Saturday, March 28, 2009

Don't Muddle Science for the Sake of Fairness

Americans tend to have an unwavering sense of fairness and balance. It probably stems from the fact that we live in a democracy. But some controversies cannot be settled by the democratic process.

If you were seriously ill and you had a choice of listening to a team of doctors recommend your treatment or a group of lay people who were generally intelligent but never attended medical school, you would most likely listen to the doctors. You probably wouldn’t decide on a middle-of-the-road treatment based just as much on the recommendations of the lay people as on the doctors.

Similarly, if you were investing your life savings into stocks and bonds, you would probably pay much more attention to the recommendations of financial experts than to a group of your buddies. There is far too much at risk to allow your sense of fairness to influence you to put a lot of faith in the amateurs.

The same reasoning ought to hold for what kind of information gets put into school textbooks. And typically, it does. Renowned authors and language experts tend to influence what goes into textbooks on literature, not those seeking to have their first manuscript published. The collective opinions of historians influence the content of history books; the anecdotes of your great-grandmother were probably not considered.

But in science it’s different. State legislatures and school boards across the country have continued to weigh the opinions of creationists when deciding what to include in state science standards. In Texas this past week, the state school board passed a watered-down version of a proposed plan that would make educators teach the perceived weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

The language in the new Texas science standards says teachers must “critique scientific explanations” in all theories. The board voted against the language proposed by one of its members that would have forced teachers to examine the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of the principles of evolution.

In a very large group it is almost impossible to have 100 percent agreement on anything. But less that one-half of one percent of all biologists in the world question the theory of evolution. It is universally accepted as true by nearly all scientists. And in all developed nations except the United States, the general population doesn’t question the theory either. Even the majority of all religious denominations is fine with the theory of evolution and they have no problem with it being included in science textbooks as the best explanation of the diversity of life on Earth.

But religious fundamentalists are vocal and intransigent. They are the ones who hold the microphone. They are the ones who, by their doggedness, sway public opinion. And when they say their non-scientific view of creation should be included in the science classroom, just to be fair, the public and the politicians tend to listen.

Science is self-correcting. There can be no massive world-wide conspiracy of scientists with a goal of quashing conservative Christianity. On the contrary, when a new theory is proposed and published in peer-reviewed science journals, the first thing that happens in every case is that other scientists try to dismantle it. It’s a competitive business in a sense. But, in the end, if the other scientists examining the same evidence come up with the same conclusion, then eventually the proposed theory is accepted.

Once a theory is accepted as true, it can be used to make predictions about the natural world. If those predictions are shown to be true, the theory is strengthened. The theory of evolution has been tested and retested for 150 years. It has made numerous predictions about genetics, DNA, and the fossil record. Every single prediction made by the theory of evolution that has been tested has been shown to be accurate. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the theory. And yet, fundamentalist Christians still want to include their own version of science in the classroom.

But intelligent design, which is just another version of creationism, is not science and is not supported by scientists. No valid hypotheses of intelligent design have ever appeared in a peer-reviewed journal of science. That’s because it is not science. It doesn’t follow scientific rules and principles. So why should it appear in a high school science textbook?

It might seem fair and balanced to include both sides of the argument in a state’s science standards. But that would be exactly analogous to equating the opinions of your bar buddies with those of a team of doctors when deciding how to treat a serious illness. It doesn’t make any sense to do that, and it doesn’t make any sense for school boards and state legislatures to force teachers to treat the opinion of conservative Christians, some of whom probably didn’t even pass science in high school, with the conclusion of virtually every science professional in the world.

When the Kansas school board did that, most of its members were voted out of office the next year. When the Dover, Pa school board did that, they were all voted out of office and rebuked by a federal judge. The same fate should befall every political body who insists on putting the pseudoscientific religious views of the vocal proselytizers above the evidence-based opinions of science experts.

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