Dissent in Science

This final chapter of Explore Evolution makes grandiose, and ultimately untrue, claims about how the process of science works and how the scientific community deals with dissenting views. The errors in this chapter begin with the title. While claiming to discuss dissent within science, it actually centers on a debate between science and nonscience. In muddying the straightforward distinction between the science of evolution and the pseudoscience of creationism, Explore Evolution misleads students not only about evolution, but about how scientific inquiry proceeds. In service of this last effort to confuse students, the authors repeat their misrepresentations of Malcolm Gordon's views, and obfuscate the true nature of an ongoing discussion about the shape of the universal tree of life. In attempting to defend themselves against charges of misrepresenting and misquoting scientists (a section not necessary in most science textbooks), the authors draw an inaccurate analogy between science and courtroom testimony, and them misstate how courtrooms actually work, not to mention accepted standards of scientific discourse.

p. 142: "an evolutionary biologist … disagree[s] with Universal Common Descent."

The example offered in fact argues that there is a single tree of life, which may have multiple roots. As discussed in other chapter critiques, Explore Evolution misrepresents ongoing research into the shape of the early tree of life in order to advance a scientifically baseless creationist claim.

p. 142: "Michael Behe, a … biochemist who is a … critic of the power of the mutation/selection argument"

Behe has resurrected long-discredited creationist arguments and uses his academic credentials to give them a gloss of scientific respectability. Behe is one of the few anti-evolution activists to accept common descent of all life, including humans, but states that a definition of science which would admit his anti-evolution views would also treat astrology as science.

p. 142: "'the creationists' vs. 'the evolutionists,' a familiar and predictable storyline"

Treating creationism as a form of "dissent in science" is inaccurate. Creationism rejects basic scientific principles in pursuit of a religious agenda. Since it is not a scientific enterprise, it does not belong in science class. Just because something is "familiar and predictable" doesn't mean it is wrong, and trivializing this important distinction misinforms students on a basic level.

p. 143: "dissenters are accused of 'misquotation' or 'misrepresentation.' But is this really true?"

Even within this chapter, scientist Malcolm Gordon's words are taken out of context and twisted to misrepresent his views on evolution. This book is filled with such errors, and the defense offered is scant and irrelevant to the charges. Even in court, a witnesses words may not be used without an opportunity for cross-examination and clarification, precisely because the context of a statement does indeed matter.

p. 143: "Practicing science should be about … using all the evidence … whatever its source"

Scientific evidence must possess certain qualities. Other scientists must be able to make the same measurements, and compare their own experiences of the data with other authors. Some valid forms of knowledge do not fit these criteria, including religious beliefs, hunches, intuition, and aesthetic feelings.

p. 143: "By now, we hope you can see that real science as it's actually practiced can be a very lively subject."

Science as it is practiced is indeed a very lively subject, filled with active debates. Explore Evolution manages to avoid or misrepresent the debates actually going on within evolutionary biology while dredging up long-discredited pseudo-scientific attacks.

Major Flaws:

Nature of Science: Dismissing the distinction between scientific understanding of evolution and the religious commitment to creationism as "a familiar and predictable storyline" ignores the important scientific and practical reasons why that distinction matters. Students deserve better than to have the basic definition of science muddled in order to advance the religious agenda of the authors of Explore Evolution. Just because the distinction is familiar and predictable doesn't make it wrong. It does not serve students to muddy the waters regarding how scientists evaluate evidence. Explore Evolution cracks the door to unscientific evidence being raised in science class, misleading students and harming their broader science education as well as their understanding of evolution.

Standards of scientific discourse: Explore Evolution attempts to create an analogy between scientific debate and a courtroom cross-examination. This misrepresents the way scientific debates are settled, as well as misstating the way courtrooms operate. For instance, courts limit the sorts of evidence a jury considers, and requires that witnesses be cross-examined so that biases and misinterpretations can be resolved. Hearsay is inadmissible, but Explore Evolution relies more on quotations from scientists than on the actual data they've obtained. That those quotations are often stripped of important context and misquoted or misrepresented is only one of many errors in the treatment of scientific discourse. In dismissing these accusations, the book again does students a disservice.

Polyphyly and Malcolm Gordon: Explore Evolution claims the scientific community has two fundamentally different views of common descent, the single tree of life (monophyletic) and the orchard of life (polyphyletic). This claim distorts the meaning of a polyphyletic group. Explore Evolution then implies that because there are evolutionists, such as Malcolm Gordon, who question the monophyletic origins of life and of tetrapods, they must also "disagree with universal common descent," and must therefore support the creationist orchard view of life. This is false.