Monday, September 26, 2005

Covering Dover thoughtfully

New Analyses Bolster Central Tenets of Evolution Theory:
Evolution's repeated power to predict the unexpected goes a long way toward explaining why so many scientists and others are practically apoplectic over the recent decision by a Pennsylvania school board to treat evolution as an unproven hypothesis, on par with "alternative" explanations such as Intelligent Design (ID), the proposition that life as we know it could not have arisen without the helping hand of some mysterious intelligent force.

Today, in a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pa., a federal judge will begin to hear a case that asks whether ID or other alternative explanations deserve to be taught in a biology class. But the plaintiffs, who are parents opposed to teaching ID as science, will do more than merely argue that those alternatives are weaker than the theory of evolution.

They will make the case -- plain to most scientists but poorly understood by many others -- that these alternatives are not scientific theories at all.
As many others have noticed, Weiss and Brown do an excellent job setting up their coverage of the Dover creationism trial. Rather than treating it as a local issue, what does parent A want, what does teacher N want, how does board member X justify her actions, the reporters look at what scientists do and ask whether IDC can offer a reasonable match to the accomplishments of evolutionary biology.

The answer is "no," but that's an aspect of the story which is rarely adequately reported. The social debate covers a lot of ground, but the actual content of the science is not the question people spend much time on.

There are a couple reasons for that. To scientists, it's obvious that IDC offers nothing but sophistry. Journalists either see it the same way, or don't have time to get into the details, and prefer to listen to what people are ready to ask them about.

One great thing the Post reporters do is they ask IDolators for specific, testable hypotheses. The only one that anyone puts forward is that "junk DNA" will have some use. Compare that to the specific hypotheses evolutionary biologists make in the same article, and you see the difference. Thinking to ask that question is a sign that these reporters understand that the issue at hand is not whether ID is of interest or whether God exists, but whether IDC is science.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think IDC ought to be presented in schools. I think every student should have a required course in philosophy and/or world religions. In that context, IDC would still run into serious problems (it's just as pitiful as an attempt at theology as it is as a simulacrum of science), but the students would be given the background to discuss the philosophical merits of IDC as a science and as a metaphysical assertion.

But that's not what we do in science class. Last week, my college level science lab discussed osmosis and diffusion. Next week we'll look at fermentation and the week before was all about acidity. That's not a discussion of "what is science?" There are other places for that.

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