Saturday, June 13, 2009

Evolution2009: Eugenie Scott

I've made no secret of my disdain for the ongoing creation/evolution propaganda war. I find that both sides usually trivialize and oversimplify the opposition, so that they're fighting nonexistent straw men. So I wasn't terribly excited about listening to Eugenie Scott's talk tonight. Given what I've read of her work and the material coming out of the NCSE, I don't see any reason to modify my opinion of these particular promoters of anticreationist propaganda.

I was therefore a little humbled to find myself agreeing with much of what she said tonight. Truth be told, I nitpicked here and there, and I definitely disagree with her assessment of the culture in the US, but she made a lot of good points.

She began with a basic model of how science works that is almost identical to the one I presented at Calvin College several years ago. She distinguished between core concepts in science and frontier ideas. Core concepts are very well established and are not going to be dismissed without extraordinary advances in science. Frontier ideas are kind of lower-level theories that derive from the core concepts. These are the areas of disagreement and the mainstay of scientific activity. She also added a category that I did not: Fringe ideas. This is where she put things like ESP, Ingelligent design, etc. These are ideas that scientists "don't spend much time on." As she noted, though, ideas can move from fringe to frontier to core.

In the area of evolution, common ancestry is the core concept that isn't going anywhere, while the pattern (which tree is correct) and process (natural selection, drift, evo-devo) are frontier areas where disagreements can and do occur. But this is important: Just because there are debates about the frontiers does not mean the core concepts are vulnerable.

She also urged us to distinguish between science as a method for understanding the natural world and philosophical positions that might or might not be derived from science. She gave the example of Henry Morris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom have made strong philosophical or theological claims which they would like to tie to science. The atheism/theism debate should be separated from science, which according to Scott, is "too important" to involve in the culture wars. I can appreciate what she's trying to do, but I suspect that most folks (like me) would have a very, very hard time trying to tease apart a nontheistic science from their core beliefs about God.

Then she really came down hard on bad science journalism, citing the overhyped Ida. I agree. When we portray every piddly discovery as "radically altering our understanding of everything," we trivialize science and make the public believe that science is just a bunch of unreliable guesswork that changes radically all the time.

Just because I like to be difficult, I'm going to leave out the thing she said that creationists would quote from her talk. I will comment that I think reducing beliefs to just "opinions" is really not good. She almost made it sound like beliefs were a matter of taste, like my belief that onions are a foul, disgusting food source. Belief in God, however, involves a dimension of truth. There either is a God, or there is not. We may quibble about how we can find out about God's existence or nonexistence, but there really is a right answer. My opinion about onions, however, doesn't really have a right answer. It's just my opinion.

She closed with some examples of how to present evidence of evolution more accurately in ways that would address creationist misunderstandings of evolution.

She said a bunch of other things, but it's late and I'm going to bed.