The Kansas Science Standards and the Nature of Science
The 1999-2000 year science standards referred to in this essay were recently overturned by the newly elected board. This essay is maintained here because of its potential relevence to battles being fought in other parts of the country. pgd 5/3/01
Today the Board of Education in Kansas has accepted science standards that omit serious consideration of evolution. They seem to have done this under the mistaken impression that evolution is not in some sense good science. Indeed, the board has failed in its understanding of what science is and how it operates.
Science makes certain real basic assumptions about how the universe operates. Where the Board went wrong is in its failure to understand these assumptions. I hope this l become clear to you as you read this essay.
Presence of truth
First, scientists assume that there is an external world that is worth studying. Sounds simple and while philosophers might debate about how we know there is an external world, suffice to say I think we all recognize that there is something out there beyond the confines of our skulls. Implicit in this idea is that " the truth is out there." In our post modern world, it's tempting to believe that absolute truth doesn't exist. A bit of thought should demonstrate otherwise. Consider: during the middle ages many people believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Now we believe otherwise or at least most of us do. Did the nature of the physical universe change between 1500 and 1999? Unless the Universe is even stranger than it already seems to be the answer is no. What has changed is our interpretation of physical truth.
Role of Measurement
Along with there being an external world, an important feature of science is reliance on independent measurement. We don't just rely on what our senses tell us about some object or phenomenon, we make measurements. We compare what our senses tell us against what a physical measurement tells us and we tend to believe that latter. For instance, one of my favorite optical illusions is of a series of lines going horizontally across a background of jagged stripes. The lines do not look parallel and indeed the illusion is so striking that I had to take a ruler and measure the distance between the lines repeatedly before I was convinced that they really were parallel! Why did I conclude they were parallel? Simply because I had repeated independent measurements that are inconsistent with the hypothesis that the lines were not parallel. Measurement is the caliper by which we determine what is most likely to be true.
Assumption of Uniformitarianism
Next, science assumes that the laws by which the universe are uniform over a significant span of space and time, an assumption called uniformitarianism. This allows scientists to make inferences about events in geological time and about astronomical bodies. This sounds pretty elementary, but lets examine the comments of one Creationist Tom Willis of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America:
He says that scientists have no way to know the precise composition of bodies in space. Well, I suppose literally he's right, but then again we don't know the precise composition of the earth either. We often times can infer the composition of bodies in space by examining the spectrum of light coming from those bodies just like we can infer a lot about the nature of the earth's crust and core but the patterns of seismic waves generated by earth quakes.
Willis, to take another absurd example from his statements, claims that the Grand Canyon formed recently(presumably in the last 6,000 years) by a sudden cataclysm similar to Mount Saint Helen's. I'm no expert on the Grand Canyon, but I don't see any evidence of volcanic rock at the canyon. Scientists infer instead that the Grand Canyon's formation is in large part due to erosive forces operating over tens of thousands of years. Scientists do this by extrapolating laws that govern the current universe back through time.
Astronomers do something similar when they study the stars. Remember, under current theory the light from stars has traveled sometimes many thousands of years. If you want to get closer to home, even light from our sun takes 8 minutes to reach the Earth. I suppose Mr. Willis might argue that you can't prove that the laws of physics apply to the stars, or prove that the speed of light is constant. He would be right. Maybe the Sun has just been wiped out. Better yet maybe the Sun is just a bright spot painted on the dome of the sky. However, science is not about absolute proof, but mainly a way of judging between alternate theories and hypotheses.
This brings up another point that Mr. Willis, and you as well dear reader, need to realize about science. That is not all scientific theories are created equal. I have had creationists tell me that since both "creationism" and evolution are theories then the two theories are somehow equivalent. From a scientific point of view that's not true. The touchstones by which theories are judged in science are how well the theory stands up based on the scientific method, and how consistent the theory is with other theories. For example, evolution as a theory has to show itself to be consistent with other theories in science. Indeed, the patterns of fossil distribution are consistent with plate tectonics, the theory related to the formation of continents.
Need for Physical Explanation
The scientist assumes that that events in the universe have causes that can to one degree or another be understood as the operation of natural laws. When you go to the Doctor with a problem, the Doctor does not do an incantation or invoke the gods, but views the the physical causes of your disease. This, by the way, goes for modern psychiatry which is moving towards using methods that at least have been validated by means of the scientific method. We do not attribute medical problems to demons or any such supernatural cause. I am not arguing against the existence of God, but rather that the question is outside of science as we understand it. Were an illness, an earthquake or for that matter the distribution of fossils caused by God, scientists would still have only recourse to the scientific method study the causes of such things. This is a limitation of science.
