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January 18, 2005

Those Tricky Stickers

You know the ones I'm talking about:

Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living beings. This material should be studied with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

As a scientist I'm supposed to tow the party line on such things, holding these two sentences in about as much esteem as Leo X held the 95 Theses. But as a lover of freedom, I find myself quite unable to condemn them. In fact I could even see how one might call the lowly "evolution sticker" an essential political document for our time.

Let me explain.

I should start in a prosecutorial mode. First, the content of the sticker contains several grievous errors of the strictly scientific kind. Evolution is a theory and a fact, and it is most certainly not aimed at the origin of "living beings."
(Darwin's book, after all, was called The Origin of Species, not The Origin of Life.) Second, the sticker makes use of a common use of "theory" meaning "conjecture" as opposed to "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena". This definition, while valid outside the science classroom, could confuse students into thinking that what they're being taught is vain speculation. Third, the specificity of this warning to only evolution and not, say, botany or microbiology, has the effect of undermining it -- by way of an exhortation for careful and critical consideration. (Crafty creationists!) Simply put, students are going to be told falsehoods about the state of our knowledge so that their parents might be mollified and their favorite origin story vouchsafed.

Now for the response, which is chiefly a political defense rather than a scientific one:

"The fact of evolution" is on extremely solid ground. (It's actually in the ground.) But "the theory of evolution" is a patchwork of schemas including natural selection, sex, genetic drift, etc. which are still being hashed out, though nobody but the Discovery Institute thinks it's an impossible mission. If scientists are going to complain about students getting confused, they, too, should admit they were absent when the English teacher went over the principles of clear writing. Who thought it was a good idea to use the same term to denote both the data and the hypothesis? Did they grow up in a shadow world where Sherlock Holmes found a half-used cigar, a print in the mud, and a dog that didn't bark, and called them all "Moriarty"?

Speaking of which, what is meant by "evolution" anyway? Darwin's theory and subsequent improvements, yes, but beyond that, what should be taught? If it's abiogenesis as "the origin of life," then people should be critical, because there's not a bit of evidence for it except the trivial evidence: we're all here. Also, what shall we teach on the issue of teleology? Does evolution necessarily result in more complexity? Several generations of evolutionists (including co-discover A. R. Wallace, Teilhard de Chardin, and Dobzhansky) say yes, and they all agreed there was a very powerful reason (omnipotent, really) for that. But Dawkins, Dennett, and the other contemporary popularizers require "directionless" to be part of a truthful (read: orthodox) education in evolution -- and they drive the political discussion.

Let's be realistic here. Most of kids aren't paying attention anyway, because they're high school students. Those that listen are still statistically unlikely to become biologists, and the knowledge will do them little good in their careers. And only a miniscule number of them are going to be evolutionary biologists. But all of them will have some preconceived / received notion of how we got here. It's disingenuous to make evolution out as "theory", but it has to be equally disingenuous to pretend that 1) science has it all figured out, 2) religion is wrong, and 3) questions that come out of a critical discussion of these matters don't have a place in the science classroom.

Parents are the recipients of the fallout from this kind of "education," and they are almost univerally unprepared to give meaningful answers. They're just adults trying to give their children a good start in life, which, in the opinion of many, requires a moral training of some kind. Sure, they may be operating under all sorts of prejudices and misunderstandings about evolutionary theory and science in general. But they still have the vote, and I'm not about to tell citizens to shut up and take it, for they have the right to decide whether, and how, these things should be taught.

What did I mean about the sticker being an essential political document? That the variegated texture of truth doesn't fit very well in a centralized knowledge base, mandated by the public trust. Universal public education has the effect of making the law the arbiter of truth. Say you believe X, and I believe ~X. There is much evidence for X, many believe, and so you and they convince the government to begin teaching X for the sake of the public good. Does this make X more true? No. X's truth is not dependent on who believes it. If X is innocuous, then it makes little difference if I retain the right to demur. Say I even believe ~X for bad reasons. Are my reasons made worse by putting the force of the law behind X? No. Yet in the public sphere, it does. What if X were not innocuous, but rather something environmentally damaging, or crypto-fascist, or demogoguery?

What we decide about truth has consequences.

Posted by The Greatness at January 18, 2005 03:43 PM