I was interested in an item recently broadcast on “The One Show” featuring advice on memory and how to improve your memory. The show item was, in itself, fine and provided quite commonly available advice on one way of improving memory. Viewers were directed towards a BBC website for more information.
Section 6 has highly disputed information, presented as if it were accepted ‘fact’. It’s our old enemy Learning Styles! You know, the thing that ‘progressive’ university types are trying to indoctrinate trainee teachers with? Except of course many of us fight the Learning Styles guff we see in schools at every opportunity.
So this is how the BBC iWonder website supported the item on “The One Show”
The section begins with the statement (attributed to Dr Jess Quirke, a clinical psychologist).
“When you want to learn specific information, before an exam perhaps, it’s best to know what style of learning is your strongest.” Clinical psychologist Dr Jess Quirke says: “By using your preferred learning style you are more likely to retain and remember information. These usually breakdown into three areas: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning.”
In education we are fighting hard to dispel the myth of learning styles which seem to pervade our schools. The reality of learning styles is that there is no such thing! People may describe or provide a ‘preference’ but research shows that this in no way aids their learning.
In a published peer reviewed paper in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Pashler et al (2008) state in their conclusion that: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.” (full text available by clicking here).
Riener and Willingham (2010) state, “students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning” (p. 35). A careful review of literature suggests that, while learning styles are prominent in education, there is nearly no supporting evidence of their existence, and that the theory should not be used in education.
A meta-analysis of research into learning styles by Coffield (2004) also concluded that “learning style researchers do not speak with one voice; there is widespread disagreement about the advice that should be offered to teachers, tutors or managers. For instance, should the style of teaching be consonant with the style of learning or not? At present, there is no definitive answer to that question, because – and this brings us to the second problem – there is a dearth of rigorously controlled experiments and of longitudinal studies to test the claims of the main advocates.” (p.140)
Baroness Susan Greenfield is also a critic of learning styles, stating that “The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinaesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits.” She goes on to state that “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.”
Additionally, while learnings styles is also common in business management, its use there has also been severely criticised e.g. by Reynolds (1997) who states that there is inadequate research to support the use of learning styles and that there are considerable doubts about its validity (full reference available by clicking here)
There is a considerable body of evidence to show that learning styles are a popular myth, with no empirical research that conclusively shows the advantages of such categorisations for individual learners.
I’ve submitted a complaint. I wonder if W1A will take note…
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre (pp. 1-182). London, UK.
Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology: Educational Psychology, 429, 1-8.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 92-99). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Please Note: I would normally like to insert links to useful research, blogs, news items etc. in my blogs, but time is pressing and I wanted to get this out today. If I have time, I will update later with some links.
All Children Must Learn Times Tables – that is an order, direct from the Secretary of State!
I’m from the generation where I had to recite times tables twice a day in primary school. I went to a Church primary, if we failed we got caned. Did I learn them? Yes. They can be useful when shopping or doing a rough estimate. Whether or not they have made me fully numerate is another question. I get by in maths. I have to, I did a science degree, I taught science. I do some quantitative work in my research. None of the former were really helped by knowing the times tables.
I also know the first twenty elements of the period table. This did not help me understand chemistry. I learned a few Shakespeare quotations by heart (e.g. from the Merchant of Venice, The quality of mercy is not strained…), again no use in my life other than as a party trick now and again.
So what are we to make of this ‘new’ pronouncement and policy on tackling poor numeracy and literacy (again the ‘war’ metaphor raises its ugly head).
I can see secondary maths teachers in general liking the idea that 100% of 11 year olds will be able to instantly recall multiplications up to 12 x 12. Perhaps English teachers would like 100% of all 11 year olds to be able to spell a defined list of say 144 of the most commonly misspelled words in English. What about 100% of all 11 year olds learning all the Kings and Queens of Britain, or has someone already proposed that? Then perhaps 144 rivers, or 144 chemical elements (the fact that, at present, we only have 118 known elements will be an inconvenience no doubt).
