Blogs > Cliopatria > To PZ Myers, On the Occasion of Some Frustrating Numbers

Nov 23, 2004 10:41 pm


To PZ Myers, On the Occasion of Some Frustrating Numbers





To PZ Myers

My guidance about these survey numbers on creationism and evolution, besides reminding you that surveys of this kind are complicated by the fact that some respondents try to give the answer that they think they're supposed to give, rather than the thing they actually believe (and complicated further still by the fact that many people believe in contradictory things and feel no need to resolve the contradiction), is this:

Ask yourself this: why do so many people seem to believe what the survey shows they believe? Don't tell yourself the answer. Ask it as a scientist ought to. Come up with some hypotheses and think about their implications.

For the moment, your hypothesis seems to be, "They are all much dumber than me and other people who believe in evolution." You note how that gets you in dutch vis-a-vis Kerry voters--if they're dumber on one thing, (47% belief in some flavor of creationism), how can you regard their choices on other matters as legitimate? The purity of your position here leaves you with only 13% of your countrymen as people whose intellects seem to be functioning within your acceptable parameters. That's an argument you can in fact make, but then just be willing to take on board the necessary correlates: it means any political or social system that depends on mass participation is from your perspective grossly flawed. It also means, almost of necessity, that you're endorsing an associated hypothesis that intelligence is natural or intrinsic, and high intelligence not well distributed among human populations regardless of what is done to encourage it. Hello, Bell Curve. As a hypothesis, it strikes me as a tough one to prove, but sit down and think of a few things that would let you do so that go beyond "belief in evolution".

There are alternatives. Consider those as well. You could argue that evolution has not been taught sufficiently well in American schools, or that the American government has been insufficiently enthusiastic in its support for evolution over the past five decades. Hard to test. You could argue that evolution gets insufficient coverage in the public sphere, or has been communicated ineffectively and infrequently by scientists and specialists. Also hard to argue: in both cases, what's the comparative metric that you're imagining at which evolution would be sufficiently supported or communicated suffciently well? For at least three decades, evolutionary theory went largely unmolested in the public schools and for longer than that, some of the very best and most articulate representatives of the scientific community have dedicated most of their lives to explaining it within the public sphere.

You could suggest that there is something intrinsic about evolution that makes it hard to understand, and the comparative simplicity of creationism makes it unfortunately appealing. Not for reasons of intellectual inability, but just because people like "clean theories" for aesthetic reasons. However, both creationism and intelligent design in their present and past manifestations are sometimes strikingly arcane and difficult to understand. Bishop Usher's chronology wasn't exactly clean and simple. High-level evolutionary theory is more complex than people think, sure, but the basic idea of adaptation and natural selection is well understood by many, even those who favor creationism. Moreover, knowledge of some of the key evidence for evolution, particularly fossil evidence, is actually strikingly well distributed among the population.

So what's left? One tentative hypothesis that requires thinking in rich and subtle ways about the history of the United States over the last century is this I'd offer is this: evolution and creation science have become over many decades symbolic compressions of much wider, more complex and more difficult to articulate social and cultural cleavages. They're containers for a wide variety of resentments, conflicts, fears and misrecognitions. In this reading, you have to learn to look below the surface of the ocean for the rest of the iceberg.

My suggestion is that when you do so, you tend to find some things that have much more validity to them than poor education or weak intellects. For example, you might find that what some people mean by "religion" is complicatedly tied in with what they mean by "culture": that to express a faith in religion is also for them to be an authentic inhabitant of the place and time they find themselves in. You can see that negatively, as enforced or institutionalized conformity, or positively, as people making choices about the authenticities that define their daily existence.

