Monday, October 17, 2005

Putting the "On High" in "Thoughts On High School"

Let me tell ya something: mooning your roommate just doesn't have the same effect when your roommate is your wife.

Given Sunday's Gospel reading, these next two tidbits seemed especially relevant:

I read a terrific story in the paper today about a marching band that had to change their song selection because the music they were playing may have violated the separation between church and state. The song? Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." It seems the parent who "complained" was just trying to start a dialogue about the proper place of religion in school, but the director got cold feet at the suggestion of impropriety, and dropped the selection. Which is too bad, because the guy has a terrific point, and it most certainly is a worthwhile dialogue. When we say separation of church and state, do we really mean to apply it to all religions? Or are we only concerned with promotion of the major western theologies? If we keep out Jesus, shouldn't we keep out Satan? No matter the form of the reference? (Though it should be noted, there is a legitimate educational purpose exception and this often justifies religious selections in music classes. But set that aside and consider the question for itself.)

And, speaking of religion in the schools, has anyone else been following the Intelligent Design/Evolution trial? Since when does a partial rejection of evolution amount to an unconstitutional teaching of religion in the classroom? I mean, even if intelligent design ties itself to the Divine, the heart of the theory is that evolution is incomplete. That, whether you want to admit it or not, is a scientific conclusion. Now, I'm no creationist - in fact, I subscribe to evolutionary theories. But I don't think they're complete. And I don't think any good scientist would tell you that they're complete. So, provided that you actually go on to teach evolutionary theory, what's so horrible about pointing out that it isn't complete? Teaching criticism of a scientific theory - when that criticism is scientifically rooted - is a valid use of classroom time.

Another interesting thing I've been watching is the 10th planet deally. It hasn't officially been named a planet yet - I think. But it probably will be. You can tell I'm watching this real carefully. Anyone should feel free to throw out more information here. But it's interesting because two groups apparently discovered it around the same time. However, one group - the group that released the info to the press first, was basically cheating off of the other group's telescope positioning, which they acquired on Google. God bless science and its complete lawlessness. If the trend continues, within a decade the Nobel Prize for Science will go to a roving gang of pick-pockets.

Comin' from Uranus to check my style


Zhubin said...

Well, before I go on the offensive, let me just say that I was flattered by the kind comments about me in the previous posting, and the high esteem is certainly mutual.

However, regarding the ID issue you bring up, I feel compelled to point out that the heart of ID is NOT that evolution is incomplete. The heart of Intelligent Design is that there is an intelligent designer, and this is the very reason that ID should not be allowed in science classrooms. ID is not science: it does not adhere to the scientific method nor does it present falsifiable theories. It simply points out - or distorts - gaps in our knowledge of evolution and insists that God fills them.

Of course no scientist would say that evolution is a complete theory. No scientist would say that the theory of gravity is complete, either - no one has yet found the gravitrons or whatever force it is that binds two masses together. But criticisms of either theory must be grounded in the scientific method and must present some alternative hypothesis that can be tested. Otherwise it's just speculation.

Note that a discussion of the merits of ID is not even necessary (although it should be noted that ID is a crock of shit). The critical element is that it simply is not science. I'm certainly not against a person looking past science to derive meaning and purpose behind life and its origins, but science class is not that place.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I understand what you're saying, but I think you're clinging to a false view of science. Many many people who look at what science is in itself have frequently pointed out that our modern concept of science is extremely narrow, and is only further promulgated by the individual disciplines it accepts. In fact, these folks argue, scientific theories often change quite radically, and quite quickly, and when they do, they bring with them a whole new way of thinking about science itself. For example, science used to be much more observational in nature, and the concept of proposing falsifiable hypotheses was completely foriegn. Basically the point is that there is no single scientific method, and modern science's claim that the current manifestiation is good science is exactly parallel to historical claims that different manifestations were in fact, the limits of good science.

Setting that aside, one might also point out that Evolution also does not adhere to the scientific method. The claim that chance mutations allowed life to develop as it has is, by its very nature, unfalsifiable. So if we're limiting our teaching to science which conforms to an accepted method, we have no reason to include evolution.

