Tuesday, June 19, 2012

More and Better Scientists

The Gallup organization reported earlier this month that 46% of Americans "hold [a] creationist view of human origins," and a number of pundits have reacted predictably enough.  Katha Pollitt was representative, though an Alternet post by Amanda Marcotte covering the same issue was republished at Salon today.  (It's not just an issue in the US: the Hankyoreh ran a story about science textbook controversies in South Korea the same day Pollitt's column appeared.)

Pollitt wrote that the "worst thing" about the poll results was "that the proportion of college graduates who are creationists is exactly the same as for the general public. That’s right: 46 percent of Americans with sixteen long years of education under their belt believe the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. Even 25 percent of Americans with graduate degrees believe dinosaurs and humans romped together before Noah’s flood. Needless to say, this remarkable demonstration of educational failure attracts little attention from those who call for improving our schools."  She might also have mentioned that 41 percent of Democrats believe in creationism, which is less than the 58 percent of Republicans who do, but still.  Only nineteen percent of Democrats are strict evolutionists, compared to five percent of Republicans.  That's a significant difference, but it shoots down any pretense by Democrats to be the party of rationality.

One thing that occurs to me about this is that Gallup reduced the creation/evolution debate to human origins.  Which is kind of like asking whether you believe that the earth is the center of the universe, while letting the rest of the planets orbit the sun.  Darwin's theory isn't just about human origins, it's about the origin of all species -- microbes, plants, animals.  It's the question of where people came from that seems to worry people more.  As Richard Lewontin pointed out years ago, there doesn't seem to be a corresponding drive to revise physics texts on the age of the universe -- which contrary to what Pollitt says, is not really a part of Darwin's theory.  The focus is on biology textbooks.  I'd say the same about the neo-Copernican synthesis: the Bible is pretty clear that the sun moves around the earth, but there's no religious drive in the US to give equal time to Biblical astronomy, or even Ptolemy's.

Marcotte inadvertently got closer to the nub of the matter, I think.  Her thesis is that we're seeing polarization in the politics of American science education, just as we are in other areas, though I'm not sure that follows from the Gallup data.  What's the middle ground here?  The number of people who believe in "theistic" evolution is higher -- twice as high, on the whole -- than the number of strict Darwinists; why aren't they the Truth That Lies Somewhere in Between the Two Extremes?  I'm sure that's how they largely see themselves, as reasonable moderates.

Anyway, Marcotte notes that at the same time as the number of Creationists has risen slightly,
there’s been a steady rise in people who believe that humanity evolved without any supernatural guidance, and now stands at 15 percent. What this seeming conflict suggests is that the issue is getting more polarized, as people feel they either have to pick Team Evolution or Team Creationism.
But she only really develops that insight where "Team Creationism" is concerned.  Team Evolution, she implies, judges the issue rationally, based on the evidence.
The theory of evolution isn’t being rejected on its merits by the people who don’t buy it. It really can’t be by someone who is honestly assessing the evidence.
We don't seem to have any evidence on why people accept the theory of evolution.  I'm certain that their reasons aren't as simple as an honest assessment of the evidence.  After all, one of the big issues at stake is what will be taught in the classroom.  When I took high school biology as a freshman in the mid-1960s, the class consisted of primarily memorization of classifications, and the dissection of a crayfish, then of a frog.  I don't remember covering Darwin and I doubt we did, since the teacher was a right-wing ideologue who wasted a lot of class time talking about the Communist threat, exemplified by Martin Luther King.  I never took any college science courses, but from the people I talked to who did, as well as what I've read about science education, the evidence for the theories underlying Chem Lab was not on the syllabus.  You learn science by doing science, not by studying its history.  Which is fine, but it means that the picture of people accepting evolution because they honestly assessed the evidence is not quite accurate.

That's what most advocates of teaching Darwinism have in mind, from what I've seen: they want students to be indoctrinated with the right theory.  Whenever I get the chance, I advocate the approach of teaching the conflicts, which is what is actually meant by assessing the evidence.  This generally infuriates the Darwinists.  Sometimes they point out that creationists have advocated the same thing, as though that mattered; that the Ku Klux Klan appeals to freedom of speech doesn't invalidate the First Amendment.  A more valid objection, to my mind, is that most high-school and probably college-level -- science teachers aren't competent to cover the evidence even for evolution, let alone the opposition.  That's not an indictment of science teachers, just a reminder that a sober assessment of evidence isn't involved in this controversy.

(Look at the comments under Marcotte's article at Salon.  There's a lot of endorsement of critical thinking, but precious little on display.  The same is true of religion vs. atheism, as I've said before: atheists are generally very misinformed about religion, but since they have the Truth they don't need no stinkin' information.  Attacking straw men is extremely common in scientific controversies, as in Steven Pinker's attempt to reduce the debate over the biology of behavior to a conflict between reasonable scientific evolutionary psychology on one side, and crazy "blank slate" dogma on the other; or Aaron Gillette's schema of evolutionary psychology vs. "behaviorism.")