You might find that for some people, "religion" is an invaluable tool that helps them answer the questions that other thought-systems either cannot answer or for principled reasons will not answer. Many people in my field of African Studies have to find ways to understand what it means when someone visits both an indigenous healer and a biomedical doctor. A colleague of mine once interviewed a practicioner who was expert in both fields. As a doctor, he prescribed medicines, explained to patients how the illness was working in their bodies, and what the medicine would do for them. As a healer, he tried to help them to understand the meaning of their illness and to answer the question, “Why me? Why now?” At some primal level, answering that question, “Because you happened to be in a room with someone who had tuberculosis” or “Because you’re genetically predisposed to this illness”, however true, is insufficient, emotionally and philosophically.

You might find, too, that part of the iceberg below the surface is the social relation between scientists and non-scientists, a relationship that aligns with a broad range of other economic, regional, and cultural relations, many of which have been on the mind of many people in the last month in the election aftermath. You don’t have to be either Marxist or the reddest of the red-staters to think that some of the tensions in those relations connect to both real and imagined grievances which have nothing to do with evolution, but which find an expression within them. Resisting what scientists say is right may be a displaced resistance to the general authority of experts, bureaucrats, and the like, and a displaced resentment of the fact that the skills of scientists have a value and a transportability in a globalizing world that the skills of manufacturing workers or Wal-Mart clerks do not.

Finally, as part of this composite working hypothesis, some skepticism about the applied claims and demands of scientists, particularly as they manifest in demands for particular orthodoxies in education and other social institutions, is a pretty rational (indeed, scientific) reaction to the real history of American public science in the past fifty years. From the perspective of a wider public, scientists have historically put their expert authority behind things like studies of posture which led to a generations Ivy League undergraduates being photographed naked in gymnasiums as well as respectably careful and orthodox ideas like evolutionary theory. Before we rush to say, “But the posture stuff was quackery”, we have to remember how many truly bad ideas were broadly endorsed by people who claimed the expert authority of science and were authenticated by academic institutions. Including the posture research. One of my favorite examples of this is the entire generation of sober, careful, absolutely orthodox computer scientists who thought that creating artificial intelligence would be a snap, and who often sought to prepare the American public for the consequences of a world with widely available human-equivalent AIs. That they turned out to be drastically wrong is well known to scientists today—but I’m not sure that we fully realize the cumulative hidden costs of entering into the public sphere with poorly realized or falsely overconfident science. There’s some hysteria starting to build up within public health circles now about the health consequences of acrylamide in French fries and other fried food, for example. I can’t help but sympathize with the person quoted in a recent news story who said (while munching his fry), “I could care less”. Because with public health, and a lot of other public science, there is a great deal of crying wolf by ambitious experts looking to build a careerist portfolio that secures access to grants and allows them to claim to be working for the general good.

You might say that it’s up to the public to distinguish between junk science and good science, but even the scientists can’t do that sometimes, because the legitimacy of science even within academic and scientific institutions is shaped by sociology and hierarchy as well as intellect. I have some sympathy for a public that may feel the easiest thing to do is scorn science while also enjoying its applied benefits.

It may be worth thinking about how to help a weary public make meaningful distinctions between different kinds of science. However, I also think that scientists may need to do something that sits very poorly with academic culture at the moment, and with all professionals of any kind, and that is very, very aggressively self-police access by their fellows to the public domain, to make the barriers to accessing policy and public institutions extraordinarily high. You’d better not just have a few scraps of data about acrylamide before you start blowing your bugle: you’d better have a rock-solid demonstration of a link between its rising consumption and cancer or some other disease, a link which isn’t just demonstrable but where there is an effect size that actually matters.

Withdraw recognition of the experts-for-hire who appear at every trial and find a way to appropriately authenticate scientists in this role. Restrict the flow of public money to science and the reverse flow of scientists into the making of policy. Restrain scientists from easy or casual advocacy of public initiatives and applications of their work. You can’t stop scientists from saying what they want, but academic institutions provide a certification that is supposed to separate out people who use junk science as the authority for junk policy and those who exhibit much more judicious care.