Finally, ID taken as ID (not as the creationism that many of ID's proponents actually advocate - that I give you, is a crock), is science. It proposes a hypothesis based on observation. It says observes that "every mutation neccesary to sustain life in its current form would have needed to happen silmutaneously, a result which cannot be explained by natural selection" and proposes an alternate hypothesis - that it was not random chance which caused all the mutations, but rather some intelligent force. And then from there, proceeds to discuss the effects of mutations on species and development.

That's no less scientific than evolution. It observes, it makes a hypothesis. Neither attempts to experimentally falsify their hypothesis.

And maybe we want to move to a different class for this discussion, and leave it out of science. But we'd better give equal treatment to other "non-scientific" theories.

btnovak said...

but mooning the world with your wife can be a riot!

Eric Michael Peterson said...

matt, do you know who jack thompson is? and if so what do you think of him?

Matthew B. Novak said...

I do not know who Jack Thompson is. Please tell me.

Also, Gina, Kendrick, and Josh, I was hoping you'd weigh in on the evolution bit.

Zhubin said...

I don't know who "these folks" are that you refer to, Matt, but that's a bizarre and entirely false view of science. Certainly there have been scientific revolutions, but those revolutions have changed our assumptions about substantive issues, not the procedure of science. Even discoveries like general relativity, which upended all of physics, still had to be tested and proven falsifiable, and prove to be predictive.

That's the very heart of science: the ability to test its theories. Your definition of it, by eliminating that critical element, is so broad that it turns it into philosophy.

And evolution is not simply a statement that life on earth evolved in a particular manner. Evolution states that random genetic mutations result in species variation, and that over time those variations best suited to their environment will survive. That's a theory that can be falsified and can be used to predict, and it has, thousands and thousands of times over 150 years.

Not only can we prove evolution through experiments, we can see through fossils, genetic sequences, and vestigial organs that this same mechanism drove the origin of life on earth. Everything fits together.

A competing hypothesis would have to be experimentally verifiable AND provide an alternative reason for the historical evidence of evolution.

ID does not do this. ID says that some intelligent force designed life. But what intelligent force? When did it design it? Is it still designing it? At what point does it design it? These are questions that simply cannot be verified - in fact, ID refuses to do it. It simply tries to point out gaps in evolution and then concludes that intelligent design must have caused it.

Science is not a democratic concept. Either something can be proven or not. If you can't prove your theory that magical fairies created life on earth with magical fairy dust, then you can't stay in the classroom.

Matthew B. Novak said...

For starters, I'd recommend you check out Thomas Kuhn, who has written about what science is. You may be unfamiliar with the view that what constitutes good science changes, but it really does. After taking a couple of classes about precisely this topic in undergrad, I'm convinced. I'd suggest expanding your exposure, and you'll find that what science "is" changes over time.

Second, you write "Evolution states that random genetic mutations result in species variation, and that over time those variations best suited to their environment will survive." I think the key difference between this sentence and what ID proposes comes four words in, at "random". Good ID accepts that genetic mutations result in species variation, and that over time those variations best suited to their environment will survive. It simply rejects the idea that these mutations are "random", and instead suggests that they are directed. There is no evidence that suggests evolution is right about these mutations being random. How is that falsifiable?

Further, the evidence you point to as support for evolution - namely the observational material - equally supports ID, and essentially does not give us a falsifiable model - at least not at the point where ID challenges evolution, in the randomness of mutations.

Why does this evidence also support ID? Because ID only differs from evolution at that one word. Is mutation random or designed? That is the question. And to date, I have seen no evidence for either theory. And I can think of no way to falsify either (but I haven't ruminated on this topic extensively).

I feel again that we should point out that there are those proponents of ID who use it as a facade for creationism. This is not the ID to which I am refering. I am discussing the ID which holds, much like evolution, that genetic mutations result in species variation, and that over time those best suited to their environment will survive. ID then picks up and asks "what was the cause of those mutations?" It answers with an intelligent designer, evolution answers with chance. And here we branch into philosophy and theology, but both theories are dealing with the metaphysical/religious. At least ID admits it. If we're going to keep it out of the classroom, we should likewise keep the suggestion or randomness out of the classroom.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Quickly, in response to the "your definition of [science] is so broad that it turns it into philosophy" statement. I don't overly expand the definition of science - I'm simply looking at various definitions it has taken upon itself. And these are a broad range, and what science should be considered is a philosophical question. I'm not turning it into philosophy - I'm just trying to engage in the philosophical questions already in play.