I'd also like to know how many adherents of Darwin against creationism are actually Spencerians, who out of ignorance reject Darwin's actual theory of Descent with Modification by Natural Selection in favor of the inevitable progressive movement of the Life Force up the Great Chain of Being, from microbes to Man.  I'm sure it's a lot of them, maybe even most: Spencer's theory was especially popular in the US at the end of the 19th century, and his influence is still very much with us.  The trope of the "next step in evolution" turns up a lot in liberal discourse, along with the notion of evolution as forward progress, as with President Obama's "evolution" on same-sex marriage.  (The "next step" in evolution is often extinction, but few people like to dwell on that.)  To say nothing of the anthropomorphizing of Nature, or of the Earth.

Pollitt also flounders when she tries to explain why this bothers her so much.
One reason is that rejecting evolution expresses more than an inability to think critically; it relies on a fundamentally paranoid worldview. Think what the world would have to be like for evolution to be false. Almost every scientist on earth would have to be engaged in a fraud so complex and extensive it involved every field from archaeology, paleontology, geology and genetics to biology, chemistry and physics. And yet this massive concatenation of lies and delusion is so full of obvious holes that a pastor with a Bible-college degree or a homeschooling parent with no degree at all can see right through it.
For evolution to be false wouldn't logically entail that scientists who accept it are "engaged in a fraud"; they might just be drastically mistaken about it (because of their secular bias, creationists claim).  Since fraud doesn't follow, I think Pollitt here lets slip that she believes Creationists are self-aware frauds, which I don't believe they are either.  A fundamentally paranoid worldview underlies a lot of anti-creationist rhetoric. "An inability to think critically" isn't involved either; everybody's critical thinking is partial at best, as Pollitt showed by her embrace of Obama in 2008.  And does Pollitt realize that what she wrote there echoes a common talking point of Christian apologetics?  Think of all the wise men over thousands of years who found Christianity to be reasonable and true; yet she thinks that a few malcontents can see right through it, and call gazillions of sincere Christians liars or fools.

Pollitt's fallen into the comfortable fallacy of the false antithesis, as she has before where science is concerned: if someone is critical of some aspect of contemporary science (except for anti-feminist biological determinism, of course), that means that they are anti-Science and don't believe that human beings are clever enough to learn anything about the world.  She knows better, but she shares the scientific triumphalism over primitive superstition that many atheists, especially of our generation, learned to take for granted as the inevitable next step in human progress.  Scientists have contributed a lot to human culture, but science still must be regarded critically, especially when it tries to claim authority outside its very limited realm.

It would be so much simpler if religious belief rendered a person totally incapable of functioning in the modern world, or in the sciences.  Yet fundamentalist Christians have had a powerful presence in the US space program since at least the 1950s, which didn't keep the US from beating the atheist Russians to the moon, and as the Gallup poll shows, many people simply blend theism and Darwinism together.  I reread the philosopher Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985) this weekend, and she points out:
The effect [of academic specialization] is to leave many of today’s physical scientists rather unpracticed in general thinking, and therefore somewhat na├»ve and undefended against superstitions which dress themselves up as science. Creationism, for instance, cuts no ice at all with humanists and social scientists. Nobody trained to think historically is in any danger of taking it seriously, least of all theologians. It makes its academic converts among chemists and physicists – sometimes, alarmingly enough, even among biologists. Equally, the attitudes which will most concern us in this book – faith in future superman-building, faith in the mysterious force of bloody-minded egoism, fatalistic faith in chance, and various sub-faiths accompanying these – owe their success to the making of scientific-sounding noises without serious substance. This is a different group from that of scientists, but unfortunately it overlaps with it quite widely [24].
It's also a mistake to suppose that evolution has to be true, because of all the evidence around it.  Nineteenth-century physics was also a great achievement of human rationality, and its practitioners were sure of its truth.  It all came tumbling down when Einstein's theory of relativity superseded it, but that didn't mean nineteenth-century physicists were frauds or fools.  The mass of scientific knowledge was simply reorganized, under new management as it were.  The overturning of classical physics didn't mean a return to a geocentric Aristotelean cosmology, and when Darwinian theory is radically revised again (as it was in the 1930s), it won't prove that the Creationists were right all along either.

None of this means that I think Creationism is true, or that Darwinism shouldn't be taught in schools, or even that I'm not at all bothered by my fellow Americans' stubborn ignorance about science.  But they're ignorant about a good many things, including the religions they claim to love so much.  Pollitt brushes these considerations aside, but I don't see why.  The US still produces more scientists than it needs; if American corporations are hiring a lot of Asian scientists and engineers (whether trained here or in their home countries), it's because they're cheaper, not because of any shortfall in the domestic product.  Pollitt and Marcotte both change the subject to climate change and global warming and OMFG the Republicans are anti-science! 

Two things need to be borne in mind here: first, Democratic politicians have done no better than Republicans on environmental issues, undercutting world efforts to lower carbon emissions and the like; second, a lot of secular adherents of science agree that climate change is a problem, but they share Pollitt's confidence in Science's unlimited ability to fix our problems.  We don't need to scale back our energy consumption, they say, because soon we'll master cold fusion or some other technology, get rid of fossil fuels, and Presto! no global warming.  Anyone who lacks faith in this outcome is like people who laughed at Columbus or the Wright Brothers.

There's so much irrationality among the people who are nominally on my side that I can't get as excited as they want about the irrationality of the religious nuts.  A lot of their concern strikes me as a distraction.  We secularist self-styled rationalists need to work harder at putting our own house in order.