Friday, April 14, 2006

Unscientific biases

Unscientific biases
The Ottawa Citizen is often hit and miss about their coverage of a lot of issues. I thought they were getting a bit better with their coverage of several science related stories recently.
Then along came this article I found at the online site dated 8 Apr 06.
The opening starts out okay.
Canadian agency that funds university research made international headlines this week because it challenged a professor's assumption that evolution theory is incontrovertible.

Good start. I mean we all seem to agree with this and thankfully they haven't decided to argue the facts. But what the hell is this supposed to mean?
But the agency wasn't being backward, it was defending objective scholarship.

Hunh? Isn't reality objective?
Brian Alters, a professor of education at McGill University, had applied for a $40,000 grant to study "Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers." The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council rejected his application. Mr. Alters says that doesn't bother him: He knows SSHRC can't fund all applicants, and the council has given him funding for other projects.
We all agree with the second part. Money is always tight, no matter how much is available. It's the classic guns and butter dilemma. But it's really the first part that stumps me. What would the positive effects be of teaching poor critical thinking and giving up when the questions get difficult?

What bothers him is one of the reasons the council gave for its refusal: that there was no "adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct." Mr. Alters was flabbergasted. "We don't have to justify gravity theory, plate tectonics, the earth going around the sun, germ theory. We award PhDs in evolutionary biology."

He's right: Evolution theory and intelligent-design theory are not two competing branches of biology. The first is biology; the second is metaphysics. Within the academic world the two theories are not equivalent in their scientific merit, which is why even the Vatican doesn't argue that Intelligent Design should be taught in biology classes.

I'll call this part a hit. Biology: evolution. Metaphysics: ID. We're back on track.

But Mr. Alters is researching education in the wider world, where many laypeople do question the theory of evolution. It isn't unreasonable for a multidisciplinary grant committee, representing Canadian society, to ask Mr. Alters to explain why his social-science research project needs to take a position on why and how organisms evolve. Mr. Alters is doing that, and more -- he's assuming it is "detrimental" for people to believe in intelligent design.

Whoa. Derailed. Of course he's assuming it's detrimental.
Would you start with the neutral position that Moon Hoax believers do believe what they say so it can't be assumed that it's detrimental to the study of history to believe in it. What if someone wanted to say that the French never made it to North America? Would you have to state that you didn't assume they were unlettered in history? Don't start with the position that the Potato Famine had a negative effect on the Irish population? It could go either way.
Okay, unfocussed half thought out rant over.
But why would they want you to assume that there was an upside to learning not-biology as biology?
His outrage that anyone would dare question evolutionary theory smacks, frankly, of an ideological bias. "The occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact," he says. That it is, but scientists must re-examine their theories and even their facts. Science isn't sacred, and if anyone ought to understand that, it's an academic trying to distinguish fact from belief. Einstein has been proven wrong, or incomplete, on some things. That isn't to say evolutionary theory is wrong, but it must be always open to discussion, elaboration and, yes, maybe re-examination.

Okay, that's true enough. But to continue the Einstien analogy, there are a lot of people out there trying to deny relativity lock stock and barrell. Would that have a negative effect on physics to believe in it?
Is it objective to assume, at the beginning of a research project and without evidence, that the beliefs of others are causing them harm? As the SSHRC committee put it, the proposal didn't substantiate the premise that intelligent design has detrimental effects on students and others.

Umm, sure. Is it objective to assume that believing in astrology harms your ability to objectively interpret astronomical data? Some stuff is just given.

Mr. Alters says that those very effects are what he wants to research, and he can't prove his premise until he's done the work. But it's easy to see why the committee had doubts about Mr. Alters' neutrality when he adds, "Intelligent design is a pseudo-science. Of course it has a detrimental effect on people." If Mr. Alters wants to study the effects of intelligent-design theory on education, he should. But his findings will lack scholarly credibility if they are based on an a priori assumption that people who accept intelligent design are damaged goods.

To borrow from Bill Maher, you don't have to give equal time to two sides of the argument if one side is full of complete crap.

Sometimes you're studying the pervasiveness or degree of a phenomenon.

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