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Friday, April 29, 2005

Science Oversold

All eyes have been on Kansas for the past few years, watching the fight between Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates on one side, and the mainstream scientific community (supporting evolution), on the other. An article from the Salt Lake Tribune describes the battle:
Classrooms ... have come under scrutiny - again - in Kansas' seesawing battle between left and right over the teaching of evolution.

The battle could heat up over the coming weeks, with Kansas' State Board of Education expected to revise its science standards in June.

In 1999, the board deleted most references to evolution in the standards, bringing international ridicule and wisecracks from the late-night comedians. Elections the next year made the board less conservative, resulting in the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn.

Last year's elections gave conservatives a majority again, 6-4. A subcommittee plans six days of hearings in May, and advocates of intelligent design plan to put nearly two dozen witnesses on the stand to critique evolution.

National and state science organizations plan to boycott the hearings, contending they are going to be rigged in favor of intelligent design.
I think that there are several very powerful emotional and conflicting issues here. First science has been oversold as being capable of explaining the Truth (with a capital 'T'). Evolution is a theory. I think that it is an excellent theory in that it logically and consistently provides a plausible explanation for the available empirical evidence. I look around at biological diversity in the world today and I say to myself, "yup, I could believe that evolution is responsible for part or all of it." What's important to understand is that I say "could believe" as opposed to "do believe". The reason I don't "believe" in evolution is that it isn't a belief system. It's a theory. There is no point in believing or having faith that evolution actually describes how the current biosphere came to be.

Instead of science being presented as "
the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena", it has been presented as a belief system. It has been presented almost as a pseudo-religious faith. Scientists have acted like high priests issuing edicts about what everybody should believe to be the Truth. This arrogance has really annoyed a lot of people and the battle over evolution in Kansas is the resulting backlash.

A second problem is that parents get really tired of others deciding what their children should be taught. I have absolutely no patience for outsiders coming in and telling me what my children should be taught. Fortunately, we've been able to enroll our children in schools that provide learning environments that we enthusiastically endorse. But I can certainly understand the feelings of the parents in Kansas if they don't want their children taught Evolution, at least from the "belief system" perspective.

I'm saddened by this, because Evolution is a powerful concept in computer science (called genetic algorithms). We use it in our work in robotics. Biological evolution is a nice, intuitive way to introduce the concept. Too bad it was oversold.

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