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An Interview with Dr. Eugenie Scott

Bill Busher

April 21, 2006

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, Inc., recently spoke at OCC’s Whitney Building, on Evolution vs. Creationism Intelligent Design. The lecture was presented by the Technology Alliance of Central New York (TACNY), and sponsored by a grant from National Grid. NCSE is a not for profit membership organization in Oakland, CA, of scientists, teachers, and others that works to improve the teaching of evolution, and of science as a way of knowing. It opposes the advocacy of “scientific” creationism and other religiously-based views in science classes. She has held elective offices in the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Scott is the current president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Following is an interview conducted by Bill Busher, a past President of TACNY, and current editor of their monthly publication, The Technologist.

BB: One criticism coming from the creationist side is that evolution is “only a theory.” How is a theory looked on, from a scientist’s perspective?

ES: From the scientific perspective, a theory is an explanation. Theories are the goal of science. In the general public, a theory is a guess or a hunch or something that is not important, so there is a huge difference between how we use the term in science, and how we use the term in the general public. In the general public, ‘fact’ is very very important; in science, theories explain facts. So, theories trump facts and laws.

BB: Is there a point at which a theory becomes fact?

ES: No, theories explain facts. Facts are observations, and observations are a dime a dozen in science. We collect observations, but what is important is to use those observations to generate theories, which explain the facts and explain the other aspects of nature. Theories don’t become facts, theories explain facts.

BB: Even something as simple as say, the theory of gravity, which everyone assumes is a fact?

ES: What happens is that unsupported objects fall. That is not gravity. To explain why this pen didn’t fly around the room, when I stopped supporting it and why it fell, we use the theory of gravitation. The theory of gravitation is the mass of the pen and the mass of the table attract each other. That’s the theory - that’s an explanation. The observation, or fact, was that an unsupported object fell. So, gravitation is not a fact, gravitation is a theoretical explanation.

BB: With that definition of theory, would creationism qualify as a theory?

ES: In the simplest definition of theory, yes, because creationism is an inferential explanation for natural phenomena. The creationists would look at the diversity of living things and say “God created them as specially created kinds. ” And, theories don’t have to be correct. Lamarckism is an incorrect theory of heredity, but it’s still a scientific theory.

BB: Do you think that there is a place for creationism intelligent design in school?

ES: Because creationism intelligent design are inherently religious ideas, they have no place in the science classroom. I’m not sure that intelligent design is especially appropriate for a comparative religion class at the K-12 level, because it’s such a minimalist position. It makes so few actual claims, and they're based on probability theory, molecular biology and information theory and things that you just don’t get into in the high school level. Certainly, I would say creationisms (plural) could be taught in a comparative sense, in a comparative religion class, but I’m not sure that because of the nature of intelligent design that it would ever be terribly successful in high school. But of course, the content of intelligent design is “evidence against evolution” - that’s all they're really saying, and so why clutter up the student’s knowledge with misinformation?

BB: Doesn't the complexity of evolution, involving biology, chemistry, earth sciences and so on, put at a distinct disadvantage proponents of evolution in debates?

ES: If I’m going to be discussing this issue publicly, generally speaking, it’s going to be ‘either or.’ I’m either talking about science, and then so are they, in which case I can criticize either the phylogeny of creation science or I can criticize the molecular biology of intelligent design. They will talk about peppered moths as inadequate science, or whatever. Or, we'll talk about theological issues or possibly philosophy of science. In that case, we are sort of arguing on an equal playing field so to speak. In fact, what the creation science people and the ID people are extraordinarily concerned about, is that when they are in public debates that they're not talking about religion. That said, it’s still the case that the audience that hears these exchanges and is evaluating the statements on both sides, probably is thinking in terms of religion, even when they are hearing the science. And so I think what you want to do is be very clear when you’re discussing creation and evolution; that you separate out your opponents religious views from the scientific claims, and let the audience know that you are criticizing the scientific views of your opponent, and allowing him freedom of religion. But. bad science cannot be excused because of somebody’s religious views.

BB: Have you heard any rationale from those who do participate in the structured debates, as to why they would do it?

ES: Well, there are fewer and fewer people doing this. What few people I've run into in the last three or four years who've gotten suckered into these debates did it out of ignorance. There are a couple of people around, like Michael Ruse and Ken Miller, who do take on the formal debate kind of thing from time to time, although I think even Ken has now kind of ‘hung up’ his debate shoes, so to speak, and he’s not really interested. I don’t quite understand why Mike Ruse keeps going out on the hustings. It pays well, I guess.

BB: The Kansas board of education is famous for having a zig-zag pattern when it comes to evolution and creationism, each time the makeup of the board changes. With that in mind, what do you see on the horizon for New York State?

ES: I have to plead ignorance on that; I’m not sure of the makeup of the school board.

BB: There is a bill pending that...

ES: That’s in the legislature, though.

BB: What do you think is the potential impact of the recent court decision in Philadelphia?

ES: It is definitely going to throw sand in the gears of the intelligent design movement, in the sense that school districts that are contemplating teaching ID, are going to be told by their legal retainers, “don’t do this, because it’s going to cost you a lot of money to go to court and lose.” It’s not going to stop the effort completely, but what it will do, is to encourage this sort of third wave of creationism, which is the “evidence against evolution” approach. Although the judge in Kitzmiller [vs. Dover] did address the gap/problems in evolution part of the policy, which is of course, the avatar of the “evidence” against evolution school, he spent a lot more time in the decision pounding intelligent design. I think the anti-evolutionists are going to try the “evidence against evolution” approach with a different fact base than the Dover case did. Obviously, what they have to do is come up with a smarter school board, that isn’t going to be making as many religious references as the Dover board did. And then, they may have a better chance of passing through the courts. The “evidence against evolution” approach has been struck down by the courts if the judge accepts the history of this issue, and shows the ultimate religious purpose for proposing these policies. But, you get a judge who doesn't like the ‘purpose’ argument, which is one of the arguments used to interpret the establishment clause, then it’s going to be a whole more difficult to fight against the “evidence against evolution” school.

BB: We hear a lot about children in this country falling behind their counterparts in other countries. How does this controversy play into the overall educational picture?

ES: Certainly, if the United States is going to maintain its technological superiority, we have to have good science education. We don’t have as good science education as we'd like; it’s very patchy. Some schools do a wonderful job; others do a terrible job; many do a mediocre job. The systematic avoidance of the teaching of evolution is a real ‘canary in the coal mine’ for indicating the politicization of education. If we are choosing our science based on political considerations, we are under and miseducating our students. We will not maintain that international technological and scientific superiority.

BB: In a society where a large portion of the population believe in things like psychics, homeopathy, touch therapy, astrology, creationism and intelligent design, what do you see as our best hope?

ES: I’m a believer in education. I think we need to do a much better job helping science teachers understand the nature of science, understand how to think critically, and help them devise ways of passing this on to the student body more effectively than they are today (at obviously an age-appropriate level). So much of the acceptance of these paranormal and crackpot ideas really rests upon the inability to think critically about the data that are presented to support them.

Bill Busher

Bill Busher is a past President of Technology Alliance of Central New York (TACNY), and current editor of their monthly publication, The Technologist.