Evolution and Indoctrination

Many have blogged about the recent New York Times pieces on evolution and science education (see, among others, Science & Religion Today, A Blog Around the Clock, Thoughts in a Haystack and Antiquitopia). I was rather dismayed by Jim West’s depiction of it as about “indoctrination” into evolutionary thinking.

I cannot be too critical, since I was once a loudmouth on the young-earth creationist bandwagon. I’ve addressed this subject countless times before on this blog. But let me address the issue on this occasion in terms that I think Jim will appreciate.

Is it “indoctrination” if we teach the history of the Holocaust and do not give equal time to the deniers of the Holocaust?

Is it indoctrination if we teach astronomy and make no mention of astrology?

Is it indoctrination if we teach the heliocentric view of the solar system without giving equal time to geocentrists?

Asking for equal time for “alternatives” to evolution is in exactly the same category. It is asking that a point of view with nothing but questions and complaints to offer be treated as the equal of a scientific field of research that has been remarkably productive and consistently confirmed by all sorts of evidence not available when the theory was first formulated. The media makes much of being “fair” in trying to always hear another side of the story, and there is something indeed laudable about checking to see if there is an opposing viewpoint. Too many of us forget to do that, and forget too often. But not every opposing viewpoint has merit, and the reason we have education standards is to ensure that educators do not waste time on nonsense to the detriment of things that are truly important, valuable, and (ultimately) true.

Jim knows that many would criticize mainstream Biblical studies, where we reach conclusions that some do not like, and there are plenty of fundamentalists around who will accuse us of being indoctrinated into a liberal approach, rather than having reached conclusions because of compelling evidence persuading us to reach conclusions we ourselves did not initially find appealing or even palatable. I hope Jim will investigate the subject of evolution with the same critical eye he often applies to historical and Biblical studies.

To relieve the stress this subject often causes, I offer this cartoon from PTET (and apologize for the language, but it was too amusing not to share it):

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  • ptet

    It’s not my cartoon – I picked it up from Spacefish on B3ta. Apologies from the language too. My excuse is that I am Scottish and swearing is part of my culture.

  • I think I may have just peed myself a little bit. Thank you for that cartoon!

  • I wanted to give credit to the source that drew it to my attention. I presumed that anyone interested in determining where it ultimately came from would keep clicking links until they ran out! :)If you liked this one, you may also like the “poster” in my latest post (which, like this one, is not mine).

  • The more I read responses that are anti-evolution the more I am befuddled how the evidence that produced the theory is ignored! Suddenly Francis Collins is somehow an incompetent scientist? Huh?Wouldn’t it be easier if we remove creatio ex nihilo from the picture since that is not the actual theological intent of Genesis? I think that would solve some problems here. But that would probably be sticking to the actually Genesis text too closely.

  • Thanks Drew for those very good points, and thanks to you and others who linked back here.I’ve followed up a little here, and someone who needs to hear the points you made Drew has left a couple of comments (making the same claims I would have back before I actually learned some of the basic things about biology I ought to have known before promoting a particular viewpoint).

  • James,Looney posted to my blog as well.I’m just not convinced he understands the problem which is step one to coming up with a correct answer.You have to arbitrarily ignore the obvious here and that is the issue that prevents that line of assertion from ringing true.

  • Bless you

  • I replied to Jim.

