Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Biology at Bob Jones University

Recently I bumped into this at the blog The Questionable Authority:

... a group of creationists are suing the University of California system in order to force UC to accept several of their classes that are currently not considered adequate. One of the courses in question is biology.

What do they want? To use textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press. The Questionable Authority then goes on to describe this Biology textbook and finds this passage:

The people who prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second...If...at any point God's Word is not put first, the authors apologize....

Now of course having stated this would end any discussion as to whether this textbook could be used in public schools. But now my interest is piqued. What do these guys really believe? So I went to their website and started to read the free chapter from the textbook.

So what is science (according to Bob Jones)?

The Christian must evaluate the source of a statement. Scientific statements must be based on observation or else they are mere guesses. There is nothing wrong with a guess, as long as it is clearly labeled a guess or a belief. But Christians must disregard those guesses and beliefs that contradict the Bible.(from the introduction)

So Science is a collection of mere guesses?

Science can be defined as a body of facts that man has gathered by observing the physical universe. (p4)

Actually both of these passages are wrong. And if any textbook, dictionary has this idea, they are wrong too. Science is not guessing, not facts ... Science is a tool. It's a method. In fact later at the end of the fist chapter after another bad description of science "Science cannot explain things; it only describes." (p36) they do a good job of defining science:

Scientists devise models to explain the data they have obtained ... Putting together all the experimental information so that it "works" logically can produce a model. Further experimentation and testing of the model often reveal more information. If the results of these additional experiments agree with the model, they give greater validity to the explanation. If the results do not support the model, then either those data are in error, or the model must be greatly changed and retested or even discarded. (p36)

Wow, I'm impressed ... now if they could only remain consistent. Yes I am being nit-picky but little lapses of definition can muddle the whole debate. And to Bob Jones credit - it's not only them, it's all over the place. Science is a method that generates hypothesis or models.

So what else do they say? Some weird things like:

The Bible teaches that things are getting worse and that God is the source of all that is good. But some people claim that scientific efforts are improving man's existence and will continue to do so. (p3)

Go to The Questionable Authority for more of these statements. But otherwise ... not too bad. The intro deals with the importance of being critical in Science and of being critical about Science ... part of the Scientific Method is to be critical ... but since Bob Jones and Co think that Science is "facts" I guess generated by (secular) scientists, they have to be critical of those too.

There is then a discussion of spontaneous generation, and this is used to show the limitation of science. Basically the book describes some badly controlled experiments by Jan Baptist van Helmont and how this led to the belief that life could appear spontaneously. Experiments done later by Francesco Redi, with proper controls, disproved spontaneous generation. This purportedly shows the pit falls of Science. Actually this is a good lesson on how over time science gives better and better models through critical evaluation of previous work coupled with better and better experimental design. Science is inherently self critical and that is exactly why it advances from "not so good" models to "better" models.

Interestingly, the intro uses many concepts from post-modernism and relativism to argue that there is no such thing as (scientific) fact, only guesses - that is an interesting turn of events! I guess I agree, except that I would call them models instead of guesses. Science generates models, nothing else.

Next up is Inductive and Deductive reasoning. They pose the question of whether math (i.e. logical/deductive reasonning) to be trusted? They argue that a business may cook the books - so not always. Bottom line, any form of reasoning often works but sometimes fail ... so don't always trust them. They actually give a bad example of how logic is not always functional using (again) van Helmont and his plant experiment...
Statement 1: Plants, when growing in soil and water, gain weight.
Statement 2: Plants gain much more weight than is taken from soil.
Conclusion: Weight gain of plants comes almost entirely from water.
Of course the logic is not complete and an axiom is missing. But lets not think too much ... logic is faulty (I guess). So then is Science to be trusted? "A scientist employed by a tobacco company to research the effects of smoking might tend to emphasize results that would please his employer ..." (p15)

We get the picture ... although they do redeem themselves later on:
One wrong attitude towards science is to believe that science is anti-God.
Science is not evil because men have abused the use of scientific knowledge.
I guess it is a Biology text book, the scientific method can't be all that wrong (or else they would have nothing to teach).

I'll end this post with this funny passage from the accompanying teacher's manual. In it there is a nice (ironic?) quote about the belief of the extra-terrestrial origins of life:

Some scientists have recognized the improbability of abiogenesis [origin of life from the primordial soup] occurring on earth. For this reason, they theorize that life may have spontaneously arisen somewhere else in space and arrived here. This seems even more incredible and merely shifts the unproven process to another location where it cannot be tested. (p19 teacher's manual)