Thursday, December 02, 2004

Evolution on CNN

The MSNBC segment may not have materialized, but recently Paula Zahn on CNN did a segment on the same subject. The transcript is available here (scroll to the bottom).

Defending the honor of ignorance and knuckle-dragging was Jason Lisle of Answers in Genesis. And representing puppies and sunshine was Eugenie Scott of The National Center for Science Education.

ZAHN: Jason, let's start with you tonight. If you were to teach creationism in a classroom, what would you teach?

JASON LISLE, ANSWERS IN GENESIS: Well, I would show that the scientific evidence, when you understand it, is consistent with what the Bible has to say about creation.

If I had the -- if I had the legal right to talk about the Bible, I would use that. If I didn't, I would at least show that the evidence is consistent with there being a creator with design.

That's Lisle in sanity mode. No religion here maam, just an honest assessment of the evidence. Yawn.

Next we get a taste of what Lisle has in mind when he talks about evidence:

LISLE: For example, we see created kinds -- we see different kinds of organisms in the world and we see them reproducing after their kinds. We don't see one kind of organism turning into other kind of organism. That's not something that we actually observe in nature. And that's something that evolution -- evolutionists say is required.

Zing! Of course, “kind” is a rather slippery word. It has no scientific meaning outside of creationist fantasy land. But it's certainly true that the production of new species via standard evolutionary mechanisms has been observed in nature. Lisle would dismiss that as microevolution, no doubt. But despite their desperate attempt to draw a distinction between micro and macroevolution, no creationist has ever been able to offer a reason why evolutionary change can only accumulate so far, and no farther.

ZAHN: So Eugenie, how would you explain that?

EUGENIE SCOTT, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION: Well, hearing a creationist define evolution is a little bit like having Madeline Murray O'Hare define Christianity. You're not really going to get the -- the straight story there.

The way evolution is taught at the university level is the way it should be taught at the high school level. And that's really what we're talking about here. It's not between evolution and science.

I'm sure Scott meant “evolution and God” or “evolution and religion” there. I like her point about asking a creationist to define evolution.

ZAHN: What do you mean by that?

SCOTT: At the university level, which is where I used to teach, we teach evolution, biological evolution, as the inference that living things had common ancestors. And we teach it neutrally. We don't teach it that God did it or God had nothing to do with it. We just present the science.

And that's what should be done at the high school level.

Well said. Zahn now decided it was time to lob a softball at Lisle:

ZAHN: Jason, I want to share with you a result from the latest CBS/“New York Times” poll, which show that 65 percent of those people polled were in favor of teaching both creation and evolution in public school classrooms. Do you appreciate these numbers?

LISLE: I do. I think that a lot of people realize that it would be very smart to teach both creation and evolution if that were possible. Because...

How do you like this poll that shows a majority of the people agree with your position? Ugh. One more example for the file on why no one watches CNN anymore. I mean, they've been reduced to hiring Fox's cast-offs for heaven's sake. But not to worry, things are about to get worse.

ZAHN: So you don't have a problem with both being taught side by side?

LISLE: Not at all. In fact I encourage people to actually teach evolution. But teach it warts and all. Show the problems with it, as well, and then show what the creationist interpretation of the evidence is. Because we feel that the creationist interpretation of the evidence makes a lot more sense when you understand it.

This is Zahn's way of making Lisle appear like the open-minded pluralist. I suspect Zahn, like so many people, knows nothing about the scientific issues involved. But she likes things such as “fairness” and “presenting both sides”.

ZAHN: What about the argument Eugenie made that you can teach it in a more neutral way, and I'll let you expand on that in a moment, Eugenie?

SCOTT: Thank you.

LISLE: Well, there's no neutral ground, is there? I mean, you're ultimately either for what God has said as word or against it. And that's what the real issue is here.

Oops. Lisle just let the mask slip a bit. He let his fundamentalism come out. Either you accept chapter one of Genesis as the literal truth or you might as well be an atheist. He even identifies that as the real issue. So much for this being a debate between rival scientific theories.

ZAHN: Eugenie?

SCOTT: No, we're treating this as if there are two alternatives, evolution, and the institute, or the answers in Genesis' version of creation.

But you know, his version of creation, which is everything was created all at one time in six days, 10,000 years ago, is not what Catholics believe. It's not what Episcopalians believe, and it's certainly not what Hopi believe or what Navajo believes. So you can't say teach both, because there's more than two alternatives.

Now my view, the view that the National Center for Science Education takes, is that we should know more about a lot of creationisms, plural. But it has no place in science class. I think comparative religion is a wonderful study, and we should be more theologically literate than we are. But keep it out of science class, because it is not scientifically demonstrable.

