As I slowly make my way back into blogging after an extended break, it’s nice (and a bit annoying!) to see more prominent bloggers echo arguments I’ve been making for a long time now. Here is Kevin Drum making what should be a commonplace, mundane observation (emphasis added):
The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.
And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.
I’m all for activism and outreach, but what does this quote mean: ”Teaching science without evolution is like teaching sentence structure without the alphabet.”
I was ready to address the flaws from a science literacy framework, but brainlogist is much better (emphasis added):
As a scientist, I’m terribly disappointed in the quote that opens this post. It may seem like it’s clever, highlighting the fundamental importance of evolution by relating it to the “basic” units of the alphabet; unfortunately, the analogy falls apart completely, and in fact a bit self-destructively, once you know a little bit about the science of language.
Sentence structure (syntax) has nothing to do with the alphabet. There is no natural human language whose syntax depends at all on an alphabet. Moreover, there are numerous examples of languages (say, the Chinese languages) that have no alphabet, but whose syntax can still be described.
Alphabets are arbitrary ways of encoding the sounds of language in static, visual form. What’s worse, alphabets are invented by humans as a tool for recording language. It’s a dangerous analogy to make to suggest that evolution is invented by people.
Let me hazard another analogy in the same form as the quote above “Teaching science without teaching evolution is like teaching calculus without Roman numerals.”
Although the intent is noble, and the video is otherwise one of the best I’ve seen for conveying fundamental importance of evolution to science, the rampant misinformation people have about linguistics is always disappointing.
(For the people at home playing “irony bingo”: syntax is an evolved capacity of the human mind, whereas alphabets are intelligently designed…)
Ha! Love the closing.
Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.
Let me narrow in on a specific type of claim made Chait, Drum, and Beauchamp, where they seem to use evolution and climate change (ECC) as a kind of indicator for Rick Perry’s decision-making and governance ability writ-large. Here’s Chait (emphasis added):
Likewise, Perry’s evolution skepticism signals a strong commitment to conservative values over the conclusions of data and experts. On a deeper level, he is demonstrating social solidarity with conservatives against the intellectual elites they resent. He probably won’t have to make a presidential decision on teaching evolution, but his answers to questions about it tell you a great deal about how he would govern.
This claim is rather strange. Many practicing scientists dispute evolution and climate change. These intellectual blind-spots don’t prevent them from designing circuits, writing Matlab code, solving differential equations, or analyzing datasets. (I’m thinking of specific people I know here.) If their stance on ECC doesn’t necessarily impact decision-making in other areas of science, how can it tell you anything useful outside of science?
It’s even stranger to use ECC when we have Rick Perry’s actual record as a governor, stated political views and publications to turn to. Surely these are much better governance indicators than passing comments on evolution. I see no need to use a bad indicator when better ones are easily available. Given that Chait et al. have themselves written extensively on Perry’s record, they shouldn’t have to reference either evolution or climate change.
I suspect that liberals view ECC the way conservatives view public displays of Christian piety. Both represent cultural markers as much as they do a policy agenda. And that’s okay with me. Political leaders are more than people who advance legislation we support. By that measure we know we will often be disappointed in the end anyway. When you see yourself losing on the substance, public affirmation of your values can become even more important. Liberals want to live in an America where everyone embraces evolution and climate change. Since that won’t happen anytime soon, at the very least they’ll make damned sure our President embraces them. Put another way, liberals want politicians who believe in ECC because, well, they want politicians who believe in ECC. I wish they’d just say that.
It has been two months (an eternity in blogging years) since Paul Newall and Michael Pearl insisted that the issue of teaching intelligent design in schools should not be resolved via demarcation. While Paul is on solid ground when he deconstructs the sloppy philosophical arguments used by the anti-ID crowd, I take issue with his analysis of the implications (emphasis added):
The implication is thus that if arguments for demarcation criteria continue to fail, if these failures are seized upon by intelligent design advocates and if there are better reasons to dispense with this approach altogether, it is likely that objections to intelligent design on some other basis will be more successful at least in part because they are more philosophically rigorous. Criticising an insistence on demarcation, far from demonstrating a lack of political understanding, actually returns the issue to one of science instead of philosophy and provides a service to the debate rather than acting as an irrelevance or hindrance.