I also feel that I should point out that the very fact of this conversation indicates that science is not an isolated field, completely divorced from philosophy, and such. Why do we attempt to segregate interdisciplinary questions? Why shouldn't we do philosophy in science class and science in philosophy class?

You admitted that looking beyond science can be useful for understanding life and its origins. So why not do so where it's topical - a discussion of how life came to be as it is. That isn't a purely scientific question, and wherever we address it, we should acknowledge that.

Zhubin said...

Kuhn was exactly the type of thinking I was referring to. You misinterpret his theories on science. Kuhn attacked the idea that science took a linear, progressive path toward discovery, and instead postulated that scientific discovery progresses in sudden shifts of revelation where the substantive assumptions of the past are uprooted. This is not an attack on the scientific procedure - even general relativity, arguably the finest example of what Kuhn was talking about, had to be tested and verified empirically.

I don't think you have a strong grasp of evolution, because much of what you say about it isn't true. Regarding the "random" aspect: the random nature of genetic mutations has been thoroughly proven, both in the lab and mathematically. Random variation is the natural result of the billions of imperfect genetic copies that occur within an organism throughout its life.

If the mutations were directed in a certain fashion, then we wouldn't have the billions of unhelpful - or deadly - genetic mutations that we have in organisms. And even bringing up the issue raises a thousand questions: how are they directed? At what point? During the mutation? Before? Does the designer imprint the intended design within the genes? If so, where is it? These are issues ID can't explain, precisely because they ascribe them to an intelligent designer beyond explanation. That's just not science.

I'm not accusing you of holding creationist beliefs, by any means. And if you would like to believe that genetic variation, however random it has been proven, is nonetheless directed by God, then that's completely fine. But it's vital to understand that YOU'RE the one branching off into the metaphysical/religious. Evolution is just an provable explanation based on empirical evidence for why life changes over time. You can't challenge its validity on philosophical grounds, because it doesn't play that game. Evolution - and science - says nothing about the spiritual or religious.

And that is ultimately why it's so important to separate science from philosophy. Bleeding the two creates a democratic haze of ideas and concepts, where no solution is entirely right and no solution is entirely wrong. This is why fundamentalists (not you) always support expansive definitions of science, because it allows them to get their viewpoints into the science classroom without scientific evidence. But science is not about viewpoints - it's about discovering the natural and predictable mechanisms by which this world works, and testing and confirming these mechanisms. It's what separates it from philosophy: two plus two can equal five in philosophy, but it can't in science, and that separation is crucial to keeping science from becoming meaningless conjecture.

I agree that science shouldn't be isolated from other disciplines, but that's not a problem. Science already informs numerous disciplines, and disciplines often reveal new paths for science to travel. In this case, evolution should certainly inform any philosophical/spiritual discussion about life and its origins.

But that is not what ID does. ID goes not come into the classroom and attempt to bridge the gap between science and religion. ID sneaks into the classroom by passing itself off as science. Evolution says, "Genetic variations are random, and here is the evidence to prove it." ID says, "No, it's caused by God. Trust me on this." And then, with a beaming smile, it wraps its arms around the students and says, "Pick whichever one of us you want to believe! Aren't we all having fun in this scientific discipline of ours?"

Emily said...

Matt, who was the professor here that I'm supposed to take a class from?? I forgot.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Emily, you're supposed to take Scott Richardson

Matthew B. Novak said...

I made a nice long post earlier in response Zhubin. It seems to have disappeared. Unless it shows up magically, it may be lost forever. I'm doubting the energy to really put it all together again. Crap.

Zhubin said...

I accept your surrender.

Matthew B. Novak said...

At least part of what I had said was that we need to make a distinction between the terms random and chance. "Random" is simply a statistical definition which says something about the way these mutations appear, it isn't an investigation into their cause or direction. Evolution goes a step further and says "because these mutations appear random they must not be caused or directed by an intelligent force." Chance is an assertion that relies on randomness as proof, but is a seperate claim from randomness. So I would point out that it is the claim of chance/not-ID which is the metaphysical claim that evolution makes. And it certainly does make it. And it certainly isn't falsifiale. Though I would also conceed that randomness does appear to support the claim of chance, but it is certainly far from proof. Likewise, there are facts which strongly support ID (like the mousetrap idea with which I assume you are familiar). It is a claim based on evidence, but not falsifiable. But evolution uses exactly the same type of claim when is says mutations are directed by chance, not an intelligent designer. That is a metaphysical statement.