I think this is a smaller piece of the creation-science puzzle than the larger social terrain that forms the bulk of the iceberg’s underwater surface. It’s worth some consideration, however: how much is a wider public disaffected from the authority of science because scientific authority, even from very respectable sources, has been misused or presented itself as far more certain about the truth than it is entitled to? If evolution has a hard time being understood for its irreducible truthfulness, and if mischievious or ill-intentioned proponents of “intelligent design” are able to make headway, it may have something to do with a history of misconduct in public science.

None of this means you have to stop being frustrated or annoyed. Certainly don't stop calling out the malicious promoters of creation science and intelligent design for what they are. I wouldn't want that, any more than I intend to stop calling Bush voters out for the consequences of their choices or intend to stop criticizing the Bush Administration for any number of misdeeds. But the survey data shows there's something more here than a few no-goodniks, much as the election results demonstrate that there's something more profound in the air than Karl Rove's shenangians.

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Dave Scot - 4/12/2005

There's a simpler explanation.

Most people recognize BS when they see it and reject the neo-Darwinian narrative on those grounds.


Paul Z Myers - 11/28/2004

Yes, and they already have claimed it as a victory.

I've summarized the course here.

It's not a good course. I'm embarrassed that it is offered at my university.

Macosko has ties to the Discovery Institute, and was recruited to help with their efforts to smuggle Intelligent Design creationism into the Minnesota state science standards last year. ID creationists do love to claim that his freshman course means Intelligent Design is making inroads in academia.

I suppose the Klingon language fans also say the same thing about the Star Trek course.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/28/2004

Part of the problem clearly is a failure to respect disciplinary expertise, and to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant learning.

Now I'm guilty of the former on a regular basis: like most people, I have opinions about things which I am not specifically trained in, based on my reading of the journalistic, blogistic or other second-hand reportage available. And I even pronounce on them, sometimes claiming my credentials as evidence of my ability to evaluate evidence and come to substantially correct conclusions.

But that doesn't mean that I'm right, and anyone taking my arguments seriously needs to weigh the distance between my credentials and the field in question. It seems particularly prominent in the anti-Darwinist movement, though (especially engineers?), and the 'bully pulpit' available to academics can be abused in this case. The example of the 'intelligent design' seminar, for example: are students going to be able to distinguish between Ph.D.s at this stage of their careers? Do they have the training necessary to recognize pseudoscience? Won't proponents of ID claim this as a victory, that it could be taught at a major institution?


Paul Z Myers - 11/28/2004

Macosko has no credentials in biology, and his course is one of our first-year seminars; I've also seen courses in Star Trek in that category. His "intelligent design course" has no scientific impact at all.


Ralph E. Luker - 11/28/2004

I don't mean to intrude on this discussion, but Mr. Cordova should understand that Professor Burke has no affiliation with GMU. The only relationship is that Cliopatria is hosted by a site which has GMU sponsorship.


Salvador T Cordova - 11/28/2004

Dr. Burke,

I had to weigh in because I'm an alum and extended studies student at George Mason University (BSEE,CS,MATH). You may not be aware, but 2 Creationist PhD biologist Timothy Standish and Gordon Wilson graduated from GMU. The founder of Computational Sciences (which includes BioInformatics) and the President of GMU are at least sympathetic to Intelligent Design if they aren't already creationists. How do I know? I see them at Campus Crusade for Christ fund raisers of which I was a part. One of those fund raisers was to pay for speakers like Michael Behe who visited GMU in 1999. Also 3 science professors at GMU reject the Big Bang as a solid theory, one of them is PhD, MIT Physics, Menas Kafatos, head of Computatial Science and Center for Earth Observing and Space Research.

Yet GMU is where Harold Morowitz, who testified against the creationists in 1983, McLean vs Arkansas, teaches but who is now friendly to Intelligent Design. Associate Chair of Chemistry, Dr. Stephen Davis was elder in my church and faculty advisor to our ministry group in 2002 which gave creationist talks at GMU. There are creationists, or ID friendly physics and engineering faculty. In my circle, 3 bio students, 1 chem student, 1 EE in my Bible studies are creationists. The bio students will graduate GMU this year and they will still be creationists. 1 of them is a pre-med double major in Chemistry and Biology.....