In China 6 year olds are required to learn 3000 characters – that is part of their ‘literacy’. Memory is a great thing, but memory does not equal numeracy or literacy. memorizing things is a very useful skill, though not a predictor of intelligence per se.
This new policy and the idea that we should be in the ‘top 5’ of the PISA results by 2020 is great politics, but extremely poor education policy. League tables are a very bad indicator of success – look at how many ‘top teams’ have been knocked out of the FA cup by much lower teams in much lower leagues – should Chelsea now abandon it’s coaching and training strategy and employ the strategies of Bradford?
To succeed in PISA we would at least have to have a curriculum that taught what PISA examine. This means our curriculum is not decided by us, but by an international committee. Surely our curriculum should be decided on what we value and think is right for our children and not on what other countries (which may well have different needs) require?
So is Rote Learning All Bad?
Rote learning some things is not all bad. I don’t object to times tables, or learning some Shakespeare or even some maths formulas or chemical elements, but when people’s jobs and careers, are decided on such things it has to be wrong.
Can we get 100% of 11 years olds to learn their times tables?
IN SHORT NO. It is a silly aspiration, a ridiculous target. There would have to be many exemptions for this for numerous pupils whose special needs or disabilities mean that such a target is a complete nonsense. I wonder how many appeals we would have due to illness etc. on the day of the test? Would they have to show they can actually do all twelve tables up to 12 x 12 or would we ‘sample’? What if a kid hits lucky and just knows the ones asked for, but doesn’t know, for example, their 9 times table and we didn’t ask that question?
Can we Force a child to Learn?
NO. Children can be stubborn, they can be awkward, they can ‘not do’ things to ‘spite’ you, they can be brilliant yet forgetful, they can be studious yet fail to comprehend or remember even simple things.
In my primary school days learning was ‘forced’ through the threat of violence – the cane. It was regularly meted out for simple infringements like not knowing a table or misquoting a beloved poem of the teacher. Mr T (I won’t give his full name) was the nastiest teacher in my primary. Many years later, when I was a teacher myself, I asked him why he was so vicious, authoritarian and why he loved the fact that all children feared him. He said (and I paraphrase here)
It was always for the good of the children – learning doesn’t come naturally to kids, especially those from ‘poor homes’. If I have a dog and I want to teach it, I use cruelty as a kindness – if the stupid dog tries to run across the road and I shout at it, it will stop in fear at my voice and I will have saved its life. That’s what I did for all the children I taught – they dare not, not learn something in my class and then they will thank me later when they get a good job, I will have saved them from their own ignorance and made their lives better.
I never thanked him, and I never will, as I believe he was thoroughly misguided and wrong.
Knowledge vs Understanding
And so we come to the most argued about bit – does ‘knowing’ something mean you understand it? Some people argue that I’m splitting hairs when it comes to knowledge vs understanding, that they are fundamentally one and the same thing. I disagree. I will say that knowledge is a precursor to understanding, but that knowledge does not have to be, for all things and for all time, permanent.
So, for me, knowledge in the form of recall of facts, recall of times tables or Shakespeare does not equal understanding. I knew some passages from the Merchant of Venice – did I understand the meaning? No. Did I get the themes behind the play? Not really. At the age of 14 of course I did not. When it came to Shakespeare’s plays, my understanding of them arose not by memorizing lines, but from acting in them when I was a member of a Youth Theatre. I understood the meaning behind Hamlet’s famous soliloquy not by learning the speech (I was the Player King in this, not Hamlet), but by listening to the actor making the speech and by watching the rehearsals and talking about it with him. I have since learned some of it, just for fun.
