A draft of a Strib letter on the neo-creationism silliness

I’ve just spent way too long flailing away in the horribly cramped confines of 150 words trying to write a letter to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on the whole ID-in-schools silliness. I wrote about a zillion drafts, and WeatherGirl expertly poked holes in one after another, sending me back to the drawing board time after time. Gotta love having a wonderful editor across the kitchen table, but it’s darn frustrating when you just want to get the thing done and turn it in. Fuss, whine, moan – rinse until done.

So, after much work, we’ve gotten to here:

In his 23 April piece, Dave Eaton is clearly unable to critically examine the complexities of the “Intelligent Design” debate or understand the underlying scientific issues. He starts by seriously misrepresenting the state of the debate in evolutionary biology in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of a crisis when none exists. He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum. Yet Paul Nelson, a major spokesperson for the ID cause, recently admitted in a talk here at UM-Morris that to date ID had no scientifically testable hypotheses to offer.

Until ID can bring such hypotheses to the table, it should not and cannot play a meaningful role in our science curriculum. ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

Thoughts or suggestions are most welcome, although I’ll need to send this off tomorrow night (Sunday, 1 May).

For those with a twisted interest in the painful birth pangs of this letter (and as evidence for my students and son when they complain about all my scribbles on their work), I’m actually including an abridged history below the fold of how we ended up with this draft.

I started with this fragment:

I agree wholeheartedly with Dave Eaton when, in his 23 April piece, he argues that “Students should learn the weak points of evolutionary theory, too”. I don’t know a single reputable scientist who disagree with this. Sensible folk would indeed agree that our children need to be able to critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any concept in their curriculum. Without these skills, they are surely under-prepared for the challenges facing them as citizens, voters, parents, and workers.

Unfortunately, Eaton is clearly unable to do this himself. He parrots the ID line about the supposed crisis over macroevolution’s ability to explain the wonderful diversity of life on our planet, when an even half-hearted review of the relevant scientific literature would make it clear that now such crisis exists.

The problem with Eaton’s piece is that he clearly doesn’t understand (or deliberately muddles) the (very real) scientific issues, and then drags “Intelligent Design” (ID) into the picture. There are indeed many exciting questions about the rich details of the evolutionary history of life on our planet, but the common ID claim that …

Unfortunately I was already at 182 words and just getting warmed up. Obviously I needed to cut down on the detail.

I thus compressed the discussion of Eaton’s failure to make any sort of sensible argument as follows:

I agree wholeheartedly with Dave Eaton when, in his 23 April piece, he argues that “Students should learn the weak points of evolutionary theory, too”. I don’t know a single reputable scientist who disagree with this. Sensible folk would indeed agree that our children need to be able to critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any concept in their curriculum. Without these skills, they are surely under-prepared for the challenges facing them as citizens, voters, parents, and workers.

Unfortunately, Eaton is clearly unable to do this himself. He starts by seriously misrepresenting the state of the debate in evolutionary biology in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of a crisis when none exists. He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum, when it has _no_ scientific foundations. Until ID can bring some scientifically testable hypotheses to the table, it should not and cannot be part of a meaningful science curriculum. ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

I boldly shared this with WeatherGirl, who (correctly) pointed out that the meat of the thing was the second paragraph and not the first, and suggested that I switch the order:

In his 23 April piece, Dave Eaton is clearly unable to critically examine the complexities of the “Intelligent Design” debate or understand the underlying scientific issues. He starts by seriously misrepresenting the state of the debate in evolutionary biology in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of a crisis when none exists. He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum, when it has _no_ scientific foundations. Until ID can bring some scientifically testable hypotheses to the table, it should not and cannot play a meaningful role in our science curriculum. ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

I agree wholeheartedly when he argues that “Students should learn the weak points of evolutionary theory”. Sensible folk (including scientists) would indeed agree that our children need to be able to critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any concept in their curriculum. Without these skills, they are surely under-prepared for the challenges facing them as citizens, voters, parents, and workers. It is unfortunate that Eaton himself was unable to meet that challenge.

