Monday, February 06, 2006


Of Science and Imagination

An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer observes that in the wake of the Dover intelligent design trial, "scientists are being criticized, even by their own colleagues, for working on anything that might be construed as pseudoscience - and string theory is drawing most of the heat."
Case Western physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose latest book, Hiding in the Mirror, has stirred the controversy, feels that science's current struggle against political and religious agendas makes string theory a dangerous liability. As he writes in the journal Nature, the scientific status afforded to string theory "opens us up to otherwise avoidable attacks, particularly from those who would include religious ideas in high school science curricula."
Being a squishy humanities type, Red State Rabble has to admit we have only the dimmest grasp of what string theory is. So far as we know, the churches are ignoring it. No movement that we've been able to detect is rising up to teach it in elementary, middle, or high schools.

Still, the defense of science education in public schools demands that scientists and educators be absolutely clear about what science is, and what it isn't.

One key strategy intelligent design activists now employ with increasing frequency is to pretend -- falsely -- that the metaphysical speculations made by scientists in books and articles written for non-scientists are actually taught biology classes.

This is most often seen in curriculum battles over abiogenesis, the development of living organisms from nonliving matter. Here in Kansas, the standards proposed by professional scientists and educators were silent on the origin of life -- a subject quite different from evolution.

The origin of life is a matter of some controversy among scientists. Like much else, it is the subject of ongoing investigation. No satisfying explanation has yet been advanced to explain abiogenesis, although there are some half-dozen hypotheses about how it might have occurred. For these reasons, creationists and intelligent design activists see the issue as an especially ripe gap into which they might insert their god.

While many scientists may harbor their own suspicions on the origin of life, they have so far resisted the urge to teach what they can't yet prove in science classes. Ironically, it is the creationists and intelligent design forces who have inserted their own confused metaphysical speculations on abiogenesis into the Kansas science curriculum under the guise of teaching the controversy.

The disastrous consequences of confusing religion for science are well known -- particularly as they relate to public education -- but this new discussion over the proper place for string theory also points to a seldom discussed, but equally undesirable effect.

It stifles the creative side of science.

In the debate with the religious right over what should and shouldn't be taught in public school science classes, we often focus on the side of science that involves observation and testing.

But, testing and observation are only half of the equation. As Albert Einstein once observed, imagination is more important than knowledge. Both intuition and imagination are essential ingredients in the creative process that gives rise to new scientific hypotheses.

The evolution of species proceeds as natural selection acts on random mutation like a sieve to sort better adapted organisms from those less equipped to survive. In much the same way, science acquires new knowledge when observation and testing work to choose among competing hypotheses, in effect, sorting those that successfully explain natural phenomena from those that don't.

Both are a two-step process. Natural selection must have the variation of random mutation to work on. Likewise, scientific observation and testing must be preceded by the intuitive process of hypothesis building.

We must not confuse hypothesis with theory, but we must also be careful not to limit science to the evidence gathering processes of observation and testing.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious," Einstein also observed. "It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

We don't know if ways will be found to test string theory in the real world -- perhaps it would be better to call it the string hypothesis -- but it would certainly be a shame to allow a crank science such as intelligent design to make us so cautious we end up closing our eyes.


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