[Paleopsych] NYT: Philosophers Notwithstanding, Kansas School Board Redefines Science
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Sun Nov 20 18:43:53 UTC 2005
Philosophers Notwithstanding, Kansas School Board Redefines Science
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Once it was the left who wanted to redefine science.
In the early 1990's, writers like the Czech playwright and former
president Vaclav Havel and the French philosopher Bruno Latour
proclaimed "the end of objectivity." The laws of science were
constructed rather than discovered, some academics said; science was
just another way of looking at the world, a servant of corporate and
military interests. Everybody had a claim on truth.
The right defended the traditional notion of science back then. Now it
is the right that is trying to change it.
On Tuesday, fueled by the popular opposition to the Darwinian theory
of evolution, the Kansas State Board of Education stepped into this
fraught philosophical territory. In the course of revising the state's
science standards to include criticism of evolution, the board
promulgated a new definition of science itself.
The changes in the official state definition are subtle and lawyerly,
and involve mainly the removal of two words: "natural explanations."
But they are a red flag to scientists, who say the changes obliterate
the distinction between the natural and the supernatural that goes
back to Galileo and the foundations of science.
The old definition reads in part, "Science is the human activity of
seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around
us." The new one calls science "a systematic method of continuing
investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement,
experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more
adequate explanations of natural phenomena."
Adrian Melott, a physics professor at the University of Kansas who has
long been fighting Darwin's opponents, said, "The only reason to take
out 'natural explanations' is if you want to open the door to
Gerald Holton, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, said
removing those two words and the framework they set means "anything
The authors of these changes say that presuming the laws of science
can explain all natural phenomena promotes materialism, secular
humanism, atheism and leads to the idea that life is accidental.
Indeed, they say in material online at kansasscience2005.com, it may
even be unconstitutional to promulgate that attitude in a classroom
because it is not ideologically "neutral."
But many scientists say that characterization is an overstatement of
the claims of science. The scientist's job description, said Steven
Weinberg, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the University of Texas,
is to search for natural explanations, just as a mechanic looks for
mechanical reasons why a car won't run.
"This doesn't mean that they commit themselves to the view that this
is all there is," Dr. Weinberg wrote in an e-mail message. "Many
scientists (including me) think that this is the case, but other
scientists are religious, and believe that what is observed in nature
is at least in part a result of God's will."
The opposition to evolution, of course, is as old as the theory
itself. "This is a very long story," said Dr. Holton, who attributed
its recent prominence to politics and the drive by many religious
conservatives to tar science with the brush of materialism.
How long the Kansas changes will last is anyone's guess. The state
board tried to abolish the teaching of evolution and the Big Bang in
schools six years ago, only to reverse course in 2001.
As it happened, the Kansas vote last week came on the same day that
voters in Dover, Pa., ousted the local school board that had been sued
for introducing the teaching of intelligent design.
As Dr. Weinberg noted, scientists and philosophers have been trying to
define science, mostly unsuccessfully, for centuries.
When pressed for a definition of what they do, many scientists
eventually fall back on the notion of falsifiability propounded by the
philosopher Karl Popper. A scientific statement, he said, is one that
can be proved wrong, like "the sun always rises in the east" or "light
in a vacuum travels 186,000 miles a second." By Popper's rules, a law
of science can never be proved; it can only be used to make a
prediction that can be tested, with the possibility of being proved
But the rules get fuzzy in practice. For example, what is the role of
intuition in analyzing a foggy set of data points? James Robert Brown,
a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, said in an
e-mail message: "It's the widespread belief that so-called scientific
method is a clear, well-understood thing. Not so." It is learned by
doing, he added, and for that good examples and teachers are needed.
One thing scientists agree on, though, is that the requirement of
testability excludes supernatural explanations. The supernatural, by
definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it
cannot be tested. "The only claim regularly made by the pro-science
side is that supernatural explanations are empty," Dr. Brown said.
The redefinition by the Kansas board will have nothing to do with how
science is performed, in Kansas or anywhere else. But Dr. Holton said
that if more states changed their standards, it could complicate the
lives of science teachers and students around the nation.
He added that Galileo - who started it all, and paid the price - had
"a wonderful way" of separating the supernatural from the natural.
There are two equally worthy ways to understand the divine, Galileo
said. "One was reverent contemplation of the Bible, God's word," Dr.
Holton said. "The other was through scientific contemplation of the
world, which is his creation.
"That is the view that I hope the Kansas school board would have
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