There is a lot of intellectual snobbery surrounding the rote learning of things like Shakespeare and various ‘classic’ poems. I know no poems off by heart, I know a few short passages of Shakespeare. Once, at a party, one intellectual snob kept quoting famous lines, poems, Shakespeare and lauding it over those who could not, including me. He presented himself as this erudite man intellectually superior from the rest of us. At one point, I ended up chatting to a small group and he came over. I flattered him and said how impressed I was at his abilities. I asked “could he do one more for us?”, “Of course” he said – “how about the first twenty elements of the periodic table?” I said, “I bet you can rattle those off, with no problem, a really clever man like you”. His eyes opened wide his mouth gaped and he stormed off, with the rest of the group laughing at him. I’m not proud of a put down like that – (I was in my twenties and much more immature then).
I know lots of science facts and I can recite certain science principles, laws and theories – but nobody seems to care about that!
Is this proposed policy really going to work?
No. The idea that you simply walk in and replace a senior leadership team if 100% of your pupils don’t pass these tests 2 years in a row is a nonsense. It is linked to forced academisation and, as has been illustrated elsewhere – most recently in government reports, academisation seems to have little to no effect on standards. The policy of changing school structures as a means to raising standards is a busted flush. It does not have the effect that Gove promised – a transformation in our schools.
The real agents of change are the teachers and senior leaders in schools
Threatening to sack anyone who does not perform well will not bring about reform and change that is sustainable. It will do more damage than good. Teachers will be placed under even more pressure to get results fast – leading to much more bullying in the workplace and frequent disruptive staff changes.
Heads will not wish to take on any school where there is even a slight chance that the pupil cohort isn’t already meeting the targets set. Children who have genuine difficulty in just memorizing things will be labelled as failures from the earliest of ages, some may even find it difficult to get school places as ‘hidden selection’ becomes the way of ensuring you keep your job.
What if a group of parents wishes to unseat a Head? Quite simple to tell your children to get a couple of answers wrong, fail a test and hey presto – the Head and the SLT get sacked!
Counting Down to the Election
In my view this is a political puff policy – it has already served its purpose in grabbing a headline in the Tory press – front and (OK not quite) centre – it certainly had the largest font, making it the lead. Will it come to pass? I doubt it. Certainly not in the form in which it is being reported.
Oh, and by the way, take it from a scientist – don’t trust atoms! They make up everything. (OK I’ll get my coat…)
(Peter Newell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Through the Looking Glass.
When this blog post started it was to be a single post to address some of the issues surrounding the Evolution vs Creationism issue highlighted recently in a BBC radio Interview on the Jeremy Vine Programme with Johnny Scaramanga and developed in an on-air debate between Professor Alice Roberts and John Lewis, a curriculum developer for the Accelerated Christian Education programme, on Newsnight, chaired by Jeremy Paxman on 16th June 2014
It quickly became apparent that more than one post is necessary to try and explain my ideas on this issue. Over the coming days I will publish three blogs that examine three difficult and important issues.
- The language of science and how we use that language in specialist and everyday settings
- The nature of science and how science reasons to come to conclusions about natural phenomenon
- The nature of belief and how belief and acceptance are two different things.
Part 1- The language of Science
Two Sides of the Argument
The debate between evolution and creation is often expressed as ‘two sides of an argument’. It is educationally appropriate, creationists argue, to let students examine two possible ‘solutions’ to long-standing problems that affect us all – how did life come into being and is all life related?
The problem is, it’s a false argument. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the two sides carry equal weight; they do not. ‘Two sides to an argument’ implies that the defeat of one side provides victory to the other; it does not.
The recent arguments surrounding the teaching of evolution and creationism in British schools raises some important questions over the nature of science, the language of science and the ‘rights’ of those who are devout followers of a faith to teach their version of science (or for that matter any subject) over and above the accepted scientific consensus.
It’s Just a theory
Yes evolution is a theory, or to be more precise, there is a theory for evolution. But before we get into the pedantic (yet very important) issues over the use of the word we should establish a few definitions.
