Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another reason to note July 21

As I said in the previous post about the space program, Barack Obama doesn’t want to end the program, just redirect it along his preferred lines. He doesn’t deny knowledge, he just wants to decide what knowledge is most important for NASA to pursue. But there are too many people today who do deny knowledge, who do deny science, sometimes for the sake of profit and sometimes for the sake of ideology - but in either case it amounts to a celebration of ignorance.

Today is an appropriate time to take a look at one source of ideologically-driven celebration of ignorance that has persisted for a long, long time. Today, July 21, is the 86th anniversary of the end of the Scopes "monkey trial" - which means, of course, that the subject is evolution. Some people thought the debate ended with the ignominious conclusion of that trial, but it didn't - not by a long shot. So herewith, in note of the date, a post that sort of compiles and expands on some of my previous posts on the subject.

In the first three months of 2011 there were nine creationism-related bills introduced in seven states, more than in any year in recent memory. Those states were Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Happily, most of those bills died either in committee or on the floor - but not all: The Tennessee state Assembly passed a bill designed to get creationism into the public schools. The state Senate is not expected to act on the bill before next year, though.

Even though most of the bills failed, the events of this year still make clear that this is by no means a dead issue.

There have been battles in other states, as well. Both Kansas and Ohio, to cite two, have seen seesaw battles with attacks on evolution education in public schools followed by (for the moment, anyway, successful) counter-attacks in favor of science that have restored evolution to the public school curriculum.

On the other hand, in 2008 Louisiana passed a bill allowing for "nonstandard materials" to be used in science classrooms, opening up a gap for creationist materials to slide through. Last month, an attempt to repeal that law fell short.

And despite the failures of most of the bills introduced this year, two members of New Hampshire legislature - New Hampshire, the state that continues to embarrass the rest of New England - have filed plans to introduce creationism bills in the next session of the legislature. One bill would require teaching of evolution in public schools as "just a theory." The other would mandate the teaching so-called "intelligent design" in public schools.

"Intelligent design," what I call "creationism in its Sunday best," is the fall-back attempt to undermine the theory of evolution used by those who persist in considering the Bible to be a science textbook but know that their real belief - creationism - will not succeed. "Intelligent design" argues, at bottom, that life is so complicated that a "higher power" must have had a hand in its development - while at the same time disingenuously claiming it's not in any way religious because the nature of that "higher power" remains undefined. (Of course, by failing to address the question of the nature of the very driving force it identifies, it's also not in any way scientific, but leave that aside for now.)

Anywhere "intelligent design" has been introduced and subjected to legal challenge, courts recognized its religious foundations and struck it down as a violation of separation of church and state. So in a fall-back from the fall-back, the trick has becomes to hide its introduction inside "modern critiques of evolution," which are to be "debated" as an exercise in "critical analysis." Evolution - surprise! - is most commonly the only area to get this "critical thinking" treatment. The Tennessee bill, for example, would require state and local authorities to help teachers develop programs to encourage “critical thinking” about the “strengths and weaknesses” of "controversial" scientific theories. The only "controversial" ideas the bill mentions as needing this treatment are evolution, global warming, and human cloning.

The net effect and of course intent of this program, especially in any sort of "debate" format, is to set such "critiques" on an equal footing with the actual theory, whereby the theory of evolution becomes just one idea among many. As a supporter of the Louisiana creationism bill said “both sides, creationism side and evolution side, should be presented, and let the students decide what they believe." That is, scientific fact becomes a matter of personal opinion, kind of like who was the greatest left-hander of all time. (Sandy Koufax! Well, ya gotta admit he at least has a good claim.)

But note that when I say "theory" there, I'm using the term in the scientific sense. When someone says "evolution is merely a theory," the proper answer is "you're right, except there is nothing 'mere' about a theory." Observations obtain data. Take that data, use it to make an educated guess about the nature of what was observed, a guess that includes a prediction of future data, and you have a hypothesis. A hypothesis repeatedly and successfully tested by verifiable predictions can become a theory.

Put another way, in science, a theory is a hypothesis confirmed by observation and/or experiment to the point where it does not require further demonstration to be accepted as valid and the burden of proof is on those who would reject it. In the case of evolution it is no longer enough - and hasn't been for a century or more - to say evolution can be doubted because we don't know every detail of the process and we haven't found every transitional fossil. Both of those are true - but the basic principle of evolution, the principle of change over time in interaction with environment driven by natural selection stands unchallenged by anything but pure assumption. Saying evolution should be doubted or questioned because questions remain is exactly - exactly - like saying the existence of gravity should be questioned because scientists who are looking to unite gravity with quantum mechanics believe that the force of gravity should be carried ("mediated") by particles called gravitons, which no one has ever found.

Evolution is a theory. It is not a guess, it is not "just an idea," it is not a hypothesis. It is a theory. Not one easily tested in a laboratory, obviously, but one whose agreement with an enormous number of observations from biology, geology, and paleontology is overwhelming.

Yes, there are arguments about the details, about the exact nature of the process, was it incremental change or punctuated equilibrium for example, how much of a feedback loop is involved (that is, as organisms change, how much do they affect their environment, thereby creating additional pressure for more change); there is good healthy (and even sometimes acrimonious) debate about all that and more. But those, again, are the details, not the structure.

What's more, it's true that strict, classic, narrowly-defined Darwinism is no longer generally accepted - but that's because we’ve learned stuff in the last 150+ years. Among things we've learned about is genetics, which provides the thing that Darwin didn’t have, the lack of which troubled him: a physical mechanism through which natural selection can work to produce change. That knowledge didn’t exist in Darwin's time, but now it does - which means the stuff we have learned since Darwin has not denied or questioned the theory of evolution, it has strengthened it. The basic principle of evolution remains and has withstood every scientific assault on it, every scientific challenge to it.

