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Monday, October 03, 2005



"Does that mean they want students to accept the theory of evolution as a MATTER OF FAITH?"

On reflection, I have to admit that damned near everything in the world of science and technology I accept as something tantamount to a matter of faith. I often have a sense of irony about living in a magical world brought to me by the good men of science. I pretty much understand technology up to and including the combustion engine and then it starts to get dicey for me. Frankly, I'm amazed by electricity. The difference between my faith (ignorance?) and some poor clown in the Middle Ages is that the "science and technology" stuff that ends up in my hands works better than, say, the eye of newt or an incantation - so I'll continue to mostly trust the science guys and let them work out the details.

At the level of explaining the natural world, they've also obviously got a better track record than anybody preceding them, so I trust them without necessarily always really understanding what they're talking about (black holes? what the fuck?) - so yeah, let's face it. For most of us who aren't either scientists or science geeks/hobbyists/writers, we catch some of the broad outlines and take the rest on faith. If I were to decide to seriously study evolution, as opposed to read a couple of essays by S.J. Gould for kicks, I wouldn't expect to start out at the basic level by considering whether there could possibly be any validity to the ID arguments in some form or fashion. ID, as I get the picture, is a critique of aspects of a theory that I'd have to understand a lot more about before I could try to account for it's possible limitations or evaluate with real coherence some very abstract inferences made by people who claim to raise the stakes as to what the evidence suggests in the realm of theology, no less. Any approach to ID theory that's less than a critique of evolutionary theory at a very sophisticated level is purely sophomoric and related solely to a priori assumptions that have nothing at all to do with the science. (I think that's probably all it is at any level, but since I've admitted I'm a moron when it comes to science, I've got to give them the benefit of the doubt at the outer margins of the discussion.)

Yeah, I know this admission is pathetic. I'm not defending my own ignorance - just owning up to the way it is and assume it's that way for most of us modern folk.

Michael Balter

Since Cal has now brought up the law of gravity twice, apparently thinking he is being ironic: Gravity is poorly understood by scientists, and as I write they are still debating what it really is and how it really works. Yes, by all means let's debate gravity too--what a great way to teach it to students!


We already teach ID in all schools in the USA. All scientists take it as a matter of faith, and do not even try to explain the process by any theory. They just simply state that after this singularity, life started.

Instead, scientists try to avoid the issues that are raised by the “Big Bang” theory, by arguing that nothing came before including time.

“The Catholic Church also officially supports this Big Bang theory because it agrees with their theological position that time itself began at creation”


Michael B. Hey, thanks for coming in and addressing our comments. (I admit that although I read your article in the Times this morning, I was one of those who didn't reread it before I commented---which I've just done now.)

Upon reflection, I think you make a particularly good point at the very end with this:

"The history of the theory of evolution is one of bitter debates between religion and science, and the debates continue today. In "On the Origin of Species," Charles Darwin refuted the arguments for intelligent design put forward by the 18th century English philosopher William Paley, who greatly influenced the evolutionary theorist until Darwin witnessed natural selection at work on the Galapagos Islands. Over the ensuing decades, Darwin's theories were rigorously tested and criticized before they won over the majority of scientists.

"The best way to teach the theory of evolution is to teach this contentious history...."


Well, yes. And that approach would, I think, accomplish much of what you want, which I suspect is not only to give students an idea of how the theory itself evolved, but also to open up a discussion of what the term "scientific theory" truly means, that the theory while "proven" is not a static thing; that it, by definition, leaves room for further discovery---but that any further discovery must be made within the bounds of scientific method. (Geeze that was a long-ass sentence.)

Such an approach, however, is different than bringing current faith-based challenges into the classroom in any official manner. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I don't believe it is. Once again, ixnay on the ope-slay.


Reg.....Okay, yeah, we all know the eye of newt thingy is not all that effective, but incantations, my dear, are quite another matter!


For those of you who think you understand GRAVITY:

Newton’s theory of gravity does not explain WHY objects attract one another; it simply models this observation.

