TRUE BELIEVERS

It seems some leading lights of the anti-God, pro-evolution have become ensnared by an “op” of the intelligent design brotherhood. The NYT reports today the film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” is a scree made to support ID and issues of academic freedom. Presumably the academic freedom is not free enough to allow non-scientific viewpoints in biology departments.

The article has lots of juicy tidbits about the nonsensical view of IDers, yet, at the same time, I think being entrapped in this movie serves Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott and other A-listers, right. They should have conducted a bit more peer review, as it were.

Anyway, from the article we learn:

(Narrator Ben Stein) He said he also believed the theory of evolution leads to racism and ultimately genocide, an idea common among creationist thinkers. If it were up to him, he said, the film would be called “From Darwin to Hitler.”

…an intellectually bereft idea just on the face of it.

(Producer Ruloff) He said he knew researchers, whom he would not name, who had studied cellular mechanisms and made findings “riddled with metaphysical implications” and suggestive of an intelligent designer. But they are afraid to report them, he said.

We know, at least could guess, that the niggling metaphysical implication is an instance of foundational methodological naturalism or its defeat. If it’s the former, it is–yet another–example of misunderstanding what the pragmatic predicates are to scientific research, and, if it’s the latter, it’s probably an example of a leap to an unsupported supposition.

Meanwhile, Mike the Mad Biologist has served up a response to a two year old article of Matt Yglesias. Yglesias wrote 9/21:

Last but not least, nothing whatsoever of practical importance hinges on whether or not life on earth originated as a result of intelligent design. The theory is exceedingly silly pseudo-science, but it doesn’t actually threaten anything. There is, moreoever, no reason to think it’s especially crucial for the average citizen to have an accurate grasp of state-of-the-art biological theory.

Whether your axe to grind is the infiltration of nonsense/non-science or creationism concealed under the cloak of Intelligent Design into science classes, both are significant threats to education.

However, Mad Mike offers a set of off target reasons in support of taking the threat of bad biology education seriously. They are, with one exception, themselves ridiculous.

A basic understanding of evolution is important for all people, not just scientists. Here’s one example: antibiotic resistance. The evolution of antibiotic resistance is a problem we can all address, only if we understand how the use of antibiotics selects-as in natural selection-for antibiotic resistant genotypes. I don’t expect people to be able to derive the neutral theory, but this we all must understand.

In tests of practical knowledge, it is found that most adults can’t pinpoint Paris on a globe. The sketch of evolution given in a high school class is where most people’s exposure to and knowledge of biology will come to an end. Mike doesn’t explain why his example is so pregnant. How the basic development of scientific knowledge unfolds amongst the laity, so-to-speak, seems beyond him. Most people will go through life knowing little of science or Paris. That’s not good but hoping tons of people to know about antibiotic resistance is hoping for way too much.

This is about education, not just politics. My experience has been that students who are exposed to evolutionary biology in high school (and are taught it well) have a much easier time grasping the harder material in college.

This is a straw man. Well-educated students obtain critical thinking tools able to serve their advancement through college and eventual subject area specialization. But the harder material points in the direction of the suggestion that high school biology is a most excellent preparation for college biology. Of course it is and there can’t be any advancement toward mastery of biology without sure-footed understanding of the basics of evolution. Doh. I don’t think there is any risk of dumbing down medical education for reasons Mike is apparently unaware of.

Evolutionary biology is very different in that the basic foundation is theoretical (not the case studies and examples). Unlike math, it’s a very different way of thinking because there is a strong historical component as well as a good deal of math. For example, there are very few high school courses where one implicitly or explicitly has to compare Aristotlean typological thought with Darwin’s population based approach. That’s good for your brain.

Bearing down on particulars here constitutes another straw man; not the best argument. One can study, as I did in prep school decades ago, biology and not engage the history of biology at all. Mike has a definite curriculum in mind! Yet is apparent that his view is better posed more generally: good science education helps build cognitive advantages. Doh! Ironically, I have long been aware of the weak philosophizing scientists do when they don’t know much about the philosophy of science. They don’t need to know anything about this philosophy to be able to do scientific work. When I read insipid elevation of biology’s difference as a discipline, I am reminded of this common shortfall.

Anyone who says that the religious right won’t try to target evolution is simply demonstrating a sorry lack of imagination

Yglesias’s primary assumption is that the battle between science and creationism (etc.,) exists but that it is irrelevant. He’s wrong of course but Mike seems to have worked himself up here.

The idea that a basic understanding of the world around us shouldn’t belong to the ‘little people’ is utterly arrogant. Say what you will about us eggheads, at least we think everyone potentially can understand what we’re talking about.

Mike could have, done some homework before making his anti-science capper. Not everybody can understand biology, and the constraints on understanding are well-studied in the field of cognitive psychology, and in studies about variations in cognitive ability. Oddly, Mike spends a lot of time arguing for a salutary very advanced understanding, and then ends with irrational generalizing about everybody’s potential.

This strikes me as a sideshow. If how science works is taught first, the charlantry on the fringes only can survive among fellow irrational travelers. I sympathize with Mad Mike but he drills down beyond where the real action takes place: explaining what science is and how it is conducted.

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