In other words, I don't think it's lack of teaching evolution or Big Bang that is purely the reason the country is in this supposed "dilemma". I think there are some legitimate scientific reasons to doubt Darwinism, and there continue to be scientists sympathetic Intelligent Design.

Further, when creationist students quietly know their are creationist faculty, they are more likely to keep believing in creationism.

At UVa, Paul Gross's school, there is a tenured bio-chemistry faculty member who is the IDEA (Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness) faculty advisor. He is definitely an IDist if not an outright creationist. I went to their first IDEA meeting this fall which was held in the UVa Medical School.

And, from what I understand, at Dr. Myers school, Dr. Chris Macosko teaches an Intelligent Design course.

I think Dr. Myers correctly says that people do want religious comfort, however, as long as the universities have faculty members like the ones I'm mentioning, creationism and Intelligent Design are here to stay.

respectfully,
Salvador T. Cordova
GMU IDEA chapter founder

PS
I would be pleased to meet with you in person someday. My e-mail is stcordova@hotmail.com


Ed Darrell - 11/26/2004

Eugenics had whiffs of science in it. Racism was not invented by scientists in the 19th century, however, and the hijacking of science to support Eugenics, while a problem of science, does not account for the number of states whose legislatures passed eugenics laws, the governors who signed them, nor the judges who enforced them.

Yes, PZ is right -- people like George Fox had pulled entire religious movements (the Quakers in his case) out of slavery entirely. I said Darwin came along before such views were "fashionable," and I would point out that anti-racism arguments, and anti-slavery arguments, were not widely approved and legislated prior to Darwin; prior to his publication of his theory, it is true, there were successful attempts in western society to legislate against slavery. Morality is not the exclusive province of religion or science.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/25/2004

I think your proposed standards would constitute a dramatic chilling of both history and science.

The great strength of our scientific culture is the collective and distributed nature of research, experiment and data-collection. Biology and medicine, in particular, have very high costs involved in their studies, so that the meta-study, or ingathering of data from a large number of smaller studies, is a standard practice for developing authoritative results.

Similarly in history, the nature of our evidence and process recommends us to be tentative and nuanced in our conclusions, but that doesn't mean that an interpretation, even a disputed one, may not have such overwhelming support from the data and secondary research that it can be accepted as conclusive.

But to restrict public access to scientific or historical studies on the grounds that they are tentative would require heroic (and ultimately chilling) measures to "wall off" the privileged academic and falsely authoritative public discourses from each other.

It would be much more effective to focus our efforts on fundamental public education, through education and public discourse, on the nature of the scientific and historical process, the tentative nature of conclusions, the relative trustworthyness of publicity-seekers, the hallmarks of pseudoscience.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/25/2004

Yes, though that wasn't the issue.


Paul Z Myers - 11/25/2004

And by non-christians, too.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/25/2004

Phelps is routinely picketed and protested by Christians, individually and in groups, liberal, 'mainline' and conservative, who abhor his message of hatred.


Paul Z Myers - 11/25/2004

Please do use the term "pseudo-religion", or something similar, liberally. That's what I'm saying: that there is too little effort made to set reasonable theists apart from the crazy ones.

I also have to disagree with Ed. There was substantial opposition to slavery by organized religious groups well before Darwin, and Darwin wasn't unusual -- he was actually expressing common sentiments held in England by non-scientists during and before his lifetime.

Eugenics was a scientific rationalization for racism; it's not quite fair to call it wholly a gift of science. It's more along the lines of that "culture" stuff Tim is talking about -- there was this whole package of attitudes that bubbled up and were reflected in Galton's adoption of the language of science to support it.