  • If Jim has moderated my comment, he didn’t publ;ish it. So I repeat it here:Excuse me doctor, your frame is showing: that the theory of evolution is a doctrine, and therefore teaching this theory is indoctrination.Indoctrination is a loaded word in the scientific community, so in claiming this, when you construct this frame, you attack those who teach evolution. Defensiveness is a natural response to an attack. However, it is a fallacy to infer that a defensive posture when attacked implies the attack is well-founded. You cannot infer that evolution is a doctrine.Science and the scientific method have evolved over centuries. The latin root of the word means knowledge: ‘scientes’ means ‘the knowing ones’, and a scientist could be defined as ‘one who furthers and develops knowing’. This kind of knowing is well-understood. It is altogether different in kind from faith-based knowing: it is based in observation, refutation, generalization, demonstration, verification, falsification, thinking, and imagination. It is about developing a conceptual model of reality which holds up well when compared with our observations of the world, and predicting what observations we might yet make. If a theory does not make (falsifiable) predictions, it’s unlikely to have a long life.It is an observable fact that scientific knowledge and the framework in which it develops have evolved over the centuries, even when we did not know that this was happening. The theories of phlogiston, the flat earth, the humorous basis of emotion and health, geocentrism and many other theories have been cast aside because they do not stand up to observation, and better theories have replaced them. Creationism and a ‘young earth’ are such theories: they do not stand up to comparison with reality, and better theories are available.Evolution, for example: it stands up well to observation, and is useful in explaining what we see in all sorts of unexpected fields, from the history of ideas to the fine structure of the brain. At the same time, the counterexamples and counterarguments I’ve seen proposed are frequently comical. Dole-cultivated ‘perfect’ banana, anyone?The anti-evolutionist creed clings desperately for survival. It can only survive in an environment where independent inquiry, critical thinking, and scientific progress are absent. When I look around me, the world is shaped by the fantastic products of science and engineering. Some of these might have come about without the scientific method, but many would not.In my view, there is an important place in human society for the spiritual experience. It has inspired many remarkable accomplishments; but when a member of the religious community sets up to attack a useful and productive scientific concept by calling it a doctrine, it is difficult not to see the attacker as closed-minded, and willfully destructive.I think I have answered your question – to my satisfaction, at least. So in turn I ask you:What alternative world view do you propose to the ‘doctrine of Evolution’ that is not rooted in doctrine?

  • anwaya: The answer to your riddle of “What alternative world view do you propose to the ‘doctrine of Evolution’ that is not rooted in doctrine?” is solved by correcting the error of your assertion that evolution, or even science itself, are points of doctrine.Evolution, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are not themselves matters of doctrine. Rather, they are inferences from other points of doctrine. The key point of doctrine (and the one that solves your riddle) is the one additional philosophical assumption that moves one from Mathematics to Science: loosely put, “Evidence relates to Reality“.Teaching any form of science at the elementary level is an attempt to indoctrinate this point, not the nominal subject that roots in this axiomatic concept. Science also rests on the doctrinal foundations of mathematics; presently, the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms and assertion of their self-consistency. Science and math both in turn rest on the foundations of Logic; Wolfram’s Axiom being the most concise expression, albeit not humanly comprehensible so far as I can tell. Using a more formal expression of “Evidence relates to Reality” (EG: the Effective Strong Church-Turing Universe Thesis, via the equivalence of unrestricted Chomsky Grammars to languages recognized by halting Church-Turing machines), the formal mathematics of the relationship can be derived. For the math, see the papers “Minimum Message Length and Kolmogorov Complexity”, by C. S. Wallace and D. L. Dowe, and “Minimum Description Length Induction, Bayesianism and Kolmogorov Complexity”, by Paul M. B. Vitányi and Ming Li.

  • abb3w – I think you’ve missed the point of my post. The riddle was directed to Jim West in response to his blog entry If It’s Not A Doctrine, Why Are People So Defensive?Perhaps you should read Jim first and then my comment in full. I think it will make more sense to you.

  • As a novice in the scientific community who has developed a great cynicism about most people of Christian faith, (at least the ones who are usually linked from science blogs), this post is heartening to see. Thank you. A little bit of my faith in humankind has been restored.To Anwaya: if you’ll excuse a little irony, may I simply say, Amen.

  • Hey Aeryn,you’re welcome.The banana-based ‘proof’ of god as architect of creation is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGMuIyBK5P4Note that there is no mention of the influence of agricultural selection on the shape, weight, color, and shelf-life of bananas. Of course, Agriculture is a very human process: and a friar, Gregor Mendel, performed the crucial experiment which not only laid down the foundations of genetics, but made that ‘perfect banana’ possible.

  • I would just like to echo others’ sentiments that it is incredibly refreshing to see someone from the scholarly side of religion speaking in such plain and eloquent language as to exactly why we scientists accept evolution as scientific fact*Great job!P.S. That is one hilarious cartoon. Though, I’m not really sure that “Bastards” qualifies as bad language. Maybe slightly off-color, but barely :)*while also acknowledging the inherent philosophical tentativeness of any such “fact”.

