Month: June 2014

The Limitations of Science

In the first module of Dr. Jay Wile’s homeschooling textbook, Exploring Creation with General Science, Wile laid the foundation for doubting scientific claims. In the second module he launches a full assault on science. In sections titled “What Science is NOT,” and “Failures of the Scientific Method,” and ”The Limitations of Science” Wile rephrases his main point: “no matter what you might hear or read, science has never and can never prove anything!” or “science is not 100% reliable and cannot prove anything.” Wile combines a perfectly reasonable claim about the fallibility of humans who engage in science with a not-so-subtle straw man argument to convince students to doubt all scientific knowledge. Along the way he cherry picks particular episodes from the history of science to support his skeptical position.

Wile tries to inculcate[1] a particular form of profound skepticism, at least when applied to scientific results. Science, he tells his readers,[2] does not have a method for proving anything. By prove, Wile means to establish as Truth for eternity. As his previous module on the history of science indicated, even the most well-established scientific knowledge has been disproven. Therefore, a “single counter-example is enough to destroy a conclusion,” any scientific conclusion.

In case the reader needs another example of human fallibility and erroneous scientific knowledge, Wile invokes the example the “American scientist Percival Lowell [who] hypothesized that the lines [on Mars] were actually canals which had been dug by the inhabitants of Mars.” In Wile’s account, Lowell’s efforts epitomize the scientific method:


And the fact that he was proven wrong demonstrates why we should trust the scientific method but doubt the findings of science.

There’s a paradox in Wile’s project. On the one hand, he tells his reader to doubt scientific knowledge, no matter how well established or how generative that knowledge. On the other hand, he encourages his reader to accept on faith the Bible, or more precisely, his preferred translation of the Bible.[3] We’ve seen this before: emphasize the lack certainty in scientific conclusions, make Truth the standard by which scientific knowledge is evaluated, and then reject all scientific knowledge as tentative that doesn’t conform to your ideological imperative while hiding under the guise of “rational” and “the scientific method.”[4]

Now that we have started down this rabbit hole, let’s see how bad it gets. Next up, module 3, “How to Analyze and Interpret Experiments.”

  1. Were this 50 years ago, we would probably use the word “brainwash.”  ↩

  2. Let’s recall that his readers here are parents homeschooling their children and middle-school age children who are encouraged to defer to Dr. Jay Wile, PhD.  ↩

  3. His preferred translation is the New American Standard Bible, from which he quote mines to demonstrate, perhaps predictably, that “belief in the Bible is scientifically reasonable.” Not only is it “_scientifically reasonable_” to believe that the “Bible is the Word of God” (never mind the questions of translation and textual corruption), the Bible is also the source of good scientific knowledge. At one point he says,

    …it might be interesting to not that the Old Testament contains meticulous instructions concerning how a priest is to cleanse himself after touching a dead body. These rituals, some of which are laid out in Numbers 19, are more effective than all but the most modern methods of sterilization. … This, of course, should not surprise you. After all, God knows all about germs and bacteria; He created them. Thus, it only makes sense that He would lay down instruction as to how His people can protect themselves from germs and bacteria.

    Ya, whatever.
    Wile has an entire book devoted to the “Scientific Case for Christianity.” Maybe we’ll look at that in a later post.  ↩

  4. If you haven’t yet, go read Merchants of Doubt.  ↩

Homeschooling & General Science

Exploring Creation with General Science, a homeschool textbook on general science by Dr. Jay Wile,[1] begins reasonably enough with a survey of the history of science. The author’s justification for studying the history of science could have come from any middle school science textbook:

As with any other field, the only way to truly understand where we are in science today is to look at what happened in the past. The history of science can teach us many lessons about how science should and should not be practiced. It can also help us understand the direction in which science is heading today. In the end, then, no one should undertake a serious study of science without first taking a look at its history. That’s where we will start in the course. This module will provide you with a brief history of human scientific inquiry. If you do not like history, please stick with this module. You will start to sink your teeth into science in the next module. Without a historical perspective, however, you will not fully appreciate what science is!

Science is a human activity. Science has a past that can help us understand how humans have engaged in this activity. If you want a better understanding of current science, you should study how people in the past practiced it. Sounds fine so far, especially for a middle school general science textbook. Unfortunately, the brief history of science that follows has less to do with understanding science in the past than with laying the groundwork for doubting science in the present.[2]


According to Wile, we should learn three things from the history of science:

  • first, scientific claims, in the end, turn out to be wrong.
  • second, scientists often judge scientific claims by the reputation of the scientist rather than the evidence.
  • finally, “science and Christianity work very well together,” despite what most people today think.