Still, it's a fair cop. Science makes mistakes and is used to support erroneous ideas. Of course, we have no pretensions to infallibility, so it's no strike against science to point at its lack of it. All we can say is that we have institutional mechanisms to churn through lots of ideas and work towards discarding the bad ones, not that we have foolproof ways to avoid proposing bad ideas.

That's much more than we can say about religion, which seems to have nothing but mechanisms to preserve bad ideas, which are overcome in spite of religious institutions.


Ralph E. Luker - 11/25/2004

Eugenics, of course, was wholly the gift of science. Science has a neat way of shedding responsibility with the declaration of "pseudo-science." May I shed responsibility with declarations of "pseudo-religion" and when will the scientists join me on the picket lines around Brother Phelps?


Ed Darrell - 11/25/2004

I don't see any Christians picketing Falwell or Phelps. Until there is such disowning of them and their bat-excrement crazy ideas, I think we should expect non-Christians to think they represent the "Christian" view.

And, y'know, thinking back over the past 200 years, it's difficult for me to come up with any situation where science urged the wrong thing. It's difficult to find any situation where the urging was not done by policy makers, religious fanatics, or government "leaders," without any active call from science. I am reminded that Darwin was anti-slavery and anti-racist long before those views were really fashionable, and long before religions started speaking forcefully against them (the Southern Baptist Convention waited until the 21st century to come out against slavery and racism, if my memory serves close to the year -- it was not before 1995 in any case).

Science didn't invent violence, racism, adultery, murder, disease or war. Charlatans made use of those things for dubious policy objectives long before the invention of science. I think a fair analysis would show that science tends to be on the side of avoiding abuse of these things more often than not.


Ralph E. Luker - 11/25/2004

I expect to continue to do much of what I have been doing; and, among those things, is to remind you that evolutionary science comes with its own time-bound flaws: that, for example, the evolutionary science of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was deeply enmeshed in racist and eugenicist assumptions. I do not know what its current time-bound flaws are.


Paul Z Myers - 11/25/2004

You've tried voting, and you've tried arguing with atheists about those darned civil members of the religious community who are not crazy. It doesn't work.

So what exactly are you doing next?


Ralph E. Luker - 11/25/2004

I understand the degrees of difference between myself, Falwell, and Phelps more clearly, I think, than you do; and Falwell, on the one hand, and Phelps, on the other, also understand the differences quite well. The public policies that they advocate and for the most part wrong. They have no business trying to dictate what shall be taught as science. There is, however, a large difference between being wrong and being "bat shit crazy." And that difference is in how I see them, not in what they are. I've been off my butt for quite some time now, thanks, voting against their policies and candidates, on the one hand, and arguing with folk like you that the language of outrage doesn't help. You and I lost. Maybe you'll start listening.


Paul Z Myers - 11/25/2004

You're doing it again.

I explicitly state that not all religious people are equivalent, specifically state that I can distinguish between you and Phelps, and then you reply by telling me that I've lumped you and Phelps together. It's a perfect example of the peculiar blindness many religious people exhibit, in which they are incapable of setting themselves apart from any of their religious compatriots, no matter how far gone they are.

I have just been told that I, as a scientist, am responsible for the bad impression bureaucrats who push public policy have been making on our citizenry, and that we scientists ought to do something about it. On the other hand, we have politically active religious leaders who try to dictate public morality of a very narrow kind, who promote conservative extremist politicians who use the religion they wear on their sleeve to guide their policy decisions, and an electorate that considers devotion to religion a litmus test for office...and you think you can simultaneously defend and disown this mess as not part of the religious community? Sounds like a double standard to me.

As far as I'm concerned, a religious leader who blames lesbians, feminists, the ACLU, and secularists for the 9/11 terrorist attacks is batshit crazy, no quotes necessary. People like Phelps, Santorum, Robertson, any televangelist you can name, Reed, on and on and on, are far more powerful and more damaging to civility and reasoned political policy and education than any atheist you could possibly name...and yes, they are all housed within the religious community.

