April 2011

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The British Centre for Science Education has announced its support for a petition opposing the teaching of creationism as scientific fact:

Creationism is known, and officially acknowledged, to be contrary to scientific fact. We therefore demand that creationism should not be presented as a valid scientific position, nor creationist websites and resources be promoted, in publicly funded schools or in any youth activities run on publicly funded school premises.

More background to the petition at the BCSE blog.  See also the CrISIS Facebook page

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My recent post,The Edinburgh Science Festival, Creationism and the Centre for Intelligent Design, on a recent debate on the gradual creep of creationism into schools held at the Edinburgh Science Festival, resulted in an email correspondence with Keith Gilmour, from whom this guest post comes.  Keith spoke at the event, and had a conversation with C4ID Director Dr Alastair Noble.

Creationism, Holocaust Denial and The ID Crowd

by Keith Gilmour

On Wednesday 20th April, I spoke at an event organised, by the Humanist Society of Scotland, for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic was “The Threat of Creeping Creationism in Scottish Schools.” This took place in the University of Edinburgh’s Informatics Forum.

As a secondary school RME/RMPS teacher, I began my contribution with a summary of my school’s RME/RMPS curriculum before going on to highlight some of the unsolicited ID and creationist literature (books, DVDs, etc) that have been sent out to our school. Some had been addressed to the Head Teacher, some to the Science department, and some to my own.

I next went on to explain that, to any teacher objectively exploring the existence of God with teenagers, evolution is a lot like the holocaust – neither ‘disprove’ the existence of God but both present significant challenges to traditional theistic beliefs. From the RMPS perspective, it is the responses that are worth considering. Theists can either add one or both of these unpleasant realities to the many other objections to the faith position and abandon their belief in God – or they can find ways of reconciling them with their belief in a loving Creator (“This may be the best of all possible worlds”, “Part of a Divine plan”, “God shares in the sufferings of His creatures”, and so on).

Creationists and holocaust deniers, however, offer a third option – but, by requiring the rejection of overwhelming scientific/historical evidence, rule themselves out of any serious discussion and therefore ‘neither’ should be invited into schools to “talk to pupils.” And they exclude themselves further via everything else that they have in common. To wit, both object that a minority of highly educated people reject what 99% of scientists/historians accept – and that this fringe group will eventually be proved right. (For holocaust deniers, see Paul Rassinier, Robert Faurisson, Arthur Butz, The Institute for Historical Review, and etc). Both are notorious for quoting experts out of context (to give the misleading impression their crank view has some serious support), for mischaracterising scholarly debate (on details) as a failure to agree even on the basics, and for seizing upon any mistake (however minor) to argue that the entire field of study is riddled with incompetence, ignorance and deception. Both rely on a kind of ‘book disproved by its missing pages’ reasoning and are forever demanding ‘caught in the act’ evidence before they’ll believe a single thing (though usually only in this area of life). Both groups imagine themselves to be victims of a massive conspiracy that shuts them out of some imagined ‘debate’ and both accuse their critics of misunderstanding them (like we think holocaust deniers imagine no killings took place at all and evolution deniers believe nothing has evolved, anywhere – ever). Call them evolution/holocaust sceptics, if that seems more appropriate!

Following the debate, Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the risible Centre for Intelligent Design, claimed that it was “silly” and “scandalous” of me to draw this comparison. Perhaps he would now like to explain why.

As I understand it, Creationism is based on an unwillingness (or inability) to move too far away from a literalist interpretation of scripture. Proponents of Intelligent Design claim not to be starting from this point, whilst continuing to work hand in glove with their creationist ancestors/cousins/fellow travellers. In contradistinction, they claim to be basing their attitude to science on the complexities it uncovers. Were it not for the company they kept and the tactics they employed – and if they could content themselves with letting Science teachers stick to the facts unearthed – this would be respectable enough. Science teachers might even venture that some sort of fine-tuning intelligence or intelligences (aliens, perhaps) may or may not be responsible for all this complexity (DNA, the Goldilocks enigma, life from nonlife, the birth of the universe, etc) – that is, after all, the mainstream theistic view. But ID proponents cannot stop there. They
want pupils to be told that “an intelligent designer” is what the evidence points to. And they do not want to accept that they have wandered from Science into Theology and Philosophy. But no matter how furiously they insist otherwise, all that they are really doing is putting forward an updated version of the Argument From Design (i.e. that complexity implies a creator). The only change is the fact that they talk now about the complexity of computer software, instruction manuals and megacities, where William Paley relied upon the complexities of a pocket watch.

The reason creationists and the ID crowd want this in a Science class is that they presumably wouldn’t, in that context, feel obliged to follow it up with the inevitable philosophical objections – “Who designed the designer?” (or, if you prefer, “Who programmed the programmer?”), “Why imagine only one designer?”, “Why imagine the designer knows/cares we’re here?”, “How do we know the designer’s not dead?”, “Why the dithering, delays and design flaws?”, “Why all the waste and horror?”, “Isn’t the Goldilocks planet just a lottery winner?”, “Where is all this going, exactly?”

