14 June 2009

McLeroy still distorting science

Even though Don McLeroy is no longer Chair of the Texas State Board of Education, he still continues to pontificate on science generally and biology specifically and still does not get it correct.

Member of the Texas State Board of Education Don McLeory wrote an op-ed in the Bryan-College Station Eagle on the new science standards he helped create at the end of March. It’s one of McLeroy’s least inflammatory articles. Most of this piece is very straightforward and uncontroversial. But McLeroy lets his real interests show, as he always does:

The sequential pattern of fossils can be considered evidence for evolution, but the other patterns – sudden appearance and stasis (staying the same) – can be used to question evolution.

Only if one doesn’t understand that sudden appearance and stasis in the fossil record were predicted by applying the dominant model of how new species form (allopatric speciation) that came from studying ecology. McLeroy follows a long line of creationists who have misappropriated the concept of punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould and Nile Eldridge. Gould devotes five pages to debunking the idea that punctuated equilibrium disproves evolution in his book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (starting on 986 under the heading, “Creationist misappropriation of punctuated equilibrium”).

McLeroy should also get a spot on the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks for sentences like this:

Texas students also will get to examine “how” evolutionary processes “created” the amazing complex assemblies that are found in the cell.

McLeroy consistently such comments on evolution, fossils, and the origin of life, singling evolution out for special treatment of the sciences, because he is all about attacking evolution.

But perhaps the most subtle misinformation is this one:

Science demands that experiments, not just observations, demonstrate the hypothesis.

This almost slipped by me, especially since the sentences right before it discuss hypothesis testing, which is much closer to the mark.

Experiments are not the be all and end all of science, as McLeroy suggests. Astronomy is not an experimental science. Many aspects of geology are not experimental sciences. Some branches of biology are not experimental sciences. But of course, trying to recast experiments as necessary to science plays into the hands of creationists, who would love to be able to say, “You can’t turn a dinosaur into a bird in the lab, so it’s not science.”

Science has never been limited to testing hypotheses through experiments. For instance, one famous test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity – involving the transit of Mercury (pictured) – was not an experiment. You can’t experimentally manipulate Mercury or the Sun. There is no control group. And yet it is still science, contrary to McLeroy’s claim.

Since McLeroy misappropriates punctuated equilibrium, it feels appropriate to pull a quote from Gould on creationists who do so:

Shabby and dishonest argument can win a fragile and transient advantage, but so long as we fight back, we will win.


Additional: More analysis at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

1 comment:

Matthew Foster said...

"Good" "stuff".