Saturday, March 04, 2006

Math in Boca Raton

On Monday I'll be flying to Florida to participate in the Thirty-Seventh Southeastern International Conference on Combinatorics, Graph Theory and Computing, at Florida Atlantic University. As you can see from the list of abstracts, I will be delivering a scintillating, edge-of-your-seat, rhetorical masterpiece of a talk with the alluring title, “Group Actions on Arithmetic Riemann Surfaces.”

Sadly, this means I will be out of town all next week. Regular blogging will resume upon my return.

Thermodynamics, Again

Over at his blog Uncommon Descent, William Dembski is linking to an online lecture by mathematician Granville Sewell arguing that evolution runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics. The lecture is thirteen minutes long, but it does not contain anything that Sewell has not said before.

It is significant that Dembski is linking so enthusiastically to this argument. You see, the thermodynamics argument is one of the very worst creationists have ever used. It is wrong, of course. But more than that it is wrong in a way that betrays an extreme simple-mindedness about science in general and physics in particular.

As a result, the thermodynamics argument has become a symbol for the sort of mind-numbing ignorance that is the stock-in-trade of creationists. How could anyone take creationists seriously when they parroted such obvious nonsense about thermodynamics?

And it was precisely this level of silliness that ID proponents were keen to avoid. Until recently. Now we have William Dembski, who provides most of the tiny amount of intellectual oomph the ID folks can claim, supporting this ridiculous argument.

The basic argument is this: The second law states that a spontaneous, natural process can only lead to an increase in the entropy of a system. Entropy is roughly a measure of disorder or complexity. So the second law implies that natural processes can only cause things to become more disordered and less complex over time. But evolution asserts that natural processes have caused organisms to grow more complex over time. This is a contradiction, and since no one is inclined to abandon the second law, evolution must not be correct.

But this is a cartoon version of the second law. After all, you don't need fancy principles of thermodynamics to argue that the growth in complexity of organisms over time is something that requires a special sort of explanation. It is a simple fact of everyday life that without maintenance things tend to break down and fall apart.

Everyone agrees that the growth in complexity that evolutionists claim took place over the course of natural history requires an explanation. And biologists have one. Many generations of natural selection acting on random genetic variations can cause the average complexity of organisms to increase.

This is not theoretical. Natural selection has demonstrated its ability, in both the field and the lab, to increase the level of order and complexity in organisms. The same principle is at work in artificial life experiments, and in the use of evolutionary algorithms in engineering problems. Granted, the experiments I am referring to tend to show relatively small increases in order, but that is enough to establish that no principle of thermodynamics prohibits known evolutionary mechanisms from increasing biological complexity.

Sewell himself inadvertantly concedes this. When it comes time for him to explain why natural selection is not an adequate explanation for the growth of biological complexity, thermodynamics goes out the window. Instead he simply parrots the irreducible complexity argument of which ID folks are so fond. That argument is incorrect, but of more relevance to this discussion is the fact that it has nothing to do with thermodynamics.

Let me make things even simpler. Things that are thermodynamically impossible do not occur. But natural selection is certainly capable in principle of explaining increases in biological complexity. Therefore, there is no principle of thermodynamics that says that evolution is an incorrect theory.

But let's push this a bit further. In certain physical situations it can be useful to think of the second law as a statement about order and disorder. Really, though, the second law is a mathematical statement. It says that the change in entropy of a system in going between two states must be larger than a certain mathematical quantity (the integral of dQ over T, for those who know some calculus and some thermo notation). The technical details of what this means need not detain us here.

If you make the added assumption that your system is completely isolated from the outside world, so that neither matter nor energy is crossing the boundary of the system, then the integral I mentioned ends up having the value zero, and the second law tells us that the change in entropy must be positive. In other words, the entropy must increase in this situation.

Creationists of old tended to ignore this assumption, and argued simply that the second law rules out any possibility of natural forces causing order to increase. Consequently, scientists generally replied that the Earth is not an isolated system, since we receive copious amounts of energy from the Sun. That's certainly an important observation, and it does, indeed, refute some primitive versions of the second law argument.

