Sunday, February 8, 2009

Florida Intelligent Design Bill

A State Senator from Florida, Stephen Wise, has introduced a bill that will require the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. Note, thus far, the language of the bill seems to be not allowing the teaching of ID, or suggesting it, but actually requiring it. Now, I and others have argued before that this is essentially the same as requiring the teaching of astrology in astronomy classes, or teaching tarot card or I Ching readings in a psychology or economics class. It just doesn't make any sense and there's no evidence for it, but still we have people who want to use the court systems to get their ideological views enforced. Much like various religious groups and the passage of Proposition 8 in California - not content to wrestle with their ideas in the public arena, they want to see enforcement of their views from the legal arena. It's sneaky, underhanded, and manipulative.

Let me offer you this question - are high school students competent to decide whether evolution or intelligent design is "true?" I would argue no. This is not to denigrate the intelligence of high school students, I've known some of them to be quite bright. The problem is that they do not have the experience and education to intelligently decide on these. Do we teach the various schools of interpretation of quantum mechanics to high school students and "let them decide?" (Do we even teach quantum mechanics in high school?) Do we teach high school students about every religion out there and "let them decide?" Do we teach them various economic views and let them decide, and set our policies to their decisions? Do we teach them ethical theories and let their decisions on which seem right guide our laws? Would we be in a better place if we did? I'm not entirely sure on those, but, I would still argue that in all these situations, these kids simply don't have the background or experience to make informed decisions on these matters. It is not up to high school students, or state senators, for that matter, to determine the "truth" of any of these theories, it is up to the evidence at hand. And thus far, the evidence is fully in support of evolutionary theory and on modern astronomy, not intelligent design and astrology. On interpretations of quantum mechanics and ethical theories, I will fully say I am not qualified, and I do not think there is enough evidence yet, to really say which one has won out. The other problem is that the ID argument is actually an attempt to completely tear down the very basis of scientific inquiry itself. It is an attack against the fundamentals of a system or method of inquiry which has given us the modern world which we take for granted today, including the ability for me and my ID opponents to post their opinions on web pages that anyone in the world can view and criticize. Are things perfect? No. No they are not, but we're doing the best we can. This is my earth, my country, my home, my body, and my brain...they aren't perfect, but they're fine, and I'm doing the best I can to improve them. Is that horribly oversimplified and cliched? Oh, definitely.

Lastly, this story reminds me a thought experience Carl Sagan used - the Dragon in My Garage. I'll reproduce it here, just to give you the flavor of it:

"'A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage'

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

'Show me,' you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

'Where's the dragon?' you ask.

'Oh, she's right here,' I reply, waving vaguely. 'I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon.'

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

'Good idea,' I say, 'but this dragon floats in the air.'

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

'Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.'

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

'Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick.' And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion."

I want to consider one more scenario - what if everyone believes in their Dragons in their garages, and instead of allowing others to argue that "No, there probably aren't dragons in these garages," or "No, I don't believe in them. When you have evidence, I will change my mind," or "No, the evidence actually argues against that idea...here's a more likely hypothesis," the dragon-believers enforce their views through the court systems. No market-place of ideas or debates in which their views would fail, no careful engaging of their non-existent evidence...just, push it through the court system piggy-backing on the general respect and tolerance of dragon-belief that pervades the country. It's a simple strategy. Under-handed and dishonest, but simple.

The battle for reason and evidence as the basis for education, especially science education, is far from over.

5 comments:

Hank said...

If you are doing something for Darwin Day this year, let us know. http://www.scientificblogging.com/darwin_day_2009

tom sheepandgoats said...

Hm. I didn't know there was a Darwin day, though that's not the comment I came to make.

Strictly speaking, and even loosely speaking, my comment doesn't fit (you've done the same to me) but I thought you might like to know I plan to legally change my name to Tom Sheepandgoats Waits. Thanks for introducing me to a unique musician.

What do you think of Johnny Cash....not his bulk material, but the final few albums he recorded, the American series? In his final years, his music became hauntingly beautiful, his voice deep and mellow and broken - the brokenness somehow adding to the calibre.

Alas, a few songs are gospel, which I fear may make you vomit (I normally don't care for gospel music either....that Cash can make me do it is testimony to his talent) but many songs are on other topics and I think you will enjoy.

Lemme know.

Ragoth said...

Hey Tom,

You're certainly welcome. I've come to love his album Nighthawks at a Diner, it's partially spoken-word, but...man, it's just amazing.

I love Johnny Cash, and the final few albums are definitely my favorites. I can't get enough of that hauntingly beautiful sound, and I certainly agree with the brokenness. I think that's what initially attracted me to it.

I actually don't mind most gospel. Newer Christian pop-rock does mostly sicken me, but some gospel actually works for me. And Cash doing it is always good. He was an amazing musician.

But, yeah, I'm really glad that you enjoy Tom Waits. He has a huge library, so, lots of stuff to listen to.

Anonymous said...

Simply terrifying. How far has this bill gone in the courts? Science help us all...

Ragoth said...

Anonymous,

We probably won't hear much until March, when the Senate meets. That's when Senator Wise wants the Florida Senate to take it up. A Florida radio station in Tampa has a more recent update located here: http://www.wmnf.org/news_stories/scientists-oppose-intelligent-design-bill

Check that out if you want, you can listen to the radio segment on it. Otherwise we'll just have to wait and see.