And the more we learn about self-organizing systems - the tendency of any sufficiently complex system to spontaneously organize itself into patterns - and therefore the less evolution involves the "random change" and "random chance" on which its critics charge it depends, the stronger it becomes. Bluntly, while the details are still argued, evolution itself simply is no longer a matter of scientific debate and hasn't been for some time.

The drive to change the physical reality evolution represents, or, more accurately, to change our understanding of it, comes from a collection of scientific know-nothings backed by a handful of "scientists" - almost none from relevant fields - who have, sadly, allowed their personal ideologies to trump their science training.

Evolution is a fact. It's a physical reality. In fact, evolution is the basic bottom-line principle of modern biology. And anyone who tells you different is either lying to you or has no idea what the hell they are talking about.

Despite that simple fact and unhappily, Gallup polls since 1982 have consistently shown that somewhere around 45% of the US population believes God created humans in their present form sometime within the past 10,000 years. Believes, that is, in creationism.

This is really, really sad and disturbing. You don't have to be an evolutionary biologist, you don't have to have read the research papers yourself, to know if evolution (or, in fact, any principle in science) has evidence to support it. All you have to do is know if there is a general consensus on the matter. You simply have to pay some minimal attention, especially on a question that keeps coming up, like evolution. And on evolution, that general consensus is overwhelming. But still so many refuse to see.

Certainly the carefully-crafted PR strategies of the creationists, who claim that they are only striving for "fairness" or "balance" and who in some cases claim it's really a matter of "academic freedom," are part of the reason for this sorry state of affairs. Those are the strategies which they use because deception about the science and bluster about non-existent "oppression" are the only weapons they have, since any time they get into a forum where they have to defend their argument with facts and logic instead of sermonizing and bumper stickers, they lose.

Another reason is the corporate media, instinctively choosing conflict over resolution: The "controversy" of "intelligent design" versus "Darwin" is more attractive to, is just much more fun for, editors, publishers, reporters than the dull straightforward fact that "intelligent design" is trash, an anti-science pursuit that, whenever comes up against a question to which it does not already know the answer, throws up its hands, declares "God - excuse me, some intelligent and supremely powerful but (wink, wink) unnamed force - did it," and stops trying to learn. But even that doesn't change the underlying fact that scams like "intelligent design" succeed because people want to believe them.

Which raises something else: I've often wondered why the fact of evolution is so hard for right-wingers to accept. It can't really be just the bizarre notion of Biblical inerrancy, not when the number of such true believers is far outstripped by the number of those who deny the scientific facts. One reason, it seems to me, is that a lot of it is just an old-fashioned "ick" factor: Some people are so tied to the idea of a unique specialness in being human, so emotionally invested in the concept of our own completely separate and superior station, that they just can't abide the notion we are in any way connected to other animals, even if any direct link exists in pre-history. You could say it's a matter of "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"

On the other hand, it could be that they just can't help it, the poor dears. A study at University College, London, reported on in April, compared the brains of people who self-identified as liberals with those of people who self-identified as conservatives. The liberal brains, they found, tended to be bigger in an area that deals with processing conflicting information while the conservative brains tended to be bigger in an area that processes fear and recognizes threats. So all the rejection of evolution might be kind of like a grown-up - well, make that "older" - version of being afraid of the dark.

I've argued before that when people feel stressed, when they feel their personal world (i.e., the society around them) doesn't make sense or is changing in ways they don't understand, they tend to reach back for the seeming safety of old, familiar ideas, to try to recreate an imagined time when things were in what seemed to be their proper order. That is, they become conservative. And the more stressed, the more uncomfortable with the changes, they become, the more conservative they become, unwilling to face what I have previously called "the terrifying prospect of change."

Which means, sadly but not surprisingly, almost half of our population lives not only in a state of ignorance but in a state of willful ignorance, a deliberate rejection of science and knowledge. It's not often mentioned, but should be, that to embrace creationism is not only to reject evolution. It's not even to reject all of biology. It's to reject astronomy, which also posits an ancient Earth and an even older universe and depends for its findings on the accuracy of that fact. It's to reject archaeology, which uses dating methods which depend on radioactive decay, our understanding of which, again, depends on an old Earth. It's to reject chemistry and physics, which underlie the methods used by astronomy and archaeology to reach their conclusions. It is, that is, to reject the entire enterprise of science. To reject knowledge per se, to reject learning per se, to reject trying to understand the world.

So am I saying that half of my fellow citizens have been scared and confused into turning their backs on knowledge? Yes - that's exactly what I'm saying. And if you’re going to ask me what to do about that, the truth is I don’t know.

Footnote: They do try so hard to hide their real intent but it just keeps slipping out. The sponsor of one of the bills to be introduced in the next session of the New Hampshire legislature said his bill would include a “study of the proponents' [of evolution] ideology and position on atheism.” The sponsor of other said he opposed evolution because it was “a theory that we are here by accident, that there is no purpose” and having a "purpose" was necessary. That is, believing in evolution strips away your reason to live.


BuD said...

I'm all for including the "Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design," provided it:

- produces testable predictions,
- is based upon multiple, independent sources of data/evidence, and
- is the best explanation for what it describes.


This is the key, actually. Schools should teach ID and show how it is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

LarryE said...

I hear you.

I once suggested to someone who was urging ID be in the curriculum that I'd accept if it was conditioned on beginning with a consideration of what constitutes a valid scientific theory and comparing how evolution via natural selection and ID compare on that score.

He didn't take me up on it. Surprise.

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