Anti-Steve: The Week in Review (2/27)

SMU undergraduate Nicole Hartman (right) explains her simulation of low-energy neutrinos scattering to Prof. Fred Olness, Chair of the SMU Department of Physics. Photo taken at SMU Research Day, 2015.
SMU undergraduate Nicole Hartman (right) explains her simulation of low-energy neutrinos scattering to Prof. Fred Olness, Chair of the SMU Department of Physics. Photo taken at SMU Research Day, 2015.

The past week was a busy one: judging at the Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair (DRSEF), the Dallas “Icepocalypse” that shut down SMU for 1.5 days and led to a ridiculous amount of work getting done, meetings with my students about their “Grand Challenge Physics Problem,” SMU Research Day, ATLAS research, and hardware research and development for low-background experiments.

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Anti-Steve: The Week in Review (2/20)

The infant checklist for the electrostatic shield prototype run (see below). Just one small part of this exciting week.
The infant checklist for the electrostatic shield prototype run (see below). Just one small part of this exciting week.

I thought it might be nice to use this blog to . . . you know . . . actually blog. “Blog” is derived from “Web Log,” a journal or log kept by a person but broadcast publicly on the web. So in this week’s inaugural “Anti-Steve” [1], here are some things that happened this week that I found interesting or notable in my own life.

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AAAS Respectfully Declines to Attend at Hearings on Intelligent Design

There’s a lot going on in our nation right now regarding the pushing of faith into the science classroom. As a scientist, I am watching this issue with great concern. Although the struggle over the content of science class challenges primarily my colleagues in biology and medicine (i.e. those who use the theory of evolution to make daily breakthoughs), I see this as a struggle much like the early days of World War II. If you appease the advocates of intelligent design by giving them the battle in the biology classroom and textbooks, what’s to prevent them from taking the fight to the big bang or modern cosmology? I see this as a struggle that could spill over into all science education.

Anyway, if you’ve been reading this blog you know how I feel. Science is a methodological process by which a hypothesis is made, an experiment is proposed to test it, that experiment is executed and the results are used to uphold or challenge the theory. This simple and yet rigorous process gave us the theory of planetary motion, classical mechanics and thus modern engineering, the theory of electromagnetism and the first unification of two forces, quantum mechanics and relativity, and thus all of our society today. That process is taught in science class, and any attempt to push opinion into the classroom as if it were fact is wrong. It is morally wrong. Science is not about opinion. We teach what we know, and we teach the process by which we can know more.

It is important to teach where the theories fail, but we cannot teach everybody’s untested (and potentially crackpot) idea about how to fill or patch those gaps. It is also important to teach kids that when a theory fails, you must never fill the void with mysticism. If Einstein had looked at the conflict between Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Newton’s classical theory of motion and said, “Well, that must be the creator a work in this disagreement, and who am I to tangle with the creator?”, we would have been long delayed in the theory of relativity. No advance in our society has ever been gained by shrugging and saying, “I don’t know, so it must be the will of a superbeing and who am I to deny that will?”

Whew. There I go again. I get really serious about this issue. I really do. When I think of all the mysticism that I learned in church, and how screwed up that made my view of the world as I got older, it frustrates me that the first thing I learned was religion and the second was the truth. Imagine a teenager trying to reconcile what a holy book says about the age of the world with the true age based on geologic evidence, carbon dating, and other rigorous and reproducible methodology. Imagine how messed up that is. Imagine trying to reconcile the notion of a creator with that of a hot, dense seed of this universe which inflated and expanded rapidly, cooling and eventually birthing the stars, the galaxies, and our solar system.

What I have to remind myself of constantly is that there are a thousand creation myths. Almost every culture had its own, with several roughly in common. But for all their similarities, these cultures and religions have always struggled to get everybody else to see their viewpoint by argument and inference and finally, moral superiority. In contrast, the big bang theory, the theory of planetary evolution, of species evolution and natural selection, were arrived at by careful, multiple observations and experiments carried out by countless people from innumerable backgrounds. And yet, somehow they have all arrived at the same conclusions about the usefulness, and the gaps in, these theories. No moral superiority was needed at all to force another to see their point of view, merely the strength of rational investigation.

All of this, to point out that the “American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)”:http://www.aaas.org has “politely declined an invite to participate in hearings in Kansas about teaching hypotheses, such as intelligent design, as an alternative to the theory of evolution”:http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2005/0412kansas.shtml.
The decline was made on the basis that AAAS is a scientific organization and does not get involved in matters of faith, which (I thought) was an excellent way of framing this issue. Hypothesis and faith are really almost the same things. They differ in that a hypothesis cries to be proven or disproven with experimentation. Faith, on the other hand, is something that you hold onto even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One could interpret the AAAS’ statement to mean that intelligent design doesn’t even value at the level of a hypothesis.

I’m willing to give these “ID” folks the benefit of the doubt. They need to stop all their talking and start all their research. All they have to do is prove that there is evidence for the hand of a creator in all life, from humans down to phytoplankton, and I’ll be convinced. It doesn’t have to be a supernatural being, I’ll also agree to that. It could be a race of aliens that did it. But then I have to ask the question, “Who intelligently designed them?” Or, perhaps, they evolved to be intelligent and decided to create us for fun. We must look like a hoot from outer space.