- There is no known power source supporting the gravitational field that Newton claims to be emanating from our planet and from all objects.
- Despite the ongoing energy expended by Earth’s gravity to hold objects down and the moon in orbit, this energy never diminishes in strength or drains a power source – in violation of one of our most fundamental laws of physics: the Law of Conservation of Energy.


Netox - is your point that since scientists don't have all the answers, you'd be more than happy to intervene with, say, the theological dogmas of, oh, perhaps the Catholic Church, just to , you know, fill in the gaps ?


My point it that throughout history, that scientists have treated anyone who dared to question their accepted doctrine / theory as a person only worthy of being burned at the stake.

Open discussion of a theory that thousands of scientists now believe is does not adequately explain the complexities and timeline of life is considered blasphemy.

Consider that there are other scientific theories which explain life and the causes of evolution – example would be “A New Kind of Science” by Stephen Wolfram


"throughout history, that scientists have treated anyone who dared to question their accepted doctrine / theory as a person only worthy of being burned at the stake."

I guess I missed the era of inquisitions and pogroms conducted by scientists in my reading of history. Chalk it up to more ignorance on my part.

I guess I also missed the logic of "open discussion" being construed as injecting any hypothetical notion or theological a priori that strikes the fancy of the local school board into basic educational curriculum.

Wolfram has some nice baby pictures and downloadable ringtones at his website. He seems to be in no danger of being burned at the stake, but looks to be doing quite well.

The fact is that intelligent design speculation can challenge evolution 'til the chimpanzees come home - nothing wrong with that. But the only reason this kind of marginal hypothesis is being pushed as essential to school curriculum is because of the a priori assumptions of conservative religionists. There are all kinds of theories on the margins of scientific debate (one or more of which might have a long shot at being proven credible and gaining widespread acceptance as bona fide scientific theory at some future date), but nobody is trying to push them into the classroom because they've got no political juice. If ID is being pushed to satisfy a political/cultural agenda, it's credibility as a scientific theory becomes even more suspect.


Also, netox, your contentions regarding gravity and the conservation of energy are direct lifts from Mark McCutcheon's "The Final Theory" (which he touts modestly as a Theory of Everything) and are considered to be the musings of a crank who doesn't understand basic physics by most of the scientific community. Maybe he's right - I'm too ignorant to make a judgement about it other than to note that most people who aren't ignorant think he doesn't know what he's talking about. I know I wouldn't repeat his assertions as anything other than interesting speculation that's captured the imagination of amateurs but not made a dent in the world of practicing physicists. Apparently his "expansion theory" actually originated with Scott Adams, the guy who draws Dilbert. If McCutcheon's theorizing sweeps away "old science" one day, it will certainly be a serendipitous tale with a humble, albeit interesting, beginning.

Michael Balter

Update: The debate goes on, at least in Santa Cruz--



"The Fact of evolution is incontrovertable"

I can, uh, controvert it. I will present here an alternate interpretation of the evidence for evolution, one that I've heard before: God planted the evidence to test our faith. It seems highly unlikely to me (an admittedly blind guess about the odds, but that's another thread) but you know what? There's no way to disprove this claim. This alone makes evolution something other than an incontrovertible fact, to say nothing of the far more fundamental philosophical questions that can be raised about objective reality itself but I'll leave those aside for the moment.

The most fundamental problem I see with Intelligent Design is related to the above argument, by the way, in that it is not falsifiable and therefore, by definition, not a scientific hypothesis at all. The fact that it's not a *scientific* hypothesis doesn't make it false but it does make it non-science and from a taxonomic point of view, if you'll pardon the lame pun, it seems inappropriate for a science class.

"What I advocate is a DEBATE, the best way for any point of view to win points."

I'm pretty skeptical about the effectiveness of debate to begin with and to see someone on the internet (where a dissonant madrigal of soliloquies is what normally passes for debate) advocating it is ironic. Do you really expect many minds will be changed through debate?

"It is being taught as a MATTER OF FAITH rather than a theory that has a lot of evidence behind it."