But the second law still applies when energy is crossing the boundary of the system, and in this case it says that the change in entropy must be larger than the mathematical function I mentioned previously. Entropy can, indeed, decrease in this situation, but the second law still makes a definite statement about the magnitude of that decrease. Sewell understands this, and gives a tolerable, if highly nontechnical, description of this fact.

Which makes his unwillingness to follow through all the more annoying. You see, any claim that evolution violates the second law must be backed up with a calculation. Sewell believes that the second law is a problem for evolution? Fine. Let him evaluate the integral I mentioned and show that the change in entropy has been smaller than it should be. Anything short of that is no longer an argument based on thermodynamics. It is just ye olde argument from personal incredulity, in which Sewell is expressing nothing more than his own disbelief that biological complexity could have evolved naturally.

The reason Sewell will not carry out this calculation is that he can not. No one can. Entropy calculations are always carried out in the context of a reversible process, and no one has the faintest idea how to describe a reversible process for assembling an organism from it's component atoms. That is why serious scientists do not try to apply the second law to biological processes in the simple-minded ways ID folks prefer.

But Sewell has another trick up his sleeve. He is fond of recasting the second law as a statement about probability. In his American Spectator article he writes:

Natural forces, such as corrosion, erosion, fire and explosions, do not create order, they destroy it. The second law is all about probability, it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change: the reason carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an insulated solid is, that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative.

What Sewell is really doing here is taking a statistical mechanics view of things. The basic idea is this: Given a box that is filled with gas and has been sitting, untouched, for some time, we expect the gas molecules to be distributed roughly evenly throughout the box. We would be very surprised to find all of the gas on one side of the box with empty space on the other. We can explain this in terms of probability: There are vastly more configurations in which the molecules are distributed roughly evenly than there are where all the molecules are on one side of the box. So other things being equal, we can say that it is vastly more likely that we will encounter one of the even distributions. And the distributions in which the gas is evenly distributed can plausibly be said to be less ordered, and therefore have higher entropy, then the highly uneven distributions. This permits a probabilistic interpretation of the second law.

Sewell sums up his thinking here with the following formulation:

In these simple examples, I assumed nothing but heat conduction or diffusion was going on, but for more general situations, I offered the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.” (Emphasis in original)

Yes, of course. But so what? In his podcast Sewell describes evolution as being a “film running backwards” by which he means that we see complexity increasing in apparent violation of the second law (just like in a movie run backwards you might see the shattered pieces of a broken coffee cup reassemble themselves into a functional mug).

If he wants us to take this claim seriously, he needs to follow the dictates of his own theorizing. Does evolution require us to believe that something incredibly improbable has occurred in the course of natural history? Let Sewell carry out the probability calculation that shows that to be the case. Then let him explain what significance his calculation is supposed to have. (Improbable things happen all the time, after all). Once he has done that, he will have an actual argument, and we can revisit this subject at that time. Without such a calculation, he has only a lot of polysyllabic bluster.

The solar energy that enters the Earth every day fuels the chemical reactions that allow living organisms to survive and reproduce. This cycle of survival and reproduction ultimately leads to natural selection, which can, in turn, lead to increases in biological complexity. Minus that energy living organisms would quickly go extinct and evolution would not occur. So, to use Sewell's idiosyncratic phrasing, something is indeed crossing the boundary that makes an increase in biological complexity more likely.

If Sewell wants to retreat to the question of the origin of life, then he will have to confront the simple fact that the various sources of energy bathing the early Earth would have fueled the numerous chemical reactions that are believed to have led to the first primitive life forms. Once again, it is for him to back up his claims about probability with something more substantive than his own beliefs.

Sewell will have no more luck carrying out these probability calculations than he had with the prior, entropy calculation. And that is because these sorts of probabilities are effectively impossible to calculate. The probability of any particular set of outcomes of several billion years of evolution depends on far more variables than can possibly be included in a practical calculation. Probability theory finds many applications in biology, but this is not one of them. There is a reason real scientists do not talk about probabilty calculations in Sewell's haphazard manner.

The pattern in Sewell's arguments is now rapidly becoming clear. When he wants to impress us with the rigor of his argument, he talks about entropy and order and probability and the history of thermodynamics. But when it comes time to apply any of this to evolution he retreats to simple-minded arguments about films running backwards and atoms arranging themselves into microchips. The reason he does this is that, in reality, thermodynamics and probability play no role at all in his argument. As already discussed, he contributes nothing to the discussion beyond his own incredulity.

