Sunday, July 30, 2006

Worth reading. Click through while it’s still free.

In “The language of life” (7/30/2006) LA Times staff writer Robert Lee Hotz discusses talking back to evolution doubters. Not arguing, but rather talking sense.

In the border war between science and faith, the doctrine of "intelligent design" is a sly subterfuge — a marzipan confection of an idea presented in the shape of something more substantial.

Until recently… those scientists most qualified to defend evolutionary biology were strangely reluctant to confront these dissenters publicly. Now, in three quite different books — a collection of essays, a biography of Charles Darwin's intellectual life and a debunker's guide to the debate — some of the nation's most distinguished thinkers step forward as expert witnesses to challenge the ruse of intelligent design directly.

Taken together, these works are essential reading for anyone who sincerely wants to "teach the controversy" as intelligent design advocates so often urge — or to understand its dishonesty. As distillations of the best thinking on this ploy, they ought to be required reading for every high school science teacher and school board member in America.

Oh, yes, the three books under discussion are

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen

Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, edited by John Brockman

Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design by Michael Shermer

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Labels as arguments

Yesterday I wrote about the discussion around the Kansas anti-science science standards going on at Ars Technica, a “PC enthusiast” website. It’s interesting the way these discussions about how biological evolution should be taught in public school classrooms almost invariably turn to religion.

The IDers (aka intelligent design creationists, IDers, IDiots, or Discovery Institutesee also) insist (bang fist on table) that intelligent design is science and is absolutely not (bang fist again) a way to get their religion into the science classroom. But just let them keep talking/writing and you will hear/see words like “atheist,” “bible,” "god,” and the ever-popular “anti-religion” or “anti-christian” creep into their arguments.

The discussion following the Ars Technica article (“Will the Kansas school board be intelligently redesigned?”) was no different – although it was a bit more subdued than many I have seen. And like many discussions (read: arguments) I have followed, it turned to how to define labels like “agnostic” and “atheist.”

So today I open the Saturday edition of The Oregonian and find that the front page of the Living section features an Ethics & Values article about how these labels are defined – and how they are used.

In “agnostic atheist humanist -- What do those words mean? Less -- and more -- than you think” reporter Nancy Haught quotes Courtney Campbell, head of the philosophy department at Oregon State University:

"What's happened in popular culture, is that the terms used to be descriptive, and now they are evaluative. That leads to some confusion, stereotyping and mislabeling."

And Haught notes:

That tendency to link -- or leap -- from atheism to questions of morality is evidence that many Americans are not using words such as atheist, agnostic or humanist in descriptive ways anymore.

"The terms come out of contexts that are value-laden," says Campbell, the OSU professor. "That's why they become very controversial."

When I first delved into this “debate” about evolution, I couldn’t understand why some people kept conflating this branch of science with religion. On a personal level, I still don’t understand, but I accept that for many people these “nonoverlapping magisteria” are not going to be reasoned apart. So, we can’t ignore the issue and we’d better figure out an effective way to discuss it.

Sidenote: My dad always warned me never to argue religion or politics. Since this “war” over evolution is a political (not a scientific) controversy, and we can’t extricate it from the religious world view of some of the combatants, I guess I’ll need to focus on how to keep the discussion from evolving to argument.

And, yes, I am aware that I inserted editorial comment into my labels for intelligent design proponents in the second paragraph above.

Friday, July 21, 2006

PC enthusiasts weigh in on Kansas

Once again the folks at Ars Technica (a PC enthusiast online journal and discussion forum) are discussing the political controversy around evolution.

