I tell my students that it's important to understand what your opponents are arguing—you must try and walk in their shoes, so to speak. This is crucial. You may decide that their arguments are completely wrong and ridiculous but you must make sure you interpret them correctly or you are guilty of several sins.
You might recall that I recently posted a comment about David Evans, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) [David Evans Says, "Teach What the Vast Majority of Scientists Affirm as Settled Science"]. I liked the idea that we should teach what the "vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science." When it comes to teaching, you have to make a decision about what is good science and what is bad science and it seems reasonable to NSTA (and to me) that the consensus among the experts is a good criterion to use. If you read the comments in that post you'll see that it's not always easy to decided what that consensus is, but that's not the main point.
I didn't like the idea that David Evans promoted evolution by natural selection as "the best and most complete scientific explanation we have for how life on Earth has changed and continues to change." I prefer to just say "evolution is the best explanation" since there's a lot more to evolution than just natural selection. I think the vast majority of experts in evolutionary theory will endorse the idea that random genetic drift plays an important role and so do things like extinctions.
For some strange reason, Vincent Joseph Torley (vjtorley) got all excited about my blog post. You might recall that Torley has a Ph.D. in Philosophy (University of Melbourne, Australia) so you might assume that he is fairly knowledgeable about logic and the major fallacies in debates and discussions. Let's see how he does in his post: Professor Larry Moran supports the use of ID-compatible science textbooks in Texas classrooms.
The title attracted my attention since I certainly DO NOT support the use of "ID-compatible" science textbooks. I wonder where I failed to make my position clear?
Hmmm .... I see that Torley has drawn attention to something I said in the comments to my post on David Evans. We were talking about "biological evolution" and someone mentioned that if you don't limit it by saying "by natural selection" then it opens up the possibility that evolution could be directed by God. I agreed that this is a possibility when you don't restrict evolution to a definition that specifies natural selection (or any other restricted set of mechanisms). This is a topic that's been discussed many times on Sandwalk and I've written a well-read post about it: What Is Evolution?.
Here's what I said in the comment,
You could specify "biological evolution" to make sure you're talking about real science. But there's no reason to eliminate the possibility of directed evolution. If the evidence supports the direct intervention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster then that's fine by me.I think the point is obvious, if the vast majority of expert scientists agree that there's evidence for directed evolution then that's what we should teach in school.
Here's how Torley interprets my comment,
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Professor Larry Moran has written an astonishing post over on his Sandwalk blog, in which he rejects a proposal by David Evans, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association, that Texas students be taught “evolution by natural selection as a major unifying concept in science,” and suggests that they simply be taught “evolution” instead, adding in a comment that “there’s no reason to eliminate the possibility of directed evolution” – a term which is broad enough to include both “theologically-directed evolution” (as one commenter calls it) and “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”Now, if you pay close attention, you'll notice that Torley does not quote me directly and does not explain to his audience that "evidence" is important in deciding what to teach. He describes my comment as "astonishing" and notes that "truth is stranger than fiction." This gives an entirely misleading picture of what I said. Torely has been reading my blog for years so I have to assume that he is deliberately misleading his readers. In other words, he has to be lying because he can't be that stupid.
Readers may be wondering what accounts for Professor Moran’s surprising latitude of opinion. It turns out that he’s a big fan of evolution by random genetic drift, and he thinks that the phrase “evolution by natural selection” is simply inaccurate: ...
Torley then quotes David Evans who said, "Decisions about what counts as science should not be a popularity contest. No matter how many people object, public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science." Torely decides that this represents a logical inconsistently that, presumably, negates the entire argument.
Am I the only one to notice that the last two sentences in Evans’ paragraph are mutually contradictory? If decisions about what counts as science “should not be a popularity contest,” then it is absurd to claim that “public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science.” (Apparently none of Professor Moran’s commenters picked up on that contradiction.)Most people of even moderate intelligence will have no trouble understanding what David Evans meant. He meant that you don't teach bad science just because a majority of the general public believes it to be true. There has to be some way of deciding what counts as good science because surely we all agree that good science is what we should be teaching students. There's no logical inconsistency.
Is Torley confused about what counts as a logical inconsistency or is he deliberately trying to mislead his readers? You be the judge. (Remember that he has a Ph.D. in philosophy so he should know what real mutually contradictory statements should look like.)
Torley then pretends that he has discovered my position for the first time. Here's my position. I believe that almost all of the claims of Intelligent Design Creationists are scientific. I believe that those claims can be addressed by the scientific way of knowing. Most of the claims have been refuted or shown to be worthless. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Intelligent Design Creationism is bad science and should not be taught in schools. I've been saying this for years as Torley well knows because he links to one of my earlier posts: Is Intelligent Design Scientific?.
After a few quibbles about whether I misrepresent Intelligent Design Creationism (hint, I didn't) Torley says,
... I am heartened that Professor Moran regards the claims made by the Intelligent Design movements as scientific claims, even if he thinks they’re dead wrong.You're welcome. It's my goal to convince all IDiots that that their scientific claims are dead wrong. I'm glad that I'm making a bit of progress.