Sewell closes both his essay and his podcast as follows:

The development of life may have only violated one law of science, but that was the one Sir Arthur Eddington called the “supreme” law of Nature, and it has violated that in a most spectacular way. At least that is my opinion, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we aren't. (Emphasis in original).

But knowledgable people will not show any respect for Sewell's argument, because he has produced virtually no argument at all. He describes it as his opinion that evolution violates the second law. But this is not the sort of thing about which scientists are supposed to have opinions. We have ample evidence that evolution happened and that natural selection was the driving force of it. Biologists find evolutionary thinking to be very helpful in their research. If Sewell believes that it runs afoul of the second law nevertheless, then he needs to carry out the calculations that show that to be case. Otherwise he has only an opinion based on nothing.

These sorts of considerations should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of mathematical or scientific training. That they are not obvious to Sewell is another reason his quest for respect will be in vain.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Value of Algebra

I am so mad right now.

I devote a small part of each and every day to perusing some of the dopiest, most inane websites on the net. There are about a dozen creationist web sites I monitor on a daily basis, not to mention several very right-wing political sites. I've grown so accustomed to their relentless stupidity that I barely notice it anymore.

But I read a number of other sites that are supposedly more reliable. At those sites I expect to read things that will provide some food for thought, even if, in the end, I disagree with them. So encountering breathtaking, creationist-level stupidity at such a site is just too depressing.

I'm sure you've figured out by now that I am referring to this column, by Richard Cohen, from the February 16 edition of The Washington Post. We consider it in full:

I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo.

Last year, she dropped out of the 12th grade at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles after failing algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it. So, according to the Los Angeles Times, she “gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.”

Gabriela, this is Richard: There's life after algebra.

In truth, I don't know what to tell Gabriela. The L.A. school district now requires all students to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate. This is something new for Los Angeles (although 17 states require it) and it is the sort of vaunted education reform that is supposed to close the science and math gap and make the U.S. more competitive. All it seems to do, though, is ruin the lives of countless kids. In L.A., more kids drop out of school on account of algebra than any other subject. I can hardly blame them.

I can blame them. I'll bet real money that every one of those kids who dropped out of school on account of algebra had problems that go well beyond difficulties in math. Were these students who were generally doing well in their other subjects but, doggone it, just couldn't pass algebra? Or were these people who didn't take school very seriously, had little in the way of discipline, and were just scraping by in their other, less demanding classes? I'm sorry, but no one of normal intelligence fails algebra six times simply because the subject is just so darn difficult.

I'm glad to hear that LA now requires a year of algebra and a year of geometry to graduate. I'm amazed that only 17 states do likewise.

Incredibly, though, that's not the supid part of the column:

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.

It is a truism among mathematicians that mathematics is the only subject that people brag about being bad at. Cohen thinks it's just the cutest thing that he has trouble with percentages. Can you think of any other academic subject where he would proudly joke about how bad he is at it?

The following fantasy conversation plays in my mind from time to time:

NICE PERSON AT PARTY: What do you do?
ME: I'm a mathematician.
NICE PERSON: Oh, (giggles), I was never any good at math.
ME: That's because you're an idiot.

I never say that of course. No, usually I say something tactful like, “You just never had the right teacher.” But it really is irritating when otherwise intelligent and well-educated people act like you're the weird one for being good at math.

The fact is that things like math phobia, or the idea that people's brains are wired differently, or that some people just can't do math, are total bilge. Hostility towards mathematics has nothing to do with any of those things. In reality it is just standard anti-intellectualism. Nothing more glamorous or interesting than that.

Actually, though, we still have not reached the truly dumb part of the column:

Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Now that's one of the dumbest things I've read in a while. And remember, I read websites that say things like: “If humans evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?”

First, how on Earth does Cohen know what Ms. Ocampo will need to know later in her life? The fact is that if she wants to pursue any sort of scientific subject she will inevitably need to know algebra to do that.

