An Analysis of Attacks on Science

Preface: Many thanks to Profs. John Cotton, Randy Scalise, Ron Wetherington, and John Wise for their tireless efforts to promote science. Their perspectives on the scientific method, and the issues I outline below, have been a tremendous influence on my thinking and writing about this subject. I also thank Profs. John Cotton and Randy Scalise for the chance to teach CFB/PHY 3333 at SMU. Teaching a course on the introduction to the scientific method has been a humbling experience that will only continue to make me a better scientist.

 

Photo from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wasdin/4104127887/

This year has seen a large number of attacks in the ongoing campaign against science. In order to understand this new phase of the war on science, we need to first remind ourselves: what is science? Once we have done that, we can revisit the recent history of attempts to redefine science in our education system and understand why these are yet another move in the campaign against our greatest way of knowing.

What is Science?

Science is a process. It is the process of applying the scientific method in order to explain phenomena in the natural world. Because our lives our dominated by the natural world, understanding it is useful. It is so useful that, thanks to science, we have come to fundamental understandings of biology, chemistry, and physics; as a result, we gained deep insight into the structure of the earth, the nature of disease and sickness, and the fundamental laws that govern nature. Our progress in all of these fronts has cured disease, extended human life, extended human senses with technology, and allowed us to grasp the cosmos even though we occupy by a tiny corner of it.

What is this process? It is a way of gathering information about the world and using that information to construct explanations of the natural world. These explanations lead to new knowledge, and the process repeats itself.

  1. We begin by making an observation of a phenomenon. This observation may involve the collection of data in one of many possible forms.
  2. We then formulate an hypothesis to explain the data. An hypothesis is a statement like, “The phenomenon happens because of . . . ” What distinguishes an hypothesis from an opinion is that the hypothesis not only explains, but offers the possibility of being tested. That is, the hypothesis makes other predictions outside the scope of the existing data, and by collecting more data we can test the hypothesis. We can never PROVE an hypothesis. We can only collect new data that either disproves the hypothesis or confirms its predictions. However, it only takes a single bad prediction to disprove the hypothesis, which is why it can never be definitively proven,
  3. The prediction(s) from the hypothesis lead to the proposal of an experiment, or experiments, to test the predictions of the hypothesis. These experiments must be plausible and feasible. They must also be repeatable; that is, the experiment must be such that any independent individual or group of individuals can repeat the experiment and confirm the results.
  4. The experiment is performed, and either is inconclusive (requiring another experiment), refutes the hypothesis (in which case the hypothesis must be revised or discarded), or confirms the hypothesis and opens the door to further predictions and tests.
  5. New data having been gathered, a new phenomenon may be observed that results from the hypothesis. This then leads to the repetition of the above process

This is referred to as The Scientific Method. It is extremely useful, since it leads to the creation of new knowledge and that knowledge has the power to transform our existence (as illustrated above). It is a process, not a recipe; the steps may or may not be performed in the above order. The process also includes peer-review – criticism of the results by independent individuals with expertise in the area of investigation. Peer review may result in further tests that must be performed in order to validate the claims made by the hypothesis.

A hypothesis that withstands the above cycle will eventually be raised to the status of a model – a more comprehensive and complete description of one or more phenomena. A model that stands up to further experimental tests will be elevated to the level of a scientific theory. “Theory” here is not meant in the vulgar sense – one’s opinion or personal pet idea. Here, a Scientific Theory is a power explanatory framework that not only is based on facts, but EXPLAINS facts, and predicts new phenomena. After enough time and enough tests, a theory will be raised to the level of a Scientific Law.

This is also a process, not a recipe. There are no strict time limits on the above elevation from hypothesis to a law. For instance, the Theory of Natural Selection has been around nearly as long as the Laws of Electricity and Magnetism (Maxwell’s Equations); Natural Selection is the fundamental driving idea in the development of biology as a science, while Maxwell’s Equations are but a subset of the ideas that are the core of modern physics. In physics, these are laws, while in biology, Natural Selection is still called a Scientific Theory. These are cultural artifacts; humans do science, and there is no specific rule that says when or if a theory much be elevated to a law. While Natural Selection is a far more encompassing idea in biology than is Maxwell’s Equations in physics, one field decided to elevate them to laws and the other just never bothered.