Now, as most of you know I DEFINE evolution as "Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations" [What Is Evolution]. This definition deliberately avoids specifying a mechanism because there are at least two important mechanisms—and maybe more. It's the job of modern evolutionary theory to sort out how evolution occurs. Evolutionary theory encompasses everything from population genetics, to speciation, to extinctions, in order to explain the history of life. We need to teach modern evolutionary theory. It is based on the consensus view of the experts in the field.
Let's see how Torely deals with these relatively simple concepts that have been discussed and debated on this blog for years. They've also been widely debated and explained all over the internet and in many textbooks and publications. Recall that I didn't like it when David Evans said "evolution by natural selection" when he should have deleted the last three words and simply said "evolution."
But as we’ve seen, leaving out those three little words leaves evolution without a specified mechanism – which means that the course taught to Texas students would be compatible with intelligently guided evolution. It appears that Professor Moran is happy with that. I presume he believes that these science textbooks could also include proposed (unguided) mechanisms for generating systems exhibiting a high degree of specified complexity. Actually, ID proponents are fine with that – as long as the limitations and uncertainties of these explanations are also pointed out to students.The definition of evolution doesn't specify a mechanism. However, modern evolutionary theory includes several mechanisms of evolution and they should be taught. There is no evidence for intelligently guided evolution and certainly no scientific evidence of any being or entity who could do the guiding. That should not be taught as something that the scientific community accepts. I believe that the evolution course taught to Texas students should emphasize good science and that students should be taught how to distinguish between good science and bad science (i.e. critical thinking). Ideally, Texas students will be taught proper science. Torely would be well advised to take such a course. He could then explain to his fellow creationists that "Darwinism" is not a synonym for modern evolutionary theory.
In an ideal world Texas students would graduate from high school knowing why Intelligent Design Creationism is wrong and why the views of experts scientists are far more likely to be correct. I would be very happy with that.
So, why did Vincent Joseph Torley misrepresent my position? Is it because he's too stupid to understand what I was talking about or is it because he deliberately wanted to mislead his readers? It's the classic conundrum, are they liars or IDiots? Or, is it possible that I'm creating a false dichotomy and there's a third option?
Next, Torely asks,
And while we’re on the subject of academic honesty, how does Professor Moran feel about Texas students being exposed to evolutionary biologist Dr. Eugene Koonin’s peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life (Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15)? In his article, Dr. Koonin claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast Vishnu number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely.The origin of life is an interesting and complex issue. Once students have mastered to basic concepts of evolution, they can be taught what scientists currently think about the origin of life. In an ideal world, this would include a discussion about the typical creation myths of several cultures around the world. The teacher could then present scientific evidence that conflicts with, and refutes, most of these myths. This would include the Biblical version of creation as described in Genesis.
How does Professor Moran feel about including Dr. Koonin’s article in the Texas school curriculum?
There have been several scientific hypotheses about the origin of life. Some of them have been discredited and it would be worthwhile, in an ideal world, to explain why the scientific community has moved on. I think students should be taught that we don't know how life originated even though there are many ideas that are compatible with an origin that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. I think that students should be aware of the fact that the specific direction that life took on this particular planet is highly improbable, as is all or history. It would be wonderful if Texas high school students could be taught how to deal with probabilities and how to appreciate that a posterori argument is suspect.
They should also learn that just because we don't have a good naturalistic model for how life began, this should not be construed as evidence that Vishnu exists. It's important to teach students that this form of reasoning is false.
Torley also asks,
Or what about claims by paleontologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, that currently known evolutionary processes are utterly unable to account for the relatively sudden appearance of about 30 phyla of animals with different body plans, in the Cambrian period? Should Texas students get to hear about that too?This would also be a good teaching moment. After showing students the overwhelming evidence of evolution in the fossil record, it would be fun to bring up the Cambrian explosion and teach students how scientists are approaching this question. You would need to show them how the molecular data confirms evolution then discuss the various explanations for phenotypic change over a period of 10 million years.
Then you could explain how some religious people want to use this scientific problem to promote their particular religion. You could show how it's just another version of a "god of the gaps" argument. You could also show your students how vacuous the religious "model" actually is since it is totally inconsistent with everything else we know about evolution.
This would be a marvelous opportunity to teach a lesson about "consistently." That's one of the most important issues in argument and logic according to my co-teacher, Chris DiCarlo. You can't just make up random ad hoc scenarios to explain particular problems. There has to be some consistency to your worldview. In this case we have a situation where the big picture demonstrates that the history of life is explained by evolution. It would be quite consistent to assume that evolution is also at work in a few cases where we don't have solid evidence that demonstrates evolution. This is how we behave in all aspects of our lives.
It would not be consistent to postulate that a supernatural being pops up and intervenes whenever we encounter a problem that can't easily be explained by the available data. That's not consistent with everything else we know. Such a model adds a whole extra level of complexity and a host of additional assumptions. For example, when, where, and why did some god make a bacterial flagellum? Why did some god decide to make all the strange animals of the Cambrian?
Students could learn a lot about scientific reasoning from discussing these issues.