He said…What?

September 12, 2008

Reading through today’s headline over at the National Secular Society, there’s a few headlines all dealing with one question: Creationism.  The Times, in particular, issues the headline, “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools“.  Later, over at the BBC, was the headline, “Call for creationism in science“.  A Times editorial on “Unintelligent design“, an Independent article stating, “One in 10 pupils believes in creationism“. A bizarre analysis, again from the Times stating, “You need to understand your opponents’ argument“.  What’s with the sudden interest in creationsim?

Well, it all leads to one thing: a scientist – the Prof./Rev. Michael Reiss – is saying that creationism should be taught in schools.  And not just any scientist: Scientist, ordained minister, and member of the Royal Society.  We are in very muddy territory indeed if a member of the Royal Society – and a biologist at that – is endorsing creationism.  The Times actually went further, proclaiming that:

Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.

If this is true, then we really are in deep do-do.  The position of the Royal Society, when it was last embroiled in this farce of a “controversy”, was categorically that creationism is not science.  Have they suddenly performed an about face?

Well. No.

What the Prof./Rev. actually wrote can be found here, and this appears to be the crux of his argument:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

Now, if I’m reading this correctly, he’s not saying, “side must be set aside to discuss creationism in the science classroom”, he’s instead saying, “if a child asks, or mentions, creationism, the correct response is not to say, ‘we can’t discuss that at all’, but to say, ‘okay, defend that statement'”.  And I think he’s right.  Especially as he goes on to clarify:

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationsim or intelligent design observe equal time.

He’s not saying, in any way, shape or form, that either intelligent design or creationism are valid scientfic viewpoints, or represent any form of challenge to evolution. Rather he’s saying, “let’s show how science works“.  Simply hand-waving and dismissing the idea does not teach children anything: instead, he’s saying, show them how there pre-conceptions differ from the way science works. And he’s right: this is hardly novel. Take physics as an example.

Almost all of modern physics is counter-intuitive, yet it is by far the best description of the world we see.  We are taught in schools that two objects of different weights – a feather and a lead weight, say – when dropped in a vacum will drop at the same rate.  This runs counter to our every-day observation that the lead weight will fall faster.  Similarly, we are taught that an object at motion will remain in motion unless a force is appled against it.  But if you roll a ball along a straight plane, it will eventually stop – the physical truth runs counter to normal experience.  It has to be explained that the discrepency is air-resistence.  In many respects, it could be argued that if a person has not experienced the “huh?” moment when newtonian physics is explained to them then they probably haven’t understood the implications, and probably never felt the, “Oh!” feeling of exaltation when they finally do get it.  I regularly meet people who, even in adult-hood, still don’t understand that an object in orbit, whilst aparently weightless, is not mass-less, and make eroneous assumptions based on this.

Evolution is the same.  Evolution – just like modern physics, and all good science – is overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and is overwhemingly backed by predictive power, but is overwhelmingly counter-intuitive.  Humans and apes share a common ancestor.  And, in fact, we’ve got common ancestors with every mammal.  Huh?  On the face of it, it makes no sense. Yet it is absolutely true.  The kids coming into the classrooms to be fed these apparently nonsensical viewpoints may well believe that humanity was created, because they have no other frame of reference.  They haven’t learnt what science is.  Surely nothing could be better for the teaching of evolution – and the teaching of science in general – than to point out why creationism isn’t scientific, and why intelligent design isn’t scientific.  All this guy is saying is, “teach kids critical thinking”. Otherwise, all you’re doing is teaching them a bunch of facts they don’t understand, and can never connect to their own lives.

And he’s appropriately cautious too:

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said.

I’m deeply dissapointed that an honest assesment of how to explain evolution in the classroom is distorted and grossly misrepresented by the media in an attempt to garner a few newspaper sales.  I can imagine the glee with which creationists, on both sides of the pond, will look at these headlines and shout, “See!  Even the Royal Society agree with us”, when they, most profoundly, do not.


We’re dangerous

April 7, 2008

Atheists are dangerous. Even more dangerous than secularism. We are this evil:

It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! 

The philosophy of totalitarianism is taught in almost every school in the Western world, the philosophies of Stalin, Mao and Hitler are taught in most schools, and children will most certainly come across them.  Children are – or should be – familiar with Hitler’s odious “final solution”. The philosophy of Islamic fundamentalism has, in recent years, been frequently on the front pages of newspapers, and headline news. But all this is small fry.

Atheism is dangerous. It is insidious. It will kill your wife, place porn on your computer and e-mail it to your neighbors. Its mere existence will cause a collapse in space-time and tune your television to hard-core porn. It will turn your cat in to a dog, and your dog in to a spitting cobra.  It will change you in to a lemming, and force you to jump off of a cliff – even though lemmings don’t actually do this. It is also a strange shade of mauve.

It is so dangerous, that even knowing that it exists will destroy everything.  Even being aware of the existence of atheists will corrupt the youth, and destroy civilization.

You have been warned.