In science words are used which are also everyday words. Sometimes it is easy – take for example the word ‘conductor’ we may use that word in everyday language for a person checking tickets on a train or someone leading an orchestra. In science it relates to the transference of heat or electricity. The context of the surrounding narrative helps us decide on what the precise meaning of the word is when it is used. Other words are not so easy to distinguish as the vernacular and specific meaning may well be very similar. Theory falls into this bracket. In everyday language a ‘theory’ can be as simple as a speculative guess or an idea with some evidence but yet to be proven. It’s used, for example, in detective novels , films and TV. The detective will have a ‘theory’ about how a murder was committed and by whom. They may have some evidence but as they try to ‘prove’ their theory they are guided to look at certain lines of enquiry.
In science theory has a different meaning. A theory is an accepted explanation of a natural phenomenon and as such, it is evidenced. The un-evidenced idea – the ‘guess’ if you like is the hypothesis – an idea that can be tested scientifically from which a theory may or may not develop. It is the hypothesis in science which leads to lines of enquiry, not the theory.
At this stage then it seems quite simple – when a scientist uses the term ‘theory’ they are not referring to a guess.
There is a problem however. Not all scientists use the term theory in the same way. A physicist, for example, often talks about ‘theory’ with a view to testing out ideas and on the basis of little to no empirical evidence – the physicist ‘theory’ may well be speculative and waiting for evidence and confirmation.
To illustrate this point I published a paper (Williams, 2013) on just this issue. Surveying 189 science graduates it was clear that their grasp of definitions of common scientific terms was poor. When it came to defining what ‘theory’ meant, 29% stated that a theory was an ‘unproven idea’ only 25% saw a theory as an explanatory system of ideas. More worryingly, 34% of the biologists surveyed thought that a theory was an unproven idea. The full paper is available on Open Access here
Another common creationist cry – which also shows an ignorance of the nature of science – is that if evolution was a ‘fact’ then surely it would be a ‘law’ and not a ‘theory’. Laws and theories are two different things and theories exist alongside laws and vice versa.
A theory is an explanation, as noted above. Laws, however, describe things in science. It is perfectly possible to envisage a Law of Evolution in the terms of a description of what happens – e.g. descent with modification would be a good starting point for a Law of Evolution. Laws in science do not
explain how things happen. So Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation describe the effects of gravity it does not explain gravity: The Law of Universal gravitation states that “any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”
This does not tell us what gravity is or what causes gravity, it does not therefore explain gravity.
A hypothesis is the starting point for many scientific ideas. This is a testable question that science has the potential to answer. Hypothesis can be hunches or guesses. There may be evidence there may not. All scientific hypotheses will be testable, if the results of these tests are consistent then it is entirely possible for a hypothesis to develop into a full blown theory. Certainly many hypotheses are discarded and most are modified before developing into theories.
So are creationists like Humpty Dumpty? In some cases yes, when they use a scientific term they do often choose its meaning to suit their purposes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the word ‘theory’. For the creationist ‘theory simply means unproven. The problem we have is that 29% of science graduates (34% of biologists) overall will fail to see this trick of language. They also think that theories in science are ‘unproven’. In the case of evolution the meaning which must be ‘master’, as Humpty declares, must be the meaning that science gives – a well-evidenced explanation of a natural phenomenon. That evolution is a theory does not mean it cannot at the same time be a scientific fact.
In my paper on scientific terminology I offer a solution to this issue.
“One possible approach that could improve children’s understanding of the special nature of some of the words used in science may be the adoption of the prefix ‘scientific’ before such words as ‘theory’, ‘law’, ‘fact’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘principle’, to distinguish them from their common everyday use. Adopting the prefix ‘scientific’, to help separate common meaning from a more precise scientific meaning, may help to reduce misunderstandings and strengthen the discipline of science.” (Williams, 2013 p.8)
In Part two of this series I will look at creationist misunderstandings (either deliberate or unintentional) of the Nature of Science and how scientific reasoning works.
