Monday, August 08, 2005

Thank you, John Marburger

Below is a portion of an email released by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the largest professional organization in the country for science teachers, of which I am a proud member. It is addressing President Bush's recent statement and endorsement that Intelligent Design should be taught along with evolution in science classrooms. Of course, it is easy to dismiss this statement from a man whose administration simply ignores science when evidence and facts get in the way of its agenda, but on the other hand it is another slap in the face of science and science education. It gives credibilty to ID as a scientific theory to many Americans who are not following the story; ID is simply NOT a scientific concept. I was thrilled to learn that John Marburger, the President's science advisor, later followed the Bush statement with a clarifying statement that ID is not scientifically valid and does not belong in science classrooms. I only hope Marburger is not taken out back for a whooping by Rove, et. al. For more of my own thoughts, see previous posts from May. Here is the NSTA statement, with links to replies from numerous other science organizations that were sent out immediately after the Bush statement.

"President Bush ignited a media firestorm last week when he voiced his support for “Intelligent Design.” When asked by reporters whether he believed both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in schools, Bush replied that he did “so that people can understand what the debate is about.” The response from the scientific and education communities was immediate and fierce. Statements by NSTA, the American Physical Society (APS), American Geophysical Union (AGU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), and others helped to shape the controversy for millions nationwide. A statement was also issued by the National Congress on Science Education (NCSE), which is comprised of representatives from NSTA Chapters and Associated Groups.

In a statement released on August 3, NSTA indicated that it was “stunned and disappointed” that President Bush is endorsing intelligent design—effectively opening the door for nonscientific ideas to be taught in the nation’s K-12 science classrooms.
"It is simply not fair to present pseudoscience to students in the science classroom," said NSTA President Mike Padilla. "Nonscientific viewpoints have little value in increasing students' knowledge of the natural world."

To read the NSTA statement, go to
To read statements issued by other organizations, go to the following links:
To view the statement by the NCSE, visit

NSTA also contributed to numerous news articles, including the cover story in this week's issue of TIME magazine. To read a few of the many news articles generated from Bush’s comments, go to the NSTA News Digest at"


James said...

This may be a stupid question, but what is the difference between ID, Creationism, and everything else?

mark said...

Not a stupid question as they are not the same.

Creationism is teaching that life appeared spontaneously, as it exists today, by the act of a divine creator i.e. - it is the story in Genesis.

Creationism rejects the entirety of the fossil record, the principles of the biological sciences, the theory of evolution, carbon -dating technology, empiricism and the scientific method.

It is also unconstitutional to teach creationism in the public schools according to the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

Intelligent Design accepts the scientific method, empiricism, the fossil record, carbon-dating etc. and devotes itself to trying to poke holes in the Theory of Evolution while offering only the complexity of systems as "proof" that life could only have an intelligent, purposeful, designer.

The reason ID is not considered "science" is because it's propositions are not falsifiable. Essentially, ID is a philosophical speculation, a fine thing but it isn't scientific.

Putting ID in a science class would lead adolescents to infer that ID is a) scientific and b) that scientists put ID critiques of evolution on the same plane as they do the Theory of Evolution.

Sort of like putting Ptolomey's Heliocentric theory on par with modern astrophysics.

vonny said...

Hi james,

Many have called ID 'creationism-lite.' It is essentially creationism, but put on the map and given scientific 'legitimacy'by some Ph.D.'s back in the 1980s (if memory serves). The gist is life is so complex that some supernatural entity (i.e. a Creator, God, etc., just don't call it that to avoid a religious addition to the 'theory') had to design it. For instance, a single cell is so complex that science cannot address how it could arise from natural means, so that is proof that an intelligent being designed it. In my mind it basically says because things get so complicated, let's just give up on science and call it off. There is also Okham's razor, which says that the simplest scientific and philosophical theories/explanations tend to be correct, and, granted, saying a supernatural power designed the universe and life is certainly the simplest explanation (although it doesn't explain where the supernatural entity comes from).

However, this is the problem we face when one wants to add ID into a science curriculum. What is science? Webster defines it as systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation to determine the nature and principles of the physical world. In other words, scientific theories develop from observations of some set of phenomena, and they must also derive predictions for a variety of parameter sets and/or environments that are physically testable. For example, string theory (now called M-theory) is a promising set of equations that seem to solve many problems in the Standard Model of particle physics. THe Standard Model has been tested over many decades by numerous independent experiments, yet we know it is incomplete since, for instance, gravity cannot be added into the theory. M-theory attempts to solve the gravity problem. But, as beautiful and promising as the mathematics have been, the predictions that can be made to date from those equations are not within the realm of sensitivity of modern technology...the theory has not made a testable prediction yet, so an experimentalist like myself would say it is not yet a true scientific theory. Even the theorist working on it must say it is more of a mathematical philosophy, at least until TESTABLE predictions can be derived.

