Friday, February 13, 2009

Somwhere Charles Darwin is evolving ... or being intelligently redesigned ...

(with apologies to Waldo, as usual, whenever I steal the gag)

It strikes me as entertaining when one political party, ideology, or apologist attempts to stake out the high ground on a scientific or intellectual issue...

Like this:

The GOP is the same party that wants Creationism taught in schools…

Good point, potentially, except that--according to the Pew study done in honor of Charles Darwin's birthday--a lot of people who believe in Creationism (and even want it taught in the schools either in place of, or alongside, evolution)--must have voted Democratic in the past presidential election:

Opinion polls over the past two decades have found the American public deeply divided in its beliefs about the origins and development of life on earth. Surveys are fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable or slightly larger numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion, and there has been little change in the percentage of the public who reject the idea of evolution.

Of course, it's difficult to be sure, because apparently a lot of people who believe in evolution, just like a lot of people who believe in Creationism, appear to be pretty damn confused about the whole megilla:

Most Americans say they are familiar with creationism and evolution, but recent polling suggests that there is some confusion about the meaning of these terms. In an August 2005 Gallup poll, 58% of the public said that creationism was definitely or probably true as an explanation for the origin and development of life, but about the same number also said the same about evolution. Since creationism and evolution are incompatible as explanations, some portion of the public is clearly confused about the meaning of the terms.

But apparently even some of the people who credit evolutionary theory don't really think that scientists have a lot of evidence to back it up:

A majority of the public (62% in a July 2006 Pew Research poll) believes that scientists are generally in agreement about evolution. But fewer believe there is strong scientific evidence in support of evolution. A March 2007 Newsweek survey found just 48% saying evolution was both widely accepted in the scientific community and well supported by evidence. A 2004 Gallup poll registered fewer (35%) saying Darwin's theory of evolution has been "well-supported by evidence." This question also offered respondents the choice of saying they don't know enough about the issue, an option that 30% selected.

And as for what should be taught in schools:

In recent years, decisions by school boards to teach alternative accounts of the origins of life have generated much controversy. In 2005, a federal district court struck down a Dover, Pa. school board requirement that teachers include the teaching of "intelligent design" in science classes. However, polling finds that a solid majority of Americans over the past 20 years has supported the teaching of both evolution and creationist accounts of the origins of life. A June 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 68% of the public favored teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools. A more recent Pew Research poll conducted in July 2006 found that a 58% majority held that view. There is far less support for removing evolution from the curriculum. In July 2005, a Pew Research poll found that a substantial 38% minority favored teaching creationism instead of evolution.

Which may explain why President Obama (who has gone on record--even if I cannot find the link right this second--stating that he believes evolution is what should be taught in science classes to the exclusion of creationism) felt obligated to have Rick Warren, a man who attacks the concept of evolution at every turn, deliver that prayer at the Inauguration.

Daniel Dennett has suggested that one of the reasons for people not wanting to accept the Darwinian hypothesis of natural selection is because the whole idea is like acid, eating away at traditional viewpoints and making the concept of a theistic universe unnecessary. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris say much the same thing with a lot more self-aggrandizement and a lot less eloquence.

Yet the largest single Christian denomination on the planet officially holds that evolution, not Creationism, is the only valid scientific proposition:

Pope John Paul Paul II, he adds, told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “new scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis.”

In my daily life it doesn't, as a general principle, make a hell of a lot of difference to me whether you credit the theory of evolution or not. I tend to hold with Thomas Jefferson most of the time:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

But today, when we're talking about stem cell research, gene therapy, the human genome, and the wonders/horrors that biology is just on the verge of discovering and releasing, it does matter as public policy whether or not the voter or the legislator is scientifically literate.

Just like it matters that voters are either too prejudiced or too scientifically illiterate to understand the overwhelming evidence that is now mounting regarding the genetic basis for sexual orientation.

This is a tough one for libertarians, moreso than people of other political ideologies, because most of the rest of you are either OK with taking people's money via taxation for research that they wouldn't support on religious grounds, or else you're OK with refusing to fund research you don't support on religious grounds. We already view taxation with a jaundiced eye, even when we might individually support the uses to which the money coercively removed from other people's pockets would be used.

