Wednesday, March 02, 2005

How to answer the committee

Ask and ye shall receive: : Experts to submit papers on evolution:
Subcommittee wants questions addressed in papers
1. Discuss your understanding of the definition of science, particularly with reference to the majority and minority definitions.

2. Discuss your understanding of a hypothesis and theory, particularly with regard to evolution and how an individual hypothesis and theory is used and supported and what happens when competing hypotheses and theories are at odds.

3. Discuss the idea that the best scientific inquiry is performed in the fashion of empirical science, that is, observable, measurable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable.

4. Discuss the scientific evidence concerning the idea that natural selection and/or mutations produce speciation.

5. Discuss the scientific evidence concerning the idea that there is a common biological ancestor.

6. Discuss the scientific evidence concerning the idea of what can falsify the Theory of Biological Evolution, particularly how radiometric dating and the fossil record interacts with the idea of falsification.

7. Discuss the idea that students (after moving from concrete thinking and being able to think in the abstract) should be able to explain, in scientific terms, the philosophy of science and various theories of science, as well as various scientific criticisms.

8. U.S. education, particularly with regard to mathematics and science, has been criticized for being a mile wide and an inch deep and thus not promoting critical thinking and/or problem-solving skills. With regard to science education, is this a valid concern? Discuss the idea of how teachers need to or need not address this situation.
My answers to these questions are just spitballing, not meant for the board to review.

The first question is really asking “Should science be defined to include supernatural or unnatural explanations?” As far as IDC, that's the game. It's the very thin edge of their wedge. So be damn sure your answer is unambigous. Defend the use of the word “natural” by contrasting it with unnatural. Point out that there's no way to experiment on the unnatural, or to predict what the unnatural will do.

The hypothesis and theory question will be interesting, but I think that's where the creationists will lose the most ground. Even among IDC wedge strategists, the definition of a theory and hypothesis are not in dispute. This is a nice opportunity to educate the public without having to watch our language too carefully. So really develop an argument here that will tie your narrative together.

I think question 3 is a swipe at “historical science,” ie. science that isn't done in a lab. They want to arbitrarily separate lab research from astronomy, geology, and paleontology, to weaken the perception of non-creationist science. So explain the importance of inference in every science, even medical work. I wouldn't mount an explicit defense of evolution here, except maybe for a big wrapup at the end.

Most likely, question 4 will be a win for scientists. Even the ID community acknowledges that mutation, recombination, gene duplication and selection cause speciation. They just want there to be other things. The debate will be technical and evidence free on their side. Another opportunity to educate the public. Write clearly and broadly on this question. You won't sell the Board (Abrams is a young earth creationist, and rejects speciation) but you will get the public on board.

Question 5 will be contentious. Scientists should not say they have the answer. Discuss science as a method for answering questions, not as a compendium of facts. The creationists will whack on this one, but the worst outcome is that the very first organism won't be discussed. If that's our biggest loss, it's tolerable. Of course, our work on Titan (1, 2) and Mars (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) at the Evolution Project, and those shed all sorts of light on the origins of life, but I think it's wise to say that the science on the beginnings of life on earth is still in flux, and should be left for college level courses, where the instructors can stay informed on advances.

To clarify, science can offer sophisticated answers to the earliest life, but you won't convince enough people, and you expose too much speculation and dispute. Don't concede anything, just talk about the existence of scientific research, and rapid advances using various methods. There are some broad, philosophical points to be made about parsimonious answers and such, but I would delve too much deeper than that. And definitely avoid the Urey-Miller experiments. While they are good science, creationists have too many traps laid there for a reasonable conversation about it.

Question 6 is a sop to young earth creationists, and biologists writing responses should spend some time with geologists who know this debate. Pose testable hypotheses from your own work that could be falsified, and show how 150 years of research has generated oodles of testable hypotheses, and those hypotheses have been consistently borne out. Don't dismiss the geological questions, even though they're stupid.

Question 7 is fine. Another chance for education. Clarify that science is a process, not a compendium, and that a hole in a theory doesn't mean that some other theory is automatically true. If we win on the earlier questions, we win on this. If the others fall apart under us, this question will be icing for them. This is where they say “teach the controversy” so explain how scientific controversies work, and what a scientific controversy means. This is important. Misunderstandings about this undermine discussions of climate change, stem cells, and other areas where scientists have disagreements. Educate the public.

Question 8 is an opportunity. The creationists will focus on evolution, I suppose, and demand critical thinking. But if the scientists' essays are written as broad defenses of science as process, this is a chance to advocate teaching through experimentation and individual investigation. There are great opportunities here, and people should run with it.

Over all, my advice to writers is to always have a young earth creationist and an ID creationist in your mind, critiquing your answer. Don't respond directly to what they would say, but don't leave openings. If there's to be an opportunity for testimony, that's when you respond directly.

Write this for a general audience. If you don't do that often, have your brother the minister, or your sister the mechanic look over your essay. Then have an hour long conversation, and edit your essay to clarify misunderstandings they had. Then beg someone like Carl Zimmer to read your essay and make suggestions. I don't know if he'll do it, but he knows how to write for a general audience.

Look through the polling data and think about how to boost key numbers. This essay could be your most widely read work, and may be influential for decades. Take it as a tremendous opportunity to educate the public, not just in Kansas, but throughout the English speaking world.

That means staying away from specific examples. Use lists, but don't dwell on one example. That makes it sound like there's only one example. Say that you found 200 papers about 100 different species demonstrating whatever, and mention one or two really interesting cases.

Don't be afraid to be controversial, but be ready to defend yourself against a panel of three creationists.