The history of science teaches us to doubt scientific conclusions, which are regularly disproven. Wile judges science in the past and the people who investigated the natural world by “what we now know” (a turn of phrase that recurs frequently). Unsurprisingly, all past science is wrong. In his bog-standard survey, Wile finds Anaximenes foolish enough to think that air was the basic building block for all things; Democritus was wrong about atoms being indivisible and the smallest building block of matter; Aristotle was silly enough to believe in spontaneous generation; Ptolemy wrongly thought the earth was the center of the universe. In his romp through the “Dark Ages,” Wile finds devout Christian thinkers like Robert Grosseteste or Roger Bacon wrong, but at least progressively so. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle are less wrong, because “we now know” that some of their conclusions are correct.

Some people appear in Wile’s survey just to be wrong. Anaximander

believed that all life began in the sea, and at one time, humans were actually some sort of fish. This idea was later resurrected by other scientists, most notably Charles Darwin, and is today called the “theory of evolution.” Later on in this course, I will discuss this theory, showing its scientific flaws (p. 4).

And Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin of course.

That we continue to modify and reject scientific conclusions is, at best, a banal truism that has nothing to do with right or wrong. Only by approaching science as a timeless activity that we should evaluate by “what we now know” can Wile enlist this truism in his argument against science. Wile is not alone in judging the past by “what we now know.” See Gordon Wood’s recent review, The Bleeding Founders. Like triumphalist historians of medicine and science, Wile enlists the history of science in his particular project, his just happens to be a religio-political project.

The history of science also teaches us that we should doubt scientists themselves. Scientists have often believed another scientists because they were famous or well respected. Scientists also have a habit of believing what they want to believe. In both cases, Wile implies, scientists had no evidence for accepting the conclusions they did. They were, instead, awed by fame or deluded by their own biases. Aristotle is perhaps the most notable example:

Aristotle was respected! You see, Aristotle was considered (rightly so) to be the greatest scientist of his time. Thus, his ideas (even the wrong ones) were revered for generations! In fact, the absurd notion of spontaneous generation lasted until 1870, more than 2,000 years after it was proposed by Aristotle (p. 9).

Ptolemy too was revered and his geocentric system “became popular because it fit many scientists’ preconceived notions of how things ought to be.”

So this little episode from history shows us another way that science should not be done. You should not hold fast to an idea simply because it fits with your preconceived notions. Science is built on data, not a person’s beliefs. The acceptance or rejection of a scientific proposition, then, should rest solely on the data, nothing more (p. 11–12).

Wile refuses to look for evidence that might have supported a theory—e.g., Ptolemy’s geocentric system was grounded in empirical evidence and good philosophical arguments. But “we now know” it was wrong, and scientists wrongly claimed it was right, therefore we can’t trust what they say. They have succumbed to arguments from authority or their prejudicial beliefs. Scientists must be distrusted, or so Wile implies.

Finally, the history of science shows us that science and Christianity go hand-in-hand, or so Wile claims. In a concerted display of faulty logic, Wile claims that because scientists in the past were Christians, Christianity is essential to the advancement of science. He lambasts Enlightenment thinkers for rejecting the Bible, despite “the fact that a Biblical worldview had brought about great advances in science….” In his survey of medieval thinkers, he never missed a chance to point out that one was a Roman Catholic priest, another a bishop in the Roman Catholic church, and yet another a devout Roman Catholic. Early modern thinkers become devout Christians.[3]

He drives his point home in the concluding paragraphs:

Before I end this section, I want to make sure that you have picked up on something. Notice that each of the great scientists of this era were devout Christians. In fact, … you will notice that, with a few notable exceptions, most of the great scientists from the Dark Ages to modern times were devoted Christians. Once again, that’s because the Christian worldview is a perfect fit with science (p. 18).

Non-Christian scientists today continue to propagate a myth about the opposition between science and religion—apparently this is another reason not to trust scientists.

The faintest scintilla of validity flash in the depths of Wile’s claims, which makes them all the more troubling. It’s easy to imagine 7th-grade students and their homeschooling parents following Wile’s logic to its intended conclusion: If scientists have modified and rejected scientific claims, and if scientists have been known to adhere to scientific theories for non-scientific reasons, and if non-Christain scientists today repeat a myth about science’s war with religion, then science and scientists (at least non-Christian scientists) are not to be trusted. He will make his point explicit in the next section.

