dangerous minds

(Yes, I live.)

It’s not often that I support creationists over the ACLU, but here we are!

The stickers read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

(Personally, I’d like to see that sort of sticker, especially the last sentence, plastered all over most textbooks.)

I don’t see how that sticker is offensive, or incorrect, or says anything that shouldn’t, in fact, be said in all respectable descriptions of evolution. (That it’s still news when new results to support the theory of macroevolution are found supports its status as theory, IMO. But then, I don’t think there’s anything foolish in making decisions on the basis of a “likely theory”, since I make very few decisions in my life on the basis of anything stronger.)

I don’t think that Creationism (or other alternative theories; I hear that Native Americans have some interesting ones) necessarily deserves “equal treatment”, but I would not object to some time spent discussing how other theories interpret the same evidence. If evolution is (as I certainly believe) the most likely of the theories to be correct, then such a presentation is to “evolution’s benefit”, no? There are certainly a lot of people in the scientific community making careers out of thinking critically about macroevolution, given the still-raging debate about how new structures and species can be “created” by evolutionary processes.

If the presenter has a bias against evolution, no curricular edict will prevent that scorn from colouring the students’ lessons. No point trying to solve that by outlawing stickers.

17 comments to “dangerous minds”

  1. Michael Power
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 12:06 pm

    I would not object to some time spent discussing how other theories interpret the same evidence.

    The issue is that there are no other theories that are based on science. So who should teach this non-scientific theory?

  2. starwed
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 12:40 pm

    To think of why the ACLU should oppose this, consider: why do the stickers mention only evolution? While what they state is true, and good advice in general, why is evolution singled out? It’s pretty clear that it’s because of the faith of those who oppose it, and from what I read in the article that’s the grounds of the lawsuit.

    Regarding the discussion of alternate theories, the root problem is that they’re just not playing by the same rules. It’s possible to subject the theory of evolution to scientific investigation and, perhaps, disprove it. It’s probably harder to test the predictions of evolution than those of general relativity, but it’s still possible. That can’t be said about creationism, and if a theory can’t be tested it’s not really a viable theory in a scientific context. To discuss it from a political/historical/sociological/theological point of view is fine, but creationism just doesn’t merit discussion in a class on biology.

  3. Jim D
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 12:51 pm

    What, pray tell, are you doing posting a blurb about Creationism vs Evolution to the Planet Mozilla blogs? This is supposed to be about Moz, Firefox, TBird and the others.

  4. Arthur
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 1:02 pm

    The theory of evolution goes something like this. Once upon a time something came out of nothing and bang, here we are. How anyone can even come close to believing such a ____ theory is beyond me. Look around you and see how complex life is. It cannot happen by chance.

    The only reason evolution is around in textbooks and in people’s mind is because you don’t want to be resposible to a God who created all things including you.

  5. entered 8 November 2004 @ 1:04 pm

    What does “based on science” mean? (Don’t make me pull Miriam into this!) Evolution interprets evidence like the fossil record, and makes predictions on the basis of that interpretation. There are lots of theories that do so, and have been many specific theories over the course of the development of modern evolutionary theory that were incorrect, though “based on science”.

    Comparing other theories’ abilities to reconcile available evidence, and predict other results, seems more useful than trying to define “based on science”. If a theory is unable to be disproven based on future evidence, then that should weigh heavily against it, and such a discussion sounds like something that should be at the core of a science curriculum.

    I don’t mind that evolution is singled out on evolution textbooks. I would rather see the ACLU suing to have that sticker added to other texts, myself, but that doesn’t make the substance of their case any less bothersome to me.

    Jim D: I’m posting about this on my personal blog, and I’m a member of the Mozilla community, so I guess that’s why it ends up there. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with p.m.o having non-tech postings on it, mine or others, but I won’t cry if I’m removed from it. Take it up with the p.m.o admins, I guess; certainly, the planet.gnome.org site which inspired the mozilla one has lots of non-GNOME stuff on it, and is more interesting for it.