Following my encounter with Dr Noble, I now have a number of questions for him:

As well as being a proponent of Intelligent Design, does he also (perhaps separately) consider himself a creationist? Although they are coming at things from different angles, there is no reason he cannot be both.

During our post-debate discussion of Wednesday 20th April, Dr Noble objected to my suggestion that Intelligent Design growing out of Creationism was akin to the BNP having grown out of the National Front. Instead, he claimed a better analogy would be the IRA and Sinn Fein! Does he stand by this? And, if so, who is meant to be which?

Does he consider himself to be in ‘coalition’ with creationist groups?

Roughly what percentage of his beliefs does he imagine he might share with the average creationist?

If supernatural explanations can be considered suitable for Science classes, why not also History, Geography and Modern Studies?

Why does his website refer to both ID and Creationism as “theories”?

Does he agree with Michael Behe’s definition of Science (shown, in court, to encompass astrology)?

Does he condemn the ludicrous ‘Atlas of Creation’?

In what sense is “a supernatural designer” the “best explanation”? Or any explanation at all?

Dr Noble told me that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. What did he mean by this?

In addition, I would also appreciate answers to the questions raised, that same night, by my friend and colleague Professor Paul Braterman:

Why is the Centre for Intelligent Design promoting creationist materials such as Explore Evolution and Uncommon Descent?

Why is CID hosting the creationist Jonathan Wells as a summer school instructor?

Can Dr Noble honestly claim that his organisation’s core mission has nothing to do with Creationism?

In summary, teenagers studying Science in Scottish secondary schools simply do not need to be confused by the introduction of a theological/philosophical argument revamped by a pseudoscience (ID) quite happy to smuggle in nonsense like ‘irreducible complexity’ whilst leaving the door open for the even more ridiculous pseudoscience of Creationism. We would not invite a holocaust denier into schools to address our pupils and nor should we be inviting creationist speakers (or allowing ID and/or creationist materials) in to undermine our Biology teachers. Pupils are too easily taken in by conspiracy theories as it is!

Did you know, for example, that Tupac Shakur is still alive and well? That the moon landings were faked? Or that the Frosties kid really ‘did’ kill himself?

24/04/2011

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The 21st Floor has a review by Keir Liddle of a debate on the creeping of creationism into schools, held as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival (EdSciFest: Creeping Creationism) – unfortunately I no longer reside there and couldn’t come along, but one of my BCSE colleagues Paul Braterman was there to take part in the event.  Keir’s take was that the evidence that creationism was encroaching into Scottish schools remains unproven.  This may be so, but there are indeed worrying developments nationally (see for example Creationism in an Exeter School).

It turns out that Dr Alastair Noble of the Centre for Intelligent Design was in the audience, and has penned a response to the debate, which can be read at the C4ID website (Creeping Creationism or Galloping Intolerance at the Edinburgh Science Festival?).  Noble complains that:

One speaker – a member of the Glasgow “Brights” compared “creationists” and “intelligent design proponents” to “Holocaust deniers” – a claim as silly as it is scandalous.

Actually, in my view it’s not scandalous.  It would have been had the accusation been that believers in ID creationism were anti-semites or Nazis, but really the statement isn’t that unreasonable.  The existence of the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Nazi German state is pretty incontrovertible (and generally uncontroversial).  There is plenty of documentary and physical evidence to support the existence not only of the “Final Solution”, but of the means by which it was to be achieved.

What I imagine was being said here (and I’d like to hear from those who were there) was that creationists (and I lump those who believe in the hopelessly unscientific ID version of creationism in that term) are essentially in denial of an enormous body of evidence that has been accumulated since “On the Origin of Species” was published over a century and a half ago.  To deny this body of evidence is akin to saying that because there aren’t any ancient Romans in Britain we were never conquered by the Romans.  Or, indeed, like those holocaust deniers who argue that the attempted genocide of the Jews never happened, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

I must call Noble on this statement:

Firstly, no matter how often it is asserted, intelligent design is not creationism.  The latter is a religious position; the former a minimal commitment to intelligent causation based on empirical evidence.  I know this is uncomfortable to the humanists, but if they wish to enter this debate they need to know what they are talking about.

Intelligent Design isn’t even Bad Science…it’s not science.  Intelligent Design is a parody of science devised by American creationists to circumvent constitutional prohibition of religious teaching in American schools. Given that the three main figures in C4ID (Noble, Nevin and Galloway) appear to have a particular evangelical religious viewpoint, it would be attractive to know exactly who or what they believe to be the “Designer”.

Alastair Noble may continue to proclaim that C4ID is not going to target schools, but given his roles in Scottish education, is this a stance that is likely to be maintained?  As Keir Liddle points out:

I’m not sure what Nobles definition of “targeting” is but I would include sending resources to schools perhaps falls under it… More research is needed to find out where these materials are being sent and where they are being used – only then will we know the true extent of the problem (or not) of creeping creationism in Scottish Schools.