Just as Wile’s section on the history of science opens with a reasonable claim and ends in lunacy, so too do many of his paragraphs. Numerous times I find myself saying, “Okay, that’s not bad.” only then to find myself shaking my head in disbelief. I want to condemn Wile for intentionally misleading his readers—this book is, after all, more about indoctrination than education—but I can’t tell if he believes what he writes. Maybe he is the first victim of his own delusion. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, students are not learning “general science” from this textbook.[4]

  1. Wile is a young-earth creationist who earned a “Ph.D. in Nuclear Chemistry” before starting a homeschooling publishing company. I choose not to provide a link to his site.  ↩

  2. While it might be easy and comfortable to assume that a creationist science textbook, something of an oxymoron, would doubt contemporary science, to make that assumption without reading the textbook invites the charge of hypocrisy for ignoring or failing to engage with evidence. The point of this post is examine and analyze what the textbook says in an effort to ground my critique in evidence rather than reflexive suspicion.  ↩

  3. In Wile’s history, the ancient Greek thinkers are decidedly wrong. Some Greek thinkers are, at least, named, unlike “Chinese and Arabs” thinkers who don’t merit any more than a passing acknowledgement that they existed.  ↩

  4. I see no way to implement a check on what gets “taught” as science as long as the U.S. has a thriving homeschooling movement, considering we have failed to realize any check on what gets taught as “science” in the public schools. Perhaps we can learn something from the recent development in the UK to prevent teaching creationism as a science in free schools and church academies.  ↩

Why do you blog?

Over drinks with colleagues the other evening the topic of blogs came up. While we all admitted to reading blogs on a regular basis, I was the only one amongst us who blogs (or even has a website). My colleagues doubted the value of a blog. Consequently, I found myself justifying to them the time and effort I invest in writing a blog, labor that seems to be uncompensated and, given the current systems of rewards in the U.S. academy, uncompensateable. My justifications included the platitudinous “outreach” and inchoate ideas about engaging in public debates. I tried to convince them why I blog. They tried to understand why I would blog. In the end, I suspect we are no closer.

Today I saw a tweet by Becky Higgitt (@beckyfh) that indicated academics don’t, as a rule, use their blogs for public outreach. Her tweet linked to an article at The Guardian, “Why do academics blog? It’s not for public outreach, research shows.”

Becky points out that most academics don’t blog for public outreach.
Becky points out that most academics don’t blog for public outreach.

In the article, Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) and Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) analyzed 100 academic blogs and found that most academics use their blogs to analyze academic culture or to communicate or comment on research:

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

In contrast to much of the rhetoric around blogging, most blogs they analyzed were written for other academics, not an interested public (read the whole article, which brings up some interesting points, especially about blogs and regulating what academics can say in public).

Their work analyzed the content of blogs. I wondered: How would academics who blog describe their motivations, their intended audiences, and the benefits (if any) they receive from blogging. Initially, I retweeted Becky’s tweet, asking #whyblog?

If not for outreach, I wondered, then #whyblog?
If not for outreach, I wondered, then #whyblog?

But then I thought, why not put together a small survey and collect some information to extend Thomson and Mewburn’s initial conclusions. So that’s what I did.

A couple quick points:

  • While I try to understand academic broadly, more of a scholar, I remain interested in why people with some academic affiliation blog.
  • I realize that some academics contribute to more than one blog and that their goals likely change with each place. If you are such an academic, please complete the survey for each blog.
  • Check as many boxes as apply for “Reasons for blogging” and “Intended audience.”
  • Finally, I am not an expert in designing and conducting surveys. If you are and would like to work together to do a better job at it, please contact me.

I will post the results when I have gathered enough to make them meaningful.

Thanks for taking the time. Please send your academic blogging friends this way.

The Survey

At least get the facts right…

Dr. David L. Katz has no patience for “New-Age nutrition” and its apparent assault on the calorie. See, for example, last October’s The Race to Redefine Calories: Iconoclasts, Start Your Engines! and his more recent Newtonian Nutrition. Unfortunately, while taking people to task for getting the science and facts wrong, Katz gets a rather basic fact wrong, a fact that stands at the center of both his posts.

Katz and his fellow scientists should expend as much energy confirming facts and evidence outside their fields of expertise as they expend policing the facts and evidence within their domains of expertise (or they could consult with experts in those fields or stop thinking their scientific expertise gave them license to speak about any topic).

New-Age nutrition has, it seems, mounted a two-pronged attack on the calorie, one the one hand, denying the basic definition of the calorie and, on the other, doubting whether or not all calories count (at least count the same). Katz’s position seems to be: while there are junk calories and high-quality calories, in the end a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. When it comes to weight (and obesity), what matters, quite simply, is the number of calories. As he says in his earlier post, The Race to Redefine Calories:

The evidence that the quantity of calories counts, along with the quality, is incontrovertible-beginning with the laws of thermodynamics first established by Sir Isaac Newton. There is a fixed relationship between matter and energy, bound by the laws of physics. Biological variation is important, but physics is the bedrock on which other sciences, including biology, must stand.