    Arthur: I hope, for the sake of sport if nothing else, that other advocates of non-evolution theories of biodiversity and adaptation are better at it than you are. Free hint: evolution has nothing to say about the origin of the universe.

  6. entered 8 November 2004 @ 2:34 pm

    Very nice entry (and comments). I don’t mind this getting on p.m.o at all.


  7. modok
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 2:38 pm

    I guess I hope people realize that all scientific theories can be wrong (or perhaps not completely accurate). Putting a label on every theory in science seems like putting a heat warning on a cup of coffee. Don’t science teachers define theory in science class? Or do they now call it the law of evolution. Bah. Silly I say.

  8. entered 8 November 2004 @ 3:01 pm

    I agree that all textbooks should say “This textbook represents one (or more) interpretations of available evidence, and may be incomplete or incorrect. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

    But that applies to everything.

    Now the real question is, are the creationists allowing their holy books to have the following sticker placed on their covers? “This book contains material on creationism. Creationism is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

    Also, note that Evolution isn’t really a theory per se. It is an easily observable emergent phenomenon given an environment where individual subsystems have a defined life-span during which they can reproduce, where the chance of reproduction varies per subsystem, and where a subsystem’s characteristics are based on their parent’s (or parents’) characteristics. Evolution is no more a theory than the fact that adding two large numbers makes a number larger than adding two small numbers, given some basic rules in mathematics (i.e. given a particular environment).

    The theory that creationists really should be after is that life on earth originated from evolution after the chance creation of molecules capable of reproduction, as opposed to life-forms being placed on Earth intentionally, already in an advanced evolutionary state.

  9. graydon
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 3:30 pm

    evolution deals with a lot more than a fossil record. DNA doesn’t really fossilize very well. the majority of the work happens “hands on” with living organisms, or data derived from them, both relating the sequence data and breeding massive numbers of model organisms (with very short lifespans) to see how they work. the remaining controversies are about subtle details of the mathematical models used to reconstruct the genetic history, and the predictive capabilities you can derive from those models.

    the theory of how the changes occur, what they’re responsible for, how long they’ve been going on for, and how novelty spreads and is fixed are all very much accepted issues within the community of people who actually want to learn about these things. they’re all directly observable issues you can get going with a bucket of bacteria, mice, flies, small plants, or any mathematical models thereof. the evidence literally comes down to “are you believing what your eyes and brain are currently showing you?”

    the impression that there’s still debate over any of this stuff — “macro vs. micro” included, the whole idea of “species” is of increasingly little meaning to evolutionary scientists — is a carefully constructed “fictional debate” presented by creationists obsessed with the idea that evolution is a theory of absolute origins, which it’s not. it just covers how things have been changing since the beginning. imagine there was a full time, well funded industry dedicated to professionally shadowing, trolling, faking and lying about your organization. it’s like your usual microsoft FUD times a million. it’s really classy.

    evolution is a theory in the scientific sense of the word, meaning that it’s stood up to a hell of a lot of experimental abuse. this is not the same as the “speculative” sense of the word which might support native american folk tales or creationism: we have lots of experiments which directly contradict those speculations. textbooks which present them on even remotely even footing are doing a huge disservice to their readers.

  10. entered 8 November 2004 @ 3:33 pm

    (Glad you’re alive!) Sort of along the lines of this discussion, more years than you’ve been alive, shaver, I was lucky enough to attend what was, in retrospect, a rather progressive high school for the times. While there I attended an English class in which various creation myths were studied, one being the account in Genesis. Others were included, but the point was not missed that Genesis contains many of the attributes of creation myths in general. (No, I don’t recall what they were at the moment.) However, I have never heard any other myth described as a theory, which I think rather odd.