As evidence that Ms. Ocampo will never need algebra, Cohen presents the fact that he has never had to use it. He's never even rued not knowing it! I have no doubt that Cohen is telling the truth here, but that only proves that Cohen has led an empty, intellectually impoverished, life. It says nothing about what students should learn in high school.

He then presents a standard caricature of what algebra is. He has apparently overlooked the possibility that sometimes you use an unrealistic, contrived situation to illustrate a more general principle.

But the idea that calculators and computers can do “most of math” is really just too much. Calculators and computers do not do math at all. They do computation. It's clear at this point that Cohen thinks algebra, and mathematics generally, is just about manipulating symbols according to arbitrary rules. That's like saying that carpentry is about hammering nails and sawing wood. Mathematics is about the reasoning process you go through in taking the information you have and inferring the things that you need. Algebra and computations are just tools you use in the course of implementing such reasoning.

Incredibly, Cohen then tells us that computers can't reason - not even a little bit. Well, duh! That's the whole point!

And then, to cap off this masterpiece of inanity, Cohen offers up his examples of genuinely useful subjects: History and English. Oh, for heaven's sake. Thirty seconds with a good internet connection is enough to learn any bit of history you might be interested in. And English? Has anyone other than an English professor ever needed to read Dickens or Shakespeare?

Of course, the problem here is that Cohen has a pathetically empty idea of what education is all about. Education isn't job training. Education isn't about teaching you how to use an ATM, or balance a checkbook, or any of those other things you need to know in your day-to-day life. You don't need school to teach you those things.

The reason you learn about history, or read great literature, or study math and science when you're in school is precisely because you won't do these things in your day-to-day life. You don't read Dickens because you think it is going to get you a job someday. You read Dickens because the man could write, and your life will be just a little richer for being shown what the English language can be made to do. You read Dickens because by doing so you realize that the things people worried about a hundred years ago are mostly the same things they worry about today. Likewise for any of the other things you learn in school.

Cohen seems to have this idea that education is about learning a bunch of facts. And if those facts don't materially help you in the course of your professional life, then it was a waste of time to learn them in the first place. When teenagers display attitudes like that we chalk it up to immaturity and the lack of a long-term perspective. Columnists for major newspapers don't have that excuse.

Cohen continues:

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

And this paragraph isn't even coherent. Writing is the highest from of reasoning? What? The proof of this is that some old classmate of his aced algebra but couldn't find the Sahara Desert on a map? Does this guy understand what reasoning is? Reasoning is what you do when you are told that a hen and a half can lay an egg in a half in day and a half and want to determine how long it will take seven hens to lay seven eggs. Finding the Sahara Desert on a map is just a matter of being in possession of certain facts.

Cohen continues:

Look, Gabriela, I am not anti-algebra. It has its uses, I suppose, and I think it should be available for people who want to take it. Maybe students should even be compelled to take it, but it should not be a requirement for graduation. There are those of you, and Gabriela you are one, who know what it is like to stare at an algebra problem until you have eyeballed a hole in the page and not understand a thing you're seeing. There are those of us who know the sweat, the panic, the trembling, cold fear that comes from the teacher casting an eye in your direction and calling you to the blackboard. It is like being summoned to your own execution.

Why not take that attitude with every subject? Maybe we should just make every subject available to students who want to study it, but then leave it up to the kids to decide what they need to know?

As for the uses of algebra, do I really need to point out that every bit of technology Cohen uses every day was invented by scientists, that virtually every major branch of science has mathematics at its core, and that no matter what branch of mathematics you are using it is certain that algebraic manipulations reside at its foundation? Of all the subjects he could have labelled as useless, Cohen could not possibly have made a worse choice.

As for the rest of this paragraph, I'm getting weepy. When you're not understanding what you are reading in your textbook, the solution is to work harder and ask questions. Everyone has subjects they're not good at. But we don't whine and blame the subject. As for being called to the blackboard, I don't know many algebra teachers who actually do that. And I know even fewer who, when the student says he doesn't know how to do the problem, ridicules the student for his ignorance.

Cohen closes with:

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a similar column about algebra. Math teachers struck back with a vengeance. They made so many claims for algebra's intrinsic worth that I felt, as I once had in class, like a dummy. Once again, I just didn't get it. Still, in the two decades since, I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used -- or wanted to use -- algebra. I was lucky, though. I had graduated from high school and gone on to college. It's different for you, Gabriela. Algebra ruined many a day for me. Now it could ruin your life.

