Sunday, June 10, 2007

Need for a classical education

Logic was once part of the core curriculum of schooling. Maybe there's something to be said for that sort of classical education. This is from AFP:
Asked their views on whether human life is a result of God's creation or a product of evolution, one quarter of Americans chose both conflicting theories, a [USA Today] poll suggested Friday.
The results were indeed confused:
- 39% of those polled said creationism is "definitely" true
- 35% said evolution is "probably" true
- 27% said creationism is "probably" true
- 18% said evolution is "definitely" true
"All told, 25 percent say that both creationism and evolution are definitely or probably true," USA Today said.
Which is simply nonsensical. Creationism is the notion that the creatures of the world were sneezed out of the nostril of a giant walrus - wait, no, that's a diferent one - uh, I mean that they were created in more or less their present form by a mythical sky being less than 10,000 years ago. Actually coming up on 6,011 years less a couple of days ago, if you accept Archbishop Ussher's chronology.

Evolution, on the other hand, is the scientific theory that life as we see it today developed over millions of years, gradually becoming more complex and more diversified over that time. There simply is no way both could be even "probably" true, much less "definitely."

So how can anyone hold such a patently illogical position? One way could be compartmentalization, just never thinking of the two things at the same time, avoiding what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," the awareness of a conflict between two ideas or feelings. (That link, by the way, inadvertently brings up some problems I have with a fair amount of psychological research, but I'll only discuss that if anyone is foolish enough to ask.)

But here's another one: People don't know what the hell the terms mean! They have a sense or they've heard something somewhere and so have some vague notion of what they think creationism or evolution is or isn't. So someone could say "Yes, I'm a creationist: I believe God created the heavens and the Earth - but once that was done, evolution took over and did the rest." Or they could say, as I actually have heard argued, "God did create all the creatures of the Earth - but not in their present form; they have changed some over time. Evolution affects the form of a species but it can't lead to the existence of new species. So I believe in both." Of course, in both cases, the speaker actually believes in neither.

That's not to say those beliefs aren't sincere, but it is to say that the words creationism and evolution mean something and the ideas those words express - one-time divine intervention by an omnipotent being versus continuing change over time in response to natural processes - are completely incompatible.

And the fact is, people don't know what evolution means, what it involves. To most people it's some vague thing about how "we descended from apes" and something about "missing links." I sometimes truly despair of that ever changing when I read statements like this from the AFP article, which came immediately after describing the poll results:
The polarizing issue of how life came to be has worked its way into US classrooms in recent years.
Jee-zus effing K-rist! That is not what evolution is about! Evolution does not address the origin of life! That is a separate field of study called abiogenesis. Evolution is about the processes by which the forms of life change over time in interaction with their environments. If even the people who are supposed to be informing the general public about relevant matters can't get even that most basic fact straight, I - I just don't know.

Actually, I do know something: Two good sources for keeping up with news related to evolution, creationism, and Ignorant Design are The Panda's Thumb and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Footnote: I actually wanted to put in a good word for the often-maligned Archbishop James Ussher. He was actually a very smart man and a dedicated and well-respected scholar. His problem was that he could not rid himself of the chains of dogma even as the roots of a new way of viewing the world were being set: The years of his life overlapped by at least a few those of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, William Gilbert, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, oh my, the list goes on and on, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Boyle....

Footnote to the footnote: Jason Rosenhouse, who covers evolution v. creationism news at ScienceBlogs, has a post about the use of Wikipedia. I pretty much agree with the conclusion that Wikipedia is okay for subjects that are noncontroversial, such as the biographies of long-dead scientists. I also find the science articles are pretty sound, at least in those areas where I know enough to have some chance of judging. But it must be used with care.

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