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Dr. Pigliucci and Fundamentalism in Science Education

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci is a colleague of mine here at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He’s a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy. I don’t know him personally, but by all reports he is a fine scientist and teacher. He’s written an essay in the McGill Journal of Education about improving science education in light of the controversy between Darwinism and intelligent design. It’s a fascinating essay. Dr. Pigliucci writes well, and he reveals much about Darwinists’ approach to the scientific and educational conflict between intelligent design and Darwinism.

His abstract sums it up:

The creation-evolution “controversy” has been with us for more than a century. Here I argue that merely teaching more science will probably not improve the situation; we need to understand the controversy as part of a broader problem with public acceptance of pseudoscience, and respond by teaching how science works as a method. Critical thinking is difficult to teach, but educators can rely on increasing evidence from neurobiology about how the brain learns, or fails to.

He reiterates his conflation of intelligent design and creationism and his dismissal of the scientific controversy early in his essay:

The creation-evolution problem is more acute and difficult to overcome precisely because it is not a scientific controversy.

So far, routine Darwinist boilerplate. But Dr. Pigliucci is being disingenuous. The controversy Darwinists currently face isn’t with creationism. Creationism is the belief that the first couple of chapters of Genesis are literally true. It arises from religious belief–a particular interpretation of the Bible, not from scientific evidence. Creationism isn’t what all the recent fuss is about.

The real controversy– and it is a raging controversy– is about intelligent design. Intelligent design is the scientific theory that there is evidence for intelligent agency in some aspects of biology, for example in the genetic code and in the intricate molecular machines inside cells. Intelligent design isn’t a religious belief. It’s a scientific inference. Of course intelligent design scientists are mostly theists, just as Darwinists are mostly atheists.

Scientists who support intelligent design are a very small fraction of scientists, at least a small fraction of biologists. Yet the controversy between intelligent design and Darwinism is a scientific controversy. Whether a controversy is scientific or not is a qualitative question, not a quantitative question. A scientific controversy is generated when even one scientist asks a perceptive and important question. Dr. Pigliucci knows the difference between creationism and intelligent design, and he knows that the issues raised by I.D. scientists — such as irreducible complexity — are genuine scientific issues. Yet he misrepresents the controversy in the first sentences of his essay. If Dr. Pigliiucci is to improve science education, honesty about the issues is a good place to start.

Dr. Pigliucci goes on to stress the need for science education to eradicate belief in ‘unscientific’ stuff, such as UFOs and the paranormal. He points out (candidly, to his credit) that training in science is no barrier to such belief. If anything, studies suggest that scientifically trained students are more likely to believe in UFOs and the paranormal than students trained in the liberal arts. The most ardent apostle of S.E.T.I. and of belief in the existence of alien civilizations in the 20th century was atheist astronomer Carl Sagan. Dr. Pigliucci points out, perceptively I think, that liberal arts education is more likely than scientific training to foster effective critical thinking.

Then he makes a point that is, well, jaw-dropping. He proposes better science education as a tonic against belief in Heaven:

In fact, the connection between education (science education in particular) and belief in paranormal phenomena or explanations is an empirical matter…a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (as cited by Goode, 2002) found that belief in heaven as a real (physical) place does diminish according to increasing levels of education from 92 percent among people with less than a high school education to 73 percent among people with a postgraduate education.

Why is Dr. Pigliucci surprised that most people, even well-educated people, believe in Heaven? How does science prove the non-existence of things outside of nature? Paranormal phenomena and UFOs involve events in nature that can be studied using the methods of science, and science provides evidence that paranormal phenomena and UFOs are unlikely to exist. But how exactly does science provide evidence that Heaven doesn’t exist? Dr. Pigliucci cites no data or experiments, and it’s difficult to see how the scientific method, which is suited to the study of the natural world, applies to inferences about religious beliefs in the afterlife. But Dr. Pigliucci’s argument that science is a cure for belief in the afterlife fails even by his own standards of science. To the extent that science can address such issues as the afterlife, there is a large scientific literature on near-death experiences that, while far short of proof, certainly cannot be interpreted as scientifically disproving the existence of heaven or of an afterlife.

Dr. Pigliucci goes on to sneer at the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that Heaven is a place:

…but three out of four people with a college-level education in the US still believe in the physical existence of Heaven!

How exactly would ‘improved’ science education dissuade students from belief that Heaven physically exists? In what way have scientists investigated Heaven? That would be quite a sabbatical. The natural world is the only domain to which science appertains.

What scientific evidence is there that ‘places’ don’t exist outside of our routine experience with nature? Actually, modern physics and cosmology make liberal inference to places outside of our perception, such as higher spatial dimensions curled up in String Theory and multiverses conjured up to circumvent anthropic inferences. Yet despite abundant scientific inference to places outside of our world as we experience it, Dr. Pigliucci believes that adequate science education would dissuade students from their religious beliefs — from their beliefs in the world outside of nature.

Why would Dr. Pigliucci make such a silly assertion, that science in some way, properly taught, ought to dissuade students from belief in the existence of Heaven? This is why: Dr. Pigliucci conflates methodological naturalism — the systematic data-driven study of the natural world — with philosophical naturalism — the philosophical assertion that nature is all that exists. He conflates science with atheism.

That’s standard Darwinist boilerplate as well. Dr. Pigliucci is a ‘skeptic’ who has written a column for The Freethinker On-Line, and his personal disdain for religious belief is obvious. What influence does his personal metaphysical ideology have on his recommendations for improving science education? Quite a bit, one suspects.

In point of fact, Dr. Pigliucci proposes to teach students philosophical naturalism veiled in scientific naturalism. His purpose is ideological. Ironically, the indoctrination he proposes would raise the same issues of neutrality in religious instruction in public schools that Darwinists invoke about the teaching of biblical creationism. Fundamentalists of all stripes can’t seem to keep their religious views out of science. Dr. Pigliucci — a professor of philosophy as well as of evolutionary biology — knows the difference between atheism and science. His choice not to be forthright about the difference is emblematic of the fundamentalist approach — the Darwinist approach — to science education.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.