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Thursday, August 04, 2005


John Hawks thinks there's too much "foaming at the mouth" over Bush's support for Intelligent Design creationism.

I want to improve the teaching of evolution. Taking an adversarial position toward religious viewpoints or political parties is not the way to make education better. Sometimes such conflicts are unavoidable. Some religious beliefs are just scientifically wrong. The Earth was not created 6,000 years ago, and any scientific understanding of the past must repudiate this particular religious view. But many deeply religious people, and entire faiths, have no conflict with evolution. Even so, they may believe that alternative views should be available in schools.

Would it help to have a biology teacher call a child's parents "lunatics"? Certainly not. But parents, community members, churches, and other people that children know and respect are precisely the people that one is attacking, when one uses derisive rhetoric.

There is a bit of truth here terribly wrongly applied. It is correct that if I were talking to a student or a parent, trying to persuade them to abandon misbegotten notions of creationism that are affecting the student's ability to be a good biologist, I wouldn't call them lunatics. It isn't very effective to try and persuade an individual by calling them idiots, and in most cases I don't think the creationist students I occasionally get are idiots—just sadly misled.

However, I was not attacking such individuals, but the president of the US and the preachers at the Discovery Institute. You know, the responsible people who are lying to the public or working to disseminate destructive delusions.

Oh, but Hawks has that covered; his last sentence suggests that the people they "know and respect" should not be so harshly criticized, lest we alienate them. I strongly disagree. It is the leaders and enablers who must be vigorously attacked, the ones who abuse those positions of authority and respect to poison minds. When thinking people abstain from criticizing religious or political groups out of some abstract notion that responsible intellectuals are aloof from sectarian or party arguments, they are betraying the principles of their discipline.

I am a biologist. Like it or not, the Republican party is being led by religious zealots who are anti-biology, who publicly and vigorously oppose reason and knowledge and evidence in my field of study. This hasn't always been true, and it may not always be true (I hope), but right now and right here, it is inarguably the case. I will not throttle my criticisms of the despicable gang of anti-intellectuals who run this country because it might irritate all those millions of people who voted for George W. Bush; they were wrong and he is wrong and it is my responsibility as a scientist to oppose ignorance, especially ignorance that has power and influence. Let them find comfort and forgiveness for stupid mistakes in their religion, because I sure as hell am not going to give it to them.

Don't tell me to be dispassionate or less unreasonable about it all because because 65% of the American population think creationism should be taught alongside evolution, or that Americans are just responding to common notions of "fairness". That just tells me that we scientists have not been expressing our outrage enough. And yes, we should be outraged that the president of our country panders to theocrats, faith-healers, and snake-oil artists; sitting back and quietly explaining that Bush may be a decent man who is mistaken, while the preachers are stridently condemning all us evilutionists to hell, is a damned ineffective tactic that has gotten us to this point.

I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots. If you don't care enough for the truth to fight for it, then get out of the way.

However, I will concede that there are reasons to argue that the worries of scientists are overblown. There is the matter of perspective.

The fate of science in our country is a small thing (but it is my small thing, so be understanding when it is the one I harp on) compared to other issues. For instance, consider Gary Farber's accounts of our soldiers, also summarized by Digby. Our people are killing Iraqis by beating them with a rubber hose while tied up in a sleeping bag, or pounding on them with sledgehammer handles. We are aggressors who have launched an unjust war and are committing atrocities against a civilian population.

So, yeah, that argument would give me pause. It is relatively unimportant to bash on the Republican party as a scientist, for betraying the promise of the Enlightenment.

We should be marching in the streets as self-respecting human beings because the Republican thugs have betrayed the cause of civilized humanity. We should be yelling EVEN LOUDER.

Goddamn, but don't even suggest that we're being too partisan. I am on the side of reason and human rights, and my only failing is that I'm not partisan enough.

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's avatar #33699: Chris Clarke — 08/04  at  09:40 AM
Hawks is an excellent writer and fine mind.

But his post strongly suggests he's been looking at the political world through a gauzy tissue of wishful thinking. For whatever reason, he has not been paying attention.

It's patently clear that what Americans increasingly respond to is direct, clear speech. And when the only people offering that direct, clear speech are the liars on the right, then Americans will go along with the lies.

Hawks is right that repetition is the soul of teaching. But repetition of an ineffective tactic is diagnostic of psychosis.

