Coconut Sandwiches & Cargo Cult Science

After the recent Psychology of Science conference in Pittsburgh, my partner and I traveled a little further east to visit friends in Lawrence, NJ, which is a few miles from Princeton. On the way, we stopped off at the Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia for an excellent smoked coconut club sandwich. This is a clever vegan take on the bacon sandwich, consisting of grilled lemon garlic tofu, smoked coconut, and tomato herb mayo on toasted bread. The smoked flakes of coconut actually taste like bacon! The Memphis taproom and the smoked coconut sandwich were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives (click to see the relevant segment; the bit with the coconut club starts at 4:54). We also had the suicide onion rings and beer-battered kosher pickles with horseradish buttermilk dip. Mmmmm……

The next day, after arriving in New Jersey, our friends took us into Princeton to see the campus and the town. One of our stops on this mini-tour was to look at the art museum, which was rather impressive. Another stop was the science library. Whilst there, I had a browse through the recent issues of periodicals on display. I was looking for psychology journals, out of idle interest. They did not appear to have Cognitive Science, Cognition, or Applied Cognitive Psychology (although they may have been (a) elsewhere, or (b) subscribed to in electronic format only), but I did find recent issues of Creation Matters on the shelves. Creation Matters is a newsletter-style publication produced by the Creation Research Society. I picked up one of the recent issues and found an article explaining how mutation and natural selection do not adequately explain finches’ beaks. Maybe this is a hot topic among creationists. Fearing for my brain cells, and because the parking meter was running out, I left the library. Later, I googled Creation Matters and found the Creation Research website , where all but the most recent issues are available as pdfs.

(At this point, I feel I should issue a warning. Spending any amount of time reading the material on this site may reduce you to a gibbering wreck.)

Out of idle curiosity, I picked the most recent available issue, Sept/Oct 2011, and started flicking through it. Towards the back of the publication there is an advert for the Seventh International Conference on Creationism, to be held in Pittsburgh (where we had just attended the fabulous Psychology of Science conference). What I found very interesting about the conference website is the very specific guidance given to those reviewing submissions. In principle, specific guidance to both authors and reviewers is good practice. However, the nature of these guidelines struck me as something unlike anything I’ve seen for any of the conferences I’ve submitted to and/or reviewed for:

(a) Does the Author provide a complete classification of this Summary (Area)? If the Summary is not properly classified, the Area-Editor is to classify it within another area, then the initial Area-Editor is to contact the appropriate Area-Editor for its inclusion. If unable to classify a Summary, then the EB Chairman is to be consulted for the final decision. (If a Summary is impossible to classify then it ought to be rejected or returned to the Author for resubmission).
(b) Is the Summary’s topic important to the development of the creation model?
(c) Does the Summary’s topic provide an original contribution to the creation model?
(d) Is this Summary formulated within a young-earth, young-universe framework?
(e) If (d) above is not satisfied, does this Summary offer a very constructively-positive criticism and provide a possible young-earth, young-universe alternative?
(f) If the Summary is polemical in nature, does it deal with a topic rarely discussed within the origins debate?
(g) Does this Summary provide evidence of faithfulness to the grammatico-historical/normative interpretation of Scripture? (if necessary refer to Walsh, R.E., Biblical Hermeneutics and Creation, Proceedings First International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA, 1986, Vol. 1, pp. 121-127).

Note items d, e, and g in particular. No dissenters allowed! Now, to be fair, one could argue that this is an event by creationists, for creationists, and they can choose to exclude non-creationists from the conference. Fine. But this is one of many indicators that “creation science” is a term that is only half accurate. I have never seen instructions for submission to a scientific conference or journal that require submitters to hold to a particular theory or theoretical perspective, or require allegiance to a religious doctrine. If creationists want to do all these things, they should feel free, but not try to pass themselves off as scientists; this is a religious publication and a religious conference. However, there are good reasons for some creationists to wear a mantle of scientific respectability, including attempts to get a specific religious belief taught in science classes. The superficial trappings of science, laid over a set of practices that are not scientific, is evidence that creation science and its offspring, intelligent design, are examples of cargo cult science.

