Saturday, May 14, 2005


Hearings End - Board to Err Later

Hearings End with Whimper
Prediction: Board Will Err Later

Thankfully, interest in the effort to introduce "Intelligent Design" to Kansas high schools reached new lows as record numbers stayed away from the last day of hearings. The Kansas City Star reported fewer than 50 visitors came to watch the last day of the hearings conducted to present I.D. to the state board of education. Previous hearings had been packed.

The issue moves to the back pages until the board takes action later this summer. Observers would be very surprised if the board does not try to undermine the conventional view of evolution by including I.D. in the state science education standards.

After giving this matter serious thought, with sympathy for the I.D. folks, it appears obvious that nothing justifies attempting to introduce these ideas into children's science education. Moreover, the arguments against it have nothing to do with the relative merits of I.D. versus purely naturalistic evolution.

Politicians and school board members cannot redefine "science" any more than they can change the definition of "history" or "English" or "art." Those definitions remain in the hands of the practitioners.

Even though scientists may not recognize the communal nature of their enterprise, it becomes obvious after even just a little thought. Science is what scientists agree it is, nothing more and nothing less. Plainly, scientists do not accept I.D. Therefore, it should not be taught as science.

If I understand the thesis of I.D, it means statistical analysis of the same sort used in SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) can apply to the information contained in a genome. The same kind of test is used to detect a pattern indicating a non-natural source.

The idea appeals on several levels: if there is a creator God, we might expect to see traces of His hand in the natural world. Prima facie, it appears reasonable to apply the same mathematical model to the data. It sounds very data driven, empirical and scientific yet supportive of faith in God. It appears to bridge the gulf between faith and science. But, of course, the same math might not apply. Radio signals are not the same thing as DNA sequences.

Neither I nor the school board members are statisticians, geneticists or biologists. Therefore we lack the capacity to subject the I.D. thesis to the rigorous mathematical analysis which would be required to evaluate its merits. We lack the ability to perform experiments to confirm or refute the findings of I.D. (What testable hypothesis flows from I.D.?)

When confronted by matters beyond our expertise, we must rely on experts to aid the formation of a valid judgment. In the case at hand, not one single recognized expert; that is, not one biologist or geneticist, testified in favor of I.D.

If I.D. actually has merit, if it can hold its own in the marketplace of ideas, then it will win adherents among scientists. Eventually, it may supplant and complement existing ideas about evolution; or maybe not. As Thomas Kuhn and others showed, scientific revolutions do not happen overnight.

The Kansas State School Board cannot force a scientific revolution by fiat.

In the meantime, I.D. should be recognized as a theory without adherents in the science community, having no place in the science classroom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Weapons of Mass Consensus

With the explosion of blogging, opportunities for dialog and increased understanding are blooming. Enormous quantities of discourse and freely expressed ideas rise like a vast, bottomless sea, a virtual torrent of voices.

One hopes some order emerges from this chaos, some minimum mass consensus. With so many sources to choose from, web surfers pause only to scan sites that appeal.
Civility and respect for the opposition should be prerequisites the audience insists on; bloggers and authors who exhibit contempt for the opposition deserve no attention.

No opinion changes because of a distant yell from across the room; or even being called a "moron" face-to-face. Only human beings commit folly; human beings, frail but moral creatures capable of errant foolishness but also capable of nobility, and always deserving of respect.

Engagement changes beliefs; engagement creates the recognition of errors. Dialog, civil discourse and genuine respect for differing views is the only valid path to forging any consensus. Name-calling and insults only firm the opposition, validating the sense of "otherness."

As bloggers and authors, we must decide the goal of our works; do we preach to the already converted, or do we try to reach out? Do we write off the opposition or do we attempt to gain respect for our own side? Sadly, most serious blogs serve as platforms for simple moral outrage with no genuine attempt made to reach out to opposing viewpoints.

As a writer, it helps to imagine the conversation taking place between friends who disagree but remain pals. Before placing fingers on keypad, visualize a friend who shares your intellectual curiosity but not your ideas. The appropriate tone will follow.

Here in Kansas, the evolution/intelligent design blogs exemplify lack of mutual respect, each side showing an appalling lack of restraint. Each claim the other misrepresents their views. The piece that would appear to be of central importance, exactly and precisely what is intelligent design and what is specifically right or wrong with it, does not appear to be prominent anywhere.

Underneath much of the commentary lies an unstated assumption: we do not need to seriously analyze or examine the other view because we already know, a priori, they err.

After surfing the net for several hours, I still do not understand exactly and precisely what "intelligent design" is and consequently cannot evaluate its claims for myself. Rants and rhetoric published for mutual support and mutual edification of each side abounds, but thoughtful analysis appears scarce.

As web surfers, we choose where to rest our eyeballs. Let us develop and demonstrate a mass consensus, to wit, "We prefer to be spoken to as equals."

If we agree on that, then agreement on other issues may become possible.

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