Well said, again.

ZAHN: So Jason, would you support the idea of moving that into a religion class?

LISLE: I have no problem with creation, evolution being taught in a religion class, as well. But it would be nice if the scientific aspects of the creation models, just the idea that there is an intelligent creator, would be brought up in a science classroom.

There's scientific evidence supporting that position. I mean, is the evolution model so weak that its adherents feel the need to suppress any alternatives?

After the brief slip of the previous quote, he's got the mask adjusted and he's back to the talking points. The picture of scientists on different sides of an issue presenting their cases for adjudication to a group of high school students is too amusing to contemplate. Needless to say, the creationists are left out of science classes because they haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about.

SCOTT: I don't think it's a matter of...

ZAHN: Eugenie, there's a lot of, you know, strong words that are used when it comes to this debate that creationism is actually being censored out of the curriculum.

SCOTT: Of course. It's being censored out of the science curriculum, because, contrary to the claims that have just been made, there are no scientific data supporting it.

Look, the fact of the matter is that science is not a fair process. I mean, it's not a democratic system. The creationists have the same right that I have to make their position to the scientific community and convince them that there is evidence supporting the idea that everything was created all at one time. The problem is, there are no data. They haven't made the case. But what they want to do is make an end-run around the scientific community and go directly to the school district, as opposed to the normal process of having these ideas filter down from the scientific community.

You know, the thing is, scientists and teachers aren't trying to get creationism into this -- into the curriculum. It's the politicians. And what this has done is politicize science education in a very negative fashion.

Small bone to pick with Scott here. The phrase “haven't made the case” is too weak. It's what you say to a prosecuter when you think the suspect probably is guilty but the evidence isn't quite strong enough to convict. The real problem is that every scientific assertion the creationists make is demonstrably false.

I like the rest of this quote. I suspect, however, that it came off as elitist to the handful of people watching this segment. How dare professional biologists tell me which theories have merit and which don't! Who do they think they are? Who needs book learning when you've got horse sense?

ZAHN: Well, Jason's a scientist. He's trying to get it into the curriculum.

LISLE: Yes, and you know, real science, real science thrives on competing models.

Sorry, having a PhD doesn't make you a scientist. But thank you once again, Ms. Zahn, for helping out the creationist.

SCOTT: That's right.

LISLE: A real scientist...

SCOTT: Make your argument to the scientific community.

LISLE: A real scientist would not squelch the evidence.

SCOTT: Don't make it to a -- don't make it to a high school teacher.

LISLE: But see, I find it interesting that evolutionists would try to use political pressure to suppress certain ideas. For example Russ Humphries, he's a Ph.D. nuclear physicist, and he has a model of how magnetic fields work. It's based on their being created 6,000 years ago. And he's able to actually predict the magnetic fields of the planets Uranus and Neptune based on creation.

And yet, most students will never hear about that, because we're not allowed.

More taunting from Lisle. Good job by Scott to stay on message. If this were a real scientific dispute it wouldn't be hashed out in high school science classes.

As for Mr. Humphries, this is just another worthless talking point. I'm not familiar with Humphries' model, but I suspect if I look into the matter I'll find it doesn't hold water. You can count on one hand the number of CNN viewers who have ever heard of Humphries, but I'll bet a lot of them were impressed by how scientific Lisle sounded.

SCOTT: And there's -- and there's a very good reason for that.

ZAHN: All right, Eugenie, you get the last word tonight in the debate. The very good reason for that is what, Eugenie?

SCOTT: The very good reason for that is that he has to fool around with some constants that completely violate the laws of physics, which is why these arguments are not made in the scientific literature. They're made -- they're made politically at the local school board. And that's not the place for them.

Another good response from Scott.

That was the end of the segment.

Never Mind...

It seems I watched Scarborough Country for nothing last night. The evolution segment never materialized.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Evolution Segment on Scarborough Country

The MSNBC show Scarborough Country will be doing a segment on evolution and creationism. Since the show is mostly a vehicle for right-wing propaganda, you can be sure there's going to be a lot of “Isn't it only fair to teach both sides?” and “Evolution's just a theory!”

On the other hand, the advertisement for the segment strikes the right tone:

Evolution, creationism, both? What should schools be teaching children about the origins of man? The Bible versus biology debate enter Scarborough Country.

Frames it pretty clearly as science vs. religion, I'd say. At least it didn't say “Rival scientific theories on the origins of man discussed tonight on Scarborough Country.”