I’m not sure I follow. Scientists are already pretty successful in applying demarcation to intelligent design, however erroneously they do so. They do, after all, win the important cases. And so it’s not clear what they would gain by trying to make their arguments more philosophically rigorous. Their primary goal is to prevent ID from being taught in science class, not to get an A+ on a philosophy paper.
Along those lines, what does it mean to provide a “service to the debate?” Most scientists would say that nothing undermines “the debate” more than confusing ID for science, and thus we must employ any and all arguments–even philosophically suspect ones–to ensure said confusion does not persist. Paul, Michael and I are surely among the minority who so desperately believe that the current form of the debate serves as a hindrance. Mainstream scientists are happy to keep it in these terms,especially because they seem to be successful at it.
There’s an irreconcilable mismatch of goals here. Philosophers–and the former space physicists who have defected to their camp–think truth, sound arguments and civil discourse should hold greater sway. Scientists disagree. More than anything else, they care (not too unreasonably) about preventing ID from entering science classes. Even if most scientists understood the demarcation problem (I’m pretty most have never even heard of it), and even if they agreed with Paul that methodological naturalism cannot be used to demarcate ID (most passionately and honestly believe that alone suffices), I bet their approach wouldn’t change much. For better or worse, this issue has always been fought in terms of demarcation. Unless something drastically changes, that’s the way scientists will continue to fight.
The Lt. makes an important point I’ve been meaning to address in his response to my suggestion that much of biology can be taught without the theory of evolution (emphasis added):
You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.
In grad school I took a class on “Science Education for Scientists and Engineers.” Perhaps the most interesting discussions we had centered on the justifications for public science literacy. That is, why do we teach everyone science? Surely society’s need for scientists and engineers can be satisfied by training a small elite. But we clearly care about more than just that. The endless exhortations for more science education reflect, I believe, the belief that science must mean something for everyone.
And here is where it gets a little tricky. From my light reading in the field, there really is no expert consensus on why or how we foster a general public understanding of science. Scholars generally agree that science education should leave people with some content knowledge, some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But specifically what content, and how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation is a mystery.
From my standpoint, if we care even a little about the last goal (and I believe we should care a lot), then we must tread carefully around thorny topics like evolution. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it surely is), or that the theory should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily?
In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness.
I’m busy this week preparing for the AAAS Annual Meeting and specifically this panel. I convened this panel to try spark a debate on how we should think about science communication and expertise when we have over 7 million scientists in a $1 trillion enterprise. I’ve briefly touched on this theme before.
On an unrelated note, check out this MSNBC report on creationism in schools. Here’s the associated Science paper. Apparently 13% of biology teachers back creationism. I’ll have more to say later, but wanted to link to it now (h/t Omair).
I’ll try to do some live-blogging from the meeting.
UPDATE: I meant to say earlier that several of my interlocutors on this space helped me develop the panel. Moreover, discussions I’ve had in the comments have also helped clarify my thinking. Much thanks!
To continue with creationism, here’s Michael Pearl:
It is one thing to reject Creationism and ID; it is another thing to have good reasons for rejecting Creationism and ID and to express those reasons well, and it is yet an altogether different matter to veritably trumpet that Creationism and ID are great dangers either in and of themselves or because of consequences that will follow uncontrollably from these notions – hence, threats to be fought by any means necessary.
There certainly seems to have been a lot of alarms trumpeted, but it is not blatantly obvious just what is the danger posed by Creationism and ID.
As I noted almost a year ago, there’s an ironic lack of evidence in our arguments against creationism. At some point we’re going to have to response to Pearl.
