Monday, January 02, 2006

the osiander sticker...

In January of 2005, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that a suburban county school district would be required to remove a sticker from the front of its high school biology textbooks. The stickers were placed in the textbooks in Cobb County in 2002 as a sort of compromise after widespread outrage over a decision to remove the word "evolution" from Georgia textbooks entirely. The word evolution stayed in, but what the textbooks received instead, by way of the introductory sticker, was the following disclaimer...

"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

The court order to remover the stickers in Cobb County Georgia should be viewed as a victory for science educators. But the battle is far from over. In my own home state of Alabama, public school biology texts contain an even more detailed warning against the "unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things."

While this may seem like a harmless enough statement to some, to many scientists it is a frustrating and embarrassing reminder that we still haven't advanced beyond the point where a group of people with a religious agenda and the supposed authority of Holy Scripture can deface a scientific work and circumvent it's most basic thesis. In both their wording and their intent, the Georgia textbook stickers hearken back to another infamous disclaimer, appended without the author's permission, and intended to dull the impact of one of the most important written works in the history of science.

In 1542, Nicolaus Copernicus was finally ready to publish his life's work - a treatise that would become known as "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium", or, "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres." In this work, Copernicus painstakingly laid out his case that it was the Earth that moved about the Sun, and not the other way around. But by the time he had polished his work to the point that he was confident enough to release it for publication, Copernicus had become quite ill. He gave his manuscript to his protégé Georg Rheticus, who finished the work, then passed it along to a local Lutheran minister and theologian named Andreas Osiander.

It was Osiander then, who had the responsibility for proofing the final work and preparing it for publication. But apparently, Osiander was uncomfortable with the bold thesis of Copernicus. To be sure, there were valid objections that could be made to the theory in the 16th century - scientific objections, even. But Osiander's objections were based on the Holy Scriptures, which, many argued, made it quite clear that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, and that it was the Sun that moved across the sky. Perhaps fearing that the book might spawn an outbreak of heresy, Osiander added his own Preface to the work.

To the Reader Concerning the Hypotheses of this Work

There have already been widespread reports about the novel hypotheses of this work, which declares that the earth moves whereas the sun is at rest in the center of the universe. Hence certain scholars, I have no doubt, are deeply offended and believe that the liberal arts, which were established long ago on a sound basis, should not be thrown into confusion. But if these men are willing to examine the matter closely, they will find that the author of this work has done nothing blameworthy. For it is the duty of an astronomer to compose the history of the celestial motions through careful and expert study. Then he must conceive and devise the causes of these motions or hypotheses about them. Since he cannot in any way attain to the true causes, he will adopt whatever suppositions enable the motions to be computed correctly [...]. The present author has performed both these duties excellently. For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough. [...] For this art, it is quite clear, is completely and absolutely ignorant of the causes of the apparent [motions of the heavens]. And if any causes are devised by the imagination, as indeed very many are, they are not put forward to convince anyone that they are true, but merely to provide a reliable basis for computation. However, since different hypotheses are sometimes offered for one and the same [...] the astronomer will take as his first choice that hypothesis which is the easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps rather seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain, unless it has been divinely revealed to him.

Therefore alongside the ancient hypotheses, which are no more probable, let us permit these new hypotheses also to become known, especially since they are admirable as well as simple and bring with them a huge treasure of very skillful observations. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy, which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose, and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it. Farewell.

Osiander's message is clear. What follows is an interesting and admirable hypothesis, but it makes no claim to "truth". And why? Because it has not been "divinely revealed". So you can go ahead and use Copernicus's tables to predict where Jupiter will be next week, but don't take that to mean that the Earth REALLY moves! To do so would clearly be foolish. (If not heretical.) It should be "studied with an open mind", as they say in Georgia, and "critically considered". But it is only a theory. Not a fact. Like the stickers in Georgia, Osiander's preface was a desperate attempt to hold the Earth still in the face of scientific progress.

Of course, today we know that the "hypothesis" of Copernicus IS a fact. But it took a long time for the theory to escape from the objections of those who would use the Bible as the only true authority for knowledge about the natural world. How long? Fifty-seven years after the publication of "De Revolutionibus" Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, in part for espousing the theories of Copernicus. Galileo was found "vehemently suspected of heresy" by the Inquisition in 1633 and placed under house arrest, where he remained until he died, almost 100 years after Copernicus's work left the printing press. And even though scientists had all but agreed that the Copernican system was indisputably correct by the close of the 17th century, theologians and popular writers on science continued to argue over whether or not to accept the theory for another 100 years. In terms of education, although it was taught in many schools from 1700 on, the Sun-centered solar-system did not become the sole model taught at Cracow Academy in Copernicus's native country of Poland until 1782. That's almost 240 years.

How is evolution doing by comparison? Well, Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. In 1925, at the time of the famed Scopes "Monkey Trial", there were still six states that had laws explicitly forbidding the teaching of evolution. By 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the theories of "Creationism" or "Creation Science" were religious beliefs that could not be taught alongside evolution in public schools. And yet, here we are in 2004, with disclaimer stickers in our textbooks, and ideas of divine creation sneaking back into schools under the disguise of "Intelligent Design" theory. Luckily, there is no Inquisition, and nobody is being burned at the stake. (Although given the current political climate, I'm tempted to knock on wood here!) But there is obviously still a vocal and politically powerful minority determined to reject an idea about which scientists have long ago made up their minds. We clearly still have a long way to go. If we can take Copernicus as a guide, I look forward to writing a follow-up piece, and hopefully ripping off the stickers once and for all, on the 240th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species" in 2099.


Blogger Paige said...

As much as I would like to believe your final sentence, I am much more skeptical ... I have a feeling that in the year 2099, evolution and anti-evolution will both be taught. In fact, I foresee separate schools developing, one in which science as we know it is taught, and one in which anti-science is taught. Parents will have to decide which school to send their children too. Sorry for the pessimism, but that's the direction I see things moving in. And thank you for a very well written essay.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous curbina said...

Although I agree that religious beliefs are not basis for removing a word from text books, do you realize that evolution is really just a theory, and as such, not a fact?

Be aware that you can fall into the other extreme, of creating a new religion, unknowingly, when you start puting faith in things rather than reason. Evolution is actually the theory that has withstand better scrutiny, but it is still possible that other theory arises better than this one. Don't fall for the mistake of confusing the best theory with the final one. It's just a tool for understanding.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous curbina said...

Intelligent design is not accepted as a theory by main evolutionists because it starts from the basis that there was a supernatural being that created life. That for any scientist is bullcrap. But, even the same evolutionists that deny intelligent design say that if instead of god, the theory would talk about Extraterrestrials, then it would be a valid scientificall theory.

I could not care less about other people's need to prove of disprove the existance of a so called god.

What worries me is the acceptance of a theory as undeniable truth. We have made that mistake too many times and are repeating it again in many science fields.

Evolution is a theory, nothing more, nothing less.

6:04 PM  
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10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Calling the theory of evolution "only a theory" is, strictly speaking, true, but the idea it tries to convey is completely wrong. The argument rests on a confusion between what "theory" means in informal usage and in a scientific context. A theory, in the scientific sense, is "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena" [Random House American College Dictionary]. The term does not imply tentativeness or lack of certainty. Generally speaking, scientific theories differ from scientific laws only in that laws can be expressed more tersely. Being a theory implies self-consistency, agreement with observations, and usefulness.

12:41 PM  

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