Please do something about them. Stop defending them. If anyone is going to persuade your fellow religious citizens, it's not a pissed-off atheist like me -- it's going to have to come from their fellow theists, who have to get off their butts and stop making excuses for the lunatics hiding under the church steeple with you.


Ralph E. Luker - 11/25/2004

It isn't the "religious community" that "houses" the "freakshow." If it were, there'd be no public policy problem. They are a part of the civil community. Religious conservatives are your and my fellow citizens. I'm trying to recall the last time I referred to my fellow citizens as "freaks" in the hope of influencing their opinions and the way they understood the world.
Falwell and Phelps don't hold public office and Falwell, at least, just _isn't_ "batshit crazy." You're doing a lot of the sort of lumping together that does end up classing me with Phelps and leaving yourself and a few others in the enlightened few. Welcome to that minority status.


Paul Z Myers - 11/25/2004

Spokesmen for the religious right act as if they speak for religious America. This is not a power that atheists confer upon them. We tend to vote in overwhelming proportions against these guys. It is your fellow Christians who elect them and then defend the religious, as you do here, when anyone points out that a Phelps or a Falwell is batshit crazy, as if all religious people are equivalent. I know the difference; I know that a Kerry or a Luker is not in the same category as the religious extremists. So why do Christians have a problem distinguishing them?

I also think part of the problem is that you refuse to treat the pathologies within religion with contempt. That's the attitude that has allowed the cancer to grow. Maybe you should stop watching with horror and do something about it. Burke is making a case that scientists need to police their communities more, but it seems to me that we aren't the problem, it's the religious community that houses the freakshow.


Timothy James Burke - 11/25/2004

Oh, I don't blame the biologists. My point is that the public conception of "science" folds in narrowly academic scientists, popularizers and public health officials who act in the name of science, and some individuals who move between all three categories. Maybe in a way all you need is better branding. Except of course it's not that easy, because talking about what the public schools should teach is a question of public policy, and it can't be answered as simply as "the truth". There's a lot of truths, and only twelve years to teach them between kindergarden and the end of high school. Which ones and in which order?


Ralph E. Luker - 11/24/2004

I'm sorry, P. Z., but I think that you are mistaken here. For the last six months, at least, many of us who are adherents of faith communities _and_ have made our peace with modern science have watched in horror as spokesmen for the secular Left have repeatedly treated spokesmen for the religious Right as if they spoke for religious America. They don't, but they acquire increased power as folk like P. Z. attribute it to them. Beyond that, dismissing conservative religious believers as "batshit crazy" simply isn't going to persuade _anyone_ of _anything_. It will allow conservative religious believers to similarly dismiss you, though probably not in such contemptuous terms.


Paul Z Myers - 11/24/2004

There is no confusion on my part, and it is deliberate (I also have my cake, and eat it too.)

The confusion lies in religion. There is reasonable religion, which sees the natural world as a reasonable and worthy component of their belief system, and there is batshit crazy religion, which adheres to old dogma that blatantly contradicts the observable, repeatable, measurable evidence of their senses. The latter is the enemy of science, and I oppose it ferociously.

The real problem is that people of faith don't often seem to make the effort to distinguish the two: criticize the batshit crazy stuff, and the reasonable ones stagger back and get all huffy that you would dare to criticize religion, as if it were all one unitary thing.

The problem really belongs to y'all. It would help if you could come up with two or more different, distinguishable terms rather than lumping everything under "religion". Consider "batshit crazy" as just my suggestion, but since I'm outside all of it, I don't think I carry much weight.


Paul Z Myers - 11/24/2004

But why are you blaming the biologists? This sounds more like a problem of moralizing public health service bureaucrats, administrators not scientists.

It sounds a bit like a "blame the messenger" problem, and I'm not at all clear on what you are suggesting. One sharp example is the health effects of smoking: good science has been unequivocal that sucking in tars and various complex hydrocarbons is very, very bad for your cardiovascular system. Should scientists have kept quiet? They really aren't the ones doing the moralizing, for the most part.