In a typically eloquent post on trying to understand those whose beliefs we deem abhorrent, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes an unnecessary swipe at creationists: “Recognizing our world is filled with creationists, liars, charlatans and necromancers, we should not live for them.”
I’ve noticed his antipathy to creationists and intelligent design before (e.g. here, here and here). On one hand it’s quite strange. TNC’s writing is almost always clear and well-reasoned. But in this case I’m not at all sure what he’s trying to say. Is it that we should think of creationists as we do liars and charlatans? Or perhaps creationists are liars and charlatans? Given that creationism denotes a specific set of beliefs about Earth and human history, and liars and charlatans are simply bad people, I’m really not sure what the comparison is meant to show.
Sadly, TNC’s attitude is all too common. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word creationist used as a general pejorative, as a substitute for the intellectually careless and morally corrupt. I also can’t count the number of times I’ve heard creationists compared to Holocaust deniers, which TNC also does here. But is that really a useful comparison?
Denying evolution means you deny a very complicated scientific theory whose findings span several hundred million years, has exactly zero practical impact on your daily life (quick: when’s the last time you actually used the theory of evolution?), and may directly contradict your deeply-held religious beliefs. Denying the Holocaust means you to believe it’s okay to kill Jews.
Branding creationists as Holocaust deniers allows us to avoid trying to understand some 40% of our fellow citizens. Many practicing scientists, after all, are creationists. Many, many more are skeptical of evolution. Are they all liars and charlatans? Evangelicals (most of whom are either creationists or intelligent-design proponents) are increasingly active in both environmental stewardship and social justice. Should we treat them as we do Holocaust deniers?
A conflict exists only if you wrongly assume that creationism is a window into someone’s intellectual and moral character. If you wrongly assume that rejecting evolution is akin to rejecting the Holocaust. But they are not at all the same.
What’s even more dispiriting about TNC’s attitude is that it contradicts so much of his other work. More than any other writer that I’ve read, TNC has wrestled with how we portray the dignity and humanity of individual black Americans: “I would have us depicted in all our rancid splendor–boastful and marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested, dumb, clear, hateful, and, on occasion, brave.” Shouldn’t we extend creationists the same courtesy? I’ve personally known many creationists, and I assure you they too can be marvelous, rhythmic and self-interested. And yet most of us (TNC is not special here) are content to paint in broad brush strokes. To assert that a belief in creationism makes one a creationist, thereby defining the sum total of their existence and obliterating everything else about them.
It might be more helpful to think of evolution as simply another discrete, technical subject where people use trust as a proxy for detailed investigation, something TNC himself does for health-care and cap-and-trade. There’s actually a lot of research on the importance of trust in scientific controversies, and I’ve very briefly touched on the theme in the past. Now I may be wrong, but I suspect that like me, TNC largely relies on trust when it comes to evolution. We both probably cannot explain the difference between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, or the debate over the Cambrian explosion.
None of this means that creationists’ beliefs are correct. But since we all often substitute trust for reason and evidence, it does mean that they are not necessarily ignorant, stupid or evil.
There are ultimately many people out there who deserve our scorn. There are actual liars, charlatans and necromancers who should be criticized, publicly and harshly. But we must be careful at whom we direct such diatribes. Crude generalizations are not only unfair, they distract us from the important task of determining who really deserves our condemnation. There’s no evidence that creationists as a group should be included and we should try to avoid it.
It is generally acknowledged that attempts to demarcate science from non- or pseudoscience, based on a priori standards, have failed. –Paul Newall
Newall is correct of course that a priori standards cannot demarcate science from non-science. Historians and philosophers of science have made a very persuasive case in this regard. But what’s often missing from the discussion is that despite the lack of fixed, coherent standards, scientists demarcate anyway. We fund biochemistry and particle physics while eschewing (and even castigating) ESP, intelligent design, and astrology. For all the talk about the intractability of demarcation problem, in practice it’s handled quite easily.