The award of the Nobel prize is the the highest achievement for any scientist. In this case, the thirty year wait between discovery and prize tells us a lot about ‘How Science Works’. The initial discovery was not accepted by the scientific community, but through research the acquisition of evidence, the existence of these strange crystals was confirmed.
Those who seek to bypass science for their ideas should learn from this story how science is conducted and how new ideas can be accepted.
The following is a reprint of my article in The Argus, the local paper for Brighton and Hove. It appeared on their regular page 8 comment slot. A lot of what I say is similar to that in my account of the BBC interviews reported in my last blog post.
One of my research interests is the creation-evolution controversy in schools. Is there a big problem? Are children routinely being taught creationism as a scientific fact in our schools? In truth we just don’t know for certain. A 2006 poll by Opinionpanel found that nearly 20% of UK students said they had been taught creationism as fact by their main school. If this poll is correct then it’s very worrying, but more work is needed to see how widespread the practice really is. Other research shows that 40% of science teachers have been challenged by pupils about creationism. For me, a very disturbing development has been the application for Free school status by an evangelical Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, founded on biblical literalism, that will teach evolution as ‘just a theory’, in science. I’m willing to predict that if the school opens, it will be very badly taught evolution theory, undermined at every possible point. I hope the application is firmly rejected.
I’ve come across a class set of anti-evolution creationist books in a West Sussex school, apparently donated by parents. Organisations, such as Truth in Science, distribute intelligent design creationism DVDs and books UK schools. Lots of creationist material is aimed at young children, such as glossy, appealing dinosaur books and comics which distort and misrepresent scientific fact. They include madcap ideas such as dinosaurs co-existing with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a bizarre claim that a live pterosaur – a
flying reptile – may have been captured by cowboys in 19th Century and dragons were real, fire-breathing dinosaurs. You’d think such things are laughable, not dangerous. On one level, they are harmless as the majority of right-minded people dismiss such ideas as patent nonsense, but to a child such ideas are very appealing.
Creationism is getting more sophisticated. Intelligent design creationism, the idea that things are so complex they could only have been designed and that evolution cannot adequately explain, for example, how an eye could have evolved, is trying to force its way onto the school curriculum. Intelligent design creationism isn’t science. It looks like science, it pretends to be science, but it’s not. Science needs evidence to support its
theories. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena accepted by the scientific community and well evidenced. Theory can have more than one meaning – in everyday language a theory could be a speculative guess, but not in science. Intelligent design creationism is the opposite of science. It is built on the idea that if we cannot explain something, by default it must have been designed. Intelligent design creationism lacks any evidence.
Another key point of the campaign is the drive to include evolution in our primary curriculum. Under the last government, this was going to happen, but when the coalition came to power the revised primary curriculum was scrapped. Teaching the fundamentals of evolution early is necessary to prevent children gaining misconceived ideas about how life has developed and diversified. Children exposed to creationist books and comics can quite easily pick up misconceptions and once implanted, they’re difficult to change.
You may have jumped to certain conclusions by this point. Perhaps you think I‘m an atheist and I’m intent on removing religious teaching in all state schools. Both assumptions would be incorrect. I’d describe myself as an agnostic and I firmly support religious education in all schools. It‘s important children learn about all religious faiths and beliefs as well as understand atheism, agnosticism and humanism. Intolerance and discrimination is built on ignorance. Knowledge of what other faiths and ‘no faith’ is really about, taught by qualified religious education teachers, is preferable to children picking up prejudiced misinformation about various religions from the media or the playground.
By all means talk about creation myths and stories in religious education, but don’t present them as scientific fact. Evolution is a scientific fact – new species have been observed appearing in the wild. The evidence in the fossil record is overwhelming. The rich diversity of life we see today is interconnected and interrelated as evidenced by DNA. Some of the natural mechanisms that cause evolution we understand, such as natural selection, others are still a mystery. But scientists are working on explaining and understanding these complex processes, they haven’t given up and said, ‘well I can’t explain it so it must have been designed that way’.
