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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Jayhawker problem, Popper's solution

My thoughts today are about Kansas, one of my former homes (my kids think of it as their "home state" where they grew up) which I have blog-ed about in the past, mostly in relationship to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas book (see here, here and here).

It comes to mind because they are holding a primary election in Kansas involving several seats on the state school board today. It should be noted that this is not the actual election to the board, but rather a primary held to determine who will run in November as Republican and Democratic party candidates. The focus are those races for the Republican nomination in districts where Republican moderates are challenging GOP conservatives. The national attention this event is drawing is not surprising given past coverage, but it is somewhat odd to have so much riding on relatively obscure races.

At the center of the controversy is the current board's endorsement of the teaching of intelligent design in the state's schools, a reflection of the growing power of fundamentalist religious right's political power in that state that was the focus of Frank's book. Interestingly, the conservative members of the board are able to say that the policy they passed last November does not in fact mandate that intelligent design be taught, nor does it explicitly attack evolution. As the New York Times front page article notes, the policy holds that the curriculum must be based on scientific standards. The problem is in the meaning of "scientific standards" which the chair of the board describes as "observable, measurable, testable, repeatable and unfalsifiable." By setting this absolute standard, it seems, the advocates of intelligent design are able to argue that Darwinian evolution is no more "scientific" than intelligent design, and therefore both should be taught.

Hmmm. We will get back to that in a minute. But first, a turn to politics....

The effort by GOP moderates to reassert their role in the Kansas party is part of a general effort by moderates and liberals in the state to seize the momentum from the right. Part of this involved the recruitment of moderate Republicans (who once dominated their party machinery, but have now been pushed into a corner) to switch to the Democratic Party and run for office. Those who are running in the GOP primary contests today are sticking to their party for at least one more round -- and if they don't meet with success it is likely that many more will formally make the switch -- or at minimum throw their explicit support to the Democrats running in the November elections for the board seat.

As for the phrasing of the board's policy, we finally have to face up to the fact that the simplistic notion of what is "science" that we've relied on for years in the media and school textbooks is coming back to haunt us. The association of "scientific" with "absolute truth" is an easy notion to sell and it avoids having to tell folks that science is really quite a bit more contingent than what is popularly imagined. I don't want to sound too postmodernist on this point, but it is the case that there is a basic social and cognitive component to science that cannot -- and should not -- be hidden from view. Having successfully sold folks the idea that true science is "observable, measurable, testable, repeatable and unfalsifiable," we have created a standard that real science cannot live up to when challenged.

As a "for example," listen to the segment on last Saturday's broadcast of American Public Radio's Weekend America that featured a reporter who visited with her suburban Kansas City neighbors to ask their views on the controversy. Laura Ziegler obviously lives in a relatively upscale neighborhood (probably somewhere in the vicinity where Thomas Frank grew up) where she is able to seek the views of well educated folks -- like the medical doctor and the dentist included in her interview. In the case of the physician, he explains that in all his training in the sciences, he has not come across one shred of evidence that Darwin has anything to do with any of it! As for the dentist, he too claims to have a substantial authoritative basis for his opinion given all the science he took in school -- and for him intelligent design seems as valid as Darwinism, so (as his spouse chimes in) why not allow it to be taught and let the children decide for themselves.....

Hmmmm (again). The problem here is not with the religious beliefs of these seemingly two well-educated practitioners, but rather with their views about what constitutes the very sciences their skills and knowledge depends on.

Philosopher Karl Popper knew of this problem and resolved it by advocating a change in one of those absolutist criteria which changes everything. What characterizes science is that it is, above all else, empirically falsifiable(!). Making science "observable, measurable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable" changes everything, and applying it sustains our (albeit necessarily sceptical) ongoing commitment to evolution while rendering intelligent design unscientific (it cannot be put to the tests required of falsifiability) and literally "incredible" as the basis for scientific knowledge. Thus, what seems to many of us to be a rather obscure point in the philosophy of science in fact has major political and policy implications.

That all said, it is unlikely that the voters of Kansas are going to be swayed by telling them that the problem lies with views of science drilled into them in school and in the media. All we can hope for is for some political sanity to prevail in the Jayhawk state today...

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Comments on "Jayhawker problem, Popper's solution"


Blogger meditations71 said ... (7:04 AM) : 

I saw the title of this blog entry and was a bit perplexed as I could not for the life of me figure out what Popper may have had to say about basketball. By Jayhawk(er) I thought you were referring to KU hoops, and the problem surely being only two titles, the last one in 1988, and a nasty habit of going into each year's tournament with a high seed only to choke by the Final Four or earlier! (Not quite sure where falsifiability enters that picture - except for perhaps in theories of KU hoops greatness...)

I now realise you were blogging about something completely different. My apologies...


Blogger Mel said ... (7:49 AM) : 

"Titles" are a bit of a Jayhawk problem...

For example, this blog was originally titled "Rock chalk, Jayhawk," but that seemed to leave out my point about politics....

And then there is that 1988 title -- which I had the pleasure of witnessing from seats (more of a high perch) in Kemper Arena.... KU basketball was a rollarcoaster ride that year, but it ended on a high point....

As for the term Jayhawker, pretty much associated with the whole state (I believe it is the official imageinary bird for the state) with roots back in the pre-Civil War days when anti-slavery Kansans (Jayhawkers) would cross the border and raid pro-slavery folks in Missouri.

I suspect today they would be labelled insurgents.....

By the way, it looks like enough of the moderate GOP types won in Kansas to anticipate a change in policy. Falsification will rule!


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