Now it may be true that our arguments are inconsistently applied. And that, as Larry Laudan has argued, some of the criticisms against ID also applies to other branches of science . But this mild duplicity doesn’t appear to bother us as much as affording legitimacy to intelligent design. And I have to say that I kind of agree with this approach. ESP and ID should not be treated as science, however whimsically I may apply an ever-shifting standard of what constitutes science.
This dilemma is where, I feel, historians and philosophers should be expending greater effort. That is, even if we cannot really demarcate, we already do so. Are there any costs–educational, moral, intellectual–for this double standard? Can we acknowledge the subjectivity embodied in any individual instance of demarcation while maintaing credibility? Can we acknowledge that subjectivity has always necessarily been a part of science, and that does not diminish its power?And can we discuss this intelligently in the public sphere?
And so after an extended blogging break, I’ve tried to finally (and very briefly) start addressing a topic I promised to over a month ago.
 Laudan, Larry, Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 7, No. 41 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 16-19
Also see the follow up in the Winter 1983 issue.
This is my last post on intelligent design (ID) for a while. But I want to examine the evidentiary claims surrounding the debate. I’m not talking about the evidence for or against evolution. It’s clear that the science overwhelmingly supports the theory.
Consider typical arguments against ID: Teaching ID risks future generations of scientists; students who learn the theory will be unprepared to wrestle with science-related public policy; economic growth will be harmed if citizens have poor scientific literacy. There are at least four statements here amenable to empirical testing:
- If students learn ID, then their scientific literacy (SL) will be harmed.
- If SL is harmed at any point in students’ education, then they will be less capable of becoming scientists.
- If SL is harmed, then citizens will be unable to reflect on public policy.
- If SL is harmed, then economic growth in an increasingly technological society will be affected.
You can phrase this differently or even make additional claims. But I think I’ve accurately summarized how scientists usually argue against ID.
For the sake of argument, I’ll grant that number 3 is self-evidently true . Poor scientific literacy negatively affects deliberation on science issues, thereby undermining democratic governance on some level. But the remaining claims are not so obvious. It’s not at all clear that learning ID will affect overall levels of scientific literacy. It’s especially unclear how public SL relates to economic growth. And as I discussed previously, many scientists believe in ID.
In proper scientific fashion let me offer some testable predictions and a way to test said predictions. I predict that learning ID only affects SL with respect to the theory of evolution . In all other areas of science, learning ID has no impact. I also predict that in college ID-learning students study natural science and engineering at the statistically same rate as non-ID students. As a test, I propose studying children who were home-schooled for religious reasons. Of course, we’d have to try control for household income and wealth, parents’ level of education, etc. It wouldn’t be easy, but social scientists do these types of studies all the time. Finally, I predict that mainstream scientists (including me!) would still oppose ID regardless of any data.
Despite my constant harping on this matter, it’s our tone and attitude I dislike, not the existence of our opposition. I do think it’s important for scientists to draw boundaries . We almost have an obligation to exclude ID from the realm of science. But disagreement, however fierce, should not corrode public discourse with threats and sloppy arguments. It’s important to note that we effectively bully people who support ID: your children’s future will be ruined if they learn intelligent design! In addition to being distasteful, this threat isn’t even very believable. We not only act like jerks, we act like jerks that make bad arguments. The fact that scientists make these unsubstantiated claims is even worse.
 This claim isn’t as straightforward as it appears. Social scientists have shown that even those who appear to be scientifically illiterate can be surprisingly reflective and engaged in some settings. See, for example, Wolff-Michael Roth and Stuart Lee, Scientific literacy as collective praxis, Public Understanding of Science, 11, 2002, pp. 33-56.
 Of course I’d have to define what I mean by scientific literacy. Considering that no one has ever been able to do that, I’m going to cheat by ignoring that problem. See George Deboer, Scientific literacy: another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36 (2), 2000, pp. 582-601.
 Check out Thomas Gieryn, Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science, American Sociological Review, 48, December 1983, pp. 781– 795.