Understanding evolution helps us develop better drugs to treat serious illness and realise why it’s not so simple to cure the common cold or how HIV and aids spreads and changes. If we allow creationist doctrines to gain equal status in our schools with the tried and tested scientific theory of evolution, why not allow astrology in place of astronomy, alchemy over chemistry and magic in place of physics.
I’m just back from the BBC studio in Brighton having done 9 regional interviews/debates on the issue of teaching intelligent design creationism as science in schools.
It is quite simple, intelligent design creationism is not science. It is not accepted as science by the scientific community and, as such, cannot be taught as science in schools.
The interviews also featured Dr Alastair Noble (former science teacher, science inspector for schools and lay preacher at the Cartsbridge Evangelical Church Glasgow). He is the director of the Centre for Intelligent Design based in Scotland. He is a firm (in some ways aggressive) supporter of intelligent design. In debates you know that things are going wrong for one side when it descends to name-calling, which is what Dr Noble did, certainly in the final interview this morning.
As the interviews carried on, from regional station to regional station, you could hear in his voice the frustration and it ended with name calling. It seems that I am an ‘intellectual fascist’ who does not understand the ‘science’ and who fails to explain the ‘information’ contained in DNA. I also, he says, don’t know the history of the intelligent design movement.
All these charges are false. Dr Noble consistently and aggressively misrepresented the call for the ban signed by myself and the other 29 leading scientists and educators, he’s claiming that we wish to ban all mention of creationism or ID. He ridiculed the signatories’ position saying that we would have to get the police in (I think he mentioned the ‘thought police’ once as well) to stop mentions of these ideas in classes. Despite patiently explaining to him that the call is that neither creationism nor Intelligent design should be presented AS SCIENCE he continued with his ridiculous claims of intellectual fascism etc.
His claim that I did not understand or define intelligent design correctly was also similarly ludicrous. The definition I quoted came from the discovery institute website, so if it is wrong then it is the DI who have it wrong. I explained, patiently on several occasions the roots of the ID movement in the USA; the ruling that it was religious by the courts; the intent of the Wedge strategy and Philip Johnson’s calls to keep the religion out of the debate so that ID can be accepted and only then discuss the religion. Dr Noble vehemently denied that Johnson’s goal was to get religion into schools. But this is simply not true. For example, in describing how they would get creationism and God into the science classroom Johnson wrote:
Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.
American Family Radio, Jan 10, 2003 broadcast, in which Johnson discusses his book: The Right Questions, encouraging Christians to actively debate issues of eternal value
Johnson has also said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.” Witnesses for the prosecution
Dr Noble stated that he knows Philip Johnson and that my claims that this started as a religious movement and that the strategy is clear, get ID accepted then move on to the acceptance of the Christian God and the designer, is untrue.
Readers can judge for themselves who has the strongest argument here. Dr Noble and his denial or Philip Johnson and his recorded and reported admissions.
I suggested on air that he should read the wedge strategy and the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse. I explained that the call does not want a ban on talking about philosophical or religious viewpoints in RE lessons, or philosophy lessons etc. BUT and here is the nub of the argument they should be presented as faith and belief positions and NOT as science.
In one of the interviews he stated quite openly that he didn’t want intelligent design taught in science, so I don’t quite understand what his position really is. Nobody is stopping the discovery institute from doing what they do. If they can convince the academic community of scientists that their ideas are borne from science then fine, debate it and once it attains the status of science it can be brought into science teaching. But ID does NOT have a mandate to jump the queue, get injected into mainstream science teaching with no body of evidence and peer review behind it and certainly not while the community of scientists disagree with it.
