Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Critical Analysis

A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away, there was a Christian Fundamentalist who believed with all his heart that 6,000 years ago, in a garden located at the confluence of four Mesopotamian rivers, a creature made from the earth breathed his first breath. But that was before the CF “critically analyzed” the data. Before he knew anything other than straw-man arguments for the mud man. Before he thought about things in the light of scientific theory. Before he thought about anything other than what was shoved down his credulous throat by a CF version of the Roman Magisterium.

But, one day, he climbed out of the primordial religious soup of CF and thought. He learned to stand upright. He wrapped his opposing thumbs around his Bible and read, really read. From that time on, he understood the Bible’s stories of creation as a beautiful, powerful account of the Intelligent Design behind the evolution of life. He’s still a believer, still a Christian, but no longer a card-carrying member of the Young Earth Society. He no longer sees a conflict between science and religion.

Critical analysis of scientific theory is a valuable tool. It is “the separation of an intellectual idea into its constituent parts for the purpose of a careful, exact evaluation and judgment about those parts and their interrelationships in making up a whole.” (Ohio Dept. of Education) But, as a teenager, this would have been far beyond his abilities. Because like most teenagers, he would have had a hard time determining if the bathroom was dirty, even if employing critical analysis of its towel strewn state. Critical analysis requires the type of thinking that allows for differing interpretations of evidence employed to prove a hypothesis. And “proving a hypothesis” means testing it, not “proving” it right. It requires testing and replication of results, rather than a mere gainsaying of a prevailing theory.

It’s why the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee’s decision to require students to perform “critical analysis” on the theory of evolution is doomed to failure. Students simply do not have critical thinking skills necessary to critically analyze homology, antibiotic resistance, or endosymbiosis theory. Most high school students would have difficulty spelling those terms, much less critically analyzing the theories or the controversies surrounding them.

So when former EOC chairman Bob Staton, a Republican candidate for Superintendent of Education, hailed the EOC’s decision a “benefit for children,” it was disingenuous. It benefits Mr. Staton’s candidacy as a peacemaker between the Republican warlords sparring for control of the GOP in South Carolina, but it does nothing to help young people determine what science tells us about the origin of species. It undermines the study of science by muddying the water with fake controversy.

It’s ironic that Mr. Staton, an establishment businessman, should be embracing a thoroughly post-modern approach to hard science, when he would surely never promote that type of thinking in the social studies or English departments in South Carolina high schools. If so, he would be embracing a philosophical approach used by the anti-establishment, womanist, queer-studies, neo-Marxist, left-wing University professors that his party has long dismissed as nonsense. The nattering nabobs. The chattering class. The effete snobs. The brie eaters. The Volvo-driving, Democrat-voting, New York Times reading, anti-war liberals. The people who say that all ideas should be allowed to enter the intellectual marketplace on an equal footing.

But not all ideas are created (or evolved) equally. Not all controversies are worthy of expending precious educational time exploring. The earth, for example, is not flat, no matter what the Flat Earth Society says. Aliens in space ships do not kidnap people from their beds no matter what the National UFO Center says. And the existence of unique species in isolated places on the earth is not due to Noah dropping them off the Ark, no matter what the Institute for Creation Research says.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection does not explain every anomaly in biological science. But it is verifiable in most of its assertions and provides the working basis for what we know to be true about the way living things function, differ from each other and reproduce. To say that it is “true” is to say that when and where it can be tested, it seems to work.

Nor does it preclude a First Cause, or an Intelligent Designer. It is just not prepared to answer those questions, since they lie outside its purview. Religion does that. But religion is not science. And since my religion and yours are different, you don’t want me teaching your kids that my religion is true and yours is false. Especially not under guise of science.

That’s a critical analysis of the Education Oversight Committee’s failure to oversee the education of our children. Because of that sad failure, South Carolina gets further behind the rest of the country and the world (which, as the Governor and Tom Friedman remind us, is flat).


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On a semi-related subject, replete with belly laughs, check out Not Very Bright's actual unretouched snippets from a Christian chat room. Turns out NVB really is very bright (and funny, to boot!). But you knew that already, didn't you?

1 comment:

NotVeryBright said...

Mighty kind words. Thanks for that.

You've put your finger on the flaw in the critical analysis argument. When I read an entry like this, I am hopeful that the wise outnumber the disengenuous and manipulative. Call it "faith."