"I do not think we should antagonize the religious when it is not warranted, though I think we should be willing to do so whenever it is.”
-- Glen Davidson

#33701: — 08/04  at  09:43 AM
Lemonade out of lemons, eh? We religionists might say the blowout was God's way of telling you to take a stroll and look at the stars.

There is much to be said for the scientific mind which, instead of cursing the fates, observes what is going on around it. And much more to be said for the journaling scientific mind which writes the observations down.

Your good fortune is to live in a spot where such a thing is possible. It's such good fortune that it makes even bad fortune appear to be bearable.

Great stuff!

#33702: — 08/04  at  09:44 AM
Um, I thought I had posted that under the blowout story . . . in fact, I'm fairly sure I did. Oh well.

#33706: saurabh — 08/04  at  10:00 AM
I don't think Bush is lying to the people. I think he's just a boob, and he honestly believes in this shit.

#33707: Ron Zeno — 08/04  at  10:26 AM
I see Hawks as arguing that scientists must be better propagandists, better persuaders. I disagree. Scientists have their work cut out for them just being scientists. Leave the scientists to science, and explaining what science is and is not. If science is attacked by political and religious propaganda, best to have people skilled at politics and persuasion help in the defense of science.

I also don't think the competition to expose failure idea will work. Competitions need clear and simple rules, goals, and judging criteria. The reason that intelligent design creationists repeat their old, tired, disproven arguments over and over is because most people don't understand them and don't understand how completely the arguments have been refuted. From the creationists perspective, the argument is not one of science but of persuasion. Take a look at the history of the JREF Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge and you'll see how the persuaders respond to a fair test, they balk while continuing their campaign of persuasion.

#33708: covington — 08/04  at  10:26 AM
Once again Yglasias is arguing that we shouldn't press the issue of evolution.

Getting snooty about this just feeds into perceptions of liberalism as fundamentally a snobbish, anti-religious, elitist view while distracting attention from the basically reality that the Republican Party is a front organization for corporate managers that puts on a cloak of social conservatism to disguise what it really does in practice. If you must worry about social conservatives, worry about women's reproductive rights and basic equality for gays and lesbians. There's just no there there in the evolution issue.

It goes without saying that he's dead wrong. This battle is about whether the scientific method itself is taught in our schools. Without it, there's no longer a way to have consensus on the facts of ANY issue.

#33709: — 08/04  at  10:29 AM
I'm curious.

Why is that the NCSE and its appendages (e.g., the Panda's Thumb blog) don't adopt the aggressive non-defensive stance suggested (and exemplified) by people like PZ Myers and Lenny Flank?

My impression is that in the upper eschelons of the strange community of "pro-science activists" there are more paranoid people who believe that the best response to creationists and organizations like the Discovery Institute is "good science."

Also, has Eugenie Scott ever apologized for or explained her strange mis-statements that led to the libel suit against her?

I do blame part of the success of creationists on the weakness of the NCSE whose fundraising efforts are pathetic (due, in part, to the weak defensive science-oriented strategy described above).

#33712: — 08/04  at  10:51 AM
For God's sake, man, stop being so mealy-mouthed and tell us what you really think!

#33713: Pete — 08/04  at  11:00 AM
I don't like Hawks's idea of offering a prize for demonstrating design in nature. Remember, Behe has never admitted he's wrong about the flagellum. What would happen is this: some IDist would claim the prize, the panel of judges would say "That doesn't qualify, because of X, Y, and Z", and the IDist would then crow to their supporters, "See, they're moving the goalposts now!". It doesn't matter that they'd be wrong - if it did, we wouldn't be having this discussion in the first place.

#33714: — 08/04  at  11:21 AM
Well, PZ, I hope you know from my unmodulated expressions at last night's Drinking Liberally that I totally agree with you. One of the most frustrating things I experience is the assumption that my atheism is a worldview from which certain assumptions follow--such as acceptance of the fact of evolution. On the contrary, my worldview is merely that reason and observation are the best lenses through which to interpret the cosmos, and my atheism is a RESULT of that method. Government has been an evidence-free zone, to use Hillary Rodam-Clinton's term, and that hurts everyone. When it comes to global climate change, when it comes to stem cell research, when it comes to sex education, when it comes to economic policy, when it comes to making war, and when it comes to foundational scientific concepts being taught in public schools, evidence is being replaced by ideology. This cannot stand, and if a revolution of sorts is required to confront this sad state of affairs, then count me on the side of reason. I like to think the spirits of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin would stand beside us as well in this struggle.

