Science Not Going Your Way? Redefine It.
The Kansas City Star
Rick Brattin has it all figured out.
Representative Brattin (R - District 55) has introduced a bill (HB 291) that would require Intelligent Design (aka, Creationism in a Lab Coat) to be given equal time with evolution in Missouri’s schools. Now, those of you keeping score at home might notice that this isn’t the first time this has come around. Indeed, only last year Brattin & co submitted pretty much the same bill, whereupon it sank without a trace. In fact, looking back, I can see variations of this bill going back at least as early as 2004, and that’s without even really digging. You’d think after the umpteenth-or-so time they’d let the idea lie and get on with the more vital concerns of the state, but where would be the fun in that?
According to the text of the bill, “If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught.” Intelligent Design, as Brattin himself notes, is inherently unproven and indeed unprovable by its very nature barring e.g., a voice from the clouds. While it may be admitted that there are some who hold to the idea, the same can be said of geocentrism and the hollow earth, and with about the same level of evidence. Put bluntly, it is unscientific. Science is the process by which we take what we know, apply it to what we can test, and see where the conclusion takes us. What we are talking about here, however, is starting with the desired conclusion and walking one’s way back from it, hand-picking supporting evidence as one goes along. This parody of the scientific process can be (and often has been) used by ideologues of many stripes to buttress up “scientific” support for their particular point of view. But in the end, it is manifestly not science, and as such has no place in a science curriculum. So what’s a politician to do?
Simple. Redefine science.
In the bill, Rep. Brattin has several, er, unique definitions of scientific terms which I can’t help but think wouldn’t quite pass muster in the science classes I took quite some years ago. Take hypothesis, for instance: he defines it as “…a scientific theory reflecting a minority of scientific opinion which may lack acceptance because it is a new idea … or is philosophically unpopular”. Well, no. First off, a hypothesis is not a theory. A hypothesis is what you get before you have a theory. It must answer a question or provide a solution, it must fit the evidence currently available, and, most important of all, it must be provable. If it cannot be empirically proven or disproven through the process of experimentation, then it doesn’t pass muster as a hypothesis. What you’ve got there is a hunch, or at best, a reckonin’. Trying to redefine it as if science were some sort of popularity contest flies in the face of the core ideas behind the scientific method.
Then there’s the bill’s take on scientific theories: “…an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy. The inferred explanation may be proven, mostly proven, partially proven, unproven or false.” Geez, where to begin? The first thing that leaps out is that last sentence there. A theory may be unproven? Seriously? If it’s unproven it can’t be a scientific theory. That’s rather the whole point of a theory, that it has been put through the wringer of experimentation again and again and come out the other side still standing. This is why Thermodynamics, Special Relativity and yes, Evolution are capital-T Theories. Scientists have spent decades throwing everything they can think of at them, and while from time to time a minor detail may be updated to reflect new information, the overall theories are still sound and solid. And as for theories having “faith-based philosophy” as a component, you’d think someone who is trying to dictate educational policy for the Show-Me State would be able to grasp the concept that merely having faith in something does not, scientifically speaking, cut the mustard.
Look. We know how this is going to go. There will be a big hubbub, the press will pick it up (and indeed they already have), everyone will have a good, long laugh at those crazy Missourians, and the bill will die a quiet, ignominious death. Again. The question is, how many more times? How much more time and taxpayer money will be wasted on vacuous, poorly-written showboat legislation that does nothing to help an educational system that just got ranked 41st in the country? How many more times will politicians attempt to slip propaganda in the back door of science? And when, please, are we going to get serious and give education the reforms it really needs: more teachers, better pay for teachers, smaller classes, and a demanding curriculum that will truly prepare the next generation of Missourians for the world they are going to enter. Every day we put it off, every bit of ludicrous legislation like this we have to stop and waste our time on, is only further damaging Missouri’s future.
It’s ironic that Rep. Brattin has a bone to pick with evolution, because right now it seems that our educational system—and the legislature that controls it—could stand more than a little evolving.