This is the Scientific Method. It has done more to improve the quality of existence of our species than any other way of knowing, and in that sense it is the most useful way of knowing ever devised. Is it perfect? No. But, as has been said of Democracy, science is the worst way of knowing . . . besides all the others.

What, then, are Scientific Weaknesses?

Having had time to consider the Scientific Method, we can then define “Scientific Weaknesses.” These would be:

  1. Failure to generate a testable hypothesis, or the failure to generate an hypothesis that makes any predictions.
  2. Failure to produce an experiment that is plausible, feasible, and capable of testing the hypothesis (e.g. discriminating the hypothesis from any other existing or competing idea).
  3. Failure to revise the hypothesis in the face of disconfirming evidence. That is, sticking to a failed idea is a scientific weakness.
  4. Failure to generate a repeatable experiment. For instance, if the experiment requires a process or observation that can only be done once, it is scientifically weak.
  5. Failure to subject the hypothesis, experiment, and/or experimental results to peer review.

There are probably more, but given the definitions of the Scientific Method these are perhaps the most obvious and glaring kinds of Scientific Weaknesses. What, then, are bad examples of Scientific Weaknesses? Any weakness whose definition is based on a logical fallacy is a good example of a bad scientific weakness.

  • Any weakness that is based on an “Ad Hominem” attack is a bad weakness. For instance, a poor criticism of a scientific idea is one that is rooted in criticism of the proponents. Just because a proponent is an atheist or a devout Christian does NOT make the idea invalid. The idea is only invalid if it falls into the clear definitions of “Scientific Weakness” based on the above criteria.
  • Any weakness that is based on a LACK of evidence is a poor scientific weakness. One always needs more data; this is as true in biology as it is in physics. Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. Absence of evidence FOR something is also NOT evidence for another random explanation which, itself, is scientifically unproven. As an example, just because no one has found fossils for a specific transition between one species and another does NOT mean that Natural Selection is wrong, or that only God could have caused the transition to occur. All this means is that we await data. This kind of criticism is weak because it is based on the False Dichotomy logical fallacy – the idea that there are only ever two explanations for anything and absence of evidence for the first is confirming evidence for the second.

A good list of Logical Fallacies is available here: Ref. [1]. Any claim of a Scientific Weakness based on a Logical Fallacy is an example of a False Scientific Weakness.

The Present Strategy

The present strategy is to try to pass laws that require teachers in state-funded schools to “teach the scientific weaknesses” of only specific ideas in science, such as the Theory of Natural Selection, Human-Induced Climate Change, the Chemical Origins of Life, and Human Reproduction. Physics, other aspects of chemistry, mathematics, and other earth sciences are largely left out of these criticisms. How did we get to this strategy in the war on science?

The forces of anti-science have long tried to either conflate their efforts with science, or have tried to alter the definition of science. The teaching of Creationism in state-funded schools was rules illegal – a violation of the “separation clause” of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas [2]. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [3]

That very first clause is known as the “separation clause” – Congress shall neither promote any religion above another, nor prohibit the free exercise of any religion. This has been interpreted in U.S. law to also mean that state-funded schools cannot promote one religion over another. In Epperson v. Arkansas, “Creationism” – the teaching that God caused all biologic diversity – was found to be a promotion of an Abrahamic religion (a specific Christian view) and thus, taught in schools, would be seen as promoting one religion’s view on Creation over any other religion’s view on Creation. Specifically, the Arkansas law in question in this case prohibited the teaching of evolution, and this was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that no state can tailor education to suit the principles or prohibitions of a specific religious sect or dogma.

Creationists then spent over a decade attempting to couch their ideology in the trappings of science, and invented the term “Creation Science.” This was meant to be taken as a serious subject that claimed that the natural world held evidence for biologic diversity based on the catastrophic Noah flood. Some states attempted to require that Creation Science be taught alongside standard biology and its core unifying principle of Natural Selection. This culminated in yet another U.S. Supreme Court case, Edwards v. Aguillard. Here, the court found that the Lousiana law in question was in violation of the separation clause, as ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas. However, they also stated that “teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.” [4]

This part of the ruling opened the door to a new generation of attacks on science. If the opponents of science could find a way to define an alternative, scientific theory devoid of the religiosity of past efforts (e.g. Creation Science), then they might be able to wedge their ideas into the classrooms of all state-funded schools. Indeed, such an effort crystallized, driven by a Seattle-based think-tank known as The Discovery Institute, and its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The stated goal of this organization was outlined in “The Wedge,” a document that defined their strategy for penetrating their ideas into mainstream scientific culture, leading to a redefinition of science, teaching, and eventually the humanities and social sciences [5].