I also wrote something about Kuhn not being the only philosopher, but rather as a jumping off point. There are others, I don't recall names right now, butthe idea that procedures change as well as paradigms is certainly documented in philosophy.

But I think I can prove the non-static nature of science by asking a couple of questions. First, what was considered good science throughout history? The answer is of course that what constitutes good science has changed over the course of history. Thus, dynamic. But more importantly, I'd point out that there are various elements of good science, which all have various strenghts and weaknesses. For example, if something is able to predict future results that is an essential element of a good scientific theory. But it in no way constitutes the whole of good science. Likewise, just because something is falsifiable does not mean that it constitutes the whole of good science. What is good science is not a static thing, and when we have conversations like this, where we are discussing whether or not something falls into being science, we need to acknowledge that the body of science is composed of elements. And certainly different things have different elements of science. When evolution was first proposed it was not a falsifiable theory, it was based soley on observation. Through technological advance we have been able to put it to some falsifiable tests. Evolution is lucky to be falsifiable nowadays. Who knows, maybe a falsifiable model of ID will exist in the future. Further, evolution isn't a hugely useful predictive model - at least not in the way the physical sciences are. So that's a big tick against it. Despite these big non-science elements, you're willing to embrace evolution as science. It has some elements of science, it lacks on others. So be it, I'm comfortable taking evolution as science. Because good science isn't just one thing.

But I would go further, to say that the object of good science is to draw conclusions - be they physical or metaphysical - about the world we live in based on observation. And when evolution goes so far as to make a metaphysical claim - "mutations are directed by chance" - it isn only taking another step in the direction of good science: it's working to explain the world we live in by building on observational evidence. ID does no more or no less.

I think if we've got a dispute, it's over the definition of science. I say science is composed of different elements, all of which fit somewhere within the fabric of trying to explain the world we live in based on observation of that world. What do you say science is? And why should we limit it so severely? Wouldn't a strict limitation keep even things like evolution (which steps into metaphysics and lags on predictability and initially on falsifiablity) out of the realm of science? What's good about an extremely narrow definition?

Zhubin said...

I know you've already moved on in posts, but I'd be remiss if I didn't jump in to hammer a couple more points, and to urge you to read more on evolution.

The distinction between "randomness" and "chance" is really nonexistant, because, as I said, evolution makes no metaphysical claims. Evolution uses terms like "random" and "chance" only to the extent they can be applied to natural, empirical meanings. By definition, this leaves out the supernatural. Evolution does not say "because these mutations appear random they must not be caused or directed by an intelligent force." Evolution simply says that no natural, testable intelligence is behind mutations. You can assert that God works through the randomness, and evolution has nothing to say on the subject.

I am familiar with the "mousetrap" idea, which has been as thoroughly disproven as the old claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. Please believe me when I say that this argument has been discredited since 1920, if not earlier.

Regarding your definition of science: first, evolution has always been falsifiable. The term means only that there is an experiment that can be conducted that can definitely disprove the theory, not whether we have the technological capability to carry it out. For example, the theory of an expanding universe IS falsifiable, because we can go out to the edge of the universe and observe it. Obviously this is not currently possible, but it doesn't mean the theory is not falsifiable. Note how different this is from Intelligent Design, which posits an idea that can NEVER be proven false - can you conceive of ANY test for it? You can't. Hell, the ID theorists themselves can't.

(On a side note, evolution was not simply "observed" without testing. Before the discovery of genetics, there were a variety of theories as to how evolution occurred, including the Lamarckian idea that an individual's behavior influenced the evolution of its offspring, like a giraffe has a long neck because its ancestors kept reaching for higher leaves. These ideas were all tested and proven false.)

Also, evolution is very predictive in a wide range of areas, such as determining what species must exist in a certain ecosystem to future strains of flu viruses.

My definition of science is the same definition science has always been: explanatory and predictive theories that are falsifiable and rest on empirical evidence. Evolution fits perfectly within this scheme. I hardly see how it's a strict definition to require that what we determine to be true about the natural world shouldn't first undergo some sort of examination beyond mere speculation.