Science Education

Part 2: The nature of science

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How science “reasons” to come to conclusions about natural phenomenon


“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

Francis Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning

How science proceeds or works has been subject to many ideas. Often, people talk about ‘the scientific method’ as if there is some methodology applied to all science that is settled, understood by all scientists and which leads us to certainty. ‘The’ scientific method does not exist. There are methods used in science and how a theoretical physicist works as compared to a geologist, organic chemist, ecologist or physiologist can be as different as the ways in which a geographer works and an historian. In some ways the problem lies with scientists. We are not good at explaining how we work or explaining the differences between the disciplines in which we work. Just the term ‘science’ on one level is meaningless (which science? What type of science?) yet we continue (especially in schools) to use a generic term to cover quite different subject areas. I’ll admit that the term ‘humanities’ can do the same job and may well cover quite separate disciplines, e.g. geography, history, religious education etc. But we don’t often lump them together expecting one person to be able to understand all the disparate disciplines. Yet in science, particularly in teaching in schools, we do.

Science utilises a range of ways of working and reasoning, like most academic disciplines. Science can be practical and experimentation lies at the heart of many scientific disciplines, but not all. Science can also be observational, but again not always. A common attack on evolution is the lack of ‘observation’ – “nobody ‘saw’ one animal change into another, nobody has seen major evolutionary changes; nobody was there when life first began.”

As an argument against evolution, it initially looks compelling to many people. Yet there are simple counter arguments – for example nobody has ever ‘seen’ an atom close up to look at its structure and certainly sub-atomic particles have never been ‘observed in any conventional sense. Does that mean that the theory of atoms is suspect? That sub-atomic particles clearly do not exist? Of course not, but these counter arguments do not seem to be persuasive to the creationist.

Having an understanding of the nature of science or ‘how science works’ is at the heart of my definition of scientific literacy. Understanding that all science is ‘provisional’ – that is, we do not say that science is about the search for truth and that all science, even the most established scientific facts, are open to change – is actually a strength of science and not a weakness.

So how do we reason about things in science?

Deductive or Inductive?

Science can generally operate in two ways:

Deductive Reasoning (top down)

Starting with things that we know to be true (premises) and from these confirming our ideas through a process of logic. The classic example being:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Darwin is a man
  3. Therefore, Darwin is mortal.

Inductive Reasoning (bottom-up reasoning)

In this case we start with evidence which we believe will support a particular conclusion, inductive reasoning however does not require the outcome to be true, merely probably true.

In science the inductive reasoning route is the route applied to almost all scientific enquiry. As such scientists avoid making definitive statements about the ‘truth’ of any idea, concept or theory. Scientific theories (even gravity) then are probably true but never certain to be true. In real life some theories will have a higher level of certainty than others (gravity again) but at no point can we or should we say that even gravity is proven, true, certain etc. There may (even if we think it inconceivable) be some part of the universe where gravity acts in a way that counters our current understanding.

Deductive science is really ‘theory confirming’ science. In school science we do spend a lot of time on theory confirming. This is to be expected. The science we teach is, for the most part, the science that is generally accepted and for which the scientific community has reached a scientific consensus. Kuhn called it ‘normal science’. The basic scientific concepts that we are teaching and what we have taught for over 100 years is the science that has largely not changed. Newtonian Physics for example is still a key aspect of our physics education.

In biology photosynthesis in its basic form is exemplified by a model equation:

This equation is not what ‘actually’ happens but is a model that summarises many complex processes. To an extent the equation is not ‘real’ yet it is accepted by all as a way of describing the process of photosynthesis. This equation was first worked out by Julius Sachs around 1862-4. It has remained unaltered since then.

We also teach newer ‘established’ science – e.g. plate tectonics which was first described in a theoretical way in the 1960s. But what we do not do in science education is teach untried, untested controversial science that has not been through the science ‘filter’. So calls for the inclusion of Intelligent Design to be taught as ‘another side to the argument’ are nonsensical. Intelligent Design is not science and has yet to prove itself as science. We don’t teach it because it is not science.

How does science become ‘accepted’?

Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011) had an idea in 1966 – she postulated that some organelles we find in cells – mitochondria (responsible for energy release during cellular respiration) and plastids e.g. chloroplasts, essential for photosynthesis, originated as free-living bacteria which were assimilated into cells and have, over time evolved to become part of the organism as a whole. Her theory of endosymbiosis was not immediately accepted, her paper being rejected by several journals. She knew that what held sway in science was not the idea or the person, but the evidence and so she set about gathering the evidence to support her idea. We did not teach endosymbiosis in schools io the late 1960s, the 1970s or, for that matter, the 1980s. It took decades for her theory to be accepted. In 1995 Richard Dawkins had this to say:

I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I’m referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.

Richard Dawkins, 1995

The work required for new ideas to be accepted in science should never be underestimated. Margulis showed that evidence is the currency of science not ideas or ideals. Hers is not the only story of ideas which take time to be accepted and many others, including the work of Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in the field of evolution itself are not simply accepted as they ‘sound right’ or ‘seem to make sense’.

