Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Lawrence Krauss in Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence Krauss, physics professor and author of numerous books, kicked off the KU Center for Science Education's lecture series last night. The title was "Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education and the Emperor's New Clothes."

He began by pointing out that he'd rather be talking about his own field, cosmology and fundamental physics, but science as an institution is under attack, so he was back in Lawrence, once again discussing the history of creationism. He last spoke here in 1999, when things were not so different.

He closed with the point that "Only when we are willing to accept the universe for what it is, without myth or fear or prejudice, can we hope to build a truly just society." The fight over evolution, he argued, is a straw man. Evolution isn't the problem that people have, they have a problem with the scientific method.

He compared two quotations from Bush administrations to illustrate the point. Bush père, backing the concept that scientific consensus should be free to develop, and used as an unbiased basis for policy, said:
Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now, more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.
Scott McLellan, on behalf of Bush fils, took a different view:
This administration looks at the facts, and reviews the best available science based on what's right for the American people.
What a difference a few years makes. Instead of talking about science as a free process which should be accepted as consensus, the administration will pick the parts of science that they like. This, needless to say, is not the scientific method as it is practiced.

Much of the material he covered will be familiar to regular readers or followers of the creationism battles. He looked at the disregard for archaeology demonstrated by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Tom Delay's comments on how teaching that humans "evolutionized" caused Columbine, and ID. Throw in some creationist cartoons in which evolution is seen attacking the base of Christianity, and you can see where the idea of an attack on science comes from. He also surveyed the history of creationism's evolution, surprising at least one audience member by how long after Scopes evolution could still be banned from classrooms.

Speaking of ID, he said it was "not just bad science, but bad theology to imply that it is better to remain ignorant." To this extent, the ID movement is "just like the Taliban." While the philosophical questions raised by IDolators might be interesting (Krauss started to call them interesting, then took it back), philosophical questions don't justify altering the teaching of science. He dismissed ID's framing of the argument in terms of open mindedness, honesty or fairness as "a crock." IDolators are close-minded, dishonest and unfair. He proceeded to show that there is no controversy in science, how ID is skipping over the part of science where a research program has to yield results and a scientific consensus before it gets into textbooks, and finished by saying that "Science is not fair."

That, he said, is science's greatest legacy, that bad ideas are tossed out and good ideas stay. It isn't fair, but it is true, which is probably better. Surveys show that half of the public doesn't know that the earth orbits the sun once per year, but we don't and shouldn't teach that controversy in science classes. Is it unfair? Sure. So what? "The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance."

One issue that emerged in the Kansas Kangaroo court last spring was the claim that evolution is a historical science. He quoted John Bacon (who will face Harry McDonald in this summer's primary, and Don Weiss will face the winner of that race):
I can't understand what they are squealing about. Millions or billions of years ago, I wasn't around - and neither were they.
Krauss responded that "all science is historical science." There's no principled difference between studying the fossil relics of evolution or the fossil photons emerging from the sun after bouncing around within it for a million years.

The attacks on evolution are attacks on the scientific method, a method which lets us understand gravity, produce vaccines, and understand historical events like the Holocaust. The fight isn't about evolution, it's about science, and people's misplaced fear that science undermines morality. The attacks on science are based on fear, and "fear is dangerous for any democracy." Krauss called for not just scientists, but fans of science, to go out and talk about science with their friends, colleagues and people in supermarkets. "Once the fear goes away, the learning can begin."