Sadly, The London Times Also Interviewed Dawkins

A far sillier interview with Richard Dawkins appeared recently in The London Times. It is one of those gossipy items where the interviewer, a fellow named Bryan Appleyard, feels compelled to remind you constantly of his own moral and intellectual superiority to the person being interviewed. P. Z. Myers has already commented here. One point worth addressing is this exchange:

Even his most celebrated campaign — against the teaching of biblical creationism in schools — weakens slightly when challenged. It would, I point out, be madness not to teach creationism because, if you didn’t, nobody could possibly understand Darwinism. Context is everything. Again he agrees.

“I think that’s a fair point. It’s important to think historically about the historical context. I’m certainly all for that — teaching creationism as part of the history of ideas. But Darwinism is supported by evidence which is not a negligible fact.”

Myers replies:

It’s nonsense to claim we need to teach creationism. It’s like saying you can’t teach chemistry without reviewing alchemy first, or that you can’t understand physics unless you are also taught the misconceptions of kindergarten kids. The only reason it is discussed now is that students are coming to class with their heads full of rubbish, and we have to tell them which parts are wrong. But realistically, creationism doesn’t come up at all in any of my classes other than one freshman course.

I agree with Myers' statement here, but I also think Dawkins' point got a bit garbled in the interview. Appleyard is simply wrong to suggest that Dawkins' statement here represents some sort of weakening in his stance against teaching creationism. Dawkins was simply pointing out that it is important to undertstand the history of evolutionary theory along with the biological facts. Nineteenth century scientists generally believed the Earth was relatively young and that species were fixed. Students should understand why those ideas collapsed in the face of contrary evidence.

Speaking for myself, I have no objection to discussing creationist ideas in science classes if the purpose is to show why those ideas no longer hold up. I object only to presenting creationism as if it were a legitimate scientific theory on a par with evolution. I suspect that is Dawkins' view as well.

It is sometimes good pedagogy to introduce correct ideas by demonstrating their superiority over incorrect ideas.

Slate Interviews Dawkins

Slate has just posted this interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. The subject was his new book The Ancestor's Tale. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

Richard Dawkins, champion of Darwinism and scourge of religion, is a courtly and attractive man, although not much given to humor. If one finds oneself smiling frequently in the presence of this Oxford don—who was recently voted Britain's No. 1 public intellectual—it is out of sheer enjoyment at his gift for rendering the most subtle evolutionary ideas absolutely lucid.

And later:

“Sexual selection works as a kind of amplifier, causing small and perhaps arbitrary trends to get exaggerated in a runaway fashion,” Dawkins continued. “It's still a Darwinian process, but it's one that allows for contingent extravagance.”

The word “contingent” made me prick up my ears. Did Dawkins think that the development of a large-brained species like us was an accident, one that probably wouldn't be repeated if the tape of evolution were rewound and replayed? Shades of Stephen Gould!

“That's one of the questions that I deal with in the last chapter of my book,” he said. “The very large brain that humans have, plus the things that go along with it—language, art, science—seemed to have evolved only once. The eye, by contrast, independently evolved 40 times. So, if you were to 'replay' evolution, the eye would almost certainly appear again, whereas the big brain probably wouldn't.”

I'm not sure I buy that argument. It might be that once one lineage has attained human-like intelligence, it becomes effectively impossible for another lineage to do the same. Modern Homo sapiens took over the planet with suprising rapidity after they evolved. They probably caused the extinction of other hominid species as they did so. It might be that great intelligence is such a huge advantage in the battle for survival that the species that possesses it first can effectively prevent other species from doing the same.

The interview closes with this sentiment:

At this point, Dawkins' wife, the actress Lalla Ward, shimmered into the lobby to collect him. One could not help noticing that, in her radiant blondness, she is even more attractive than her husband. Book tours are hard work, so I regretfully relinquished the celebrated author. Still, I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.

“You've called religion a 'dangerous collective delusion' and a 'malignant infection,'” I said. “Don't you think you're underplaying it a bit?”

Dawkins turned, smiled a small fox smile, and said, “Yes!”

Golly! I think my religion-hating credentials are pretty solid, but even I wouldn't go that far.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Liberals and Knowledge

I continue now with my analysis of this article, by Gene Veith of World magazine.

In a perhaps less virulent way, this is what many people fear if today's liberal intellectuals should ever get their way: Restrictions on liberties ordinary Americans prize (such as parental, private-property, and gun-ownership rights, economic liberty, religious freedom). The repudiation of morality (homosexual marriage, sexual permissiveness, abortion, cultural license). Experimentation that discards and seeks to redesign human life (the destruction of embryos for their stem cells, genetic engineering, cloning, designer babies).

