Who knows, an intelligence might have decided to have a random throw of the dice whilst playing with the Universe ;-)

Anyhow, it's Friday, let's do some less serious posts.


Letters From A Tory said...

You obviously don't understand the concept of 'social science'. I used to be a social science teacher and it's name is well deserved.

Social science seeks to create models and explanations for human behaviour using evidence from observations. Yes, some of it is purely theoretical but the vast majority of it is based on testable and falsifiable ideas of human interaction - hence the name 'social science'.

Social science is totally irrelevant to the issue of creationism in science lessons.

dizzy said...

Oh I do understand social science, did it at Masters. I'm not saying it cannot have value, I'm just saying it isn't science. It is pseudoscience precisely because all it does it generate explanations of behaviour based on observation alone. That is induction. Social science explanations are wrapped up in the language of science but fail the faslfiiability test because, amongst other things, they start from bedrock assumptions, not to metnon of course the Mannheim Paradox.

Incidnetally, I said that comment as an "aside" making it clear that it was irrelevant to the issue of creationism in science lessons. I was passing the comment that no one ever seem to question the use of the term "science" in that subject when it is clear it does not adhere to the same testabilty qualities that the natural sciences have.

dizzy said...

Once upon a time it was called "sociology", that is the correct name for it still.

Anonymous said...

Does Santa Claus exist?

Will global warming destroy his lovely home?

Let's ask Sarah Bonkers Palin.


Oh yeah, Palin doesn't believe in global warming - but she does believe in Santa Claus. After all, Alaska is very close to the North Pole.

fairy tales and make believe.


dizzy said...

What relevance does any of that have to what is actually quite a serious intellectual debate?

Anonymous said...

Does Sarah Palin believe dinosaurs were here 5000 years ago? Does she? Try to teach that.

High brow loves low brow. Low brow loves high brow. So what?


dizzy said...

Again, what is the relevance of this to the debate that was started in the Royal Society?

Anonymous said...

The point is what's the point?

dizzy said...

Hang on though, the othjer day you were banging on about anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism of this exact subject. Here it is being presented in an entirely intellectual and serious manner and suddenly it's "what's the point?"

Anonymous said...

You said 'at the end of the day'. That was annoying.

I'm all for getting children excited about 'thinking'. Carry on.

Balthazar said...

The UK press doesn't seem to understand Intelligent Design at all. Everyone keeps saying its not science (and lumps it in with Creationism - from which it is completely different). In one sense ID is not science - in the sense that it is impossible to falsify - but then in that sense neither is Darwinism which also cannot be falsified.

However, both have lots of interesting scientific implications. For instance Michael Behe's (ID based) analysis of malarial evolution indicates that bacteria, have very limited powers of evolution which always involves them adapting to medicines by disabling an existing gene rather than creating something new. If this is correct then it has significant implications for drug design.

The ideas behind ID - specified complexity and irreducible complexity - are new and important ideas for science. ID has already succeeded in uncovering lots of lazy thinking in biochemistry and evolutionary science where facts have increasingly been forced into a Darwinist world view which they often don't fit. ID may not turn out to be the right answer. But it has highlighted that Darwinists have been covering up the huge problems that a modern understanding of the intricacies of cell biology has given their theory.

People should try and understand it more before dismissing it.

Letters From A Tory said...

"all it does it generate explanations of behaviour based on observation alone"

Try telling that to a Cognitive, Behavioural or Biological Psychologist.

dizzy said...

With the greatest of respect that quote of mine is actually a paraphrase of what I said. Best I can suggest really is to go and do some reading on the philosophy of science, with particular interest in the social versus natural argument. They are not the same thing by a long shot. Social science has a tendency towards relativism (that's scientific not moral or cultural) and also thanks to people like Weber, a leaning towards creating semi-platonic forms about ideals.

Newmania said...

Social science seeks to create models and explanations for human behaviour ......

Oh dear me that is rich the T Boy is a social scientist. Would it not be a better idea to consider various disciplines as on a spectrum with say Physics and hard sciences at one end Literary criticism somewhere in the middle and Social Science on the soft end competing with Tarot card reading and spoof ?

Dizzy on the ontology question if you allow your theory to have a designing intelligence at its start then you have to explain where it came from and you have not explained anything at all. Similarly if you say “God “ invented moral laws you either accept that are random and therefore meaningless or he knew which ones to pick and so they must have already existed . It s not a possible property of eternal verities to have a creator ( JS Mill)

I could not have any question of reaching creationism as science I was only suggesting that the religious beliefs of a person , say Sarah Palin are part of a different scheme that should not be judged by empirical measures .I was quite unable to say anything clear on the relationship between mystical truth and religious observance though , but then it is a difficult question.

