Tracking the Course of Evolution


by Bruce H. Tiffney

NOTE: This is page 2 of a two-page document.


A. Good science
1. Is a way of thinking, logically, honestly and imaginatively
2. The hallmark of good science: doubt
a. Recognition that observations are potentially biased
b. Recognition that new facts may terminate old ideas
c. Recognition that several theories may be raised to explain one observation
d. Willingness to accept uncertainty
3. Its effectiveness measured by its spread from 16th century Europe to its dominance in modern society

B. Bad Science
1. Science is not infallible; it has been invoked dishonestly on many occasions.
a. It is generally not harmful in the long term, as it is rarely malicious (but watch out for it when money is involved).

C. Pseudo-Science
1. Is an attempt to borrow the clothing of science in order to cloak a message whose content is not based on science
a. How to spot pseudoscience? This is difficult for the non-scientist, but some indicators of pseudoscience include:
— repeated reference to authority rather than to primary observation;
— unwillingness to admit ignorance or to admit that the stated hypothesis is not complete;
— unwillingness to try to disprove own hypothesis or to seek contradictory examples;
— consistent presentation of hypotheses in a simplistic manner, or in non-professional venues where success of the argument is equated with popularity of the presentation;
— failure to add new arguments and data with time, but rather consistent reliance on existing arguments or variants thereon.
(See M. Bunge. 1984. The Skeptical Inquirer 9(1) for a more complete discussion).


A. You are likely here because you teach a science course.
1. Therefore, within the course, you must start by making it clear that you will treat with the accepted scientific hypotheses (great and small) that have withstood repeated testing.
a. Central among these will likely be the hypothesis of evolution by natural selection.
b. Note, I do not believe in evolution by natural selection. I believe in the efficacy of the scientific method. In this context, "natural selection" is the most powerful and all encompassing hypothesis which has withstood repeated attempts at falsification.
c. Within Science, this is the MOST powerful defense.
2. Conversely, in a science course, one cannot entertain those hypotheses about the history of Earth and life inherent in the world's religions.
a. These are NOT right or wrong — they simply were not generated with the protocol of research knowledge and are thus not accessible to testing or falsification.
b. They are NOT within the purview of science.

B. In Society
1. While the successes of research knowledge have brought us much that we enjoy — food, medicine, entertainment technology that allows the dissemination of music and culture — we all know that technology can be misused.
a. Research knowledge is without a value system, it just generates and tests hypotheses based upon observations. These can be used as anyone wishes to.
2. For this reason, I contend that society cannot operate on "science" alone. Indeed, good scientists need a basic belief in values of "right and wrong" to stay honest in making observations, testing hypotheses and accepting the results (after all, each individual observation is made by an individual human).
3. Science and religion inform different and complementary portions of our lives.

C. In Education
1. The greatest danger of the "Evolution-Creation" debate is that most practitioners do NOT realize that this distinction of research vs. creation knowledge lies at its base.
2. Even scientists have been known to dismiss this as a minor "war" of interest only to biology.
3. It is NOT. This debate is about the role of scientific data and procedures OF ALL KINDS and the degree to which our society will accept them in the decision-making process.
4. The teacher's responsibility is not to deal with evolution/creationism. IT is to make the distinction between belief and research knowledge CLEAR.
5. And if you want a nasty suggestion . . . to those who reject evolution, ask if they are honest to the data that they receive. If they answer "yes" then ask them why they go to a doctor when they are ill (a product of science, just like evolution) rather than to a faith healer?

— How do facts and hypotheses differ? How are they the same?
— Is a "scientific fact" true?
— Do scientists ever act on belief knowledge?
— Can a valid scientific hypothesis be erected upon belief knowledge?
— Are all forms of scientific investigation conducted with equal precision? Can they be?
— Does science "disprove" religious statements or the existence of God?


On Being A scientist. (Committee on the Conduct of Science, National Academy of Sciences). 1989. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

Evolution. Dobzhansky, T., F. J. Ayala, G. L Stebbins and J. W. Valentine. 1977. W. H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco. See Chapter 16, "Philosophical Issues" (pp. 474-516) for a review of scientific methodology and its application in the history of evolution.

Genesis, Geology and Catastrophism: A Critique of Creationist Science and Biblical Literalism. M. R. Johnson. 1988. Paternoster Press, Exeter, UK. (A fundamentalist Christian geologist's viewpoint)

The Evolution-Creation Controversy II: Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Geological Education. 1999. Edited by P. H. Kelley, J. R. Bryan & T. A. Hansen. Paleontological Society Papers, Volume 5. pp. 1-242.

Abusing Science. The Case Against Creationism. P. Kitcher. 1982. MIT Press. (An examination of the approach of "scientific" creationism, which is anything BUT, 99 times out of 100)

Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought. Medawar, P. B. 1969. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 75.

Advice to a Young Scientist. Medawar, P. B. 1979. Harper and Row Publishers, N.Y., N.Y.

Science and Earth History — The Evolution/Creation Controversy. Strahler, A. N. 1987. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y. See chapters 1-8 for a thorough discussion of the nature of science.

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