12/19/2008

THOSE CONFLICTED COLUMNISTS

I'm a theist who happens to also teach biology for a living, and I'm pretty enthusiastic about those parts of biology which deal with evolution. It's very cool science, and needs to be better known. Now it is true that the fact of evolution makes the old doctrine of special creation superfluous, and different believers deal with that in different ways.


Ian Barbour and other scholars in the field of science-religion studies have developed a taxonomy of these approaches: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration.

In general, partisans in the 'evo-creo wars' show a marked preference for 'conflict', and since disputes sell papers, you can often witness the curious spectacle of a local media figure or politician who is really out of his or her depth attempt to bring the smackdown against evolution. These folk will profess their neutrality for evolution as science upfront, or at least attempt to strike a neutral-sounding tone, but they eventually lose their way in a cul-de-sac of intent. These wanna-be pundits will seize upon some imagined correlation with evolution as evidence for the idea contributing to this or that social problem.

An event from last week's news, that I chronicled here, has evolved further. It seems that a Times columnist, one Linda Whitlock, finds the whole matter 'ironic'. She writes, in part:

Evolution is "a thing that I think about and I believe in it," The Times quotes Creasy as saying. It's clear from Creasy's actions that not only does he think about and believe in evolution, he's also internalized its implications.

Whatever power evolution may have to explain the diversity of life on Earth, it has no power to explain why we consider it wrong for Creasy to pass off another person's work as his own. Or, for that matter, how we arrived at the moral categories we call "right" and "wrong" in the first place.

This is the truth most true believers in evolution refuse to accept. Only a few, like Cornell biology professor William Provine, are willing to acknowledge what even teenagers like Brandon Creasy intuitively grasp.

You can read her entire column here.

There are, of course, a lot of things wrong with the above passage, not the least of which is that evolutionary theory does have quite a bit to say about the (possible) natural origins of human behavior, including ethics. Altruism is not an intractable problem for theory, and it is more than a bit annoying to see people so far behind the times that they don't know this: sociobiology is increasingly mainstream, with E.O. Wilson's seminal essay On Human Nature now thirty years old. But I digress.....

Another problem is the allusion to Provine's views without explaining exactly what they are. This may be a deliberate choice on Whitlock's part, which suggests that she might be an 'intelligent design' creationist who is following the playbook of the jurist Philip Johnson, who often sparred with Provine. Johnson appears to have had a friendly relationship with Provine and vastly preferred him to foes like Ken Miller, precisely because the Cornell biologist and historian of science couches his metaphysical take on Darwin in absolutist terms.

But the ugliest part is the filthy, damnable smear on evolution itself: according to Whitlock, it's responsible, dontcha know, for the worldview of cheats like student plagiarizer Brandon Creasy! Well, that's just more than I can take lying down: the fact is, it was evolution supporters who fought for integrity, not the newspaper, and certainly not the columnist in question. Surely you would think that guys like Blake Stacey would get some credit for documenting what happened for the good of the scientific enterprise? Surely some fact-checker, somewhere might want to acknowledge that people like me (evolution supporter and theist) left notification about Creasy's plagiarism on their web site, as shown here. Apparently Ms. Whitlock didn't get the 'fair and balanced' memo.

So, keeping in mind that I'm still irritated, here's my reply, a letter to the editors of the Roanoke Times. They already printed an editorial on Monday that I strongly agree with. Let's see if they print my response to Whitlock's piece:


Dear Editor:

As reported Dec. 12th, Gereau Center Principal suppressed a student paper on evolution on grounds that it was potentially 'insensitive' to the beliefs of others. Your editorial board took the Principal to task the same day, but the waters were muddied when it became clear that the student in question had plagiarized his paper from sources available on-line. As a science teacher who cares very much about academic integrity, I left a comment on the Times blog that very evening notifying the editorial board that the student's work was plagiarized.

Now, this discovery was not made by anyone in print media, much less your columnist Linda Whitlock ("The irony of evolution", Dec. 18th). Rather, it was bloggers in the scientific community, notably those associated with the popular site 'Pharyngula', which 'smelled a rat' when they read the student's paper on-line. Imagine my consternation with Whitlock's piece, which asks us to infer that the teaching of evolutionary biology encourages unethical behavior!