Check out “Will the Kansas school board be intelligently redesigned?” by John Timmer. It provides a concise summary of the Kansas science standards saga in the lead-up to the possibly decisive primaries on August 1. Timmer writes:

[A]t least one organization is treating the Kansas primaries as a referendum on Science: the Discovery Institute, the nation's foremost pro-Intelligent Design think tank. They provided many of the witnesses for the anti-evolution show trial and, in the wake of ID's losses in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Kansas is the only substantial success they have left. As a result, they've set up a website which claims that in Kansas, they are "Standing up for Science." The site is a combination of marketing for Discovery books and videos, an online petition, and a set of FAQs that generally claim that there's nothing to see here, and we should all just move along. Despite the national headlines that greeted the adoption of the standards and the outcry from many science organizations, Discovery portrays the redefinition of science as an improvement over the previous standards, and in keeping with the definition used elsewhere. Oddly, one item cited in support of this is the Ohio standards that were rescinded in response to the Dover decision. There's some other very unusual logic there as well, such as statements about how eliminating references to natural causes has no implications for the supernatural, and that doing so actually eliminates a religious bias.

Based on the key points and embedded links, I can deduce that Timmer frequents many of the same blogs where I spend my evenings. And don’t miss the discussion following the article. Many of the participants have not been keeping up with this issue, but some have clearly read the Kitzmiller v Dover decision.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Creationism Kumbaya

The July 17 issue of Newsweek includes a brief item on spiritual summer camps. Beliefwatch: Camping begins
The battle over evolution is moving beyond the courtroom and into summer camp. The Christian Camp and Conference Association says 50 percent of its member camps—which include summer camps and year-round after-school programs reaching 6 million kids every year—have a science curriculum about God's Creation.

Certainly parents have every right to send their kids to summer camps and extracurricular programs that reinforce their religious beliefs. It’s sad, however, that some of these camps apparently take pride in undermining public school science education by prepping their charges to dismiss what their teachers will be presenting.

Says Karen Good, outdoor education director at Timber-lee, "The curriculum is designed to open their eyes so when they go back to school [and hear about evolution] they say, 'Oh, that sounds goofy!'"

The article goes on to report about other spiritual camps that focus on the wonders of science.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On scientific literacy

Yes. Yes. Yes. I have been derelict. I have not blogged for well over a month. Serious family emergency was only part of my excuse. During my hiatus I continued to haunt the usual blogs and read the news. Nothing inspired me enough add my $0.02 – although I did leave comments on a few of the blogs I frequent. So, anyway, here we go again.

Today I visited PLoS – the Public Library of Science, a very cool resource that is “committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.” In other words, this non-profit organization publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers and makes them available to anyone, anywhere – no subscription required.

Now, most of the research papers are way over my head, but the synopses make for digestible scanning, and there are “primer” articles intended to introduce complex subjects and discussions about issues. Listed among the Top Ten articles in PLoS Biology was one that caught my eye: “Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology” (May 6, 2006 Vol 4, Issue 5) by Liza Gross.

It reports on the work of Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School and who “has devoted his 30-year career to studying public understanding of science and technology and its implications for a healthy democracy.”

I won’t bother to reiterate all the statistics and key points here -- you can read the article – but here is Miller’s not-so-depressing conclusion along with a call to action:

For all the sobering statistics and challenges ahead, Miller remains undaunted. While it's unlikely that hard-core anti-evolutionists and stem-cell opponents will change their minds anytime soon, he says, “we've got a lot of ambiguity in the middle. The game is still in play. We ought not to say, ‘Gee, Americans are stupid,’ but, ‘There are a lot of Americans who would be willing to listen to us if we were to go out and make good arguments.’”

The limiting step in enhancing scientific literacy is not people's capacity for learning, Miller says, as much as it is interest. When Americans are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, “the vast number of these people go online and learn more science in the next 12 months than a typical undergraduate will ever learn. It is impressive how much people can learn with the proper motivation. We need to get people to be savvy about how to find the information and make sense of it.”

Miller urges scientists to take comfort in the fact that the majority of Americans are not anti-science, but simply don't know how exciting scientific discovery can be. “We must be cautious and not presume that our society feels strongly about what scientists do one way or another. There's a lot of work to be done for us to tell people what we do, why we do it, and why it's important,” he advises. Given the pace of biomedical discoveries in the 21st century, he adds, it's likely that more and more scientific issues will reach the public agenda. “We're going to be revisiting various versions of these questions again and again. But there's a large segment of Americans who still haven't made up their mind on these issues. We in the scientific community have to treat them seriously, talk to them, and make our arguments. This is a great opportunity for us.”