Kansas and Karl Popper

Bill Purves purves at THUBAN.AC.HMC.EDU
Sat Aug 14 16:55:32 EST 1999


I, too, deplore the state of affairs represented by recent events
in Kansas.  It is one of the most troublesome things I've seen in
the news--and we all know what the news is like.  Like much of the
news, it would appear to be something without much hope for
solution.  Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that it isn't
resulting in wholesale murder.

I've been exchanging e-mail with Dave Starrett for the last couple
of days, motivated in part by my curiosity about his experience of
teaching in a region where fundamentalism is a strong force.  This
is not something I've faced, although I have had a number of
strongly fundamentalist students in my introductory biology course
over the years.  For what it's worth, whenever students have so
identified themselves (generally on the first day of class, because
I taught in such a way that, although I taught very little explicitly
on evolution, it was clear from the first day that I view evolution
as the central core of our understanding of biology), I've cut a
deal with them.  The deal is this: On their part, they are to
answer any homework or exam questions "the way they know I want
them to--citing material from the course and using it as described";
on my part, I am to (without prejudice) let them disclaim any or
all parts of the answers and to write/say whatever (and however
much) they care to about how wrong I am.  No student ever turned
me down on that.  They tried (and frequently succeeded exceedingly
well) to answer/discuss as I had wished.  The accompanying negative
prose always decreased.  I'm sure most of them survived with their
fundamentalist faith intact.  None ever complained after the course.
And I had the satisfaction that, even if they hadn't necessarily
bought everything, they had USED the material to reason with.

Disclaimer: What I was teaching wasn't all that challenging to them.
It was just population genetics, for the most part.  But the
implications were definitely noticed.

The dual subject line of this entry is to allow me to respond to
one thing Dave said:

 At 05:33 PM 8/13/99 -0700, Dave Starrett wrote:

 >*** Interestingly, we make a big point with our stundets that in science
 >nothing can be proved!  We can only disprove.

Perhaps that depends on what we mean by "nothing" ;-)   Yes, we are
all familiar with the exciting line of thought that Karl Popper
developed.  In deciding to exclude Freudian psychology from the
realm of science, Popper relied on the idea that an assertion cannot
be considered scientific unless it is subject to disproof.  (Gee...
here we're almost back to the Kansas topic again ;-)

But consider this: Can we prove the assertion that DNA encodes
proteins and thereby influences phenotype?  Or that DNA is the
genetic material (of the appropriate organisms)?  Given our
ability to sequence DNAs and proteins, and especially our ability
to generate the polypeptide of our choice by synthesizing and
expressing an appropriate DNA, how far are we from having proved
something?

In my opinion, there are lots of things that we can prove in science.
But I'm fully with Popper on the idea that if you can't test and
possibly disprove something, THAT ain't science.  And many aspects
of evolutionary theory have been subjected to severe testing.  And
survived.

(bill)


William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
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