Intelligent Design could just be another case of wishful thinking – things ‘look’ designed, so, therefore, they must ‘be designed’. Many, including Dawkins have written on this subject. But why we should not teach intelligent design need not be a case of science rejecting intelligent design through bias or conspiracy. We don’t teach it because as it stands it has little to no support from mainstream science and no evidence in its favour that is compelling. Even with compelling evidence Margulis’s ideas took a long time to be accepted. That’s how science works.

Part 1: The Language of Science: Are Creationists Like Humpty Dumpty?

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(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.

References

WILLIAMS, J. D. 2013. “It’s just a theory”: trainee science teachers’ misunderstandings of key scientific terminology. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 6, 12.

 

 

‘Dawkins is right; there is a danger with make-believe when it used as evidence for pseudo-science’ – Education – TES News

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The famous Cottingley fairies duped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today anyone who touted such a belief would be widely scoffed at. There is no scientific evidence that fairies exist and no serious scientist would ever apply for research funding to show that they did.

Why was Conan-Doyle fooled? He was a well-respected writer, a qualified doctor so at heart a scientist. The photographs were taken by cousins Elsie and Frances Griffiths at the bottom of their garden in Cottingley, near Bradford.

My blog on the TES Opinion Website:

‘Dawkins is right; there is a danger with make-believe when it used as evidence for pseudo-science’ – Education – TES News.

Creating a Distorted View of the World

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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.

The Local Argus Mast

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.

Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science

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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!

There are some very very reasonable Christians out there

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I was (am? still am?) a Christian. I was born (without my explicit consent) into a Christian household. I went to Church, was a choir boy, a server of the sacrament, I was inducted into the Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary and still have my medal that I proudly wore when in the choir.

The fact that I was born into it doesn’t bother me, I don’t mind.

Am I still a Christian? In some ways yes – that’s my ‘natural’ home – I thought about it when I filled in the census – do I proclaim that I am a Christian or do I put down something more truthful – that now I am more ‘no religion’ than religion. Parts of the ‘faith’ conflict with my scientific training. I don’t accept that there is a supernatural being that directs my life or anyone elses, much less do I think that this being judges me now, in the past or at ‘judgement day’. So ultimately I went down as ‘no religion’. I’m comfortable in Churches and with the religious, but very uncomfortable with the evangelicals (more annoyed than uncomforatble I think).

I’m not against a creative force in nature which is ultimately responsible for the initial creation, but that’s as far as it goes for me. After the initial creation/beginning of the universe natural processes take over and we are what we are and we arrived where we are through evolution (of the universe, solar system and life). There, that’s the best I can do on this at present.

So why do I battle the creationists? Why do I seek to keep their views out of schools and why do I feel that some of them are dangerous? Simply because they willingly lie to children, they distort real science and try to blame all the ‘evils’ in the world on evolution.

I suppose I am at best an agnostic. I do feel that science and religion cannot oppose each other as they reside in different realms (one in the natural and the other in the supernatural). To this end I like Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria). Religion should stick to religion and science to science and the two do not need to overlap.

Recently there have been a couple of interesting articles by devout Christians that fly in the face of the evangelicals who cannot abide anything other than a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible.

Have a look at their posts/articles. It gives me hope that not all Christians are intransigent.

Citizen’s Voice: Why intelligent design doesn’t qualify as science

New, but few, Standards

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Michael Gove wishes the standards for QTS to be revised. I’m not against that – some of them are a bit flabby, and fluffy. It seems he wishes them to reflect the key skills needed by teachers. Again, not contentious – but of course there is that whole can of worms which resides in the arguments about exactly what those key skills may be.

Interestingly, he is quoted as saying that a failure rate on teacher education of 1.5% overall seems too low. Well, perhaps, this represents those who are not counselled off the training programme (which actually saves some government expenditure as the bursaries (and depending on when they leave), TDA fees are not paid) and, it should indeed be that low. It’s a little like the actual failure rate in the induction year, 18 failed last year but this number did not include all those who left teaching. So what are the full stats for the past few years?

Source: GTCE

The full stats then show that NQTs who do not progress past induction represents about 4% on average. Some people will say that this is still a very small number. Perhaps it is small, but what should it be? 5%, 10%, 20%? More?

We are judged as providers on our failure rate (to many failing is BAD). We are judged on our drop-out rate (too many drop-outs are BAD). We are told that when we accept people for ITT we should be as confident as we can that they have the right skills and attributes, so we try to be very selective and stringent. As a consequence our drop-out rate and failure rate should be very low, we are told – until now that is when we are told that it is very surprising that so few people fail the training.

I do hope that the DfE, the TDA (or whatever replaces it) and OFSTED will tell us what is an acceptable fail rate and that they will support us as high quality if we are stringent, don’t meet the targets and numbers we are given for recruitment and don’t p[punish us by reducing our targets, our income and strip us of numbers and downgrade us – which is what happened in the past. Will we get to a point of being patted on the back for a high fail rate? Somehow I doubt it – it will be turned into ‘our failure as a provider’ not that of the trainee. If we reject people and they appeal – will the DfE etc. support our  professional judgement? Will they fully support us against the threat of litigation when we adjudge someone to be unsuitable for teaching on the basis of a personality test, but they have a first from Oxbridge? I suspect that suddenly government support will evaporate and they will magically abdicate all responsibility and suddenly it will be our decision and ours alone.