Science, evidence, and paradigms

Last night was a big debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Creationist Ken Ham. This was to help inform people that the science supporting evolution and how that refutes the “science” behind creationism. One of the key questions during the debate was around what would be required to convince Bill Nye that creationism was true and evolution was false. He said “Evidence” essentially. While, this is the ideal answer for a scientist, I find it unlikely. This, of course, isn’t a popular oppinion. It’s not that Bill Nye doesn’t believe that he would change his mind or that he would change his mind quickly, but it’s unlikely. People aren’t purely rational, in a purely rational world, yes that’s exactly what would happen. Even scientists have a serious problem with this. Scientists still suffer from the same sort of denial that global warming denialist, however, this impact is the largest inside of their field rather than outside.

Why do we know that this is true? According to Karl Popper whenever theories are incommensurate it’s unlikely that a leading theoriest in that field will switch to the new theory or paradigm. What does this mean? Well, if we think about scientific theories in terms of technology it will become easier to understand. Let’s look at jets and propellors for airplanes. It was clear in the early 50’s that jet engines were the way to go, but not all companies decided to pursue that type of engine. Instead these companies decided to continually tweak the capabilities of props instead. A similar reaction happened with sail technology and steam engines in this case sail techology was still more effective than steam, it took years before steam would catch up let alone surpass sail.

This similarly happens with scientific theories. What happens is that flaws start to appear that the theory cannot easily explain. For example, in the Geocentric theory planets would seem to track backwards over time and then begin to move forward. Theories about how these planets had small circles that would regularly appear through the course of their normal revolution around earth. The mathematics for this theory became increasingly complex and seemingly less realistic. The heliocentric approach reduced the complexity and eliminated the small circles and allowed for the eventual creation of Newtonian physics. However, whenever this started to break down and Einstein proposed relativity, it was largely ignored for decades. Essentially, it took until that generation retired for relativity to finally get accepted by the broader scientific community. This happens to scientific theories on a regular basis.

In fact, there are some pretty serious debates going on about the full mechanics of evolution. The original basis of the theory are still true, heredity, competition/pressure, and variety, however the nuances are being debated. For instance Richard Dawkin’s theories have started to fall a bit out of favor, while we’re learning that there are some things that we do in our lives that impact our genes. Those changed genes could be inhereted, which could change the next generation – this was Lamarcain to the core. However, Dawkins will likely not accept a different theory than the one he’s devoted to his life to. So, while to some extent it’s true that scientists will and do change their mind, it’s more likely that Science will change while individual scientist will take significantly longer if they ever do.

Creationism coming to a school near you in the US

While the UK has effectively banned the teaching of creationism in sciences courses through an application of incentives, the US is going the other direction. Recently, Indiana’s Senate Panel just OK’d the teaching of creationism in science courses. It’s not completely confirmed yet, it still needs to be ratified by the full State Senate, but this is a step in the incorrect direction.

I’m not saying this because of any religious beliefs on my side, which I’m against creationism as a whole, but because it will have a massive impact on any scientific future for these students. None of these students will have the proper understanding of biology to be a doctor, biologist, virologist, biomedical engineer and the list goes on. These are just professions that they are being directly impacted on. The secondary professions will be most of science and engineering professions.

Why? Well as Neil de Grasse Tyson argues, the moment you start saying God did it, you’re useless in the lab. Not because you can’t research or you’re religious, but because that means you’ve lost the burning desire to know “why?” A researcher needs to have a desire to explain what has been unexplained. To investigate the how and what of making things work.

This can also have a chilling effect on entrance into science based universities. Essentially, these students, to the universities point of view, would have had no biology what so ever and the rest of their scientific education may be suspect as well. If creationism is allowed in biology, what sort of impact could this have on their physics and chemistry courses?

Will this ultimately pass in the larger Senate? I honestly don’t know. Should it pass, I hope that there will be an injunction before this is instituted and a case to determine the constitutionality of this law. While the law is likely written to be rather aspecific on what religions it is not supposed to be from, it is obvious to most observers that this is based on Christianity. Essentially, this would be a state endorsing a religion. Thus many people could object to this including Muslims, Christians that don’t support the Young Earth Creationist view, Hindus, and of course atheists.

Now, if you want to send your kid to a private school to learn about creationism then go ahead. That’s why there are options. But I know if I ever have children, they are not going to be educated in a public school system that allows creationism to be taught next to evolution.