Which Controversy?

At the intersection of science and superstition

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

I found this sign to a popular attraction on a visit to Branson Missouri over the fourth of July,  and the juxtaposition of science and the supernatural struck me as emblematic of our times. It was only later when I got home that I noted the crazed clown stuck between seemingly confused as to which is which. The clown makes the picture perfect – just zany and paradoxical enough to print. [Click on the thumbnail to enlarge.]

Science is under attack in our country from several groups, from those who would twist it to their political purpose to those who would attack it through philosophy, to those who attack it through religion. More people in this country currently believe in astrology than plate tectonics, some people still come up with bizzarre conspiracies about how the moon landing was faked. From the superstitious luddite crowd in Greenpeace to the far right fundamentalist religious extremists they attempt to paint science and reason as the root of all evil.

It’s a love hate relationship however: these fringe groups are perfectly happy to adopt the authority of scientific facts when they think the facts fit their worldview, and ignore those facts which don’t – witness the 9/11 troofers use of pseudo-physics to support their arguments.

Neither politics nor religion belong in science, and contrary to the love of Euros for technocracy, science does not belong in politics. Science is what it is, and Plato was just as wrong  with his ideas regarding Philosopher Kings as he was with his ideas on eugenics.

The US is largely Christian, and the people who don’t believe the science behind evolution outnumber those who do. That doesn’t dismay me because to a large extent they are ok with only science and facts being taught in science class, and with religion being taught in homes, private schools, and churches. This apparent dichotomy is easy to fathom if you think on it – whose version of creation gets taught if religion gets into science class? Do we follow the Young earth creationist creed, or does cracking that door open allow Wiccan, Sharia, and other forms of creationism in?

The Discovery Institute however has mounted an attack on “materialistic science”, and their intent is to get the supernatural, the unfathomable, and unexplainable taught in schoolrooms as science. Even though they’ve met with defeat in numerous cases on divisive social issues like this, they continue to rally the troops and currently hold much greater sway with the religous right than their roots and their aims should allow for. They’ve even made a great deal of headway as not only is “their controversy” of ID taught in a quarter of Biology classes, in 12.5 percent intelligent design is taught over evolutionary biology.

In our country there just aren’t that many scientists, they make up about 2.4 percent of the population and aproximately 5 percent of the work force [pdf here]. If you pull the engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and computer scientists, etc, out then you get less than 1.2 percent of the population being scientists focused on evolution and peripherally related fields (see 1995 distribution here.) You can see why Discovery Institute thinks they have an easy target in this small minority of the population.

Their anti-materialist bumper sticker is “Teach the Controversy” which doesn’t tell us much about their true aims or goals, but essentially it boils down to making reason and reality subservient to the supernatural in the form of {their} religion. That’s all fine and good in church, in the mall, in private schools, or pretty much anywhere else but science class.

Indeed, in modern society science classrooms are one of the few bastions of reason and reality in our country. In other classes you will find deconstructionism rampant and every subject made political. The anti-materialism of Discovery Institute is a direct attack on the basis of all science. The Empiricism of the scientific method relies on facts from the physical world to build our knowledge through hypothesis and test; making science “non-material” and introducing theism or the supernatural is like taking all of the numbers out of math and replacing it with a single answer applicable to all problems.

Science generally erects barriers between politics, religion, and their studies, when they fail to do so they generally end up looking foolish. If you ask a few scientists off the record they’d probably be happy to tell you that Al Gore’s Malthusian nihilism and crisis mongering for MMGW is quite an embarrassment since he cloaks it in science although it’s obvious from “A Convenient Truth” that he is no scientist.

Discovery Institute’s 2006 defeat in the Kitzmiller case sent them on a new tack. We’ve seen them decrease their demands from teaching creationism in science class, to teaching it in guise of intelligent design in science class, to now “teaching the controversy” in science class. With advice from their PR firm they’ve also broadened that concept to include global warming, cloning, and stem cell research since they haven’t a large enough base to force their demands with crypto-creationism alone.

Think about that for a moment — there are plenty of controversies in Evolution, one only need to look at recent discussion and debate on sympatric speciation and the phylogenetic tree (or even if it should be a tree, or have roots,) to see that. So why have the Discovery Institute PR flacks made their latest bumpersticker about  “the controversy” instead of “the controversies?”

From their fruits ye shall know them; do men gather from thorns grapes? or from thistles figs?

The answer to which controversy becomes evident in most everything they say and do, and it’s displayed amply in their previous history of intellectual subterfuge and distraction. Johnson’s wedge document is one example of what they consider The Controversy to be, and their assault on scientific materialism has been as continuous as their assault on the faith of other Christians. We also know they have a lesson plan ready, and we know the faults of it before they introduce it to Louisiana.

 In his latest article Dembski whines that they are misunderstood while cavalierly dismissing yet another series of transitional fossils (normal fish to flatfish.) He then moves to slamming his former allies (the YECs)  because associations with them past the Dover decision dooms the cause.

As noted above there are now so many transitional species fossils that the classifications are becoming much harder to make — where do you draw the lines when you find species that exhibit characteristics of two superclasses?

When do you use pure cladistics, and when do you apply classic taxons? (for a primer about why cladistics are best now, go here,) When all is said and done the answers to those questions will be decided by the facts produced from more paleogeology, genetics research, and understanding of both earth’s and the animal kingdom’s history. The answers will be produced using empirical evidence. Introducing anti-materialistic supernatural means as the Discovery Institute wants to produces only one answer and therefor doesn’t extend our knowledge.

Discovery Institute is destructive to both the right and to Christianity – if you delve into the most divisive issues within the right this century you will detect their hand at play in most. The credence of their arguments has gone up in flames, but they persist in their determinism to deconstruct science, even as other institutions of faith distance themselves.

Over time science solves its controversies and then creates new ones as more evidence is found — it’s an evolution you see.

In the end a bit of good might come of this, I’ve seen more progress the past ten years in evolutionary biology than the previous 20, that’s due to several factors, but some of it is the desire to close the gaps that people point out.

More resources:

Little Green Footballs has several posts on the subject, you’ll see me in some of the discussions.

Here’s a Reason article on two of the main figures in the background of Discovery Institute, Rushdoony of Chalcedon, and H. Ahmanson. The vitriol, lies, blood libels, hysteria, and bile against reason and science seems to generate there first.

Here’s Talk Origins, an old usenet group that tends to counter most claims (warning: for the same reasons that some Christians promote their faith, you will find some rabid secularists there as well. Most of the posts however are reasoned with tons of reference links at the bottom to back up what they say.) The key claims of creationists, YEC’s, old earth Creationists, and ID proponents are countered there in numerous faq’s and references.

Here’s a history of constitutional challenges to Evolution and Religion in classrooms.

Here’s NCSE on the Louisiana Bill.

Here’s the Discovery Institute