Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hey, You -- Out Of The Meme Pool!

I can’t see any good reason why Creationist or Intelligent Design research shouldn’t be done. It’s probably a waste of money and time, but so is most scientific research.
Science cultists rant and rave and tear their hair, but there’s no good reason for their wrath. Creationism and Intelligent Design are certainly religiously based, but they are not anti-scientific. In fact their concession that they have to present a science-like case is a surrender to secular science. It’s even remotely possible that some ID researcher will serendipitously make a real discovery. Weirder things have happened – that’s science!
Sure, the premises and motives of the ID research are completely bogus; so what? There’s a lot of secular research being done to prove – excuse me, demonstrate – that women can’t learn math, that men of African descent are biologically capable only of playing basketball and singing spirituals, that gay men are really women’s minds encased in male flesh, and so on. This kind of biological determinism has been discredited many times, yet its proponents don’t seem to have any trouble getting funding or publicity for their latest results. It’s also more harmful socially than Creationism or ID, being used to lend scientific respectability to all kinds of bigotry, and yet it doesn’t seem to rouse the same hysterical derision that Creationism does. My own criticisms of scientific racism in online debate have often been met with the argument that we should just let science run its course, and let the bad ideas and research fall by the wayside, as they assuredly will thanks to the self-correcting nature of science.
If it were up to me, if I were sitting behind a desk at the NIMH, would I provide funding for the next born-gay study? Probably not. At the very least, I’d return the proposal with some suggestions that the researchers correct their assumptions and methodology. But if that happened, none of this research would get done, because it is based on flawed assumptions and crummy methodology. As the biologist Ruth Hubbard wrote in Exploding the Gene Myth (1997, page 98, italics mine):
Given the publicity accorded to such studies, more research will undoubtedly be done on this subject. Molecular biologists are now soliciting participants from extended families with “at least three gay men or lesbians,” hoping to find DNA sequences they can link to homosexuality. In view of the complexities of doing accurate linkage studies and necessarily small size of the samples, such studies are bound to come up with plenty of meaningless correlations, which will get reported as further evidence of "genetic transmission of homosexuality."
I don’t think it would be a great loss if such research were strangled in its cradle, but hundreds of thousands of my fellow queers would be upset, because they are waiting for Science to prove, erm, demonstrate that we can’t help ourselves, we were born this way, we’re prisoners of our genes; and if we could just prove that, then Fred Phelps would like us and let us into his church.
Thousands of scientists would also be upset, because you're not supposed to deny funding to any research program, no matter how worthless, unless it's ... erm ... well, the wrong worthless research program.
Please note again: I don’t think Creationism contains even a grain of truth, but the same can be said of many beliefs and ideas that don’t have hundreds (thousands?) of websites dedicated to ridiculing them. There’s something about Creationism that really gets into the craw of secularists, much as the idea that human beings evolved from monkeys outrages Creationists. Richard Lewontin pointed out:
Neither the Vatican nor much of quite conventional Protestant theology demands that one take the story in Genesis 1 literally. Even William Jennings Bryan, famous as the prosecutor in the Scopes trial in 1925, when called as a witness for the defense, confessed that he did not much care whether God took six days or six hundred million years to create the world. Moreover, even the minimalist Christian position does not require the abandonment of the neo-Darwinian view of the mechanism of evolution. It is quite possible to argue, as some of my believing religious colleagues do, that God set the stage for evolution by natural selection of undirected mutations, but that He reserved the ancestral line destined to become human for special preservation and guidance.
What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there's the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren't Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.
He’s right, and it works both ways. It’s a popular trope in science circles that Science has dethroned “Man”: first Copernicus showed that We are not at the center of the universe, then Darwin showed that We are not the crown of creation (though we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder; see below). A lot of science cultists really get into the idea of punishing Man’s sinful pride, as much as any Grand Inquisitor. They still think that Man is pretty special, though, because He can do, like, y’know, Science, and strip Nature nekkid and probe her secrets, and someday He will have, like, total knowledge and total domination of the Universe!
In principle I favor teaching the conflicts between Darwinian evolution and Creationism/ID. I’m as opposed to Sam Harris’ demand that public schools teach “God Is Dead” as I am to the schools’ teaching any other religious position as fact; I think the most important thing schools can teach students is how to research controversies and make up their own minds.

Yes, I know that “teaching the controversy,” as they call it, has been co-opted by the Creationist Discovery Institute. But just because the Ku Klux Klan appeals to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech doesn’t invalidate the principle. (Have you ever noticed that the same people who attack the ACLU for defending free speech are the first to run to it for help when they get into trouble themselves?) But I’m with Gerald Graff: “I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument. I think a culture of crude and crudely polarized debate is an advance over the Eisenhower era I grew up in, where conflicts were mushed over in a haze of evasive rhetoric.” The fact that so many people apparently believe that free speech doesn’t include bad arguments as well as good, offensive speech as well as nice speech, shows just how poorly educated they are. Hazing over conflict with evasive rhetoric is exactly what I see in most “diversity” education, however.
In practice, though, I doubt that most biology teachers understand Darwinian theory well enough to present it accurately. I know that a good many “reality-based” pro-science liberal types are not really Darwinians at all; rather, they are Spencerians, who believe in a linear, upward march of evolution from the lowly amoeba to Man. I’ve heard enough of them say that less-educated or less “intelligent” people are less evolved than their own superior selves, to be wary of just how well Darwinian evolution is understood by its advocates and supporters. While writing this post I found quite a number of science-related websites and blogs criticizing the March of Evolutionary Progress as a “myth,” but it wasn’t always so – as some of these writers concede. One even admits that St. Carl Sagan’s PBS television account of the glory of science “is at least suggestive of a branching process [instead of a Great Chain of Being], but it still does not fully drive home the diversity of life as it trails our own lineage primarily to the exclusion of others.”
In this clip, Sagan scrupulously mentions evolutionary branching, but his story is about Us and “who our ancestors were,” resulting in a linear narrative. That’s a feature of narrative and language, rather than of the theory, but it shows the pitfalls of trying to come up, as Sagan was, with a new Creation myth to replace the old one. (The same blogger links to an apparently similar clip – no longer available, alas -- featuring Richard “I Am The Antichrist, I Am a Scientist” Dawkins.) That famous image used to be Science; now it’s a Myth. How soon we forget.
(The image below of The Great Chain of Being comes from Dangerous Intersection, whose author erroneously assumes that only opponents of Science still think in those terms.)