Whether you choose to believe the evidence is real or was planted by God is certainly a matter of faith, given the absence of proof for either claim, as is whether or not you choose to believe there is an objective reality in which this evidence exists. Within a scientific paradigm evolution beats intelligent design like a redheaded stepchild but it's only one of many possible epistemologies. Now I'm not arguing for relativism or nihilism here but for humility through uncertainty. Since we can never possess complete certainty we should be more humble about our beliefs and less attached to them, in my arrogant opinion at least.

Now how is the above pseudo-philosophical rambling relevant to this discussion, you ask? Well...

"The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t believe it."

"David Frum doesn't think that something as unpopular as natural selection should be taught in schools at all. These two don't surprise me (that Frum thinks that science education should be plebiscitary doesn't surprise me, either)"

This is where I'm torn between objectivist epistemology and my belief in democracy. On the one hand, from my point of view intelligent design is not science and therefore should not be taught, in science class at least, and, on the other hand, there are others, who outnumber me, that disagree.

Who is right? I believe I have the better case but I lack absolute proof, and I always will. A separate question, depending on your point of view, is, "Who gets to decide?" Even if I'm right epistemologically, I might be wrong deontologically. Do the "educated minority" have the right to impose an aristocracy (in the Platonic sense) on the rest, even if we possess the truth? Tyranny of the majority sucks, but is tyranny of the minority any better?

I don't have the answers to these questions. Do you?

"Well, yes. And that approach would, I think, accomplish much of what you want, which I suspect is not only to give students an idea of how the theory itself evolved, but also to open up a discussion of what the term "scientific theory" truly means, that the theory while "proven" is not a static thing; that it, by definition, leaves room for further discovery---but that any further discovery must be made within the bounds of scientific method. (Geeze that was a long-ass sentence.)"

That was a motherfaulkner of a sentence.


Yes, the religious right will "expose themselves when called upon" to debate, but they have already done that a thousand times. I think this retooled notion of the free marketplace of ideas where Truth will triumph is sadly naive in the face of these authoritarian ideologues who have absolutely no interest in anything of the sort. Might as well fight them now on the principle of no religion in the classroom because once we teach (or "present") creationism there as part of a curriculum mandate, we will soon be taken up with defending kids who refuse to be bullied into swallowing the "correct" (i.e. Biblical) position. And then we will be easily trashed as being on the side of atheism and godless liberal Democrats.


P.S. I note that no one is suggesting that a good way to deal with fundamentalist Islam is to "present" its teachings in the classroom and then dispassionately refute them.

"I grew up in the South and cannot recall one time in my biology education when the teacher discussed the theory of evolution"

Maybe this helps explain the perception that "SOMETHING is eroding the popular belief in Darwinism"

Michael Balter

One of my main proposals was a national TV debate on this subject, although so far all comments have focused on the classroom. Anybody got a problem with that idea? Or should all religious perspectives be banned from public discussion?


Marc said: "SOMETHING is eroding the popular belief in Darwinism. He bravely suggests that MIGHT in part due to the backlash against evolution being granted the educational monopoly. I suspect there's something to be said for that."

Several commenters have pointed to the actual phenomenon that is doing the most to erode popular belief in evolution: the failure to teach it in school, a result of intimidation of school boards and teachers by fundamentalists.

The debate he encourages would be a good idea, but something that has to occur outside classrooms, in the public arena.

It's discouraging and tiring to have to refight issues that were decided sixty to seventy years ago.

I'm distrustful of truth ordained by establishment fiat (think of the recent ousting of the Muslim chaplain to the FDNY for hinting at a belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories, or French and German laws against anything that smacks of Holocaust revisionism). The truth shouldn't need any defence other than reason and scientific fact.

Nevertheless, I have doubts about the wisdom of dropping ID into the curriculum. To begin with, ID does not yield any scientifically or practically useful knowledge. ID, which posits an unknowable Designer (previously known as God), essentially shelves whole areas of scientific inquiry. No matter how much time students spend on ID, they will never learn anything that could be reapplied later if they chose to follow a scientific or technical career. So time spent on ID is essentially wasted from an educational point of view.

