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Friday, August 19, 2005 CE

The Evolution Wars: Where are we heading in education?

This is a topic which is extremely interesting and at the same time depressing. It is interesting because it addresses one of the most important questions that man has ever formulated, the one that inquires about our origin. It is depressing because we have witnessed the rise of non-scientific viewpoints regarding a topic that should be analyzed in the most rigorous scientific way. For the past months, here in the United States, there has been an advance of creationism in its new form: Intelligent Design (ID). Will ID be taught in the schools of the future?

Educating children and adolescents is probably the most important duty of adult people of a society. A well-educated human being is usually able to succeed in life based on carrying a sufficient amount of knowledge and having a solid moral behavior. It is clear that the knowledge that a person receives has to be the most current and that the morals that a person is taught have to be basically oriented to promote altruism and avoid disrespect for other people and elements of nature, essentially a human rights and pro-environmental approach.

Almost 100% of the knowledge gathered by humanity has been collected by science, either by empirical (in the antiquity) or more rigorous ways (presently). Many of the conclusions found in the past have been improved, changed or discarded based on more modern methods of measuring variables. As time passes, it is clear that the conclusions that scientists obtain explain the phenomena of the world and provide us with tools for newer technologies that let us solve previously unresolved questions or problems. The scientific method, defined as: a systematic approach of observation, hypothesis formation, hypothesis testing and hypothesis evaluation that forms the basis for modern science, is the basis for knowledge gathering. It has to be as unbiased as possible in order to be certain that the conclusions obtained will not be either challenged or modified in the future.

In the other hand, religion is a cultural phenomenon. It varies between societies. Some believe on one god, others believe in multiple. There are thousands of ways in which human beings communicate with their gods. Even within societies, individuals have their own approaches that differ amongst them. Some people choose not to have a god. Religion provides peace of mind, a hope for an afterlife, psychological support in hard times, however it does not provide knowledge. Even if the supernatural exists, it cannot be studied because it would be, by definition, outside nature. If it cannot be studied it cannot be taught in formal school educational programs.

Today, we are witnessing an attempt of religious conservatism to introduce the notion that an intelligent being had to be responsible for the design of life forms in our planet. This idea provides them a platform to introduce the study of religion in schools and to discredit hundreds of years of scientific knowledge gathering. As it was said before, beliefs are entirely personal, they should be taught at a personal or family level. The thrust is so strong that already in the most conservative regions of the United States politicians are trying to modify what is taught in schools. The current amount of knowledge makes impossible what 200 years ago was possible, which was the teaching planet Earth and its life forms was created in 6 days or that our creation occurred 4000 years ago. Scientists will never prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being. That is not its role. As it was said before, the supernatural cannot be studied. However, ID has not gone through the rigorousness of the scientific method. Therefore, it cannot be called scientific.

The response of the scientific community to this issue has been dual. Although it recognizes the non-scientific origin of ID, it has not done much marketing of those concepts. This is why we are getting increasing amounts of advocates of ID preaching their ideas and gaining space among politicians. The reasons for this lack of response are understandable. ID advocates are trying to introduce the idea that there is a debate in the scientific community with respect to this subject. By not talking, scientists are showing that there is no debate among them. No biology, molecular biology or biochemistry school will ever debate something that is non-scientific. In order to be unbiased, according to the scientific method, we should not let a personal belief alter the results of our research. In other words, if someone believes a supernatural being, that belief should not alter the conclusions of the experiments. The problem with this approach is that a poorly educated society, which did not receive all the pieces of information since childhood is at risk of accepting ID as a scientific “option” if taught in schools. There would not be any problem if ID were left as a matter of personal belief. This is why it would be satisfying to see scientists emerging from their universities, institutes and museums and attempting to educate the people through the mass media.

Are we going to finally teach religion in schools? Are we going to succumb to the conservatives who find hard to tolerate the notion that life evolved from simple, primitive forms to the complex structures seen nowadays? Are we going to discredit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? (Theory is defined as: a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena). The answer lies in 2 pillars. First, our ability to differentiate knowledge from belief, science from religion, natural from supernatural and, second, in the will of our scientists to surface up and to educate us all.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Educating young pupils about scientific controversies and arguments assists students in understanding the essence of science. Contrary to the nerdy stereotype that portrays scientists as data-collecting robots, scientists argue about how best to decipher proof and present testamonies after careful analysis to see if it "holds water". Students who learn the arguments for and against a theory are learning how science works. Teaching current scientific arguments about a theory also gives students an understanding of the status of a theory. --Venus

2:42 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Venus:

Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with showing arguments for and against theories. However, there are 2 things that we have to keep in mind:

First, the definition of theory is as follows: "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena". In the scientific world, evolution has acquired the level of theory. There are pieces of information that have not been found, however, the theory predicts them with a high degree of certainty.

