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NCSE’s Eugenie Scott Reassures Scotland: There’s No Scientific Controversy on Evolution or Climate Change

eugeniescott.jpgLast week in Glasgow, Scotland, Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) director Alastair Noble, David Swift, and I attended a lecture presented by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. The event was organized by Glasgow Skeptics, who previously hosted a talk by PZ Myers back in June.

To her credit, in contrast to Myers’s performance, Eugenie Scott was respectful in tone, even when challenged by several questioners in the Q&A. Overall, the usual personal hostility and incivility that one has come to expect in the Darwin-debate did not materialize. Dr. Scott was honest enough to correct one of the people in the Q&A who had framed a question so as to set up a dichotomy between Christians and scientists. She was quick to point out that this was a false dichotomy and that many eminent scientists are Christians. We also had the opportunity to interact briefly following the talk, and an interesting conversation ensued.

The topic of the lecture (which you can watch for yourself) was “Evolution and Global Warming Denial: How the Public is Misled.” There was little scientific substance in the presentation, particularly on the subject of evolution. Instead, Dr. Scott attempted to draw parallels between the political strategies employed by Darwin skeptics (whom she seems to think are all creationists) and Climate Change skeptics (whom she pejoratively labeled “deniers”). She linked “evolution denial” and “global warming denial” to the American religious and political Right. But she failed to mention that there are many of us (including myself) who reject Darwinian evolution not principally for religious or theological reasons, but simply because the scientific evidence doesn’t support it.

I don’t have the necessary expertise on climate change to offer an informed opinion of remarks on that score. However, some of Dr. Scott’s comments concerning evolution do warrant remark.

Dr. Scott opened her presentation by referencing a Fox News Poll that was conducted in August 1999 and again in August 2011. The poll purports to show a 6% rise in “evolution acceptance” between those two respective dates. The poll, however, isn’t entirely statistically valid because it erects a false set of alternatives. The question asked of participants was “Which do you think is more likely to be the explanation for the origin of human life on earth?” The options presented were (1) The theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin and other scientists; (2) The Biblical account of creation; (3) Both are true; and (4) Don’t know.

If I were taking that poll, I could not in good conscience select any of these options. It is my view that Darwinian evolution is dead in the water and that there is positive indication of design in living systems. Regarding common descent, I do not hold a definitive position though I am highly skeptical of its scientific tenability. On the age of the earth, I am very strongly inclined to accept conventional estimates of 4.6 billion years. Thus, if I were to select option 1 as the most likely explanation for humanity’s origin, I would be grouped with the Darwinists; whereas were I to accept option 2, I would be grouped with the creationist young-earth crowd who believe the world to be only 6000 years old.

She subsequently cited a British poll from 2009 (Theos/Faraday) in which it was found that 17% of participants were young earth creationists; 11% were supportive of ID; 28% accepted theistic evolution; and 37% were atheistic evolutionists.

Dr. Scott followed this with a discussion of what she called the “pillars of creationism,” asserting that all anti-evolution arguments fall into one or more of these categories. These were:

  1. Evolution is invalid science.
  2. Evolution and religion are incompatible.
  3. It is only fair to teach creationism with evolution.

She then moved on to talk about the NCSE’s commonly-told story that intelligent design was more or less invented in order to circumvent the legal barriers to getting creationism taught in public school science classes. Since that failed to pull the wool over the eyes of the legal system, we were told, the argument then became that we should balance the teaching of evolution with discussion of the arguments against it. What wasn’t mentioned, however, is that the strengths-and-weaknesses model has been the Discovery Institute’s consistent education policy since even before the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial in 2005 — in fact, the Discovery Institute attempted to dissuade the Dover school board from attempting to employ the policy they wished to adopt.

The Discovery Institute’s “Dissent-from-Darwin” list was also mentioned, as well as the NCSE’s “Project Steve” which was offered in rebuttal. William Dembski responds:

If Project Steve was meant to show that a considerable majority of the scientific community accepts a naturalistic conception of evolution, then the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) could have saved its energies — that fact was never in question. The more interesting question was whether any serious scientists reject a naturalistic conception of evolution — that fact has been in question, especially by the NCSE. That it is now a known fact can be credited to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose list of scientists questioning Darwinian evolution was the impetus for Project Steve. Interestingly, the NCSE has on numerous occasions stressed that science is not decided at the ballot box. If the NCSE still holds that position, then Project Steve is not only a proof of the obvious but also an exercise in irrelevance.