  • It is truly excellent to find a religious person that other religious people look up to expounding on the truth that religion and science are NOT mutually exclusive. The cartoon you cite is perfect.I am a spiritual person who does not subscribe to any particular organized religion, although if asked, I am Jewish. I was raised in that religion, but I am also a skeptic, scientist, and an engineer (among many other things) who seeks to understand how things work.I espouse the idea that science describes reality we can see, touch, and feel. It does not address faith, per se. Scientists need to have faith, which comes in many different forms: faith that the course of action and experimentation being pursued is correct (until proven otherwise through observation and testing), faith in other scientists, and, maybe faith in a Designer.Why is it so hard for both many scientists and many religious people to believe (faith-wise) that what science observes is a puzzle God has left us to find. To state it even less offensively (if anyone sees it that way), isn’t that possible? We don’t have to prove it, because, to date, we have no real evidence God exists. What many people have is FAITH that God exists. Just because something we observe is complex, maybe more so than we can explain at this point in time, is not PROOF of God’s existence.There are many stories written about how significantly advanced technology appears as magic, or “proof” of God’s existence to someone, only to find out that the “someone” is from a less advanced culture, to whom a cigarette lighter, for example, is magic.Why do we have to fight about this? Do so many people just need to be “right” (not right-winged, just correct)? If so, I challenge those people to step away from being right and look at the possibilities. You might be “right”, but you can never prove it to someone else who doesn’t see it your way. However, you can be accepting of other things being right that don’t impact your definition.Why is it necessary to believe that what science discovers and puts forward as scientific theory (something proven through observation that is held to be true until proved otherwise) is diametrically opposed to there being a Creator? Conversely, why is the fact that there is no observable evidence of God’s existence so threatening to science?I’d love to see everyone stop fighting and work together to solve the many riddles of our universe. What things we could learn if we did!

  • Anonymous

    Barber: “Faith” is intentionally believing in something you know is false. “Trust” is what scientists do. The deliberate conflation of “faith” and “trust” is just part of the deception and delusion of folks who choose not to use their minds. Religion is entirely artificial. Notice that reality impinges on the whole universe: stars, plants, oceans, and animals all experience gravity, for example. Only humans experience the delusion of religion. It’s one of the little oddities that cropped up in our brains during the last few hundred thousand years. The lies and delusions of any religion must be inculcated into new victims each generation. [I’m posting as anonymous only because I just dropped in here following a link. Don’t know the spam policies of this site.]

  • Thanks for the comments! Anonymous, you can post anonymously if you are comfortable with that, but there is a reasonable chance you may be confused with other people also known as “anonymous”.As for faith as “believing something you know isn’t true”, I doubt that definition fits what most people who use the term mean by it, whether they view faith as an asset or a liability.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Indeed. Faith is much better defined as belief, in the absence of evidence.In order to know your belief is false, you must have evidence. To continue to profess belief would not be faith, just being perverse or possibly deceptive.In the absence of evidence for any god, the simplest and therefore best answer is not taking it on faith that it exists.How can someone argue for the existence of one god and against all the others. There is equal evidence for every one ever invented. None.

  • Anwaya: on reading, it looks like I’m objecting to your continuing a mistaken assumption implicit to the original point. I’ve wandered over to the original post to kvetch there.I still grumpily insist that the error is in the mis-identification of what the point of doctrine is that is ultimately at hand here: that Evidence is the product of Reality.Oh, and as for anonymous, I would suggest “faith” is not believing something that is known to be false, but for a primary assumed proposition so fundamental as to preclude “proof” with reference to anything more basic.

  • abb3w: my post is in opposition to Jim’s maxim that the theory of evolution is a doctrine. Perhaps you are not familiar with the notion of a frame, which is a rhetorical device for changing the focus of a debate by changing the language.For example, in contemporary US political discourse, the ‘Estate Tax’ has become the ‘Death Tax’, and ‘Undocumented Aliens’ are now referred to as ‘Illegal Immigrants’.These changes in language reframe the debates in ways that pre-disposes the discussion to take a particular form and reach particular conclusions. In this case, framing evolution as a doctrine rather than a falsifiable theory would put it on a par with actual doctrines, such as the immaculate conception, or the trinity.Another example of an attempt to reframe is ‘Intelligent Design’. On its face, ID is supposed not to be the same as creationism, but the frame quickly draws you towards the notion that there’s an intelligent designer working on a very large scale, producing – creating – that which is meant to be intelligently designed.So I assure you, I am not mis-identifying evolution as a doctrine; I am identifying ‘evolution is a doctrine’ as an attempt to re-frame, and then saying the framing is invalid, and doesn’t work.