Yours, the Evil Atheist Conspiracy.


April 1, 2008

While I remember, the Carnival of the Godless #88 is up at the Atheist FAQ.

On agnosticism and atheism: opening a can of worms

March 27, 2008

Yesterday, I received a reply to a post, which raised the old question of agnosticism vs atheism (and, by extension, vs. theism). I replied briefly, but I feel that the question should receive a better airing.

Science *doesn’t* object to belief in a deity – although, I suspect, most people, on the basis of moral fortitude would find that organisng a belief in a manner to turn a profit highly objectionable!

This is perfectly almost true. Science doesn’t object to a a person holding a belief in a deity, but science most certainly does object if that belief is bought to the table of scientific enquiry as an explanation. But one thing is certain, the process of scientific enquiry has left the gods of the various religions known to man with vanishingly few places to hide. The question can reasonably raised then; where did these god beliefs come from, and why are they wholly inconsistent about what we now know of natural law?

This question sets the scene.

Science simply finds no basis for argument, in belief, either way. Belief, in a paranormal sense, is based on the existence of God (or a god, or a spiritual world (etc etc), whichever you prefer) and there are *no* grounds for a rational argument in either direction. [my emphasis]

This argument is simply untrue, but like a game of whack-a-mole, nevertheless frequently comes up to be hit on the rhetorical head. It is essentially a re-wording of the statement, “because science – or the scientific method – cannot search everywhere and ultimately disprove the god hypothesis, science cannot disprove the existence of god, therefore god’s existence is as equally likely as its non-existence”. However, this is not how science works, and it is not how rational enquiry works.

Science works on evidence, this much is true. However it emphatically does not work on the basis that a hypothesis should be considered valid until evidence invalidates it. It works in the other direction, on the basis of the null hypothesis: a hypothesis is considered invalid until sufficient evidence is provided to support that hypothesis. That hypothesis, however, does not then suddenly become an insurmountable fact, it is simply a more reasonable hypothesis than it was when the investigation began. As more evidence comes in, it may support or refute that original hypothesis, which may lead to it changing over time to more accurately reflect observations, or it may be discarded.

The existence of a supernatural realm can – and should – be approached in a similar fashion. The supernatural is simply a hypothesis in search of evidence. The question then is simply, what evidence exists for the existence of a supernatural realm? The answer, of course, is none whatsoever. People have claimed to have supernatural powers – whether it’s telekinesis, or mind reading (whether that mind is the mind of another animal, or the mind of the gods), but when those claims are examined they are found wanting.

Now it should be noted that the lack of evidence for the existence of something is not evidence that it doesn’t exist, this much is self-evident: there was no evidence for the existence of planets other than the five classical (naked-eye) planet before the invention of the telescope, but nevertheless they were there. However, the argument at hand is not, “does the supernatural realm definitely not exist”, but, “does science or rational enquiry have a rational basis for stating it almost certainly does not exist”

If you lived before Gallileo’s time and someone had told you that there were not, in fact, five planets but nine eight, it would be perfectly rational to disbelieve them. As it happens you would be factually wrong, but your position would still be rational. This is a problem which is often overlooked; being rational – being properly skeptical – is no guarantee of being right, and the honest skeptic acknowledges this, it is simply saying that a proposition requires evidence before it should be seriously considered, and then should only be considered seriously in light of the strength of the evidence. The rationalist – the skeptic – is, or should be, prepared to change their position in the light of new evidence.

So back to the question of the supernatural. In the absence of sufficient – or sufficiently compelling – evidence it is perfectly rational to state that the likelihood is that there is no supernatural realm. This an entirely reasonable and defensible position. It may be that the theists or supernaturalists are correct, but they lack the evidence to support their hypothesis. Which brings us on to the last bit:

Agnosticism, I think is the word; but I’m sure that as an atheist you’d find that a little too ’sitting on the fence’ for your liking.

I don’t like the agnostic position for the reasons outlined above: in the face of an overwhelming lack of evidence for the existence of the supernatural, I do not find it a reasonable position as it is usually defined. I have to be careful here because, just as atheism is often misrepresented, so to do agnostics hold a wide array of positions. If by agnosticism it is meant, “The supernatural is as equally likely to be true as it is to be false”, I think it ignores the lack of evidence, and is simply sitting on the fence for no good reason.

If, however, it means, “The supernatural is highly unlikely to exist, but we can’t prove it doesn’t”, it appears to me to be saying, “although there is no evidence for X, I don’t want to right it off completely”. I can’t work in that framework. If I concede that this is a good way of reasoning for the supernatural, then why not anything else? Why should this be considered a reasonable perspective? If this is a reasonable perspective to have on the supernatural, then why not other claims with no evidence? But worse, I don’t even think this is an interesting proposition.

I may be wrong about the supernatural. I, of course, based on the overwhelming lack of evidence, don’t think I am. However, my position has been arrived at rationally. Provide me with sufficient evidence for the existence of the supernatural, and I will readily change my position. But remember the saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. So it had better be good.