What is the prediction of ID/Creationism? The entire premise of these explanations is a supreme being/intelligent designer. In order to be a scientific theory, a physical test for the existence of such an entity is REQUIRED...if such a test is developed, I will gladly be the first to teach that in my classes. But until that happens, I won't, but will instead use it to help define the difference between science and philospohy and religion. Evolution makes physical predictions: life forms mutate, speciate, and favorable expressions of characteristics are selected naturally, organisms with unfavorable expressions die off. There are literally mountains of evidence for these natural process made by thousands of independent observers, and all those observations and experiments and studies have ruled out all other proposed explanations, such as the most famous, Lamarck's theory. It has stood the test of time and all the scrutiny placed on it by the scientific establisment. ID has not because no one knows how to test for the intelligent designer.

I figure nature has had a couple billion years to have complex life forms develop. We have been able to study that complexity on order of a century. Each day new pieces of the puzzle are discovered in the lab and in the fossil record, and even through genetic polymorphic records. All evidence supports new species breaking off of and radiating from older species, and that there are numerous genetic links across species (all the way down to the simplest, single-celled critters). This all supports the model developed by Darwin. I've got more in previous links from May if you are interested.

Erica said...

I can't believe I'm posting this comment because I'm a firm believer that creationism should NOT be taught in schools, but just for argument's sake, I personally think there are a couple of theoretical holes in the theory of evolution that could be solved with ID.

The main one is our law of entropy. I was always taught that nature likes things to be disorderly; unless you put work or energy into a system, it gets more and more disorganized and everything ends up in a big mess. I don't think anyone would argue that there's plenty of evidence to support this: heat diffuses, things break but don't put themselves back together, etc.

Evolution completely contradicts this law. Life started as a lot of really simple single-cell organisms and somehow managed to develop into the immensely complex life forms we have today. It's like running the entropy clock backwards, which just isn't supposed to happen.

So, our alternative seems to be to believe that there WAS some force that put work into the system of the Earth in order to create these life forms. While it's true that there's no way to prove this, I think maybe it should be offered to students as what it is: an idea. While this can get messy with all the religion stuff that goes along with it, I think it may be a good idea to at least let students know what's out there. And who knows... maybe we will be able to find evidence for or against ID one day.

Sorry if this entry doesn't make sense... I'm on such a strong painkiller that I can barely remember my own name.

James said...

Thanks for the explanation, it's not the science I'm confused on, it's just the political jargon, which is much more complicated. Our bio class freshman year simply said that evolution doesn't touch how life or matter came to be, and that the idea of a creator is outside the realm of science, which I thought was a good way to mention it.

Funny you should mention entropy, Erica, I've always thought that it should have some profound philosophical consequence, although I'm not clever enough to realize what it is. And I think Occam's Razor is a lame argument for ANYTHING. Look at quantum physics.

vonny said...

james -

True, Okham's (or Occam's) razor does not seem to work for quantum theory. But I have a feeling Einstein did his best work looking for the simplest reasons for things to happen (which is why he, even as a major contributor to basic quantum ideas in the early years of its development, despised is at least easiest to start by looking for simplicity.

Erica -

First, I hope the surgery went well. Second, ah, entropy. If you think about it, the universe should not be here if you think just in terms of the usual notion of order and disorder. Most people would say something breaking down from a whole into pieces is order going to disorder, or a clean dormroom turning into a mess of clothes thrown all over the place as examples of the law of entropy (or second law of thermodynamics). BUT, after the Big Bang, for instance, why would we start with the simplest of all possible states, energy and individual particles flying around, and then proceed to become more complex? Quarks formed protons and neutrons, which then formed nuclei, which then combined with electrons to form hydrogen and helium, which then formed gas clouds, which then formed stars, which then formed more complex atoms. Those atoms then formed more complex structures (molecules) which formed planets, and so on. Nature tends to move to greater complexity (and there is a saying that complexity builds more complexity).

One way of thinking about entropy is that whenever a physical system is allowed to distribute energy freely, it will do so in a manner such that the entropy increases while the energy of the system that remains available for doing work decreases. Stable equilibrium is the minimum in a potential well, meaning there is a minimum of stored energy of the system that can be used to do work. THis is where, of course, bonds would then form and the energy is stored within the bond. Nature seeks out the lowest potential energy states, which is what allows chemical bonds to form and for galaxies and solar systems to form (i.e. our two dominant long-range and conservative forces, electromagnetism and gravity).

In addition, when you start talking about major complex systems such as life, there is more to consider. THe probability of us doing a table-top chemistry experiment that suddenly has a living cell form spontaneously is as close to zero (I would assume!) as you can get. How could it have happened in Nature? Because living things, in order to be alive, need to extract energy from its surroundings. Energy is taken in by a cell or multicellular organism in order to be used to increase their own organization. So you are right that entropy of living organisms actaully decreases because order increases. But the key is to think of not a closed system of the organism, because to remain alive it needs to interact with its environment, so the system we need to consider is larger than the organism itself. The order of life is maintained by increasing the entropy everywhere else. Paul Hewitt gives an example in his Conceptual Physics textbook that life forms plus their waste products have a net increase in entropy! Think about all the heat and wasted energy (that can no longer be used by the organism to do work) organisms give off to the environment, creating a net increase in disorder of the larger system. An organism then dies when it is no longer able to extract energy from its environment and transform it effectively to support life. A dead organism is then a more isolated system, and it then decays, certainly becoming more disordered and increasing its entropy.