#33716: TroutGrrrl — 08/04  at  11:53 AM
My first thought as I read the excerpt from Hawks' post is that PZ, and others, is not making an argument against religious, creationist beliefs at all. His argument is a political, cultural one, against placing creationist explanations side-by-side with scientific inquiry and discovery in schools and in the public consciousness. I think most of us are quite comfortable with the notion that anyone can believe anything they want, but teaching creationism in public schools and calling it 'science' or an 'alternate view on evolution' is not OK.

#33717: — 08/04  at  12:05 PM
This will be quick because I have to dash.

Of course just because the majority of anti-evolutionists are conservatives and even republicans, that does not mean the majority of republicans or conservatives are anti-evolutionists. I know you know this.

In fact there are plenty of evolutionists on the conservative side. For example:
Bush supports 'intelligent design'

Bush might personally believe in some form of intelligent design but he clearly doesn't want to take a political stand on the issue, which I think is the right thing to do. He's leaving the science to scientists.

Also I don't see what the Iraq war has to do with biology.

#33721: — 08/04  at  12:38 PM
To amplify Fred's comments.

I'm not enamored of Hawkes' suggestion of a prize, but his overall critique (especially the IDer's clever deployment of the fairness argument) is spot on. The most telling statistic he presents is that 56% of Kerry supporters favor teaching BOTH evolution and ID, and 24% of same want creationism to REPLACE evolution. So much for this being a red-blue issue.

Making this a partisan issue is simply the wrong tack. Believe it or not, there are allies to rationalism on the right, as the quoted article from Krauthammer and the comments in Fred's link illustrate. Those who defend science, if they intend to succeed, will have to put aside other differences and align with rationalists across the political spectrum.

And folks, these issues are ALWAYS decided by rhetorical effectiveness, not invective.

#33722: Thomas — 08/04  at  12:39 PM
The Iraq war has to do with critical thinking and objective facts, evaluated through an post-Enlightenment lens. This is what PZ is trying to say, although I think John Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey made the point equally well this morning.

's avatar #33726: PZ Myers — 08/04  at  01:04 PM
No, it is a partisan issue. The Republicans control both houses, the executive, and the judiciary—I'm not arguing that the Democrats are 100% pure, but that right now we know what party unambiguously bears the blame. Republicans do not get to shirk responsibility by inventing hypotheticals in which a government dominated by the Democrats would be just as bad.

I would be happy to try the experiment, though. Let's all vote these rascals out in the next elections. I promise that if a Democratic leadership starts sucking up to James Dobson, starting wars, and making idiotic pronouncements about science that I will be just as pissed off, if not more so.

PZ Myers
Division of Science and Math
University of Minnesota, Morris

#33728: — 08/04  at  01:24 PM
This is from a recent Sam Harris (author of "End of Faith," a must-read) post:

The Politics of Ignorance
President Bush has now endorsed the pseudo-scientific notion of "intelligent design" (ID) and declared it to be a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. This is not surprising, as he has always maintained that "the jury is still out" on the question of evolution. But the jury is not out -- indeed it was well in before President Bush was even born -- and anyone familiar with modern biology knows that ID is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science.

It is for this reason that the scientific community has been divided on just how (or whether) to dignify the spurious claims of ID "theorists" with a response. While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out.

According to several recent polls, 22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so. This is likely the same 44 percent who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution. As the President is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance. Political liberals seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from these developments and are now thumbing scripture, wondering how best to ingratiate themselves to the legions of men and women in our country who vote mainly on the basis of religious dogma. More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious." Because it is taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy. Unreason is now ascendant in the United States -- in our schools, in our courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.

It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R. Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality. Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould's notion of "non-overlapping magisteria" served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium. Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn't; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn't. It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort. The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not "rule out," but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe -- that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.

Imagine President Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: "Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus." Imagine his speech to Congress containing the sentence "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that Apollo is not neutral between them." Clearly, the commonplaces of language conceal the vacuity and strangeness of many of our beliefs. Our president regularly speaks in phrases appropriate to the fourteenth century, and no one seems inclined to find out what words like "God" and "crusade" and "wonder-working power" mean to him. Not only do we still eat the offal of the ancient world; we are positively smug about it. Garry Wills has noted that the Bush White House "is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery." This should trouble us as much as it troubles the fanatics of the Muslim world.

The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.

