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David Horton

David Horton

Posted: October 2, 2008 03:27 AM

Geology. Palinology.


Sarah Palin continues to behave like one of those old computer programs which simulated the appearance of being intelligent by partly repeating the question and randomly selecting additional material to apparently "respond" to any question the computer user asked. Wouldn't pass the Turing test, our Sarah, the pre-programming is too transparent for anyone to be misled into thinking there was intelligent life on the other side of the screen.

One notable example is her belief that creationism should be taught in schools:
"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. "Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both." "My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution," she said. "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' "Asked for her personal views on evolution, Palin said, "I believe we have a creator." In her response of course Palin has simply been programmed by her various pastors, but is also following the Republican Party of Alaska platform which says, in its section on education: "We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory."

Now there has been much outraged reaction to this, but all of it I have seen has been along the lines of the breech of the separation of church and state. I found an odd Palin supporter today, Debi Smith, who in an otherwise refreshing attack on Palin (for example on how she reconciles her religious beliefs with the invasion of Iraq) says "maybe there is such a thing as intelligent design AND evolution. And I might agree (though I haven't given it a ton of deliberation) that both evolution and creation could be taught. Why not? Why can't we show all sides, anyway? What exactly are we afraid of? A r-evolution of learning and ideas? Do we really need to compartmentalize learning, and our youth, by denying them the ability to debate the issue fully and openly (without undo influence or coercion from either camp)? And who knows, maybe by opening it all up, we'd evolve more quickly towards comprehending the grand theory of everything scientists are searching for (and which just might prove the existence of intelligent design and evolution)."

So this is an apparently more thoughtful version of Palin, and an appeal to reason and logic and fairness that has been the modus operandi of those evangelicals wanting to the creationism under the guise of "intelligent design". Who could argue eh? Let the two "theories" contend and let children make up their own minds ("without undo influence or coercion from either camp").

What nonsense, and based on a complete misunderstanding of how science works. Are Debi and Sarah proposing that we teach the geocentric theory of the solar system (or the universe) alongside the heliocentric one ("without undo influence or coercion from either camp")? Do medical students get taught about the humours as well as bacteria and viruses? Is witchcraft back on the agenda (um, well, yes, apparently)? Does spontaneous generation hold its own? Phlogiston? How about teaching psychology students about demonic possession (oh, hang on, Sarah would certainly want that one too)? Do genetic students learn about the role of blood in transmitting inheritance as well as DNA? Is there a place for crystal spheres. the homunculus in the sperm, the constant manufacture of blood by the liver, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the music of the spheres, unicorns? Does alchemy reappear in the chemistry class? Do Earth, Air, Fire and Water get equal time with the periodic table of elements? Do stones fall at different rates depending on their weight?

And the answer of course, is an emphatic NO. All of these topics (as well as creationism aka "intelligent design") are important in understanding the history of science. And that is all. They are dealt with early in a science course, as a means of understanding how we got from there to here, but the proposition that all of these once held, but now long discarded, beliefs would remain in any scheme of teaching ("without undo influence or coercion from either camp") is laughable. "Intelligent Design" isn't an equally tenable modern theory with evolution, it is the theory that was discarded as the reality of evolution was demonstrated. It is no different to any of the other discarded theories in the other sciences. Old theories don't run in some parallel universe where they remain equally valid, they are replaced, superceded, left behind.

And furthermore, while university students can happily deal with the idea that over the last few hundred years science has developed its understanding, we don't ask school children ("without undo influence or coercion from either camp") to decide for themselves whether alchemy is a valid approach to chemistry, or whether the Earth goes around the sun or vice versa, we simply teach them the facts. And if this is "coercion" from one side then so be it. Reality does have a coercive bias.

So next time you hear this innocent sounding, ever so reasonable, "teach both sides" proposition, whether from the intelligent Debi, or the not so much Sarah (did she really think her father had his own theories of evolution?), ask yourself where you would draw the line. Where would they draw the line? Either kids learn the results of the scientific understanding of the world, or we turn all schools into "madrassas", differing only in the brand of religion with which the students are being indoctrinated. And we head back to medieval times, the monks running the schools, needing a whole new scientific revolution to repeat history, and get us back to where we were before this religious insanity re-emerged in the late twentieth century.

Is the Watermelon Blog evolving or acquiring characteristics? A bit of both I think.

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