Ah, Michael would say, but by exposing ID to the harsh light of day in the classroom, students will learn to choose between a good theory and a bad one. Not only will they clearly see that the Intelligent Designer has no clothes - enhancing their appreciation of Darwinism - but they will learn a valuable lesson about how science works. This is true to some degree, but it neglects the fact that ID is not a scientific theory. It's essentially a PR campaign. The subject matter of Darwinism in the classroom is evidence from living and extinct creatures. The subject matter of ID is arguments that Darwinism is wrong, couched in the form of deceptive language, oversimplification and misrepresentation of the Darwinist position (arguing with creationists has made me aware that their 'understanding' of what Darwinism claims is simply wrong on fundamental levels: I still haven't decided if this pervasive ignorance is accidental or intelligently-designed, but I suspect the latter). Evolution is taught in the language of science; intelligent design is taught in the language of spin. In the marketplace of ideas, science is a product with limited advertising. ID is a (deceitful) advertising campaign with no product. If you put them head to head before an audience whose grasp of scientific method is shaky, don't count on the product winning.

Letting Darwinism stand on its own merits and letting children learn first-hand why ID is a crock of shit is appealing. But everything I've seen of ID makes me believe that it is designed to distort and mislead. It will take an exceptionally gifted teacher to give his or her students a firm enough understanding of how science works that they can properly compare the two 'theories'. And while this would be highly desirable in itself, I'm think that teachers of this calibre - or integrity - may be rare, especially in the kind of places currently giving ID consideration. The victory of science is by no means assured.

The third reason why scientists are reluctant to debate ID'ers or allow ID into the curriculum is that they recognize it as a Trojan horse. The purpose of ID is to carry religious dogma into the classroom or the debating hall and make it appear respectable by association.

If I could believe that ID would be introduced in the kind of 'history of ideas' context that another poster suggested (perhaps alongside Lamarckism and Lysenko's Communist biology, just to put things in perspective), I might go for Michael's idea. But I don't think the proponents of ID would settle for that. As Michael's statistics show, a terrifyingly high proportion of Americans are already disturbingly ignorant about science. Do we want to risk increasing the numbers of scientific illiterates by giving propaganda a platform in the classroom?

Andrew Gumbel

Think a few important concepts are getting conflated here, and that's confusing everyone.

First and foremost, there is a big difference between what gets DEBATED in a classroom and what is on the CURRICULUM. Don't think any intelligent person would disagree with Marc or Michael Balter that debating the whole historical farrago over creationism, ID etc etc is an excellent idea. In the best classrooms, I have no doubt that it has been happening for years.

The point, though, is that in most classrooms it has not been happening. Why are so many Americans skeptical about the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution? Not because they have considered it fully and rejected it; but because they were never taught it properly in the first place, if at all, and because their peers or their churches or whoever have managed to make a far bigger impression on their ill-formed intellects than their high school science teacher.

In other words, the core problem is the lousy quality of education in this country -- including the widespread lack of exactly the kind of classroom discussion Marc and Michael are advocating.

Now, what's the solution to this problem, given the low probability of a massive injection of funds and political commitment to better education in the near-to-medium term?

Do we add a mandate an extra, highly contentious topic to an already poorly taught subject area? Given how poorly the basics of Darwin get grasped, isn't this an invitation to confusion rather than clarification? Isn't it also, in certain parts of the country, an invitation to give the whole creationist/ID movement a credence it does not deserve?

Or do we keep the science curriculum as it is, and work on ways to teach it better?

My own glum take on the whole matter is that the problem starts long before the word "evolution" ever pops up in the classroom. After all, if schools in some of the lower-performing states (Texas, Mississippi etc etc) did a better job of teaching basic educational tools like literacy and analytical thinking, and gave students an idea of what books to read and how to read them, then it wouldn't be necessary to teach evolution in schools at all. Students would hear about it on their own, and with their appropriately developed critical skills figure out the battle lines of the debate all by themselves.

