Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Kansas and evolution.

The Kansas State Board of Education has, apparently, turned back towards the Enlightenment and away from the Dark Ages (see here). That's a good thing, certainly. What's not a good thing is the way this is being reported, using the standard lazy "he said, she said" style. For instance, in the NYT article, we find outright creationists being referred to as "evolution skeptics". This is dishonest, to say the least. Skepticism is a rational position typified principally by a refusal to accept propositions as true without sufficient evidence; when the skeptic finds a proposition that is not supported, he suspends judgement; when the skeptic finds a proposition contradicted by the evidence, he considers it false. There are no evolution skeptics -- there are only evolution deniers. It is not rational to deny evolution. (It may be rational to deny particular evolutionary theories, but to deny biological evolution is to fly in the face of millions of data and decades of sound scientific research. Hence, it is not rational -- unless, I suppose, one's criteria of "sufficient" evidence are so high that one does not believe it is raining even when one is soaked to the skin.)

The NYT article also gives a forum to a spokesman for the nutty creationist Discovery [sic] Institute, and uncritically repeats their central talking point:

Proponents of Kansas' latest standards contend they encourage open discussion.
The problem, of course, is that IDiots have no interest in open discussion. If they were, then they would have realized that their own pet theory has no empirical support, and has no a priori support. Indeed, it is little more than a mishmash of historically discredited notions that have been extensively critiqued throughout the academic literature. (I've blogged on ID already here.)

Furthermore, the article has this little gem (pretty much all that's said about the scientifically-valid side):

Critics of Kansas' science standards worried that if conservatives retained the board's majority, it would lead to attempts in other states to copy the Kansas standards.
This is true, but disingenuous. The issue is not centrally about poor science education standards spreading, but about poor science education standards. Particularly, about teaching non-science as science, and as equivalent (if not superior) to real science.

USA Today (say what you like about it, but it's read by more people than almost any paper in the world) prints the same Associated Press article as the NYT, but edited slightly differently. They include this quote:

"I feel like if you give two sides of something, most people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds," said Ryan Cole, a 26-year-old farmer and horse trainer from Smith County, along the Nebraska line.
I'm not going to say that all or most farmers, horse trainers, or (near-)Nebraskans are idiots. I highly doubt that is true. But this particular one is, in two respects.

First, you can only expect people to sensibly choose between multiple options if they are equipped to tell the difference. On the face of it, evolutionary theory is weird. It goes against many of our initial, intuitive theories by which we navigate through the world. For example, we don't see, in our day-to-day lives, the development of more complex organism from simpler ones: organisms seem to us to be fixed in complexity. Hence, that evolutionary theory suggests complexity has emerged over time, and indeed has emerged through (at least somewhat) random change, looks a little absurd. In short, it's sometimes hard to tell what really makes sense from what doesn't.

Second, this presumption that there are "two sides" to an "evolution debate" is simply wrong. ID is not a competitor to evolutionary theory. ID is not an alternative to evolutionary theory. ID has nothing, really, to do with evolutionary theory. There's only one theory that has the explanatory power of evolution, and that is evolution. (It is, of course, always possible that evolution will be challenged in the future, by a theory with equal or greater explanatory power. But, as more data appears that supports evolution, the likelihood of this becomes vanishingly small.)

USA Today also unthinkingly reports another ID canard, that the NYT omitted:

The standards say that the evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And they say there is controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species.
The former is simple bullshit. The latter is the old speciation objection, ably rebutted here, at (also a useful reference to convince one that the former is, indeed, simple bullshit).

The way this whole conflict is portrayed in the corporate media is dishonest, sloppy reporting at its best (or worst, if one prefers). ID is a political movement, intended to undercut good rational science. That's the real story: why being irrational has gained such traction with legislators. (But, I suppose, who'd want to read a newspaper that talked about that?)

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