The Scientific Method, A Way of Understanding
One important characteristic of science is its reliance on the scientific method as the tool to understand the physical universe. The scientific method consists of the following basic steps:
Observation: the scientist sees some object or process
Forming a question: The scientists asks why something is happening or how it is happening
Generating a hypothesis: A hypothesis is an educated guess
Testing the hypothesis: This step involves; making a prediction from the hypothesis and than looking to see whether or not the results an experiment or observation not previously made are consistent with the prediction. If not, then the hypothesis is rejected in whole or in part.
Finally the information concerning the hypothesis and it's test are communicated so that the results can be tested by other observers.
This last step is key because it gets to an important feature of science, namely the role of communication and repeatability in keeping science honest . Science is a human institution but dishonesty is found out sooner or later because results must be repeatable or claims about an object must be able to stand up to increasing scrutiny as new methods of study. Thus Piltdown Man, the infamous ape-human transitional form was uncovered as a hoax by scientists using the scientific method.
Proof and Science
It's important that you realize that the concept of proof is not strictly a scientific one. A proof is a series of logical steps leading to some conclusion given certain assumptions. So the term proof is more correctly applied to mathematics and logic rather than to science. Indeed while science uses logic, logic alone does not determine the truth of a hypothesis. You can though, and this is what scientists do, is use the scientific method to make judgments about whether or not a certain set of data are consistent with a hypothesis. Scientists make judgments about what the scientific method says about the truth or non truth of a hypothesis but that judgment is not a proof. Scientists for instance will often worry about accepting a hypothesis as true when it is false. This a particular concern of statistics. Since our knowledge of the universe is not perfect then we cannot have absolute proof. This does not mean we throw up our hands and cease investigating certain classes of scientific theories.
Falsification and Theories
The creationists make a big deal of Popper's ideas concerning falsification of scientific theories. The idea that to demonstrate that a theory is wrong all that's required is one falsification. The problem here is that the Creationists assume that theories are necessarily complete. A theory is a set of interconnected and well tested hypotheses and assumptions which make predictions and guide research. Some of the predictions may be wrong. That can imply that the whole theory is wrong or it could imply that maybe just part of the theory is wrong. One little problem with the creationists use of Popper to argue that evolution and other "historical" sciences such as cosmology are somehow non scientific, is that the creationists such as Willis are just dead wrong: Popper said the following:
"... some people think that I have denied scientific character to the historical sciences, such as paleontology, or the history of the evolution of life on Earth; or to say, the history of literature, or of technology, or of science.
This is a mistake, and I here wish to affirm that these and other historical sciences have in my opinion scientific character; their hypotheses can in many cases be tested."
Letter to New Scientist 87:611, 21 August 1980
So any creationists who look to Popper for support on the issue of whether or not evolution is science better look elsewhere.
Nor does it take a single observation to disprove a complete theory but rather a whole series of systematic experimental and observational results that violate the predictions of the theory. Einstein's theory of relativity is held to be a good theory because there is no such set of observational results that falsify this theory, those few persons who reject it not withstanding. Plus Einstein's theory makes predictions which are matched by experimental data when the predictions are tested, for instance the existence of gravitational lenses in astronomy. From a philosophical point of view absolute falsification does not exist just as absolute verification does not exist. The German philosopher Reichenbach2 observed even as early as 1938 that our judgments as to whether to accept or reject a "physical statement", and presumably by extension a theory, are based on probability. This idea is of course well known in statistics.
In addition, falsification of a theory is complicated because an observation can differ from prediction because 1) the theory is completely wrong 2) the theory is partly right but some aspect of it is not well understood perhaps because the theory is a subset of a more general theory(Newtonian theories of gravity vs. relativity) 3) the theory is more or less correct but there is experimental error 4) the people collecting the observations have misinterpreted what they are seeing or are lying. I think a little thought will yield examples from all areas of science. Thus, when an observation is seemingly at variance with an established theory, that observation must be scrutinized very carefully as to which of the four possibilities above it falls into.
