My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Weird Science

In my odd moments of spare time recently, I've read some cool stuff about science. For example, I've learned that garderners such as me have had a big impact on the evolution of flowers. I can see how that would work, as I'm reluctant to weed out any of the wild violets taking over the yard, even the ones threatening to crowd out stuff we actually bought.

In addition, I've learned that human settlement is creating new ecosystems in the icky cities of the Southwest. Brain imaging has revealed that love is more powerful than sex. And the indiginous inhabitants of the new world were likely descended from just 70 people who crossed a land bridge from Asia during the last Ice Age.

Interesting stuff. What do all these stories have incommon? They are the result of ongoing research guided by the theory of evolution, a theory that once again is coming under attack by anti-intellectual stooges intent on making this into the most ignorant country in the world. The "debate" has spread to Georgia, which state was apparently appalled that lowly Kansas has been making a run at the title of least educated state. "What's the matter with Kansas?" they ask, indignantly. "Have you ever been to Georgia?"

Now, in spite of appearances (this blog, for example), I'm a fairly tolerant guy. A functioning democracy, not to mention an educational instutution, must have a climate in which competing ideas can thrive. And in the realm of basically unanswerable questions: the meaning of life, the existence or nature of God, the role of the individual in society, etc., it's fine and good that people come to different conclusions.

But when you have people who insist on believing things which have been proven to be false out of some psychological need to believe it, that's not a valid opinion, it's a psychological pathology which should probably be treated with drugs. So-called "Young Earth Creationists" fall into this camp and I'm not even going to address them in this space. The earth is not 4,000 years old. The Garden of Eden is a powerful myth, but history it ain't. The pseudoscience these people dig up about carbon dating and so on has been proven wrong again and again, yet they keep spouting the same gibberish as soon as your back is turned.

Okay, so I guess I am going to address them in this space. I have had this "debate" in more civil terms in the past, but I just don't have the patience for it now. The problem is, these people are not willing to have a debate about it, so it's pointless. They want to maintain in the public mind at least the possibilty that the Bible could be a literal history, so that they can continue to beat people over the head with it. They are making what is essentially a religious point, that the Bible should be interpreted literally and that all Biblical scholarship and criticism is wrong and irrelevent. Many Christians, a good number of scientists among them, find no conflict between faith and science, because they do not hold to this religious point of view about how the Bible should be read and used. But Fundamentalists are essentially using the Bible as a shield to avoid the thorny ethical debates of modern life. The Bible, to them, is a road map that sets out exactly what one should do, say, and believe. To be moral is to follow it exactly, to stray from it is to sin. Any kind of higher discussion of values, ethics, and morality, any kind of higher thought at all, is unnecessary, vain and possibly dangerous.

So they practice what I like to call "spurious logic." They already know the conclusion they want to reach, and pull together any piece of evidence that seems to support their position, discarding or explaining away the pieces that don't fit. It's a valueable skill in our society. A lot of people make a killing doing this, in advertising, law, and politics. But it shouldn't be confused with rational thought. Reason requires you to look at all the evidence available, eliminate the impossible, and come the the conclusions which best explain all the evidence before you. Whether or not you like the answer or feel comfortable with it is essentially irrelevent.

Not everyone who rejects rational debate in this way is on the Right. Some groups of radical feminists on the Left have also been known to strenuously object to scientific theories and research, not because it's bad science but because they don't like the political, social, or moral implications of any study which suggests there may be inherent differences between men and women.

But such concerns are irrelevant to science, and should be. Which is not to say there's no moral danger in science. One should always look critically at flashy new studies and theories. What's the sample size? Are there confounding variables? How have they operationalized the concepts they are studying? And so on. Ane one should always be cautious about generalizing results from a controlled study and applying them to the world we live in. But you can't go around denying or trying to suppress rational inquiry because you're not comforable with where it's leading, and fear that your pet beiefs about the universe may be proven wrong. The truth hurts, most of the time. Find a way to deal with it.

The only remedy I can see to this situation is to mount a oounterattack. If fundies want to come at us with an attack on the way we teach science, we should come at them and challenge the way they teach the Bible. It was written by men, not God, and is not a literal history. Here is the book they don't want you to read. Buy it. Read it. Talk aoout it in public. It's a history of how the book came to be written, and who decided which parts got accepted as canon. It also discusses different ways people read and use the Bible, among which Fundie literalism is only one, relatively recent approach. Yet the rest of us are so ignorant about it ourselves that we don't realize that these people have no idea what they're talking about. You should probably read this one, too.

The recent challenges to the teaching of modern biology don't come from Young Earth Creationists, however. Realizing they look like idiots when they make such claims in pulic, anti-scientists have changed their tune and are now pushing a thing called "Intelligent Design," which stops pretending the Earth is only a few thousand years old, but still insists that life could not evolve without the intervention of a Creator. They have prettied it up and made it sound more plausible, but it's still crap science. Some of the reasons are here. I don't have time to summarize it for you, read it yourself ya lazy bums. I'll quote the end for you, however, because it makes my point for me: Intelligent Design is not science, it is a social and political movement that has already decided what conclusions to reach and will use any argument it can grab onto.
It’s also hard to view it as a real research program. Though people often picture science as a collection of clever theories, scientists are generally staunch pragmatists: to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena. By this standard, Darwinism is one of the best theories in the history of science: it has produced countless important experiments (let’s re-create a natural species in the lab—yes, that’s been done) and sudden insight into once puzzling patterns (that’s why there are no native land mammals on oceanic islands). In the nearly ten years since the publication of Behe’s book, by contrast, I.D. has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology. As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics.

In 1999, a document from the Discovery Institute was posted, anonymously, on the Internet. This Wedge Document, as it came to be called, described not only the institute’s long-term goals but its strategies for accomplishing them. The document begins by labelling the idea that human beings are created in the image of God “one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.” It goes on to decry the catastrophic legacy of Darwin, Marx, and Freud—the alleged fathers of a “materialistic conception of reality” that eventually “infected virtually every area of our culture.” The mission of the Discovery Institute’s scientific wing is then spelled out: “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” It seems fair to conclude that the Discovery Institute has set its sights a bit higher than, say, reconstructing the origins of the bacterial flagellum.

The intelligent-design community is usually far more circumspect in its pronouncements. This is not to say that it eschews discussion of religion; indeed, the intelligent-design literature regularly insists that Darwinism represents a thinly veiled attempt to foist a secular religion—godless materialism—on Western culture. As it happens, the idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that new research “leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism, the historical fact is that evolution and religion have often coexisted. As the philosopher Michael Ruse observes, “It is simply not the case that people take up evolution in the morning, and become atheists as an encore in the afternoon.”

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science. Meanwhile, more than eighty per cent of Americans say that God either created human beings in their present form or guided their development. As a succession of intelligent-design proponents appeared before the Kansas State Board of Education earlier this month, it was possible to wonder whether the movement’s scientific coherence was beside the point. Intelligent design has come this far by faith.

Damn, I wish I'd written that.

1 comment:

Trope said...

The also picked up that brain scan of sexual arousal, though they failed to state that it was stronger than love. Perhaps it was a related study?