Monday, February 25, 2013

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

A couple of days ago I got into it with my liberal law-professor friend, who'd shared a meme on Facebook purporting to be a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid."  Now, I agree with the sentiment -- it reminds me of a line from one of Robert Heinlein's sf novels, where one character asks another, "Were you born stupid, or did you have to study?"  But the version attributed to Franklin doesn't sound like eighteenth-century English, and I couldn't find an actual source on the web, so I feel confident in regarding it as bogus.  (The conclusion, "to remain stupid," is also problematic, because it implies that we are also born stupid -- maybe that being stupid and being ignorant are the same thing.  So it's not a particularly felicitous way of stating what someone wanted to say.)

I commented along these lines, and my friend complained.  So what? she said, I like the sentiment, and it sounds right.  (It doesn't sound right, though, as I said.)  It could have been Franklin.  Besides, I like it, and I don't have time to check every little quotation, and I wasn't talking about you anyway.  What, I asked her, does it matter whether you were talking about me?

That was the end of that exchange, but a day or so later, she posted a quotation about the US Congress, attributed to Mark Twain, that was more or less authentic, and taunted me about it.  I didn't really get the point of the joke, and said so.  I couldn't decide whether to add that I'm at about the limits of my patience with people who don't care whether they're telling the truth or not -- especially when they're clearly proud of not caring.

As my friend has by now made abundantly clear, she's such a person.  The first time we really clashed, last summer, she informed me that Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science and author of the influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had no scientific training, and so could be disregarded.  In fact, as I told her, Kuhn had a doctorate in physics from Harvard.  Sure, anyone can be ignorant of such things, though I'd like to know where she got that misinformation; I've run into it before, so it must be circulating in science-cultist circles.  But her reaction was revealing.  Instead of admitting that she was mistaken, or challenging my information, she simply tossed out an irrelevancy: that Kuhn hadn't become famous for work in that field.  I began to recognize the pattern of argument she was using.  I'd encountered it in the past when debating Creationists and Christian apologists: you never admit that you were mistaken about a fact, nor do you try to defend a fact that your opponent has challenged. Instead you reach into your store of file cards and pull out another one, repeating this process until the time is up.  You save the cards for the next match, hoping that your future opponents won't be as well-informed.

This is why real critical thinking is so threatening to authoritarians in whatever field.  They want students to learn by rote, not questioning anything the teacher says, not learning how facts are put together to make knowledge.  That's harder to learn, of course, but until you can do it you don't really understand anything about the subject you're learning.

Today I received email from one of my readers, with a link to an article at Mother Jones.  The article, by Dana Liebelson, is about a bill that just passed through the Oklahoma Common Education committee, which "would forbid teachers from penalizing students who turn in papers attempting to debunk almost universally accepted scientific theories such as biological evolution and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change."  The article is titled "Insist That People Co-Existed With Dinosaurs ... and Get an A in Science Class!"  My corresponded turned it into a rhetorical question in his email message.
Gus Blackwell, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, insists that his legislation has nothing to do with religion; it simply encourages scientific exploration. "I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," says Blackwell, who previously spent 20 years working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

Stated another way, students could make untestable, faith-based claims in science classes without fear of receiving a poor mark.
Color me baffled.  Look: I can see that Blackwell doesn't understand Darwinian evolution; and his bill probably is intended to function as moments of silence do vis-a-vis school prayer -- to get around inconvenient Constitutional principles against an establishment of religion by opening a blank space in the classroom.  Given the widespread belief in Creationism in this country, teachers are probably more likely to use this bill -- assuming it passes into law -- to enforce religious orthodoxy, penalizing students who insist that "Darwin (or Dawkins) said it, I believe it, that settles it!" while giving a pass to those who advocate Creationism.

Evidently Liebelson feels no need to to describe the contents of the bill, since it's self-evidently thoughtcrime in the uttermost degree, but from what is in the article, HB1674 doesn't really say very much, and it wouldn't mandate an A for a student who insisted that dinosaurs and people co-existed.  I realize that standards for high-school papers are probably not very high, but a mere insistence on anything shouldn't get you an A in any subject.  (Should it?  I've been out of school too long.)  Liebelson quotes Eric Meikle of the National Center for Science Education, who "says Oklahoma has proposed more anti-evolution legislation than any other state, introducing eight bills with academic freedom language since 2004. (None has passed.) 'The problem with these bills is that they're so open-ended; it's a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution,' Meikle says."  If these bills are so open-ended, they should also provide cover for students who defend Natural Selection against Creationism.  In practice they probably won't, but such students would have no protection against authoritarian teachers anyway.  (I noticed this about right-wing honcho David Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights from a few years back: on the surface it was unexceptionable.  Its eight principles should mainly offend rightwingers like Horowitz himself.)

