Giving skepticism a bad name

Chris Mooney, CalPundit, Signal+Noise and others have been doing a great job of keeping track of the woeful textbook battles down in Texas. The Board of Education there has been arguing over how evolution should be presented in the textbooks they're about to buy for the state's high school students. The Discovery Institute, the headquarters of "Intelligent Design" proponents, has been lobbying them hard to present their ideas on equal footing with those of evolutionary biology. It looks this morning like they've lost (again).

The conservative members of the board are disappointed--they say they wish that textbooks weren't so "dogmatic" about evolution. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram article to which I link above quotes Don McLeroy, a Republican board member, as saying, "People don't realize the threat of scientific dogmatism [with regards to] evolution in our society."

You hear this rhetoric a lot these days from the various opponents of evolution. They claim that we stifle the pursuit of knowledge and the full debate of ideas if children are taught evolution without equal time for alternative ideas. It has a nice ring to it, until you actually stop and think about what they are actually saying. You could just as easily undermine the teaching of any science in the United States with the same line of pseudo-reasoning.

Imagine that a group of people don't like genetics. They don't like what it implies about human nature, for example--that our personalities and actions are influenced, to some extent, by molecules we inherit from our parents. That's bad for society. So they set out to discredit genetics--not in the scientific arena, but in the court of public opinion. They carefully cherry-pick fragmentary information from the scientific literature. They point out, for example, that geneticists themselves claim that only 2%of the genome actually codes for DNA. What does the other 98% do? They don't know! The human genome has been sequenced, and it turns out that humans have 30,000 genes. How do they manage to become such complex organisms with only twice the genes of a fruit fly? They don't know! These dogmatic geneticists claim that all organisms use DNA as the basis of heredity. But, the anti-geneticists point out, the geneticists have yet to actually show that DNA even exists in over 99% of all species on Earth!

Well! It's obvious that geneticists are pushing genetics out of some hidden ideological agenda which will ruin the nation. Clearly we cannot allow them to dominate the classroom. Until every last species has had its genome entirely sequenced, until we know what every last nucleotide does in every genome, there must be room for alternative ideas. Now, we're not talking here about so-called alternatives that are really just genetics in disguise. There are those out there who are arguing that the DNA to RNA to protein paradigm has to be broadened. They say, for example, that genes don't always code just a single protein but get spliced up into different versions. They also say that a lot of RNA that never gets made into protein still plays a big role in regulating the production of other proteins. But they're just tinkering with genetics in order to save it from itself!

No, what we need is some new thinking. And by new thinking, we mean going backwards fifty, a hundred, maybe 300 years. Let's teach Lysenko. Even better, let's teach the homunculus--the little pre-formed person that was believed int he 1600s to be lurking in every sperm. We can trick out the homunculus with jazzy terminology we borrow from information theory--let's say that the human body is too complex for blind genes to form it. Ergo homunculus! The fact that not a single scientific paper in a peer-reviewed biology journal has been based on the homunculus is no reason not to teach it to children. Those journals are just the tools of the geneticists, anyway. We need to teach the controversy!

You get the idea. Apply it as you wish to chemistry, physics, geology, and so on. And watch America's already unsteady grasp on science slip even further.


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