This led to the formulation of “Intelligent Design” – the idea that the biologic diversity of life is explicable in some or all cases only through the intervention of a tinkering “intelligent designer” who manipulates or writes genetic code. The designer is not named, but various proponents of intelligent design have stated that the designer is a supernatural being; if it was a natural being, this would require asking, “Who designed the designer?”

Efforts, led by The Discovery Institute, then got underway to implement the Wedge Strategy. They largely failed in the scientific sphere. Their most scientific claim was a reformulation of William Paley’s “Watchmaker” argument – that design can be detected in nature by finding evidence of structures so complex they could not have happened via Natural Selection. Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe reformulated Paley’s idea into “irreducible complexity.” This is the notion that there are structures in nature whose function appears to be delicately predicated on all their parts working; take any part away, and the function of the whole is compromised. Since nature selects for usefulness based on function, such a structure (where all parts much work to execute the function) could not have arisen by Natural Selection.

The reason that this idea has failed in the scientific sphere is because the examples offered up by proponents of intelligent design have continually been shown to have predecessors in nature whose function was different, and whose structure was simpler. The bacterium flagellum is a key example. Behe and others claimed this biological motor, which drives a whip-like structure and propels a bacterium like an outboard motor propels a boat, is immensely complex and cannot function if its parts are removed. But, piles and piles of peer-reviewed research have been published in the scientific literature showing not only that the motor can operate even when parts are compromised, but also that a much simpler version of the exact same structure, with many fewer parts, is used by the bacterium that carries Bubonic Plague to inject lethal toxins into the cells of its host. A bad motor makes a great syringe. [6]

Having suffered multiple documented failures in the scientific sphere, the proponents of Intelligent Design have in parallel been conducting the other phase of their Wedge Strategy: change laws to their favor to weaken, or redefine, science and thus admit their ideas into public education. What they cannot achieve by the scientific process they will try to achieve by legal means.

This effort culminated in the 2006 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District [7]. Here, the court found that intelligent design was merely creationism, repackaged, and thus in violation of previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the subject. Teaching intelligent design alongside standard biology was thus the promotion of one religion over any other, and deemed illegal. Efforts to thus present intelligent design as an alternative to the Theory of Natural Selection in state-funded schools were thus stopped cold.

The Legacy of Kitzmiller v. Dover: Teach the Scientific Weaknesses or Controversies

While this sounds like another victory for the Scientific Method and for the respect of religion and science as mutual, independent spheres in our society, the forces of anti-science never rest. While intelligent design cannot legally be offered as an alternative to the Theory of Natural Selection in the biology classroom. multiple efforts have been attempted this year to introduce state laws that require teachers to “teach the scientific weaknesses” of standard biology, or to “teach the scientific controversy” in standard biology. Other areas of science, like climate science, have been added to the language of the bills to avoid the problem of singling out an area where some religious sects clearly have a strong opinion. Climate science is added because while fundamentalist Christian sects tend to not have specific religious issues with this idea, it is viewed by the public as “controversial” and thus safe to package with biology in the bills.

Bills along these lines have appeared in Missouri [8], New Hampshire [9], Oklahoma [10], and Tennessee [11]. The effort in New Hampshire failed. Let’s focus on the Tennessee bill, which passed the state legislature and was passed by inaction by the Governor of Tennessee (failure to sign or veto a bill in Tennessee leads to automatic enactment of the bill as law). The bill, in part, states the following,

The general assembly finds that: . . . The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy . . . Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught. Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught. This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.[12]

It sounds good, but it’s a bad bill for at least two reasons. First, there is no law on the books that prohibits anything authorized in this bill. Therefore, it’s a useless piece of legislation in that it is trying to solve or undo a problem that doesn’t exist. Second, absent such a reason for passing this bill, we are left to assume that these specific subjects cause scientific controversy and are unclear or difficult to understand because of that controversy. Therefore, a bill must be needed to authorize teachers or school officials to teach the controversy so that students can then understand the subjects.

So, does the Theory of Natural Selection (what they call “biological evolution” in the bill) have scientific weaknesses? Go back to the beginning of this essay and review the definitions of Scientific Weaknesses that can be directly constructed from the guidelines of the Scientific Method.