For a murkier example, take the differing opinions on the effects of dietary salt. That's been going all over the place for years, and it's a legitimate battle being fought in the peer-reviewed literature. What are you saying about how biologists should change in engaging in that kind of argument?

As for the evolution/creation wars, the biologists side is simply the side of the data and the best explanations. That's all that has been done for years -- most scientists and textbook authors are completely unengaged from the creationism nonsense, and have taken the basic story for granted. The public campaign, the force spending money and effort on a flawed story that is just plain wrong, is being carried on by the creationists. That's the party guilty of scientific malpractice here.

If your thesis is correct, what's the explanation for the continued success of these persistent frauds?


Timothy James Burke - 11/24/2004

I think it has more to do with the social histories I allude to--but the thing about scientific malpractice is not about the normal business of aggressive promotion and skeptical knocking down. I think it's more the kind of thing that historians who study public health campaigns have noticed over the years. As one colleague of mine put it, anytime any scientific finding gets translated into the moralizing language of public health and pushed by bureaucrats seeking projects which legitimate their jobs, it's time to run for cover. Even when the science is sound, this kind of translation of science into policy is almost certainly going to push on to a bridge too far, often because the underlying moral or ethical proposition that it takes on board in that translation is poorly thought out, or not thought out at all.

So this piece of the puzzle has to do with what happens when science is perceived as the authorizing force behind public initiatives, and the damage that gets done in particular when the science either turns out to be wrong or is insufficient justification for the money and effort spent in a public campaign.

It's not the most important part of the historical evolution of the popular perception of "science", but it's a piece of the puzzle.


Lloyd Kilford - 11/24/2004

I read Pharyngula with some interest, but I think that there is a confusion between two causes. I'm not sure if this is deliberate or not.

A lot of the articles there were both pro-evolution and anti-religion. Now these are both legitimate causes, but they don't necessarily need to go together. The Church of England has accepted evolution for over 150 years, and the Catholic Church also sees no contradiction between the Bible and the science underlying evolution.

Tying the two causes together causes confusion, and many possible allies - members of mainstream Christian, Jewish and Muslim denominations - will probably be less than enthusiastic about trashing religion, whereas they would be much happier about supporting science and rationality.

Building a coalition requires a little bit of compromise. I think that there is some work still to do.


Paul Z Myers - 11/24/2004

You must understand that the post was born out of acute frustration. I am well aware that I can't assume that everyone else in the country is a deranged moron, and that there is much, much more going on here. And part of the frustration is that on straightforward intellectual grounds, on the basis of data and evidence and informed theory, there is no contest...and I am not at all well equipped to deal with the situation in any way other than presenting the data and evidence and theory.

This is a situation where reason doesn't work. At least not reason in any sphere in which I am comfortable. I've been disarmed!

I don't know if I entirely buy the argument that the problem lies in overly aggressive claims by scientists that have poisoned the public's attitude towards science. Science has always been this fiercely adversarial enterprise where proponents push ideas and opponents tear them down. That's how science works, and there isn't an easy way to change it; keeping a tight lid on ideas until they are 'solid' would fail, since the way ideas are challenged is by making them public, and if it were tried the next thing that would happen is the public would start mistrusting scientists because they are so secretive.

And the ideas that are being challenged -- from the theory of evolution to global warming -- are not marginal claims that are being overpromoted. Most science isn't done by press release, and I assure you, scientists are the first to disparage anyone who tries to peddle ideas by means other than peer review and publication in good journals.

So, when it gets right down to it, I don't really think we've got a majority of stupid people in this country. We've got a problem, and it lies in something other than the science -- there is a taint somewhere that has corrupted the way otherwise intelligent people think about science. I have no idea where the problem lies. It's probably complicated and irrational, though, and I cringe at having to deal with it.

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