Newmania said...

Social science has a tendency towards relativism (that's scientific not moral or cultural) and also thanks to people like Weber, a leaning towards creating semi-platonic forms about ideals.

I know a bit about Plato , relativism and even Weber in spots but this is still a bit gnomic for me . What do you mean semi Platonic ideals? Is it that a T-Boy has an ideal society in mind and fits his supposed research around it ?

Newmania said...

Ha it was not T Boy at all its Letter From funny . Sorry about that .Is LFAT suggesting cognitive psychology is \ hard science ?


dizzy said...

"Dizzy on the ontology question if you allow your theory to have a designing intelligence at its start"

"my" theory?

Surreptitious Evil said...

Hum. Intelligent design, Michael Behe's comprehensively disproved ideas of irreducible complexity included, does not try to explain 'natural selection', species drift, or anything else (except, possibly, convergent evolution - e.g. the similarities between sharks and dolphins.) It points to the current state of existence of species and individuals and postulates that their phenotypes are such because their genotypes were "intelligently designed" to express useful (often, hideously incorrectly, 'ideal') characteristics for that environmental niche. They then pick a moving target of one or two examples which, by the time the real scientists have stopped doing their work to refute the IDiots, have long been replaced.

It is clear (actual complexity theory) that the only conceivable intelligent designer (go on, the clue is in the name) would be a being that is either the Abrahamic God (omniscient and omnipotent, in violation of quantum mechanics - unlikely - and thermodynamics) or a being equivalent but without the violent and angry history.

However, the real problem with ID is that it was never developed as a competing hypothesis with the scientific theory of evolution (which is not complete, has plenty of rows in the recent past - eg punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism, and has room for further development and, even, possible refutation of some of what are currently accepted tenets.) It was developed by American religious twits (Christians this lot but, as has been said, it takes all sorts) as something they might try to drive into school science curricula (to defeat the Satanic evil of Darwin) when their attempts to do so with biblical creationism were defeated. It must be said that as a proponent of evolution, Dawkins' position as a militant atheist has not helped to keep the argument where it should be - whether there is a scientifically rational alternative to DNA/RNA genetics + random mutation + "survival of the fittest to breeding" leads to changes in species which, over time, produce varieties (better) fitted for one or other environmental niche and, eventually, separate as species (in the technical sense that they cannot interbreed and produce fertile progeny) different lines within a parent species. I.e. "evolution" as it is known today (although similar to Darwin's natural selection, we have much better knowledge of the mechanisms of genetics than was available to him.)

As people have dragged up the example of gravity - we know that the current theory of gravity is wrong (or, de minmis, missing several aspects of such criticality that would classify it as 'wrong' to many observers.) The contradictions between quantum mechanics and general relativity will need to be solved before we have a new, accepted, theory of gravity (finding the graviton and the Higgs boson may help but will not be sufficient). However, Newtonian gravitational theory (been accepted to be wrong since Eddington's somewhat dodgy 1919 observations of Mercury) is still used to launch satellites (the calculations are easier) and there hasn't been a mass lemming-like (yes, I know, myth not fact) extermination of theoretical physicists stepping off cliffs or the roofs of tall buildings.

You (the generic you, I am not picking on anyone in particular) ought to see that a deity, particularly a supposedly caring one, that is interfering with us, all animals and plants, at a basic genetic level (even if it is just at the moment of conception) should be up for some appalling stick from anybody and everybody with genetic disorders.

Disclaimer: I am a Christian, a physicist and an engineer and I believe that evolution is the best theory we have to explain the wonderful variety of life on this planet.

I'm off for some lunch.

Newmania said...

the idea that some form of intelligence kickstarted the whole thing dame thing with a specifc purpose. We can know that a process existed, but the cause of that process still comes down to two untestable positions

I thought you were suggesting that these were equivalent which they are not.The assumption of an intelligence at the start is granting the main thing you want to explain at the end as an assumption. It cannot therefore exlain anything .
Where did the intelligence come from ?Same question you started with.

dizzy said...

Nemania: "I thought you were suggesting that these were equivalent which they are not."