An interesting smorgasbord. The restrictions on liberty section would be easier to take serioulsy if he could give a specific example of what he thinks liberals would do with regard to the issues he mentions. Liberals would not have allowed the assault weapons ban to lapse, but since public opinion polls show that ban to be popular Veith must have something else in mind. But what? Certainly Kerry didn't say anything ominous about this during he campaign. I have no idea what he's referring to with parental rights or private-property rights. As for religious freedom, I suspect Veith's understanding of that concept is very different from mine. I can't imagine how people could have more religious liberty in this country than they presently do. I suspect that “religious liberty” is code for, “allowing the government to promote Veith's preferred religion.”

As for liberals repudiating morality, I would say it is people like Veith who are doing that. It is immoral to deny homosexuals the right to marry. It is immoral for the government to take control over a woman's body for nine months of her life. As for sexual permissiveness and cultural license, I wasn't aware the government had too much say about such things. I suppose a liberal administration would not encourage the FCC to levy fines every time something slightly interesting happens on television, but surely that can't be what is deciding elections these days.

Finally, no one wants anything to do with cloning or designer babies. But the idea of equating an embryo that is under two weeks old with an actual human baby should be a textbook example of immorality. In defense of a moral principle that has no basis in logic, common sense, or the Bible for that matter, Veith is willing to shut down one of the most promising avenues of medical research in recent memory. Protecting two week-old embryos is more important to him than relieving the pain and suffering of actual human beings. How dare this man give lectures on morality.

But the question remains, are Americans stupid? Mental functions involve two different spheres: intelligence (mental ability) and knowledge (mental content). It is possible to have one without the other. Americans across the spectrum do seem to have intelligence, whether highly specialized mental abilities or down-to-earth common sense. They are certainly not so stupid as to allow intellectuals to rule over them. Americans do tend to be smart. Sometimes, though, they lack knowledge, or the knowledge they think with is untrue.

Aside from the crude anti-intellectualism, this is the one sensible paragraph in Veith's essay. There is, indeed, a difference between stupidity and ignorance. So let me take this opportunity to say that I do not believe most Americans, or most Bush voters, or most fundamentalists, or most of any other group you'd care to mention, are stupid. But I do think ignorance is quite common. I don't see how you can believe the things fundamentalists believe without being ignorant of science, for example. I do think many Bush voters responded to silly tag lines and brain-dead slogans without really understanding anything of the underlying issues. Public opinion polls show large percentages of people believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD, for example. I don't think very many of those people voted for Kerry.

Many Americans, for example, think morality is nothing more than a subjective preference, ungrounded in the real world outside themselves. They assume that God too exists only inside their heads, if He exists at all, and that He need not be consulted in practical matters. Many Americans either know nothing of the past or believe that the wisdom of the ages should be discarded on the grounds that it is not modern. Many Americans go so far as to reject the very existence of any objective truth, insisting that reality itself is nothing more than a construction of their minds, to be reconstructed in any way they please.

You can count on one hand the number of people who believe any of those things. I think Veith's point here is that if you reject the particular version of God he prefers, then you have no basis at all for any moral beliefs. You can find this argument repeated in almost any book on Christian apologetics, but is no less absurd for that. The simple fact is that any system of morality must be based on some foundation. Veith's foundation is that God exists, that he has very definite ideas about right conduct and wrong conduct, that we should behave in ways that are pleasing to him, and that the Bible (as interpreted by people who think like him) is a reliable guide to God's wishes. The moral foundation for an atheist is that happiness is good, and that human beings are happiest when living in an orderly society. You won't find many theists who reject either of those assumptions, and from them you can derive all of the major moral strictures we agree to live under. It is a far sounder foundation Veith's Bible thumping.

Such a combination of ignorance, confusion, and hostility to knowledge is held today mainly by our smart people. It is precisely our intellectuals who are questioning the value of reason and the possibility of knowledge. We have thinkers without beliefs, fine minds with nothing in them.

This man is insane. At least, though, he briefly dropped the “intellectual” mantra and is now conceding that actually it is simple “smartness” that he finds threatening.

In America's democratic republic, citizens of various intelligence levels can take part. In the Christian church too, people with the whole range of intellectual abilities can find welcome and fulfillment. Some level of knowledge, though, is important for citizenship in both the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Americans are smart enough, but it would be helpful for Americans—liberals, conservatives, Christians, and everyone—to know more, to be open to truths that go beyond their own limited interests, desires, and preferences. “My people are destroyed” not for lack of intelligence, but “for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

Well, at least here he has made explicit his belief that true knowledge is obtained from the Bible.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Do Liberals Have a Problem With Knowledge?

