Posted by: bmeverett | March 26, 2010

Where the Right is Wrong


On March 3 of this month, our beloved New York Times printed another abysmal article by environmental reporter Leslie Kaufman entitled “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.” Kaufman is famous for environmental gobbledygook such as the NYT article on “The Story of Stuff.” (See my May 19, 2009 post.)

Kaufman’s latest article addresses the attempts by conservatives to conflate the teaching of evolution with the teaching of global warming. The “climate community” has of course jumped right in, claiming that science supports both evolution and near-term catastrophic global warming.

The logical structure favored by climate change advocates and evolution opponents is that there are “facts” and “theories.” Facts are true, but theories are just conjecture and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt. Any theory is pretty much as good as any other.

At the risk of repeating several earlier posts, the issue of science is simple. We start with a hypothesis, such as “All flowers are pink.” The hypothesis has to be falsifiable, i.e., capable of being proven incorrect. The hypothesis “All flowers are pretty” is not falsifiable and is therefore not a scientific hypothesis. Once we have a hypothesis, science tells us to test it against empirical evidence. The simplest way to do that is to try to prove the hypothesis wrong. In our example, the easiest approach is to go look at as many flowers as you can. You will quickly discover that flowers come in all kinds of colors, including white, yellow, blue, red and purple. The pink flower hypothesis is therefore wrong. One contrary instance is sufficient to disprove the hypothesis. (By the way, you cannot rescue the hypothesis by redefining “pink.”)

The non-scientific way of addressing the hypothesis, and the one favored by both climate change advocates and evolution opponents, is to sit inside a closed room and argue about (a) how many people support or oppose the hypothesis, (b) the social and political consequences of the hypothesis, (c) why believing or opposing the hypothesis is a moral imperative and (d) why the people who disagree with you are stupid and/or selfish and probably on the payroll of some sinister organization.

There are no “facts” in science, which recognizes only hypotheses which have been disproven and hypotheses which have so far stood up to empirical tests. Those hypotheses which are supported by large amounts of empirical evidence (for example, “touching a hot stove will give you a painful burn”) eventually become pretty reliable.

A “scientific theory” does not mean a guess. In this sense, the word is not used the same way it’s used in Cop Shows, where the detective has a “theory” about who committed the crime. A scientific theory is a set of hypotheses which are internally consistent, compact and supported by extensive empirical evidence. Newtonian physics was a theory which is quite capable of explaining almost everything we can observe in our daily lives. As such, it dominated physics for several centuries. The Theory of Relativity developed by Albert Einstein is capable of explaining in addition phenomena that can only be observed with instruments. For example, light bends around massive objects. The Theory of Relativity may ultimately be replaced with a more comprehensive set of hypotheses that explain more things, including things we have not yet been able to observe. For the moment, however, it’s useful to us as a way of making predictions about how the universe behaves. Relativity is not just a guess.

OK, with that background, let’s cut to the heart of the matter. Evolution is neither a fact nor a conjecture. It is a true scientific theory that seeks to explain much of what we observe in the biological world. Evolution cannot explain everything. For example, it doesn’t tell us how organic molecules originally developed from inorganic molecules. Evolution is, however, consistent with a huge body of empirical evidence, and it’s quite capable of making useful predictions about how the world works. Teaching evolution in schools is no different than teaching the Theory of Relativity. It’s the basis for biology..

Laws under discussion in a number of states, like Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma, seek to confuse the science curriculum by insisting on the teaching of non-scientific approaches in science classes. Intelligent design – the hypothesis that life is so complicated that it must have been created by a guiding intelligence – is an intriguing idea, but it belongs in a college philosophy class, not a high school biology course. Proposals to require the teaching of alternatives to evolution are simply shortcuts to teaching religion in schools. Science and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive. Science is only one way of gaining knowledge and doesn’t address, for example, moral issues. Parents are free to teach their children morality and religious ideas at home or to send them to church schools to learn. We decided a long time ago, however, that these teachings do not belong in public schools. Conservatives are just wrong to try to distort the scientific curriculum in this way.

Climate change advocates, of course, claim to support science, and are absolutely outraged at the Neanderthal attitudes of conservatives on evolution. When it comes to global warming, however, the “climate change community” falls into the same logical trap – pressing teachers to present catastrophic near-term global warming as a “scientific fact.” Both “An Inconvenient truth” and “The Story of Stuff” – two of the most unscientific pieces of nonsense ever assembled – are widely shown in classrooms around the US. Why is the coming climate catastrophe a “fact”? Not because of empirical evidence, but because scientists say so. Climate scientists today can explain very little and predict nothing at all about climate. The unscientific presentation of climate change (and other environmental issues) in our schools is purely political, designed to create a generation conditioned to accept massive reductions in consumption.

Both the left and the right seem to be clueless on how to teach science. Let’s not indoctrinate our kids and mislead them with talk about “facts” and “theories”. Let’s teach them real science, and let them make up their own minds. Otherwise, we will raise a confused and scientifically illiterate mob, advocating passionately on issues they don’t understand.

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