Dr. Scott also made reference to the common argumentum ad consequentiam fallacies that are employed in the evolution debate. That is where a proposition is rejected not because of its scientific invalidity, but because of its unwanted implications. But such reasoning permeates both sides of the evolution divide. As evolutionary naturalist Richard Lewontin aptly put it,

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Dr. Scott also referred to the movie Expelled, noting its linking of Darwinian evolution to the eugenics movement and the Holocaust. While such a fact may not be justification for a rejection of the science of evolution, the role of Darwinian thinking in the eugenics movement is actually quite well documented (see John West’s Darwin Day in America for more).

Dr. Scott also alleged that Expelled is a disingenuous assault on the integrity of scientists. The claims made in the film regarding the pressure faced by academics who question the science of Darwinism are, however, very well documented.

Dr. Scott also discussed the various academic freedom bills, including the Louisiana 2008 Science Education Act, which stated that schools shall “create and foster an environment…that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

I’m still not entirely clear on what the NCSE thinks we have to fear from such legislation. I would have thought that teaching critical thinking skills would be conducive to the interests of an organization that prides itself in promoting science education. Charles Darwin himself wrote, at the beginning of On the Origin of Species, that “[a] fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Since Eugenie Scott takes the (in my opinion naive) view that there are absolutely no weaknesses or problems with neo-Darwinian theory, nor is there any scientific controversy, I guess this kind of legislation would come as something of a surprise to her.

But for the rest of us, who live in the real world, encouraging critical analysis of controversial topics such as evolution and climate change is just part of preparing the next generation of scientists and thinkers. She expressed concern that these bills would allow, or even encourage, the teaching of religious creationism (in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment). She did not mention, however, that these bills expressly prohibit such activity. The Kentucky and Louisiana bills, for example, both stated, “This section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.” The Tennessee Bill similarly stated that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

Dr. Scott also claimed that there are no alternative scientific theories to Darwinian evolution. This assertion, of course, very much depends on how broadly one construes the term “Darwinian.” Self-organizationalism and Neo-Lamarckism constitute a couple of alternative theories that are characteristically non-Darwinian.

In the Q&A, I asked her what definition of “evolution” she was employing. Were we talking about evolution as simply defined to mean common ancestry and “descent with modification”? Or were we talking about the grander claims made by neo-Darwinism that all of life is explicable by the dual forces of undirected chance and necessity? On this she was strangely vague.

On the website of the C4ID, Alastair Noble gives his own reflections on Eugenie Scott’s presentation:

The evening was a vast improvement over the previous rabble which was the PZ Myers presentation. Dr. Scott is altogether a more civilised individual who advocates respectful debate. She advocated that opposing views should be discussed, not derided — a comment which was timely after the obligatory jeer when I raised a question about Intelligent Design (ID).

The good news, according to Dr. Scott, is that the general public, which is being misled by a conspiratorial combination of the American religious and political Right, can relax and be reassured. Dr. Scott’s message is that there is no contrary evidence to evolution and global warming. The science is settled and we simply need to respond to it.

He also noted,

The aspect of Dr Scott’s presentation that most irritated me was the occasional reference to “Intelligent Design Creationism.” This is the old guilt by association trick — hardly scientific — and it is just plain wrong. Whatever ID is, it is not a religious argument. ID may have religious implications, but it is not a religious position. When I asked her about it, she said that any suggestion of intelligent causation of the universe necessarily meant the position is “creationist.”

So there you have it. Science cannot countenance that kind of explanation, and it must therefore be rejected. Never mind the evidence. It doesn’t count. Perhaps that’s why in the Dover Trial in the US, Judge Jones concluded that ID may well be true, but it is not science. Well, as a modest science educator, I’m on the side of truth.

Eugenie Scott’s respectful and civil tone is to be commended. However, she would do well to study the key distinctions between religious creationism and intelligent design. I also think it is a touch naive to claim that there are absolutely no difficulties or problems associated with Darwinian evolution, particularly when papers and books are being published monthly purporting to resolve key shortcomings of the theory. I hope that Eugenie Scott’s audience will take the time to properly and objectively investigate the various positions on the evolution debate and come to their own informed conclusions.

Jonathan McLatchie

Resident Biologist & Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Jonathan McLatchie holds a Bachelor's degree in Forensic Biology from the University of Strathclyde, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, a second Master's degree in Medical and Molecular Bioscience from Newcastle University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Newcastle University. Previously, Jonathan was an assistant professor of biology at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. Jonathan has been interviewed on podcasts and radio shows including "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio, and many others. Jonathan has spoken internationally in Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia promoting the evidence of design in nature.



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