  11. Michael Power
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 3:40 pm


    Fair question – I threw “Based on science” out there and didn’t define what I meant. I meant that there aren’t any other theories that meet the following characteristics:

    1. consistent with pre-existing theory to the extent that the pre-existing theory was experimentally verified, though it will often show pre-existing theory to be wrong in an exact sense,
    2. supported by many strands of evidence rather than a single foundation, ensuring that it probably is a good approximation if not totally correct,
    3. survived many critical real world tests that could have proven it false,
    4. makes predictions that might someday be used to disprove the theory, and
    5. the best known explanation, in the sense of Occam’s Razor, of the infinite variety of alternative explanations for the same data.

    (stolen from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory#Characteristics )

  12. timo
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 3:55 pm

    While I agree with a theoretical “Marketplace of Ideas” that allows students to examine all the available theories and come to their own conclusions introspecitively and objectively based on the evidence, these are kids we’re talking about.

    And though many of the people reading this blog may have been able to see that evolution was self-evident, especially in comparison to so-called creationism, not all kids are.

    We’re putting a huge burdon when we ask 12 or 15 year olds to think as rationally as 25 year olds. (Not that all 25 year olds think perfectly rationally, or that no 15 year olds are critical thinkers, of course).

    It’s basic developmental psychology. The mind isn’t even fully developed until much later. We have to keep that in mind when deciding on curricula.

    As thought-fascist as it sounds, information can be dangerous when the student receiving it isn’t mentally (hell, physically) prepared to hear it.

    Nice discussion though.

  13. Adam
    entered 8 November 2004 @ 4:13 pm

    Maybe we could just put those same stickers on all the bibles sold. We could just replace evolution with “god.” We’d all be even then.

  14. Miriam
    entered 9 November 2004 @ 1:15 pm

    Well, since Shaver mentioned me in his reply, I guess I better get involved.

    The problem, IMHO, is that neither the defenders nor the critics of evolution have much of an understanding of how science works. With all due respect to Wikipedia, there is no historical (or philosophical or sociological or any) evidence that science has (or should ever have) worked as described in that entry. I’m sure no one wants me to get into all the arguments here, but I would recommend The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (by Kuhn) or perhaps The Golem: What You Should Know About Science (by Collins and Pinch) as accessible starting points.

    Belief in evolution is being used as a stand-in or symbol of belief in science in general, rationality, modernity etc. The problem with this is that when evolutionary science changes, creationists are going to use it as “evidence” (if you will) that scientists were always wrong. I don’t think any particular bit of science should be treated as Gospel Truth, but for this reason it’s especially dangerous in the case of evolution.

    That said, I had the educational but unpleasant experience of teaching some bits of evolution in San Diego. There were quite a few creationists in this (university) class, who often handed in assignments filled with quotations from the Bible. The problem with these creationists was not that they thought evolution was a theory but rather that they thought scientists were stupid devils who just casually made stuff up to cause trouble. For these students, I wasn’t so much worried that they didn’t have a sophisticated understanding of how science works. I was much more worried that they were so cynical about scientists’ effort and intentions and so thoroughly closed to any rational discussion of their ideas.

  15. Auntie Linda
    entered 9 November 2004 @ 5:37 pm

    “Spirit comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occassion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound souce of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the pesence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Gandhi or M.L.King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

    Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

  16. Michael Power
    entered 9 November 2004 @ 7:21 pm

    Thank you for all the insightful comments, Miriam.

    So let me ask – how do you tell someone that what they are doing has no basis in science?

    I can see why quoting any particular criteria (which may need to be revised later) might be troublesome – thank you for pointing that out to me. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that there must be a way to discount the crackpot theories that creationists come up with. How do you counter intelligent design when they are not relying on common facts, direct observations, evidence, or reasonable predictions – and in fact, they go out of their way to ignore them?

    The danger, of course, is that if you don’t say something, other people will come along and incorrectly assume that the creationist are right – because nobody is talking in public about anything to the contrary. Of course, that would make ID proponets happy because it fits right into “Phase II – Publicity & Opinion-making” of their Wedge Strategy.

  17. pH7
    entered 12 November 2004 @ 6:01 pm

    “Bible is a story, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”