Importance of Theories
Creationists and indeed many no creationists tend to down play the importance of theories. For example the earlier proposed alternate Kansas science standards argued that if you look at the history of science many techological advances took place before good theories were developed. Its true that the printing press did not wait for theories of metallurgy and that the Chinese invented rockets before Newton's third law. But the relationship between technology and what they call theoretical science is much more complex. For instance, perhaps steam engines were first developed without benefit of the "gas laws". But the "gas laws" or even better, thermodynamics made designing efficient engines a lot easier. Quantum mechanics, as esoteric a theory was the authors might ask for, led directly to the invention of the laser and the ideas of quantum tunneling are leading to better computers.
Theoretical science and technology go hand in hand especially today. It is not an either or situation. Let me give one more example that occurred to me as I was teaching about DNA recently. Our understanding of the structure of DNA stems in large part from a discipline called x ray crystallography which involves shooting a beam of x-ray at a crystal of the material to be studied and analyzing pictures of the resulting refraction patterns. Understanding of these patterns in turn depends on an understanding of the theories involved with how electromagnetic radiation interact with matter. In addition the elucidation of the structure of DNA depended on a theoretical concept(at that time) called the hydrogen bond. While there was some trial and error involved in the discovery of DNA, our understanding of DNA hinges of our understanding of theory.
The theory of plate tectonics is an example of theory leading technology. Granted we could find mineral resources back in the 19th century but the predictions made by plate tectonics allow us to pin point new deposits or ore, oil and other resources and increase or available reserves. Plate tectonics is an historical theory.....but not completely. We can measure the sliding of the plates using sensitive lasers(predicted by theory).
So Where did the Board go wrong?
1. The creationist majority3 apparently assumes that just because you can't prove that something is true, that all theories are equivalent. They are not. We do have a way of making judgments about theories namely the scientific method which combines logic along with measurement.
2. The creationist majority clearly fell into the every day error of equating hypothesis and theory. The standards seem clear on this at first reading but the argument concerning falsification belie this seeming understanding
3. The creationist majority failed to understand that science is about investigating physical causes and thus supernatural explanations have no place in science. If they understood this they would have accepted the standards as presented with evolution in place. There would be no debate, just as there is no debate about discussing chemical reactions in the body, treating it from a scientific viewpoint as a complex chemical machine.
4. The creationist majority fell into the logical trap that just because we can't prove a hypothesis or a theory that there is no way to deal with that theory in a scientific way. Scientists make judgments about the likely truth of a hypothesis or theory all the time. We can't see electrons but we have elaborate and successful theories about how they behave.
5. The creationist majority has been seduced by a simplistic notion of falsifiability that says only one falsification is sufficient to cause rejection of the theory. A theory is not a simple statement about the universe but a complex of hypotheses along with assumptions about a phenomenon or set of phenomena. Theories are not by their natural perfect and a seeming falsification may cause a modification of a theory rather than rejection. Further, the understanding of their "consultant" about what Pooer really believed is flawed.
6. The creationist majority does not understand the importance of modern theories choosing instead to cleave to a clearly wrong idea that theories are not important and that technology can develop without theory. Increasingly theory and technology go hand in hand.
The new standards, should they survive likely court tests, will have long term implications for the teaching of science. Much has been said about evolutionary theory being central to biology and indeed that is true. But the issue goes deeper than that. What these standards will do by eliminating discussion of evolution, historical geology and astronomy, is to eliminate the ability to students to see science as more than just a technological tool, but rather as a way of imagining how and why things came to be the way that they are. It is too bad that this type of imagination(what creationists mean by speculation) is frowned upon in certain sectors of society because it is the very type of activity that keeps science vibrant and today drives our technological advances. One board member wondered what all the fuss is about. This is what the fuss is about, fostering a powerful scientific view point that will serve our society for the long haul and not someone's parochial and constipated notion of science.
1. The opinions expressed here are strictly my own and should not be taken to represent the position of my Department, other faculty members or Johnson County Community College.
2. Reichenbach, Hans. 1970. Experience and Prediction. University of Chicago
3. Of course some of the board members may protest that they do not subscribe to creationism but just want to give local school districts the right to choose what to teach. I understand the sentiment but my response is that if the board members vote for bad standards that implies they endorse them and subscribe to the creationist "philosophy" of science.
4. Of course the Kansas board of education decision critised here has been over turned as of 02/01. Bu the debate between creationists and evolutionsists goes on at a more local level.
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Created 8/12/99 frame version 8/13/99. revised 02/28/01