Dr Noble kept challenging me to explain the ‘information ‘ in DNA and how it arose. It could ONLY have come from an intelligent mind, he kept repeating. I pointed out that Information scientists do not accept the ID definition of information. I cited Professor Jeffrey Shallit who has criticised Stephen Meyers’ definition of information as confused wrong. He says of Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell”; “Two things struck me as I read it: first, its essential dishonesty, and second, Meyer’s significant misunderstandings of information theory”. He goes on to say that:
Creationist information, as discussed by Meyer, is an incoherent mess.” and “Intelligent design creationists love to call it “specified information” or “specified complexity” and imply that it is widely accepted by the scientific community, but this is not the case. There is no paper in the scientific literature that gives a rigorous and coherent definition of creationist information; nor is it used in scientific or mathematical investigations.
Meyer doesn’t define it rigorously either, but he rejects the well-established measures of Shannon and Kolmogorov, and wants to use a common-sense definition of information instead. Stephen Myers Bogus Information Theory
I asked Dr Noble to define information, in one interview, several times and he did not.
In another interview I challenged Dr Noble over some accepted science, the age of the earth and common descent, knowing that he probably does not accept this science (though he is very, very careful not to expose his own views on creation and Biblical literalism). He said that there was a ‘lot of evidence’ for these things ‘but do you accept the premises?’ I asked. I pressed him, more than once. He did eventually admit that he didn’t necessarily accept them. This, I think, is the closest he has come to admitting publically his own creationist beliefs (that said I have not heard all his public talks so he may have divulged his true beliefs elsewhere).
In many of the interviews I said that accepting ID as science would mean that other pseudosciences would also be entitled to acceptance in science such as crop circles and astrology, both claim to use scientific methods, both claim mathematical foundations. With crop circle science, for example, they have their own research (very small) institutes; have PhD qualified scientific staff; carry out lab based experiments and publish in peer-reviewed science journals. In some ways they are ahead of the ID movement. They characterise their science as dealing with:
- Number, complexity, and placement
- Changes to plants
- Electromagnetic and radioactive effects
- Physical side effects
- Highly intricate mathematical design
- Eyewitnesses and balls of light
Surely, I said in one interview, they would have more claim for crop circle science to be taught as science than ID?
I also mentioned astrology. This again, its supporters claim, uses scientific methods, makes observations, measurements has testable predictions – but we are not going to teach that as science in school either!
I kept coming back to the point that school science is not the place for these debates. Both Dr Noble and I referred to the latest ‘shocking’ science, that a particle could possibly travel faster than the speed of light. We will not, I said, go into schools tomorrow and teach that Einstein was wrong that our understanding about the speed of light barrier is wrong. We must wait for the scientific community to verify this new experimental data and down the line (possibly many years) we may have to revise our thinking or we may find that it was the result of experimental error. The classroom is not where such things should be decided. We will not present this to children and say ‘you decide’.
I stated, many times, that ID starts from the premise that design and a designer exists and they look for evidence to support this. In the one solo interview I had, I pointed out that while scientists now may do a lot of theory confirming experiments and tests on our understanding of evolution, the idea which became a theory did not start that way.
Darwin and Wallace both wondered about how new species arise. They observed they gathered data they went into the field they amassed evidence and then, only then did they move towards an explanation, a scientific theory. They were, in effect, theory building They conducted real science they did not begin with the idea that things have developed and diversified through a mechanism that they called natural selection. They did not go out to seek to find evidence to fit this idea.
Intelligent Design, as the Discovery Institute admits, seeks to find evidence to support their assumption that some things are so complex they can only have been designed. I put it to Dr Noble that how they characterise ‘design’ is based on looking at the features of things that we know to be designed (that is that are man-made). If they feel that the universe and many natural things are ‘designed’, what is their frame of reference? How do they know what the features of an unintelligently or non-designed universe or cell look like? If your notion of design is simply referenced to designs by humans then the logical conclusion is that the designer is human: so God is human, a human is God (or substitute ‘the intelligent designer’ if you wish). Again Dr Noble said this was not what they were arguing. Yet according to my reading of the Discovery Institute definition of ID that is exactly what they are arguing.