No, I was just making the point that "random chance" of all the right bits just happening to come together is, by defintion, random and thus untestable and unmeasurable, much int he same way that the idea that it wasn't random is. Personally I don't really care either way, I just think the debate is often jaded by misunderstanding of science and what can and cannot be known sometimes.

Surrepticious Evil: "[ID] was developed by American religious twits"

No it wasn;t as I pointed out in the previosu post to this one, it's an ancient idea starting as far back as Aristotle and gaining ground in the rationalist movement of the Enlightenment. Hijacked possibly by religious twits, I will give you that, by the idea was most defintiely not developed by them, nor was it developed by twits in general
SE: ID was not, as I men

tory boys never grow up said...

Of course there is science in social sciences - how can you say that science can be applied to how people react to physical substances but not to economic/social stimuli - the reactions are not certain in either case. The problem with social sciences is that belief systems become much more wrapped up with the scientific analysis than they perhaps do in physical sciences (altough this might change if the creationists were to have their way) - it is probably for this reason why economics used to be referred to as political economy (and I think Keynes preferred this usage).

All of this is a further good reason why schools should teach the difference between belief systems (be they political, religous or withcraft) and science - but the place for doing it in schools should be in Religous Education lessons and their school assembly extensions - this (and public ethics and morality) are of more importance than the gobbledekook that is currently taught in such lessons - and in the meantime the science and economics lessons can concentrate on getting across the largely undisputed basics which are more than enough to fill the curriculum at least until GCSE level.

dizzy said...

"Of course there is science in social sciences - how can you say that science can be applied to how people react to physical substances but not to economic/social stimuli"

Easy, the Mannheim Paradox.

Balthazar said...

Surreptitious, your characterisation of ID is inadequate. Irreducible complexity is only one aspect of it. Specified complexity is probably the more interesting idea. This is the question of how you put hard numbers around the question "was this designed?". This is a question we have a sense of in everyday life - we can just "tell" that Mount Rushmore is a carving not wind erosion. But is there a way can we measure such things? How do we know if a radio signal from outer space is from "intelligent life" or just from a natural process? Specified complexity, as outlined by William Dembski is a way of quantifying the kind of questions Paley was asking.

Irreducible complexity is by contrast an old idea put forward by Darwin himself. Darwin said if there was no path from an earlier form of life to a later form that could not be reached by a series of small steps then evolution could not be true. Irreducible complexity just looks at it from the other end of the telescope. If I have a purportedly evolved feature and that could only get to its current state by a series of complex interlocking changes from an earlier state it is hard to see how that got there simply by random mutation.

The trouble for Darwin is that modern cell biology has uncovered many many such mechanisms within cells. They all contain insanely complex machinery for which no one has proposed detailed evolutionary paths.

ID may not be right but its asking all the right questions.

Anonymous said...

Dizzy - "Outline the philsophical basis of science early, and then bring in those theories, like Aristotlian rationalism, Intelligent Design, Creationism and others"?? Time for a reality check. We are talking about children being taught basic basic science here, not philosophy classes for undergraduates. Also, there are many more far more useful things to be teaching children than all this ID tosh - the three Rs would be a good start.

dizzy said...

1: I'm not talking about primary school kids.
2: Explaining to a kid what makes something scientific is not difficult.
3: Sophies World was writtenf or 12 to 13 years old, there is even a film.

dizzy said...

Oh yes, and

4: You don't have to stand there and explain that something is by "Aristotle" or whatever. You just have to stand there and say "you see my watch, I know that it works and it was designed. There are some people who think the same thing about life and the universe. What do you kids think?"

Surreptitious Evil said...

I love the Google Ads links the site is now generating:

Examples of living things that could never have evolved

Creation Or Evolution?
Is evolution just a theory? You can prove creation. Order free booklet.

With regard to the "twits" argument - may I suggest that this is a false example of convergent evolution? That some Yanks created a false scientific theory that bears a superficial resemblance to some ideas from classical philosophy, doesn't change the modern version into being rational or either into being scientific.

I had a chemistry teacher, at school, who was a young earth creationist. He taught me (basic) organic chemistry and started most of his paragraphs "Some scientists believe ..."

tory boys never grow up said...

I agree - but should be instead of Religous Education lessons - rather than taking time out of Science lessons. There is plently that could be junked from RE lessons to make time.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you will all feel better knowing that in most of London's schools, Science departments are filled with supply teachers and so children don't learn anything at all!

Anonymous said...

Why does the government not want to teach secular humanism in 'Religious Education' lessons? I read in the paper today that they are against it. Bizarre.