Second, ID is no science. It emerged from the desire of people who wish to see other people believing in a creator. It does not follow the scientific method which is: "a systematic approach of observation, hypothesis formation, hypothesis testing and hypothesis evaluation that forms the basis for modern science". The believers in ID think in this way: "We believe in a creator, so we will prove it using the information we have". A scientist with think in this way: "Null hypothesis = No god, alternative hypothesis = god, we will gather the information we have and reject the alternative hypothesis, accept it, or determine inconclusiveness" A god is, by definition, a supernatural being, so science will never prove its existence or its non-existence. Being ID a non-scientific approach, it should not be taught in science classes.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Marco, Hi, it's me Venus again. Thank-you for commenting on my response. I totally understand where you are coming from when you say that ID is not science. But I must again emphasize the point that students who learn the arguments for and against a theory are learning the mechanics of science. I'd like to also direct you to this interesting link from The American Academy of Family Physicians in regard to faith, science, and medicine. Please read, and tell me what you think as I'm sure you'll respond with great enthusiasm! Your #1 Multisententiae Fan, Venus
http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000201/tips/13.html

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science and religion are not enemies, but rather allies--two different languages telling the same story, a story of symetry and balance. "True science discovers God waiting behind every door" -Pope Pius XII -Z

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s.: "Z" stands for Zira

7:54 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Thanks Venus and Zira

ID can be taught, however, it should not be presented as science.

Science and religion are 2 disciplines that are entirely different from the base. The scientific method disregards faith (which is essential to religion) as a tool to acquire knowledge. Religion disregards science, because it destroys the the supersticious nature which is the source of its power. The fact that a pope tried to reconcile them does not reconcile them. Science and religion, if they do not touch each other, could coexist.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WHEN WILL STUBBORN SCIENTISTS REALIZE THAT "YOU CAN'T HAVE ART WITHOUT AN ARTIST"?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

The goal of science is to describe and understand nature. If there is an artist or not remains a personal belief. By the way, many scientists believe there is or was an artist.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I lean towards the Intelligent Design theory myself, and have done for several years. I'm not particularly religious, and I happen to think of myself as an evolutionist rather than a creationist as such.

You refer to ID as the new form of creationism. Is it not also simply a different take on evolution?

In terms of scientific testing of hyopthesis, evolution is also untested- the hypothesis (which I believe) is simply a judgement based on studying the evidence which is around today, and there can be no definitive answer. Similarly, ID is arrived at by looking at evidence around (including evolution itself) and recognizing systemic patterns. It can be arrived at no less scientifically than evolutionary theory. That's not to say it's mega-scientific, just that each of them are around the middle of the scale. That is why evolution is a faith- for some it does seem to produce the zealotry of a religion, does it not?

Furthermore when you say any god cannot be proven because it's supernatural, isn't that rather counter-intuitive? Supernatural really describes something science has not yet pinned down. It's quite a big cop-out to simply write things off that we don't know as un-knoweable.
I find your blog refreshingly intellectual by the way- keep it up.
Mark http://nomatterwhoyouvotefor.myblogsite.com

10:24 AM  
Blogger Doctor Marco said...

Thanks for your comment.

As I said in my post, there is a conceptual mistake in the people who "choose" between evolution and ID. They are two different things. It is perfectly possible to understand the fact of the changes in forms of life throughout the eons and at the same time believe that a supernatural being designed it. We should not teach kids in public schools beliefs of certain groups of people.

ID is not a different take on evolution. The key to understand this is that it involves a creator, an intelligent being so smart that can govern the random mutations that occur in the genetic codes of the living species. This creator has to be above the laws of nature, id est, being supernatural or a god.

Your third paragraph makes reference to the concepts of theory and hypothesis. A theory, as defined in the scientific world is a "well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena". The atomic theory is also a theory. Nobody has seen an atom, however, the evidence of its existence is enough to accept its existence and to continue to explore and understand the world (and to destroy it). The fossil evidence is enough to tell you that the species that existed 10 million years ago are different than the ones that exist today and to the ones that existed 60 million years ago. The sequential positioning of the fossil evidence will tell you that there is variability that leads to the creation of new species. Furthermore, the DNA evidence has enabled the biologists to create evolutionary trees.

In order to "understand a god" one must use faith. Faith is a very personal feeling, respectable, but something that not all people have.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Nik Saunders said...

I love debates on science and religion! This topic reminds me of "Inherit the Wind", starring Spencer Tracy - a must see.

It amazes me that in some places in America, schools are still not allowed to teach evolutionary theory. It's another case of religion hindering progress; if we are to get closer to the truth about our origins, then we must teach future generations our best current theory - Darwin's theory of evolution.

8:38 PM  

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