This is the Discovery Institute definition, taken from their website, I was using for reference:
Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
Discovery Institute definition of Intelligent Design
From this very definition there are contradictions which were rejected by Dr Noble, as he claimed that I was not defining Intelligent Design properly!
They start with their ‘theory’ that there is a designer for things that are so complex we cannot conceive of how they could have evolved. So their work is not theory building (evolution theory as mentioned above started with evidence and built up to theory) but theory confirming they state that they are ‘seeking evidence’ so the clear implication is that they do not, as yet, have such a body of evidence. In science, particularly biology, the ‘theory’ comes from the evidence not the other way around!
The definition also confirms that their point of reference for deciding if something is ‘designed’ is by comparison to man-made objects that we know to be designed. The assumption here is that the ‘intelligent designer’ works to the same notions of design as humans, why? Why should they have to do that? Hence my comment that the logical end result is that the intelligent designer must therefore be human or that the intelligent designer is only capable of thinking and acting like a human.
I pointed out that ‘theory’ can have different meanings and that in the case of intelligent design ‘theory’ is being used in a speculative way, little to do with evidence, more a hunch or notion that the answer may be ‘designer’ and then you go and look for something to confirm what you already ‘know’. Theory in science, especially biology, means we have the data, the observations and the evidence and our explanations for the natural phenomenon take in what we know and have observed and serve to provide us with a means of making predictions. It is also accepted by the scientific community.
Many times Dr Noble kept banging on about randomness and blind chance. I pointed out that evolution is not about randomness and blind chance and that environmental conditions are the ‘directive force’ in evolution. He of course ignored this and kept on about randomness and blind chance. No doubt he will accuse me of ignoring his claims that ID did not come from religion and to all intents and purposes still is a religious position.
I was clear that this call does not want any mention of ID or creationism banned, that we are not going to call in the police (not even the thought police, as he hinted we might have to) to enforce it and that it was not the job of science teachers to remove religious views from the classroom or tell students that God does not exist. When ID or creationism comes up in science lessons the way to deal with it is, in my view, straightforward. Science is not about faith or belief, it is the acceptance of evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and just as we accept gravity and atoms, so too should we accept evolution. ID creationism and Biblical creationism are faith-based positions and, as such, require a belief in the supernatural. Science is about the natural world.
If someone wishes to believe in a creative force that instigated ‘the big bang’ fine. If you wish to call that force ‘God’ fine, but all the evidence for the diversity and development of life on Earth does not require the intervention of a designer. It is a product of natural processes.
I have no doubt that Dr Noble will be proclaiming a great defeat of me in his debates today. That I failed to address any of his challenges and that I am ignorant, clearly, of intelligent design.
I could also claim a great victory. Dr Noble clearly does not understand how school science teaches accepted, verifiable and reliable science and that the ‘controversies’ we do talk about are based on the application of science (technology, such as GM foods, mobile ‘phone radiation etc.) and as such these are more social controversy than scientific controversy, though they have their origins in the science. I could also claim that he clearly does not know how ID is defined by his own peers at the Discovery Institute and that their ‘science’ is no more reliable than crop circle science or astrology. I can also claim that despite explaining very clearly what the call by the signatories is all about. He clearly did not read or understand what our position really is.
I could, but I won’t (well, OK, I admit that I just have). I’ll simply say that after two hours it was only one side that resorted to name calling (intellectual fascist) and that is the true sign that someone has lost an argument!
All jokes aside about how the ‘end of the world’ failed to come to pass. This is a the disturbing side of a very small minority of religious zealots who twist the Bible and religion into something that is downright dangerous.
Camping – the man who failed (again) to correctly predict the end of the world and who sits with millions in the bank should be arrested and brought to account for what he did to the mind of this woman.