Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas Board of Education, has an op-ed in the Austin American Statesman demonstrating perfectly both his ignorance of evolution and why all this talk of “strengths and weaknesses” is nothing more than a ruse to bring creationist arguments into science classrooms. First he shows his ignorance of the philosophy of science:

The first step is to define science in a way that is satisfactory to both sides. Using new wording from the National Academy of Sciences, Texas’ standards define science as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon as well as the knowledge generated through this process.”

This definition replaces the academy’s 1999 language that was very controversial; it stated that science was “to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena.” The change from “natural explanations” to “testable explanations” is very significant. The old definition was inferior in that it undermined both the philosophy of the naturalist and the supernaturalist. By circular reasoning, the naturalist was prevented from using science to prove that “nature is all there is,” and the supernaturalist was prevented from offering supernatural hypotheses. With the new definition, both the naturalist and the supernaturalist are free to make “testable” explanations. The debate can now shift from “Is it science?” to “Is it testable?”

But of course, supernatural explanations are, by definition, not testable in this dispute. The theory of evolution makes all sorts of risky predictions, patterns and observations that must be true if common descent is true. No such predictions can be made if you begin from the assumption that a supernatural force created everything on earth. No pattern of appearance can be predicted from that premise because the supernatural force could have chosen to create in any manner whatsoever. The supernatural explanation can explain any set of data, while evolution can only explain a very limited set of data. That’s precisely what makes one testable and the other untestable.

He then shows the world that when he says “scientific strengths and weaknesses” what he really means is creationist quote mining:

The next step in resolving this controversy is simply to use the scientific method to weigh in on the issue of evolution. Consider the fossil record. What do we actually observe? What are the data?

Stephen Jay Gould stated: “The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. [This is called ‘stasis.’] These species appear … without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants.”

“…but stasis is data…”

Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: “The student is expected to analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.

And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and “stasis is data.”

I submit to you that there are only two possible reasons why McLeroy would make such an argument: he is either an ignoramus or a liar. Or both. No one who actually understands evolution and Gould’s claims regarding stasis would argue that the patterns of stasis and punctuation found in the fossil record are in conflict with evolutionary theory. Gould himself did not make any such claim, nor could he have.

This is a Rorschach argument. Once offered, it tells you all you need to know about the person making it. It tells you that you are dealing either with a liar or with someone whose entire understanding of evolution is cribbed from creationist pamphlets. And that is exactly what McLeroy wants put into science classrooms, the full list of arguments out of the creationist jokebook.