I am sure that government bureaucrats and scientists who make their living on the research dole cannot be trusted to make these decisions for themselves: for every Albert Einstein there are a dozen Edward Tellers.

Likewise, we have a government that is consistently OK with publishing distorted--even fabricated--information about marijuana and other drugs, and calling it science. How often do you see the scientific community stepping up to tackle that?

If you're looking for an excellent policy proposal--or just a clever one-liner--to close out this post, you'll be disappointed.

Science, education, public policy, and research funding are tough issues, especially when you mix them up with religion and the myopic tendency of political ideologues to see pretty much everything through a Republican/Democrat lens.

Charles, old boy, some days I'm not sure you did us any favors....


ChrisNC said...

I think that the overlap between creationists and evolutionists is the result of those who hold to intelligent design. If one believes in a theistic source of life working through evolution, does that make one an evolutionist? or a creationist? I can see people falling on either side of that question. However, this is only a problem because we have surrendered education to government. If parents could choose the type of education their kids receive, without being punished with paying twice for an unapproved choice, then reality would sort it all out. Those kids trained in a way that is incompatible with reality would be less successful in life, probably creating a noncoercive incentive to move education to the other camp. Of necessity, science cannot be an issue of coercion, which is where the issue stands right now.

Delaware Watch said...

I'm not convinced that polls should determine what gets taught as a scientific theory or not. That strikes me as ludicrous on its face, just as ludicrous as someone proposing that my 5-year-old's scribbles should be taught as art even if I got a national poll supporting it.

This has always struck me as a non issue, one that should be left to experts to decide and not the populace. What's next? Letting the public decide what should be taught to brain surgeons trained in publicly supported universities? Should the experts' view prevail here?

Steven H. Newton said...

The problem is... I've watched those experts at work, and just because they know science doesn't mean they know history, or education, or policy.

Delaware has science standards designed by "experts" that include a standard saying (I paraphrase from memory) that advanced in technology always improve our lives--a demonstrably false statement (think cotton gin and African-Americans for only one example), and then it is mandated to be thought.

Scientists inevitably want science taught as a purely pristine intellectual process with no examination of the social implications or the sell-outs often involved by scientists.

As much as I'd like to agree on this one, I've seen too much sausage made in the name to education to think it is that simple.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that every religion has its own mythology of creationism. Therfore, creationism should be taught under "mythology". By the way, this night be a lot of fun and productive. Most Americans have no klnowledge, e.g. of Greek mythology, Indian mythology, and ,yes, of biblical,or Moslem mythologies. They make it fun to study; at least we will learn something.
On the other hand, evolution is the result of the scientific method. If all fanatic and/or religious morons had learned the "scientific method" in 13 years of K-12, and beyond, instead of wasting time, they might have understood the power of evolution and the weakness of religions!!!
Finally, this writing has the intention of offending as many individuals as possible, preferably all! The way our species is going, it won't be long before the average ape surpasses each of us. Of course, that assumes there will be some apes left, since they are rapidly disappearing, thanks to our self- centered activities.
Case closed!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Brian Miller said...

Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life

This is the problem with the perpetual unthinking religiosity taught by institutions, parents, and government in our society.

About half of the population thinks that men were made out of mud and dust, and that the first woman was fashioned out of the first man's rib. Literally.

Ever wonder why our country is such a cluster**** economically?

Rejection of science has become a form of pride!

Ever see a "faith based computer?" A block of wood that suddenly magically became animated into Intel Xeon levels of power through prayer to the appropriate diety?

How about "biblical programming languages?" You know, where rather than applying binary logic and object orientation, you write some scriptural language to get things moving?

How about "faith based accounting?" Hell, that describes 3/4 of the banks' "off balance sheet" accounting these days, which is causing so much chaos.

There's entirely too much faith in "faith." When reason goes against the belief in the sublime and mystical, it gets tossed out the window. Any critique of that serious problem is framed as "antireligious." Any insistence that people focus on the actual problems at hand using empirical science is considered "rude and disrespectful."

So grab the Cheetos and put on American Idol, kids! We don't have to worry. God Blessed America, we don't have to compete or think for ourselves!