A teacher would still be duty-bound to downgrade a science-class paper which cited the Bible as authority for the origin of species, and it may well be that parents would protest, citing HB1674 (assuming it passes) that students should 'not be penalized' for advocating Creationism.  Again, this will be a problem in many communities whether the law passes or not.  But a student who wants to advocate Creationism in a science paper would need at least to use Creation-Science or Intelligent Design material, not the Bible, as sources; nor is the teacher bound to be uncritical of how that material is used.  Very much the opposite.

This problem turns up in many other contexts, you know.  I've often run into racists and other bigots who protest that they're just being vilified because they don't go along with the Politically-Correct Feminazi Homosexual Agenda, not because of anything they've said.  They may well be incapable of understanding the difference, but that incapacity isn't limited to the Far Right.  This is one reason why I feel it necessary to demolish the bad arguments and misinformation of people who are (nominally at least) on my own side: a bad argument is a bad argument, and misinformation is misinformation, regardless of the position it's being used to advance.  And my alleged allies don't take correction any more kindly than their right-wing counterparts, on the whole.  Some friends, trying to be conciliatory, have stressed this to me: you can't be surprised, they tell me, that those people get mad at you for telling them they're wrong.  I'm not surprised, I reply: but throwing tantrums doesn't prove that they're right.  They need to give me some reason to believe I'm wrong.  Evidently they don't know how to do that, and that's evidence of something gone wrong in their education, not just their temperaments.

One reason I don't think the bill is likely to pass is that it amounts to the legislature telling teachers what to teach and how to evaluate their students.  That should arouse opposition even from teachers who favor Creationism, but don't want students or parents threatening them with legal action over the grading of a paper.  Teachers get quite enough of that sort of thing already.

This is interesting, though:
"Students can't say because I don't believe in this, I don't want to learn it," Blackwell says. "They have to learn it in order to look at the weaknesses."
I don't believe Blackwell is being entirely candid there; he's probably just trying to look reasonable.  But I think he should be held to what he's said.  Maybe he doesn't realize it would backfire on him and his supporters.  The idea that one shouldn't have to study what one doesn't believe in is widespread in the US, all over the political spectrum, and I consider it anti-intellectual in the extreme.  At face value, what he's saying is what I just said: a teacher is not obligated to give a student a high grade simply because he or she "insists" that something is the case.  By contrast, the Darwinians in this tale come across as unselfconsicously authoritarian.
"An extremely high percentage of scientists will tell you that evolution doesn't have scientific weaknesses," says the NCSE's Meikle. "If every teacher, parent, and school board can decide what to teach on their own, you're going to have chaos. You can't deluge kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time."
Meikle's first statement is false: any complex scientific theory has "scientific weaknesses," and Natural Selection is no exception.  The rest is a distraction and a straw man: no one seems to advocate "delug[ing] kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time."   More realistically, much of science education below college level is science history, which is essentially a litany of failed theories -- Ptolemaic astronomy, Aristotelean physics and mechanics, Galen's medicine, the theory of humours, phlogistion chemistry -- with a linear narrative of inevitable Progress misleadingly imposed on it.

But just to keep things on a practical level: almost half of Americans, including those with college degrees, say they believe in some version of Creationism.  Even though I reject it myself, I don't think Creationism can be dismissed as a fringe, crackpot belief on the order of Flat-Earthism or geocentric astronomy -- not in this country, not in the real world.  You aren't going to be able to teach science in the United States without dealing with people who believe in Creationism.  Therefore, the burden of argument lies on the science teacher.  (Bear in mind, I feel the same way about gay issues, which are quite personal for me.  I see a lot gay people who, when confronted with bigotry, also want to scream "The Devil told you that!" until their faces turn blue.)  The question then becomes clear: What is the best way to persuade them of the truth of Evolution?  It seems obvious to me that calling people names -- stupid, superstitious, fundamentalist, Bible-banging, irrational, anti-science, etc. -- has not been effective.  Like it or not, authoritarianism can only be used by people who have overwhelming social consensus to back them up.  When you don't, you have to use reason and argument.  It's revealing, and scary in my opinion, that so many science advocates don't want to use reason and argument, and worse, they react to opposition with extreme, panicky irrationality.