  • Ah; I’m not so much objecting to it as a reframing tactic, as simply an inaccurate frame, which I consider more important.That “Evidence relates to Reality” is indeed a point of doctrine in Science. Attacking evolution requires an attack on the doctrine allowing the inference; since everything in science is inference via this rule (and the other points inherited from math), the vehemence of the reaction becomes both understandable and justified.Furthermore, since the attackers are unwilling to admit they are attacking this point, they’re despicably dishonest to boot.With ‘Estate Tax’/’Death Tax’ and ‘Undocumented Aliens’/’Illegal Immigrants’, since I consider the terminology to be equally (in)accurate on either side, I’m less bothered by the frame switch. A better (if more flame-prone) example might be in the case of abortion rights, where the question is not where between blastocyst and baby is the line of “human”, but where is the line of “person”… and the “elephantine” can of worms that may open.Contrariwise, I object to “Intelligent Design” as being ignorant of basic engineering design principles. To wit, Technological design is itself an evolutionary process of competitive selection of variations; see historian George Basalla’s book The Evolution of Technology for elucidation. The fundamental difference between blind evolution and deliberate design is the latter has a specific element of purpose (or “agency” in philosophy jargon). ID does not have any explicit evidence to support a claim of purpose, or even at present explicit purpose to claim. As such, it’s insufficiently tied to evidence to even qualify as a hypothesis.Reframing a debate can be a legitimate tactic of debate, but only if the frame remains accurate, or becomes more so.

  • abb3w: I do not agree that “Evidence relates to Reality” is a doctrine, for a number of reasons:1. By comparison with actual doctrines. I don’t see that it has anything in common.2. It is the nature of Evidence that it must be related to something: that which is evidenced. To what does all Evidence relate, if not Reality?3. If “Evidence as a related entity” is a purely linguistic construct, or is some other entity that negates that Evidence stands in relation to any thing whatsoever, then all such can be said to be so; and all relations, up to and including existence, disappear in the same puff of logic. If there is no thing, not even nothing, then all games are over (and can never have started in the first place).So I think “Evidence relates to Reality” is an honest-to-goodness, a priori, fact. If you ain’t got that, you got nuttin’.

  • Anya: what you have without "Evidence" is pure mathematical arithmetic and formal logic; maybe a bit less, depending on where you want to be in the Chomsky Grammar hierarchy.But yes, I'm aware of the exact amount of difficulty with rejecting it. Evidence is indeed the fundamental metric by which we measure "fact", as a direct result of this relation. Without that assumption, everything besides mathematics has the foundation for all belief yanked out from under it. Nonetheless, it is an assumption and point of doctrine, and at least notionally possible to reject. The best known example philosophy which does so is solipsism.The alternative to this "Doctrine" is some manner of relating to Reality by evidence-independent Faith alone. Of course, Godel's work shows you have to take some point of Faith as a start, precluding lifting yourself by your own notional bootstraps. This in turn leaves no independent metric for discerning between multiple self-consistent alternative doctrines of faith — including the idea of "Evidence is related to Reality" hanging out in the wings where it was left. That such nonsense makes for philosophically uninteresting, silly propositions reminiscent of being psychotic (like solipsism) doesn't mean the positions don't exist. It just means those who stick to one are uninteresting, silly….As for comparison to doctrines, checking the dictionary it would seem to be "a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief" (to wit, science), and even "a definite authoritative tenet"… if only because finding the means to question it is rather difficult. Not impossible, as stage magicians routinely demonstrate. However, that gets to the formal mathematical expression of the relationship. That relationship is where the real difficulty lies; specifically, by "related" you need to indicate it is a finite connection via a finite set of relationship types, and therefore subject to inference. This, however, is necessary for any inference to be possible at all; without it, you're again back to having only incomparable Faiths.And that is why I have no problem conceding that "Evidence is related to Reality" is a point of doctrine; yes, it arguably is one. I see no constitutional difficulty: courts have relied on this for even longer than they have any scripture. I have problem asserting it and insisting that it should be taught… because what is being taught in English, Social Studies, Science, and so on already rests on it implicitly. To question it, you have to come up with a better answer for "How can we know anything about anything?"If someone can give one, I'll listen. I've asked a few times. So far, all I've heard is blubbering.

  • abb3w: I don’t think Godel’s paper On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems means what you think it means. Sorry. Its subject matter is mathematics and metamathematics, not physics and metaphysics. Reality is not a system of axioms.