Monday, August 07, 2006

One of these things…, or the post-modernist right

Neal McCluskey and Matt Yglesias have been going back and forth about the upshot of the victory of science in last week's election. McCluskey, of the libertarian and right-leaning Cato Institute, argued that the creationism wars can be won by having everyone agree to disagree:
Thankfully, there is a way to end this death match, but it will require that both combatants do something that so far they’ve seemed unwilling to consider. Rather than exchanging blows in perpetuity, they could agree to let each other have what they want. They could cease forcing all people to support a single system of government-created and government-run schools, and implement school choice, giving parents control over their children’s education by letting them pick schools that share their values.
He also sets up an awkward framing, one that will be more clearly discussed later, in saying "Kansas children, parents, and other citizens … [are] fighting because they have to. They all have to support one system of public education, and they all, rightfully, want their beliefs and morals respected." I'm not sure how I'd express the dispute, nor would I treat the dispute as comparable to a prize fight.

Matt Yglesias points out that parents might have choice, but children still would not have some sort of liberty, and also argues:
The other angle is that thinking about these kind of cases tends to undermine the argument that voucherization would generate dramatic improvements in school quality. Introducing voucherization would mean that (at least in areas with dense enough populations to support robust competition) that customer satisfaction would go way up. But what many customers (i.e., parents) want, as we see here, is to make their kids' education quite bad.
McCluskey replies to the first argument:
Yglesias argues that whether it’s parents or government that decides what children will be taught, kids will have no choice in the matter. The question to him, then, is “who is likely to teach most children the right stuff?” If it’s government, then there’s no need for choice.

That sounds reasonable enough. That is, until you consider how incredibly hard it often is to know, and to get people to agree on, what constitutes “the right stuff.” Creationists, after all, are just as sure that they are right about Darwin as evolutionists think themselves to be.

Of course, in education, Darwin is just the beginning: Is phonics-based instruction the right or wrong way to teach reading? Should American history be taught in a “traditional” way that focuses on the nation’s great achievements, or is it right to focus on the country’s flaws? What amount of time should students spend studying fine art instead of, say, physics? Is it wrong for a student newspaper to run an article critical of the school’s principal?
As the title says, one of these things is not like the other. The third paragraph discusses styles of teaching. Phonics works for some kids, not for others. Some students would benefit more from an emphasis on physics others from a focus on art. Some schools allow greater latitude for in school disputes, some less. Even in the American history case, the same content is being covered.

Those aren't analogous to offering a biology class, an earth science class, and an astronomy class in one school and a creationism class in the other. If one school offered an American History course in which America and the Constitution were actually established by Jesus in 2004, and nothing existed anywhere before then, that would be the rough equivalent of teaching creationism, while a course that discusses what happened in 1776, and in the 17th century, the Civil War, the World Wars, Manifest Destiny, the rise of America as a world power, etc. would be equivalent to a proper biology class.

How many people would sign up for the first history class? None, because no one wants their kids lied to. And teaching creationism as science is a lie. Not just because it's a lie to say that there's no evidence for common descent. Because creationism is an unscientific approach. Scientists don't come into a problem insisting that they already know the answer, and forcing evidence into that framework. That's apologetics, it's creationism, and it isn't science.

Creationism is a faith, and as such cannot be falsified. An omnipotent God certainly could have created the universe last Thursday with the semblance of billions of years of history and could have created life's modern diversity and the fossil evidence to be exactly what it would look like if evolution happened. That claim is, by its nature, untestable and unfalsifiable. Invoking that mechanism is unfalsifiable and unscientific.

It's true, as McCluskey claims, that creationists are fighting about their beliefs and morals. The problem is that science class isn't where you teach beliefs and it isn't Sunday school. Moral teachings can and should come up in every class, but the metaphysics of morals don't belong on the syllabus. And that's what creationists want to discuss.

When McCluskey says "Creationists, after all, are just as sure that they are right about Darwin as evolutionists think themselves to be," I suppose he may be right. The difference is that, in a science class, what I am sure about doesn't matter nearly as much as why I'm sure. Creationists are sure because they have had a personal revelation. God, they insist, has assured them that they are right. This is, as I said earlier, unfalsifiable. Even if it were true, it still wouldn't be science. That God gave them a revelation cannot be verified, and since other people seem to have had very different revelations, we can all be a bit skeptical about the claim.

Evolution is based on a set of hypotheses about the natural world. We can test these hypotheses. If we find that the hypotheses produce bogus predictions, we have to get new hypotheses. That's science. Evolution has produced countless hypotheses and they have been found to produce accurate predictions time and time again.

Here's one simple example. Most mammals can synthesize vitamin C, and they use the same set of genes to do it. Evolution and common descent allow us to predict that, while humans are known not to produce vitamin C (you've heard of scurvy, right?) humans ought to still have the genes in some non-functional form. And given that we know what genes are close to the vitamin C genes in other mammals, we know where it ought to be. And that's where we find the non-functional vitamin C genes in humans. We can then make some predictions. We know that the primates in general share a lot of adaptations to frugivory (eating fruit). Color vision, tree-climbing, etc. all help locate and get to ripe fruit in primates from Africa to the Pacific and the Americas. Fruit is high in vitamin C (again, consider scurvy). Frugivorous species that can't synthesize vitamin C will be unharmed, and since it's possible to OD on vitamin C, might even be better off. This would suggest that humans shouldn't be the only primates who can't synthesize vitamin C.

When we test that prediction, we find that many primates also have a defective gene. The same gene is there, and it is non-functional because of similar mutations. Lemurs and tarsiers, groups that are considered less closely related to humans and other apes for independent reasons, have an active vitamin C gene. Old World monkeys, New World monkeys, gibbons and apes all lack a functional vitamin C gene. This all is consistent with predictions you'd make from common descent. That's science. It isn't that God couldn't have done the same thing, it's that you couldn't predict that this set of phenomena would happen based on creationism. It isn't science.

The problem with this, compared to arguments over phonics, is that the two sides are talking about different things. Science advocates want science to be taught as science. Non-science is all well and good, but should not be taught in science class. Creationists want their theology and morality promoted in school. Science class is a convenient vector for transmitting their faith, and they would rather pervert it for that purpose than let science be science.