Cargo cult science is a term introduced by Richard Feynman in 1974 to describe a variety of pseudoscientific practices and disciples that “follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential”. In cases of pseudoscience and cargo cult science, what is missing is the actual science: a willingness to be open to the falsity of hypotheses, to conduct carefully controlled experiments, to not inadvertently fool ourselves, and not deliberately attempt to fool others.

The original notion of a cargo cult refers to pre-industrial civilisations (typcially pacific islanders) who are exposed to advanced technology, and mimic the superficial aspects of that technology in an attempt to recreate it. The classic example is that of

the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of unsophisticated peoples observed, often right in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought between technologically advanced countries. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of supplies and later the Allied forces did likewise.

The vast amounts of materiel that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts.

After the war, when the troops and associated personnel had left,

charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more aeroplanes.

Just as the islanders built control towers, signal fires, and headphones in the hope of attracting Western goods, the creationists hold peer-reviewed conferences, publish papers in journals, publicize the academic credentials of any who are sympathetic to their cause, and try to engage in debates with scientists in the hope of attracting the aura of respectability, wisdom, and influence that they imagine real scientists to have.

Creationist schools to open in the UK (?)

According to an article in the Guardian, three free schools run by groups endorsing creationism are due to open in the UK in the next year. For those outside the UK, free schools are similar to charter schools:

“Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ’one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up. Free Schools could be primary or secondary schools. They could be located in traditional school buildings or appropriate community spaces such as office buildings or church halls. They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, visionary teachers or committed parents – who want to make a difference to the educational landscape. They might be needed because there simply are not enough school places in a local area and children have to travel too far to the nearest school.”

Note that although free schools are funded by the state, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. This has been taken by some religious groups as an opportunity to sneak anti-science views into children’s education. Another issue is that teachers working in free schools do not need to have qualifications in teaching.

Thirty-three of the 102 free schools that will open next year describe themselves as faith-based. The Guardian piece discusses three of these schools:

“Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, a private school due to reopen in September with state funding, says on its website that it will present creationism as science and affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is “not just a theory but a fact”.”

Teaching creationism in science classes is illegal in the UK, and other free schools have been turned down on these grounds, so how did Grindon Hall get away with it? Later in the article we are told:

Grindon Hall says it teaches evolution as “an established scientific principle, as far as it goes”. However, the school’s policy document adds: “We believe no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, ie why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.”

The school’s principal says this document is obsolete and the school would not teach creationism in science. “…That document is from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres.

“If children question for themselves their origins, that’s what we want them to do – to ask sensible, responsible questions. Am I here by accident, or – dare I use the word – design?”

So they are not planning to teach “creation science”, but it seems reasonable to assume that children will be taught creationist doctrine elsewhere, and not just in RE classes. The original policy document has been removed from the Grindon Hall website, but has been archived by the British Humanist Association

What about the other two schools?

The Sevenoaks Christian school, due to open next year, says on its website: “The government has said that free schools cannot teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this.”

A third free school approved by the government to open next year, the Exemplar-Newark Business academy, is a fresh proposal from a group whose previous application was turned down because of concerns over its teaching of creationism. Backers of the school in Nottinghamshire say creationism will be taught only in religious studies.

So it would appear that the Guardian’s claims are somewhat overblown. None of the schools now claim that they will present creationism as science – they know that they will not be permitted to so so. However, it is fairly clear that, given the choice, they would teach creationism in the science classroom. There is some debate over whether any of these schools really endorse creationism proper, or whether they subscribe to the more general Christian belief that god created the world, but not in the manner described in the Book of Genesis. Regardless, there are many serious problems with faith schools:

Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families which share the religion of the school. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities.

Most secondary faith schools are also allowed to discriminate in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behavior outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion.

Most secondary faith schools are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not subject to Ofsted inspection and is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion.

RE in such schools rarely covers other religions in any detail and almost certainly will not include non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails.

Because personal social health and economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, faith schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. The BHA is particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights.

Hat tip to Ed Stupple for suggesting I write about this story.