  • Does the Theory of Natural Selection failure to offer testable hypotheses? Certainly not. It not only explains how species emerge from other species, but offers an explanation about how those new species are generated by pressure from the environment (“descent with modification”). Tons of fossil evidence and live animal evidence has been collected for hundreds of years that all confirm this. Natural Selection, which requires vast amounts of time to happen, predicts that the earth is quite a lot older than the age inferred from Biblical Scholarship. Rather than thousands of years, the Earth would have to be at least millions, if not billions, of years old. Indeed, radiological dating of rocks from both Earth and our Moon confirms this; the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, plenty old for Natural Selection to have worked its effects. Natural Selection also predicted a biological source of inheritance information, and this was later confirmed by genetics and discovered much later to be DNA.
  • Does the Theory of Natural Selection fail to generate feasible, plausible experiments? Certainly not. If transitions in the fossil record are predicted, one needs to them scour the Earth for fossil evidence. If one wishes to test whether the environment can change a species, one needs only to observe animals in their natural habitats or perform controlled breeding experiments with animals, bacterial cultures, etc. The Theory of Natural Selection generates tons of plausible, feasible experiments.
  • Does Natural Selection refuse to adjust in the face of disconfirming evidence? Not at all. In fact, hypotheses based on the original theory of Natural Selection have been refuted; rather than decimating the Theory, it instead led to a refinement of the hypotheses generated by the Theory. This led to a better understanding of nature. This is a hallmark of an outstanding Scientific Theory. For instance, it was assumed by the early proponents of Natural Selection that rapid periods of selection could not be possible, because Natural Selection takes so long to work. However, the incredible leap in the diversity of biological forms in the Cambrian Period would seem to challenge this idea. The HOX gene [13] is a family of related genes that cause body plans in living organisms to change rather rapidly, and these genes can be switched on and off rather easily. The result is that when sources of energy (nutrients, oxygen) are abundant, as they were during the Cambrian, an explosion of biological diversity can occur in just millions of years.

You can continue along on your own, but you’ll find that Natural Selection (or Climate Science) doesn’t fail these tests. In fact, as with any well-established Scientific Theory it has been put through so many tests that it doesn’t easily fail these basic “Scientific Weakness” tests. It is only logical fallacies, pseudoscience, or anti-science that easily and readily fails these ideas. Consider intelligent design. The proponents of ID refuse to revise their hypotheses in the face of disconfirming evidence. They spend most of their time noting places where data is incomplete in the biological record, and cite that as a weakness of Natural Selection and thus confirmation of Intelligent Design. But, this is the application of the logical fallacy that absence of evidence is either evidence of absence, or evidence for another idea. These are, in fact, CLASSIC Scientific Weaknesses. If anything fails the Scientific Weakness tests, it’s the very ideas that have failed in the scientific world and have been snuck into public school by back-handed and back-channel means.

Where to go from here

So, where so we go from here? There seem to be a few things we can all do:

  1. Remain vigilant. The forces of anti-science will not stop just because they lose another legal battle. They will re-structure their attacks in an attempt to weaken our education system. They may try to couch it in scientific-sounding, or legally sound, language. They may be coming for biology and climate science now, but they’ll come for math, physics, and chemistry eventually. Failure to stop them now is not a guarantee that they will stop with one science.
  2. Speak out and educate. Be an active citizen scientist, writing articles for your neighborhood newsletter or partnering with local schools to get kids excited about science. When scientists are viewed as friends and neighbors, it’s harder to dismiss us as “them” or “others.”
  3. Be outspoken about the nature of science and what it means to actually be “scientifically weak.” Point out the strengths of scientific ideas, rather than railing against the weaknesses of anti-science or pseudoscience. Speaking poorly of those ideas is the same as failing to say anything useful about your own.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epperson_vs._Arkansas

[3] http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html

[4] http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/482/578/case.html

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_flagella

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District

[8] http://ncse.com/news/2012/01/intelligent-design-bill-missouri-007092

[9] http://ncse.com/news/2011/12/antievolution-legislation-new-hampshire-006996

[10] http://www.addictinginfo.org/2012/01/22/oklahoma-gop-introduces-bill-that-attacks-evolution-and-climate-change/

[11] http://ncse.com/news/2012/04/monkey-bill-enacted-tennessee-007299

[12] http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Bill/HB0368.pdf

[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hox_gene

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