Noble goes on to write:

If a scientific finding, like the vast banks of functional information in DNA (“the genetic code”), lacks a credible evolutionary explanation, as it does, the alternative of a source in intelligent mind must, at least, be worthy of consideration.  That’s the wholly scientific approach of making an inference to the best explanation – and one that is known to have similar explanatory power elsewhere, as, for example, in the generation of computer software or print media.  Now that’s getting to the heart of intelligent design, without invoking any faith position.

I think Alastair Noble (who has a doctorate in Chemistry) really needs to bone up on his biology if he takes seriously the view that the functional “information” in DNA lacks a credible evolutionary explanation.  he goes on:

If the science of origins cannot be debated freely in schools or anywhere else, then it’s not creeping creationism we should be concerned about, but galloping intolerance.

The science of the origins and evolution of life on Earth should be debated freely.  Unfortunately for Noble and C4ID, the crucial word there is science.  Given the origins of Intelligent Design creationism, its failure to make testable predictions, and its complete inadequacy as an means for explaining the diversity of life, it has no place in science education, or in any educational venue that seeks to propose it as science.

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The British Centre for Science Education has posted an excellent blog article (British Centre for Science Education: Creationism in the Deep South (of England)) reviewing the background to a disturbing incident at St Peter’s Church of England Aided School in Exeter.

A whole year group of year 11 children are brought together and have a man introduced to them as a scientist. He talks to them for one and a half hours about his views on what he says is a very controversial area of science. In fact he thinks the world is just six thousand years old and that the world’s scientists are biased against him and his scientific colleagues simply because they are against Christianity.  He is able to promote his web site to the kids, a web site full of more misleading nonsense claims.

This individual was Philip Bell of Creation Ministries International.  The story has received coverage in a local paper (This is Exeter: Anger after controversial creationist is invited to talk at school): the comments are quite interesting, and worth a read (in particular, the comments reveal something of the workings of those of a creationist bent).

In an era where religious schools appear to be on the ascendant in the UK, I think it behooves those in charge of our children’s education to take care that religious schools don’t permit teaching creationism as a valid ‘scientific’ alternative to evolution.  This is particularly important as the present Government’s ideological drives lead it to further deregulation of schools (such as the desire for Academies and Free Schools to be less subject to the National Curriculum).

A particularly worrying development was the response of the Head Teacher of St Peter’s Church of England Aided School, who responded to the parent’s letters of concern in which she requested her children from worship (which I understand is her right as a parent) with the following worrying statement:

You should be aware that I, having a duty of care to both of your children, shall be monitoring your actions and their consequences for the children with regard to such matters very carefully indeed.

The Head Teacher seems to be aware of his duty of care to the children attending his school.  What’s less satisfactory is that he appears to be expressing this as what could be construed as a threat, and not in a way that would protect children from fundamentalist and literalist biblical interpretations (billed as science) which not only fly in the face of science, but also contradict the Church of England’s position.

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The British Humanist Association notes the alarming speed at which secondary schools in England are transferring to Academy status (Expansion of Academies Programme Continues Apace Despite Lack of Safeguards).

The Department of Education has announced that 1 in 6 secondary schools in England have now converted to Academy status (547), a large jump from January this year when the BHA reported that 1 in 10 English secondary schools were now Academies.This week, a report in the Economist magazine predicted that this could be as many as 1 in 4 schools within the year.

From the atheist’s perspective, this is indeed alarming for two reasons.

Firstly the absurd situation in which state funds are used to pay for religiously motivated schools.  This leads to difficulties for those who don’t share the two main christian faiths.  Furthermore, situations in which more extreme evangelicals seem to be able to insinuate their dotty beliefs into the mainstream can arise, particularly where discussion of origins and evolution are concerned.  One recent case involves a Church of England school in Exeter, which has become embroiled in controversy after inviting a creationist, Philip Bell, to discuss creationism (and, indeed, it sounds as though it was presented as scientific fact).

Secondly, that Academies are exempt from the National Curriculum which, if it serves any purpose, must be aimed at minimum educational standards.  As the BHA say:

Academies are able to opt out of the National Curriculum potentially leaving students attending some ‘faith’ Academies at risk of being taught that there is scientific validity to creationist myths in science lessons and of not being provided with basic sex and relationship education. ‘Faith’ academies with a religious character are able to discriminate against students from families that are of the ‘wrong’ or no religion in at least 50% of their places.

Why are Academies exempt from the National Curriculum?  The potential for serious damage to the UK educational system is really rather serious.

 

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RationalWiki has published an exhaustive list of scientific evidence that evolution is a hoax.

In summary:

h/t Panda’s Thumb

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Over at Epiphenom, Tom Rees has a nice ‘Research Blogging’ style article (Efficacy of prayer questioned) about a paper by Francis Galton dating back a few years now – doing the review as if it were of a contemporary paper.

Bottom line: no statistical evidence for efficacy (but it might make people feel good).

Galton, F (1872). Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer. Fortnightly Review , 12, 125-135