I wasn’t terribly happy with this version, though, because there wasn’t really any sort of argument being made; it was reduced to a small collection of unsupported claims. So I tried a complete re-write in the hopes of reintroducing an argument:

In Dave Eaton’s piece of 23 April, he makes the remarkable claim that “Creationism depends on scripture; ID depends on science.” This is at best wishful thinking. Paul Nelson, a major spokesperson for the ID cause, recently spoke here at UM-Morris and admitted that to date ID had no scientifically testable hypotheses, and agreed that the development of such hypotheses was crucial to ID gaining scientific credibility and recognition.

This is much the same as a claim that there’s clearly something wrong with this “theory” of gravity. “The earth may be attracted to the sun, but surely my coffee mug is not attracted to me,” the argument might go. When pressed for details and a testable alternative explanation, I throw up my hands and cry “Patience – we’re working on that!”.

Such silliness would deserve no place in our science curriculum, and neither does ID.

I liked the idea of the gravity example, but WeatherGirl pointed out that the fact of it left much to be desired. The voice was very confusing, and the satire wasn’t quite funny enough to justify the effort, while still being too subtle for people who are as willfully muddled as the ID crowd. Sigh.

The one thing that we thought did work was bringing in Nelson’s comments because that set up at least a basic argument and happily pitted the ID folk against themselves. So I tried merging part of the earlier version with the bit about Nelson:

In his 23 April piece, Dave Eaton is clearly unable to critically examine the complexities of the “Intelligent Design” debate or understand the underlying scientific issues. He starts by seriously misrepresenting the state of the debate in evolutionary biology in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of a crisis when none exists. He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum, when it has _no_ scientific foundations.

Paul Nelson, a major spokesperson for the ID cause, recently spoke here at UM-Morris and admitted that to date ID had no scientifically testable hypotheses, and agreed that the development of such hypotheses was crucial to ID gaining scientific credibility and recognition.

Until ID can bring such hypotheses to the table, it should not and cannot play a meaningful role in our science curriculum. ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

By this point, I was pretty tired of the whole thing and ready to call it good enough, but WeatherGirl pointed out that the voice in “He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum, when it has no scientific foundations” wasn’t clear enough (is Eaton arguing that it has no scientific foundations?). Thus yet another revision, which tried to more clearly connect Eaton and Nelson and lessen my voice in that first paragraph:

In his 23 April piece, Dave Eaton is clearly unable to critically examine the complexities of the “Intelligent Design” debate or understand the underlying scientific issues. He starts by seriously misrepresenting the state of the debate in evolutionary biology in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of a crisis when none exists. He then suggests that ID should have some place in our science curriculum. Yet Paul Nelson, a major spokesperson for the ID cause, recently admitted in a talk here at UM-Morris that to date ID had no scientifically testable hypotheses.

Until ID can bring such hypotheses to the table, it should not and cannot play a meaningful role in our science curriculum. ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

My, wasn’t that dull and pedantic? It ain’t perfect, but it’s 138 words and contains an argument, which is a lot better than where I started. Now I’ll have to sleep on it and see what I think in the morning, and see what you folks have to say.

How people like PZ Myers manage to write so much and so well and so quickly is just beyond me.

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7 Responses to A draft of a Strib letter on the neo-creationism silliness

  1. JMJanssen says:

    looks fine to me. Dull? Not so much. The point is getting across.

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  3. mynym says:

    ID may have a useful role to play in a course on creation myths, but not in our children’s science courses.

    If some of the mythological narratives of Naturalism find their way into textbooks then ID is the only way to falsify them.

  4. Phi says:

    PZ also posted his “Call for science writing” on Panda’s Thumb and American Street, so welcome to all who’ve stumbled through those links into this over-long bit of navel gazing.

    I really like his encouragement for positive pieces, but unfortunately mine really doesn’t fall in that category. And it’s late and I’m tired, so it’s going as it is. Sigh. It’ll be interesting to see if they print it.

  5. Desert Donkey says:

    I could produce a very terse version, however it would not doubt be classified as profane.

  6. Desert Donkey says:

    If you get printed I would appreciate a link since I am outside the paper’s ciruculation zone.

  7. Phi says:

    No problem. My understanding is that it should be in Sunday’s paper (if it appears at all). We’re eagerly awaiting that (hopefully happy) day, and will certainly let everyone know. Thanks for the interest!

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