Education

On Correcting Bookstore Mistakes – Intelligent Design is Not Science

A few days ago, I took a trip to a small town in central Texas and, as is habit, stopped by a local bookstore. I was a little shocked (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find two fringe “science” books displayed prominently near the door: Stephen C. Meyer’s recently released “Darwin’s Doubt” and physician Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven“. The rest of this particular bookstore’s science section, meanwhile, was suspiciously weak, relegated to one small wall of five shelves and containing only three or four volumes on Darwinian evolution. The Christianity section, meanwhile, stretched across six aisles.

Meyer’s book, which I have not read, apparently advocates for Intelligent Design (a movement that should be categorized as religion, not science – see overview here, description of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” here, and if you have lots of time, a fantastic PBS documentary on the controversy here). Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven” is even more offensive as a representation of responsible science. You should first read his account here (he, like many others, had a NDE, or near-death experience, that he says proves consciousness exists outside the brain) and then read Sam Harris’ response here, which rightly decimates such a stupendous claim. The two most important points to remember – being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you actually understand neuroscience all that well (cutting brains is not the same as studying them), and being highly educated doesn’t mean you have much critical thinking capacity (since he wrote a book, he apparently emerged from his COMA, so isn’t it much more likely he had his NDE as he was regaining consciousness, and not while completely “brain-dead”?).

Proof of Heaven?

Bookstores have no obligation to maintain a balanced inventory of material. They are businesses that need to cater to customer demands in order to make a profit and survive. But I can’t help feeling sad that customers in this particular location (and probably numerous others throughout the country) are in some way being cheated out of access to proper science and instead being fed garbage.

I did the only thing I could think of – moved Meyer’s book out of the thin science section and put it where it belonged, in the middle of the Christian apology aisle (well, it was more of a wing).

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Debating Evolution Skeptics on YouTube (with a little help from Stephen Jay Gould)

Evolution untenable?

Evolution untenable?

I get a bit worked up about evolution deniers. So much so that I spend much more time than I should engaging individuals in online discussions and forums, who, for whatever reason (okay, the reason is always religions) deny evolution. Without a doubt, they get most upset when I use the word “fact” to describe evolution by natural selection.

“Isn’t that very unscientific of you, to say evolution is a fact? It is just a theory¬†after all.”

Well, yes and no. That last sentence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the what a scientific theory is, relative to other types of “theories”. A scientific theory is a very specific thing, it’s not the same thing as a theory about who killed Kennedy or a theory about who will win the Superbowl or even a theory about market behavior in economics. A scientific theory is an idea that has broad explanatory power, has been tested and verified by different objective observers, is consistent with other bodies of scientific knowledge, and explains particular facts. Facts, in turn, are just things that happen: e.g., apples fall when you drop them, humans evolved from apelike ancestors, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Scientific theories explain these facts – the theory of gravitation in the first (and last) instance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution in the second. It is possible these theories will be modified in the future, as Newton’s was by Einstein, but apples will still fall and humans will still have evolved from apelike ancestors – the facts don’t change.

A few individuals seem to be under the impression nothing can be proved or rightly called a “fact”. These people are playing a game with semantics. In any real sense, evolution is a fact, and descent with modification (Darwin’s preferred term) is the profoundly powerful theory that explains it.

If I could ask the American public to sit down and read one essay, it would be the late and inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’sEvolution as Fact and Theory” – he says everything I just have with much more eloquence. Go read it, and consider offering it up the next time you’re spending too much time in a debate on YouTube.

Why Anyone Wanting to be Scientist Should Avoid Ball State University

No doubt you are aware by now of the controversy at Ball State University (public, by the way), where Assistant Professor Eric Hedin has been formally accused by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of violating students’ first amendment rights by injecting religious views into a supposed “science” course. I won’t rehash in detail – you can find a good summary of events here, but I did want to comment on the issue both because BSU is in my home state of Indiana (I briefly considered attending…phew!) and because I’m personally torn on what should be done.

First of all, there really is no question that what Hedin is teaching is poor science. Just look at his reading list (bottom of post) and note the silly amount of religious accomodationists, ID-advocates, and apologists. I mean Lee Strobel! In a science course!?! If I found this list on the street, I would assume it could only be an elective at a Theological Seminary in the Bible Belt. So, obviously Hedin is injecting religion and poor science into his class – but the question is, has he crossed a line, and to what extent do we defend academic freedom?

As much as I want to say Hedin shouldn’t be allowed to promote this bunk in anything like a science department course, I am also concerned that censoring a professor would have very bad effects going forward. Wouldn’t the Discovery Institute like to pounce on this? They could easily paint it as another example of Intelligent Design being shut out of the discussion, which it should be, but to the untrained ear that sounds an awful lot like “unfairness” on the part of evolutionary scientists, which is already the perception of many evangelicals. So I tend to lean toward letting Hedin teach whatever he wants and hoping students have enough critical thinking capacity to withstand any religious proselytizing with poor science…or maybe enough critical thinking to just avoid Ball State University altogether (provided you want to be a scientist).

I encourage you to check out Jerry Coyne’s post about the issue (he helped bring it to the attention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and then P.Z. Myer’s disagreement.

And here, as promised, is the reading list for Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course. If you’re not familiar with most of these authors, that’s because they’re very much on the “boundaries” of science…some very clearly do not even qualify as scientists, like…Lee Strobel (face palm). I still can’t believe it!

There's something a little odd about these "science" readings, don't you think?

There’s something a little odd about these “science” readings, don’t you think?