Yes, according to the subhead of this bit of pabulum from Gene Veith of World magazine. We consider his remarks in full:

“How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?” That was the headline in the British tabloid Daily Mirror announcing the reelection of President Bush. American liberals are asking the same question, concluding that the 51 percent of the public that voted against their man is just not smart enough to appreciate the liberal agenda.

When someone like Veith uses the term “American liberals”, he is not referring to an actual group of people. He means only the shadowy cabal of amoral monsters who are so frequently scapegoated in fundamentalist literature. Thus, he starts with a snide quote from a British newspaper (one which surely couldn't care less about John Kerry or his agenda (liberal or otherwise) but rather couldn't believe that so many Americans believed Bush's manifest dishonesty in the buildup to the war and his equally manifest ineptitude in conducting the war somehow earned him a second term), and simply attributes the same view to his favored bogeyman. Lovely.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd goes so far as to say that with the reelection of President Bush “we're entering another dark age.” She and others are saying that a majority of Americans have rejected science (by which they mean belief in Darwinism or support for destroying human embryos for stem cells). We have embraced superstition (by which they mean Christianity). And we have become intolerant and oppressive (by which they mean not agreeing with same-sex marriage).

A single line from a single New York Times columnist. That's the sum total of his evidence. That's the excuse to lay out the series of caricatures that fill out the paragraph.

So let's take them one at a time.

Bush has stated publicly that he supports teaching creationism in public schools, and he has limited embryonic stem-cell research. He has also taken an ostrich-like mentality to global warming (I'm surprised Veith didn't mention that one, since global warming is as good as evolution in providing chum for the right-wing sharks). These are all serious issues, but the problem goes deeper than this. There is Bush's propensity for stacking science advisory panels with people willng to tell him what he wants to hear. There is his administration's disturbing references to the “reality-based community”. There is his notable anti-intellectualism, and his preference for faith over reason. The problem is only partly the specific policy positions his administration has taken. It is also the administration's attitudes about how wisdom is obtained.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a single liberal who equates Christian belief generally with embracing superstition. But the sort of fundamentalist beliefs espoused by Bush and his supporters certainly are no improvement over superstition. When religious belief is used as a shield to avoid having to think about difficult moral or scientific issues, liberals are quite right to cry foul.

And their opposition to gay marriage is one reason to view fundamentalists as intolerant and oppressive, but it is hardly the only one. There is also their silly idea that the separation of church and state only goes one way. Not to mention their belief that their particular form of religious belief is a perfectly sound basis for public policy.

There was a time when the Democrats billed themselves as the party of the common man, appealing to the down-to-earth common sense of the masses against the aristocracy of wealth and privilege. That was before the party was taken over by the aristocracy of wealth and privilege represented by academics, special-interest crusaders, and “knowledge workers.” By definition, those who consider themselves intellectuals think they are smarter than the vulgar masses. This disdain, condescension, and disconnect with ordinary Americans is the main reason today's Democrats keep losing elections.

Excuse me? Mr. Veith is lecturing other people about disdain and disconnect?

It's news to me that academics represent wealth and privilege. No one goes into academe in the hopes of getting wealthy, and it is not clear to me what privileges I enjoy fo rhaving taken the plunge. For example, as an academic I am expected to defend my beliefs with meticulously collected evidence. Fundamentalists, by contrast, are allowed to get by with appeals to the Bible. Who's the privileged one here?

Special interest crusaders are hardly the exclusive domain of either side of the political spectrum. And I'm not exactly sure what a knowledge worker is, but judging from the sneer quotes I'm sure it's not good. This sounds like standard anti-intellectualism to me.

And considering yourself an intellectual means, by the definition of something or other, that you believe you're smarter than the vulgar masses? That's just another slur and another crude stereotype, but apparently that's all people like Mr. Veith are capable of.

Intellectuals think they should rule, but whenever they do, the result is disastrous. Plato's Republic imagined the perfect society ruled by philosophical “guardians,” but even in theory this manifested itself in eugenics, immorality, and the elimination of freedom. Real-life states dreamed up and then implemented by the fascist intellectuals and the communist intellectuals also eliminated freedom, rejected moral absolutes that would limit what man and the state can do, and sought to design the next stage of evolution.

Intellectuals not only think they are smarter than everyone else, they also think they should rule? Fascism and communism were the product of intellectuals run amok?

When people like Nicolas Kristof say that liberals need to be more respectful of red-state values, is this the sort of thing he has in mind? Veith has nothing to offer beyond vicious smears and delusional stereotypes. Yet he is published in a prominent evangelical magazine, whose editor, Marvin Olasky, has the ear of the President. Just lovely.

And that's only the first half of the article! Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!