Katz rephrases this point in his more recent Newtonian Nutrition:[1]

The Huffington Post added this nice image of Newton to its version of Katz’s post.
The Huffington Post added this nice image of Newton to its version of Katz’s post.

Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics asserts, essentially, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed in any closed system—it has to go from somewhere, to somewhere else. Energy and matter can be interconverted—as is the case when the energy represented by calories is converted to the smaller (glycogen) or the larger (fat) of the body’s energy reserve depots.

In other words, according to the “laws of thermodynamics first established by Sir Isaac Newton,” or more precisely, “Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics,” unused calories become mass.

Okay, except Isaac Newton had nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics. Newton died in 1727. The laws of thermodynamics were worked out over a century later, in the mid-19th century. Katz’s argument contains a serious factual error.

While Katz’s error has nothing to do with the First Law of Thermodynamics, per se, his mistake weakens his position. First, it undermines his argument in The Race to Redefine Calories where, in the end, he resorted to an argument from authority, saying:

The race to redefine the calorie has a vociferous group of iconoclasts revving their engines. If you are genuinely convinced that any of these characters is smarter than Sir Isaac Newton, and/or has probed to levels of understanding beneath the bedrock of physics, by all means, wave the checkered flag.

If you are going to present an argument from authority, you should at least get your authority correct.[2] Second and more broadly, Katz’s blunder—and that’s what it is, a blunder—detracts from his point by calling into question his general commitment to facts and evidence. It was not a “short-cut,” as he asserted in a tweet.[3]

David Katz dismisses his error as a “short-cut” (link).
David Katz dismisses his error as a “short-cut” (link).

It was and, since he hasn’t corrected his post, remains a mistake that suggests a casual disregard for facts. Or maybe he doesn’t think all facts are the same. Maybe some facts count more than others. Scientific facts—a calorie, for example—are a high-quality facts while historical facts are junk facts. Maybe this is some form of pop culture, New-Age history that questions the basic merit of “the fact.” Unfortunately, there is something of a cottage industry in this particular brand of history.[4] Katz is not alone in his gratuitous and careless use of historical facts. But just like his scientific colleagues, Katz didn’t need to invoke history, didn’t need to appeal to Newton in his criticism of “New-Age nutrition.” Once he did, however, he still has a scholarly and methodological (and an ethical and moral) obligation to get the scientific and historical facts correct.

Katz should care about getting all the facts correct. Anything less subverts his argument and squanders an opportunity for real change.

  1. The Huffington Post reposted Katz’s post unchanged and unchecked, complete with the egregious error: “Newtonian Nutrition” (I cannot bring myself to link to this version of Katz’s post). It is unfortunate that a media outlet as influential as the Huffington Post disseminates misinformation like this. The Huffington Post complete lack of editorial oversight and intervention in so much of the material it reposts is good reason to avoid it.  ↩

  2. Scientists are rightly suspicious of and condemn such arguments in their professional writing and in the writing of their opponents. This unvarnished argument from authority is, consequently, all the more jarring. Katz also flirts with an argument from authority in his more recent post, where he says: “Arguments against the fundamental utility of the calorie to human energy balance, and weight control, really do devolve to arguments against Newton and this basic law.” Goodness knows we are not as smart as Newton, who was, after all, a genius. If he said it was so, it must be so. Oh wait, he didn’t say it was so.  ↩

  3. There is an odd attempt to dodge responsibility in Katz’s tweet: “FL of T appears to have passed through many hands. to whom do you attribute?” Katz seems to try to dismiss his error as understandable and forgivable because the history is complicated. He’s right: history is complicated and difficult. Historians spend years developing the skills and expertise to do history. But this is not a question of interpretation or source criticism or esoteric knowledge. This is a factual question that can be resolved pretty easily: what we call the First Law of Thermodynamics was developed more than 100 years after Newton died. The laws of physics make it impossible for the First Law of Thermodynamics to have “passed through” Newton’s hands. [There is another problem in his tweet: Katz seems to be searching for the father of the First Law of Thermodynamics (on the problems with the search for the “father of” something, see Thony C’s many posts, e.g., this one or this one).]  ↩

  4. These last two sentences paraphrase and repurpose the first two sentences of Katz’s “Newtonian Nutrition” post—see the screen shot from the Huffington Post above.  ↩