Really? Would it pain Whitlock to 'fact-check' the matter a bit further? The science bloggers who reported the plagiarism, like me, are enthusiastic supporters of evolution education. At the same time, we know probably better than most how essential integrity is to all aspects of the scientific enterprise. Part of integrity is that we do not knowingly conflate different concepts. Evolution in and of itself is not a belief system, and biology texts contain biology, not metaphysics. The personal views of some as to evolution's metaphysical implications are exactly that, their personal views. But Whitlock's piece does not make this important distinction!

There are only two possibilities: either Whitlock is woefully misinformed on the topic, or else (which seems more likely) she is deliberately conflating a scientific concept with a belief system. If so, which widely-accepted pillar of modern science shall we smear in order to 'explain' her lack of ethics?

2 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

Nice letter to the editor! Thanks for taking these folks to task.

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

Mike S said...

Excellent work on Linda Whitlock's commentary. I appreciate your time to comment on what is a local argument. I am from Roanoke and read Linda's work when ever she publishes. Oddly enough, I used to teach biology at a school where Kevin Bezy, the Gereau Center principal, was my evaluating administrator. Here's my response to her commentary:

So, where are the dots?

About once a week someone sends me an email that compels me to act upon a non existent perceived outrage. This week's directive was from a relative who happens to be an attorney and who chose to believe a spurious email that indicated the FCC had decided to abruptly prohibit religious broadcasting. The very notion that something of that nature was taking place struck me as absurd, and it took only about two mouse clicks to find the source and nature of the hoax. Those viewers of religious programming worried about curtailed access to Peter Popov touting his miracle spring water can safely assume that the public's right to be victimized by self delusion remains intact. No doubt there will be more hoaxes and outrages to come. The Web is the best medium yet to assure it is so.

It is not the only medium that provides opinion or assertions that should not go without question. The opinions expressed by Linda Whitlock in her December 18th column The irony of evolution are prime example. I take her to mean that those of us who accept vast numbers of scientific realities concerning the history and diversity of life, are inevitably doomed to accepting and adopting a set of moral and ethical standards more like 9/11 terrorists than the ethical and moral kids we used to produce before Charles Darwin was astute enough to point out that ramblings of primitive male scribes is not, perhaps, the best explanation of how life got to be so diverse. According to her, the consequence of understanding evolutionary processes is the prime mover and shaker in the decline moral character among our children. To quote:

"It may be that today our failure to connect the dots vis-à-vis evolution and our kids' character has contributed to the alarming increase in lying, cheating and stealing among America's youth reported recently by the Josephson Institute."

Worse still, since public schools actually attempt to teach sound scientific principles, including evolution, they too have aided and abetted this regretful decline.

I've heard this assertion before, but it generally comes from less sophisticated purveyors of opinion who like to boil it down to " what do you expect from kids in public schools, if we teach'm they come from monkeys, they are gonna behave like monkeys."

If Mrs. Whitlock has connected the non-existent "vis-a-vis dot" of evolution to religiosity or requisite belief in a creator for moral clarity, the Josephson Institute study was not the best to quote. Either she omitted or did not read the cheating section of the study in which this result was displayed:

"Students attending non-religious independent schools reported the lowest cheating rate (47 percent) while 63 percent of students from religious schools cheated."1
That's kind of an ironic result if you are arguing that a belief in a creator makes it more likely to behave well. Presumably those in the religious schools have some thiestic inclinations. It's also more than ironic to argue about the importance of a creator in developing ethics and morals and citing 9/11 terrorists as an example of what happens when we fail to connect the dots. I'm pretty sure those guys were thinking their special connection to the creator was the primary reason they were justified in doing what they did. Whether or not Joesphson Institute study is a real indication of anything about student morality is an open question, but try as I might, I could find nothing from from it that attempted to link the respondents moral and ethical transgressions to the exposure of evolution in public or religious schools. She basically cherry picked results from a study that was totally unrelated to her assertion and claims they support her position. I would submit that if she wishes to connect decline in morality to evolution, she should cite a credible peer reviewed research that does so. If she wishes to connect positive ethical conduct to religious belief, I can point her to a credible reference I recently encountered.2
If there are dots to connect, one is obliged to provide some real dots.


1 http://charactercounts.org/programs/reportcard/index.html

2 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/science/30tier.html?_r=2&emc=eta1