Saturday, 17 March 2007

Toying with the Truth in Science - part 1

In my last post I reviewed the contents of the DVDs sent by TiS, at great expense, to every UK high school and college. This post will cover the letter sent with the DVDs.

The letter is addressed to the Head of Science and is signed by Andy McIntosh.

It starts benignly enough with the following;

New GCSE Specifications emphasise that students must understand how science works, to help them engage with and challenge the science they meet in everyday life. Students need to adopt a critical, questioning frame of mind, understanding how science impacts society and their lives.

Minor quibble - that last bit sounds a bit American to my ears - shouldn't that be ". . .impacts ON society. . .".

The next bit starts to stretch the truth a little;

To help staff at your school teach these topics . . .

Which topics? Ah - critical thinking and questioning - but wait for it . . .

. . . I have pleasure in enclosing free copies of the DVDs Unlocking the Mystery of Life and Where Does the Evidence Lead? These are classroom resources that outline a current scientific controversy over the origin of life and its diversity. They describe evidence for and against Darwin's theory of evolution, and a current alternative theory of Intelligent Design."

Here we go again. This is a variation on the cleverly implied claim on the TiS home page that evolution is a controversial science. Here we also have the conflation of Evolution theory with theories on the Origin of Life. Evolution theory makes no comment on the origin of life at all.

With regard to the diversity of life and evolution I covered this topic in an earlier post and demonstrated why evolution is not controversial at all by any reasonable person's measure of "controversy".

The issue of the origin of life is not scientifically controversial either, but rather interestingly, for almost exactly the opposite reason. Evolution has a ton of evidence from many different fields backing it up and is not controversial in that very, very few scientists don't accept it as fact (all of whom - surprise surprise - think the bible is absolutely and literally true).

Work on the origin of life has so far provided little evidence to back up any of half a dozen semi popular current hypothesis. No one seems to be claiming that they have any evidence that they know how life did actually start. Science so far has gotten no further than establishing when it happened, sometime between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago, and the fact that various "building blocks of life" can be easily generated by replicating conditions we think existed on the early earth. So this isn't controversial in the sense that no one has proposed anything at all as proven so there is not anything to disagree with and have a controversy about.

Half an hours web surfing has also failed to turn up any reference to the origin of life in any UK Science National Curricula so this appears to be a complete non-sequitur. (Please let me know if this is wrong - Mark)

Having watched the DVDs I strongly dispute the claim that they make that they show evidence for evolution - they have very little content at all. We do get some pretty shots of the wonderful wildlife of the Galapagos with comments such as; "variations in beak shape and size of the Galapagos finches provides evidence for evolution". We get no overview of the theory itself and the claims it actually makes to help us understand why different beak shape and sizes are good evidence and we get none of the other evidence for evolution which the National Curriculum covers.

In my view the filmmakers are deliberately setting up a particularly weak strawman version of the actual Theory of Evolution (ToE), to better enable them to cast doubt on it later on.

Finally in this paragraph of the letter they mention a "current alternative theory". The evidence we covered in an earlier post shows this be a simple lie - it is not accepted as an alternative in any sense of the word.

They also label Intelligent Design a "theory". In the scientific usage of the word, theory means an explanatory framework or idea which is backed up by lots of facts. In scientific talk, quite contrary to everyday usage, a theory is higher up the hierarchy of truth than a fact because it is in fact based on lots of facts.

In addition for a theory to be accepted as scientific it must be falsifiable; i.e. be capable of being proved false in some way. In other words it must be possible to make some observation or do some kind of experiment where the result proves that the theory is false. Evolution passes this test very easily and could be shown to be false in thousands of ways. E.g. a static fossil record, later forms of life fossilised out of developmental order men with dinosaurs, true chimeras, that is, organisms that combined parts from several different and diverse lineages (such as mermaids and centaurs) and which are not explained by lateral gene transfer, which transfers relatively small amounts of DNA between lineages, or symbiosis, where two whole organisms come together; a mechanism that would prevent mutations from accumulating; observations of organisms being created.

Intelligent Design fails this measure of science because you can always claim that your intelligent designer did it that way for reasons of their own which we don't or can't understand. In other words the idea that "god did it" can not be disproved at all by anything at all.

There was a famous court case in the US where the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classes was challenged. In the US it is against the constitution to teach religion. To defend themselves the ID side simply had to show that their claim that life was intelligently designed was science. After weeks of evidence they were dismissed as liars and pedlars of creationist propaganda.

I did an extensive blog entry on the judgement here if you want to read more about it.

To recap, we have seen misleading statements, outright lies and clever distortions of the truth and I have only covered the first two paragraphs in the letter - there are three more yet to come.

Comments welcome.

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