#33729: Gary Farber — 08/04  at  01:46 PM
Well, you know, the Pentagon does have a plan to deal with decreased American abilities in science. Naturally.

#33732: SweettP2063 — 08/04  at  02:05 PM
The politics of distraction work well for the Bush administration. We argue over ID and evolution and people do not think or talk about the horrible abuses of President Caligula.

#33733: — 08/04  at  02:10 PM
No, it is a partisan issue. The Republicans control both houses, the executive, and the judiciary—I'm not arguing that the Democrats are 100% pure, but that right now we know what party unambiguously bears the blame. Republicans do not get to shirk responsibility by inventing hypotheticals in which a government dominated by the Democrats would be just as bad.

As PZ points out, it is partisan. But it shouldn't be partisan. Issues like science and human rights should be something that people could agree upon across the board, yet it's only the liberals and moderates that seems to be in agreement on those two issues. On the science front, some right-wingers (like Instapundit) are in agreement with the science crowd, but on the human rights issues, they are all to willing to try to explain it all away.
Some things just can't be explained away.
Some things are just wrong. Period.

#33735: sort of buddhist — 08/04  at  02:22 PM
On Yglesias' view that arguing about evolution is bad politics:

No, it's not crucial for the average citizen to "have an accurate grasp of state-of-the-art biological theory." But there is no need to force-feed school kids details of the latest developments in the field. In fact, the political argument about evolution is not directed at the kids, but at their parents.

There's a simple reason that about half of the country (if I remember the statistics) rejects the truth of evolution: they are made acutely uncomfortable about the idea of living in a universe that (they think evolution implies) operates by pure chance with no benign guidance by a "superior power," and the idea that they descend from a line of primates, rather than having been specially and lovingly brought into being by that "superior power."

It may be possible to explain the idea of evolution to them in such a way that this acute discomfort is assuaged; that is a job for both scientists and non-scientists who have the requisite rhetorical skills. But it is quite clear that the hard right is using salami tactics to diminish the power of critical thought and contact with reality to influence Americans' minds, replacing them with even more mystical mush which can be influenced in any fascist direction the right pleases.

The battle against ID and creationism is part of the defense of plain rationality here and now; that alone should make it appear politically important to any rational person.

#33736: — 08/04  at  03:01 PM
It may also be possible to relate the facts of reproduction in such a way that any squeamishness on that front is asuaged, through reference to, say, a beautiful white stork. But the fact is, it's basically "chance" that the little wormy thing in the goo hooked up with that particular glob of jelly to produce children. I don't care if people are discomfitted by facts. Most of the time, there's more grandeur in the truth, anyway. This god most people believe in allows tsunamis and sends about 90% of humans to hell, if his "revelation" can be believed. That's pathetic. How can blind forces be any worse than this buttwipe?

#33738: Rob Skipper — 08/04  at  03:44 PM
I think being LOUDER just continues, more loudly of course, the same old failing strategy that's been pushed since 1925. The controversy needs to get into the classroom. NOT, mind you, in science classes. Intelligent Design creationism does not belong in a biology class as some sort of competitor to evolutionary theory. The controversy is falsely a scientific one. Its attachment to science is at best metascientific --it is about the social context of science. Teach the social context of science, as well as its historical and conceptual foundations, and teach the creationism vs. evolutionary theory controversy in the public schools, in a social studies of science course. Empower the students who are being dragged through this against their will with a thorough, objective, critical exploration of what's at issue. Yelling at the other side just ain't enough.

#33740: Arun — 08/04  at  03:47 PM
Can one teach evolution, and can one accept evolution as scientifically valid without calling or implying that the Christian God is a buttwipe?

If one cannot, then this war is permanent, until one or other of Christians or biologists vanish.

Anyway, religionists cannot erect a government shield against rational skepticism.

#33741: — 08/04  at  03:51 PM
I apologize if I made it look as if there is a connection between biology and my contention that the Christian god is a buttwipe. That is a purely theological assertion and, I believe, quite separate from any issue of biology.

#33761: — 08/04  at  06:21 PM
"Also I don't see what the Iraq war has to do with biology."

Fred, Biology has little to do with the war until you consider the amount of biological matter that is being spattered over the desert on a daily basis. This war is pertainent to ALL discussions.

In this particular instance, it illustrates that "W" is no more qualified to weigh in on our origins as he is liberation, oil, or war. He is, was, and will continue to be a dumbass ALL the way around.

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