Bottom line, I agree with Michael and Marc that the current system isn't working. Unlike them, I don't see a way to fix it, and I worry that putting ID on the curriculum is only going to make things worse.

Michael Balter

Since Marc is likely to wake up soon and post a new topic (he has been very prolific lately) I'll take this opportunity to make one last comment. Many comments have focused on how bad intelligent design is, not science, insidious attempt to get religion in the classroom, and so forth. Fewer have done what Andrew just did in his post, which is focus on the question of how we get from where we are now--a large majority of Americans rejecting evolution--to where we want to be, a much larger number understanding that evolution is backed by the evidence. This is the goal post, and whether or not my idea of how to get there is right, let's not forget the goal--and that politics is about getting from where we are now to where we want to be.

richard lo cicero

Michael Balter wants a debate on Evolution. Fine, how about Lamark's adaptation vs Darwin's Natural Selection vs Creationism and Bishop Usher's timeline. Discuss Huxley vs Wilberforce if you want. I repeat, the idea that a divine creator, or prime mover, started the whole process adds no new information to the theory. You want to believe that? Fine. You don't? That's fine too. So where do you want to teach Teilard du Chardin? Or Henri Bergson? I spent some time in Jesuit institutions and both were taught in Philosophy and Theology classes. Evolution was taught in Biology. Those crazy Jesuits!

So no one knows what Gravity is? No one knows what Quantum Theory is either. Yet Quantum Electrodymanics is accurate to so many decimal points that it is held up as the ideal model theory in Philosophy of Science and among physicists. But it makes some truly amazing assumptions that even its authors admit are inexplicable. So what? We teach high school students about the structure of the atom but I don't recall requiring them to know matrix mechanics or sums over history. Science education is all about relearning concepts in greater depth at higher levels and adding actual work - theoretical or experimental - of a more complex nature as you go along.

If people don't believe in evolution it is an indictment of our sorry system of science education. Do you think the Germans or the Chinese would permit this nonsense for one minute in their schools? India is a very religious nation. But Science there is taught at a high level and, somehow, they manage to do it without the aid of Vishnu!

richard lo cicero

Here's another example. The Big Bang Theory goes back to the work of a Belgian Jesuit (those pesky guys again!) named LeMaitre who was a mathematician and relativist (Einstein, that is). Right from the start its similiatities to the first part of Genesis was widely noted. The opposing theory was called the "Steady State" and implied an endless universe that had no beginning and no end and was constantly creating new matter. In fact, the term "Big Bang" was a derisive label placed on LeMaitre's concept by Fred Hoyle, a Steady State advocate. Observational evidence, like the Cosmic Background Ration, settled the matter in favor of the Big Bang. Want God in it? Be my guest! But that is not why we accept it.


Would LOVE a televised debated. Who can we mass e-mail to get such a thing accomplished?

Apropos of Andrew's post: "My own glum take on the whole matter is that the problem starts long before the word "evolution" ever pops up in the classroom. After all, if schools in some of the lower-performing states (Texas, Mississippi etc etc) did a better job of teaching basic educational tools like literacy and analytical thinking, and gave students an idea of what books to read and how to read them, then it wouldn't be necessary to teach evolution in schools at all."

Yeah, well, exactly. Every week there seems to be a newly disheartening piece of educational news, such as the announcement this past Thursday that one third of California's high school seniors have failed the H.S. exit exam thus can't graduate. This in the face of the fact that less than 50 percent of 9th graders in L.A.'s most troubled inner city schools are expected to make it far enough to take the freakin' exam anyway.

This IS the uber issue---the one that should be on the cover of goddamn Time and Newsweek, and the issue that the Dems should be taking on agressively and intelligently, while we're on the subject.

Ooops. I meant "televised debate." (Need more coffee.) Yes, yes! Want televised debate.

Good for public discourse AND great theater.


The above post was me having a techno-challenged morning.

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