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Beliefs versus facts

Something Damian Penny wrote the other day came back to me just now: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Damian was, of course, referring to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. However, I think the quote is a good one, and it popped into my head when I read about today’s ruling against teaching creationism in schools:

A federal judge on Tuesday banned the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution by Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School District, saying the practice violated the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools.

[ . . . ]

The school district was sued by a group of 11 parents who claimed teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional and unscientific and had no place in high school biology classrooms.

Before you jump down my throat, I’m in no way implying that Holocaust denial is comparable to creationism. What I am saying, however, is that there’s a clear difference between fact and invention – as in the case of Holocaust denial – which I think we all recognize fairly easily. What many people fail to recognize, however, is that we must also make a clear distinction between fact and belief.

Evolution is a scientific fact. Creationism (repackaged as “intelligent design” or whatever you rename it) is a belief. It is based on faith, not evidence, and cannot be proven for the simple reason that it cannot be disproven.

Today’s ruling banned the teaching of creationism because it violates the separation of church and state. I think the real reason it ought to be banned from science curricula is because it isn’t science. After all, there is no constitutional ban on teaching Holocaust denial in history class, and yet I’m sure we would all call for the dismissal of any teacher who tried, simply on the grounds that it’s wrong.

I have no objection to the teaching of creationist theory in a course about religion, humanities, or cultural studies. But high school biology teachers who teach creationism as scientific fact are muddling fact and belief. People are entitled to hold a belief, but when teaching science, they need to stick to facts.

And so, to restate Damian’s point, everyone is entitled to his own beliefs, but not his own facts.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Tré 12.20.05, 8:54 PM

    ‘Evolution is a scientific fact.’ Evolution is a scientific theory. It is what is believed to be the most likely explanation linking a number of facts together and based on the most widely accepted epistemology of the 21st century.

  • Jonny 12.20.05, 11:56 PM

    When I was an undergraduate, I accidentally enrolled in a course on theology. The course was called “the pursuit of human rationality” and I didn’t read the course description. I was really stoned that day (well, I was an undergrad). The course was all about rational arguments for Gods existence.

    “Intelligent design” is considered as a flawed argument by todays (third generation) theologians. It is an argument of second generation theologians. What happens is that you get infinite regression – who designed the designer, who designed the designer’s designer etc…

    The third generation philosophers believe in “revolution” rather than “evolution”.

    The first generation philosophers believed that man was so superior to nature that… well you get it.

    The other thing I noticed as an undergrad in physics was that most physicists were big into God. The jewish physicist Albert Einstein said “God does not play dice with the universe”. The aethiests were more likely found in the psychology department.

  • DaninVan 12.21.05, 5:48 AM

    She’s got you there, Sari. The whole point of scientific theorising is to test the crap out of a theory and then offer it to your peers for them to attempt the duplication of your results.
    Any scientist that thinks he’s had the last word needs an ego reduction…:)

  • segacs 12.21.05, 3:32 PM

    The old “it’s only a theory” argument usually accompanies a lack of understanding of the concept of a scientific theory.

    Tre understands it but is still using it to nitpick. That’s what I don’t quite get.

    A scientific theory has to be open to negation by its very definition. It is a hypothesis that is supported by all evidence to date and extensive testing. When something new and better comes along, it gets replaced. But in layperson’s terms, as long as a scientific theorem is accepted and not disproven, it is as close to fact as science ever gets by its very nature. There are holes in it, sure. But that’s because the body of human knowledge is ever advancing.

    If you re-read what I wrote, you’ll see it says that creationism “is based on faith, not evidence, and cannot be proven for the simple reason that it cannot be disproven.” In other words, the opposite of science, where something can only be true by definition if it can be false.

    I could go on here, but I think you get the picture. The point is that faith-based theories are not comparable to scientific theories; same word in English, totally different meaning. Therefore, they have no place being taught side by side or given equal weight in a biology classroom.

  • DaninVan 12.21.05, 5:30 PM

    She (Tre) and I were just jerking your chain, Sari; of COURSE you’re right!
    My point was that we haven’t heard the last word, on the subject of evolution, by a country mile.
    DNA mapping is going to blow a lot of careers out of the water.
    (” I’m related to WHAT!!?” *faints*)

  • Tré 12.21.05, 5:43 PM

    I’m not nitpicking at all. I’ll gladly go along with scientific theories of a more mundane (no pun) or practical nature. But this is a pretty big question, so pardon me for questionning the accepted ‘knowledge’ of today on this matter. Also, I don’t view knowledge as advancing in any kind of linear fashion. History (oh, I know, not a ‘true science’) demonstrates this quite well.

    ‘But in layperson’s terms, as long as a scientific theorem is accepted and not disproven, it is as close to fact as science ever gets by its very nature.’ Yeah, and that’s a huge misunderstanding that has proved profitable and problematic.

    We do agree that creationism should be removed from science classes such as biology. I just don’t think the argument for getting rid of it entirely, nevermind riciculing it, stands up (even though I am not a fan of creationism).

  • DaninVan 12.22.05, 1:17 AM

    History isn’t a Science, it’s a Humanities subject. You know that, why would you suggest otherwise?

  • Tré 12.22.05, 7:39 PM

    It is a science in so far as it has a methodology.

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