Sorry, but I don't think it's unreasonable for a high school diploma to certify that you know a tiny amount of higher mathematics.

As I said, I expect this sort of stupidity and short-sightedness from the creationists and the right-wingers. But Cohen is supposed to be one of the Post's liberal columnists. Yet here he is promoting the very silliness he's supposed to be fighting against. Ugh.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ruse Weighs In

Since I've been bashing Michael Ruse quite a bit lately, it's nice to be able to link to this interesting essay from Science and Spirit magazine. In it Ruse comments both on the Court's ruling in the Dover evolution case, and also on the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. He has nothing but praise for the former, but criticizes the latter for not being more rigorous in presenting Darwin in the context of his times as opposed to a stand-alone genius. I especially liked this quote:

Jones was unambiguous. ID is not science, he wrote; it is religion. More than this, the judge took great umbrage at the tactics of the school board and its supporters, accusing them of telling untruths and of being morally bankrupt in the ways in which they justified their case for teaching ID. What made his ruling all the more impressive is that Jones is no bleeding-heart liberal, but rather a solid conservative, a churchgoer who was appointed to his post by the Bush administration.

Basically, Jones told the world that Pennsylvanians have standards, and he was outraged that the children of his state were to be fed a load of neo-fundamentalist religion because of the ideological beliefs of a group of unscrupulous fanatics. This is not a question of right or left, he seemed to be saying, but rather a question of right and wrong—and we in Pennsylvania know the difference. Apparently, the citizens of Dover were on the same page as the judge because, even before the verdict came down, eight of the nine existing school board members were voted out in favor of a new group whose first act was to unanimously rescind the policy on ID.

I recommend reading the whole article.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

New CSICOP Column

Update: March 2, 2006: I owe an apology to readers of this entry for an error I made in its initial version. I originally presented two quotes, one of which I attributed to Henry Morris, the other to William Dembski. In reality both quotes were due to Morris. The point I was making was that both ID and scientific creationism assert that the question of the age of the Earth is independent of the scientific question of whether evolution is an adequate explanation for life’s complexity. But in writing this entry I carelssly misread what I had originally written in my essay. I am sorry for the error.

My new column for CSICOP'S Creation Watch web site is now available. This time we take a closer look at the question of whether there is any important difference between ID and scientific creationism. Turns out there's even less of a difference than you think?

Maher on Scarborough Country

Bill Maher was on the MSNBC show Scarborough Country yesterday. Here's an excerpt I especially liked:

SCARBOROUGH: And this goes back to what we—this goes back to what we talked about a time earlier when you were on this show. You think that‘s being disrespectful to people‘s faith, to their value system? The thing that is most important to them, for you to say that the Bible doesn‘t have relevance or isn‘t important?

MAHER: Well, I‘m sorry, Joe. You know, I‘m sorry if I offended anybody. But somebody has to say these kinds of things. Somebody has to stop...


MAHER: What? Why?


MAHER: Because religion does so much more harm than good. And as long as we constantly give it a free pass, as long as nobody questions it because, when you say those words, “That‘s my faith,” everybody backs off.

I‘m sorry, but faith means the suspension of rational thinking. And the Bible is an anthology. It‘s an anthology of many works written a long time ago. Some of it is wise. There are some good things in the Bible.

But I like to look at the Ten Commandments as sort of a microcosm of the Bible. Are there some good things in the Ten Commandments? Yes, two of them are actual laws: Don‘t kill—OK, that‘s a good one; I think that‘s good to teach people that—and don‘t steal, also good.

The rest of the eight of them? I don‘t know. Don‘t work on Sunday? Doesn‘t have a lot of relevance, really, does it, Joe? Don‘t swear? Is that really as important as don‘t kill and don‘t steal? Don‘t make statues of other gods and pray to them?

You see what I‘m saying? Some of it is good; some of it is, you know, an old book of Jewish folk tales.

Exactly right.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Creationism in England

Here's a cheery article from a recent issue of the British newspaper The Guardian:

A growing number of science students on British campuses and in sixth form colleges are challenging the theory of evolution and arguing that Darwin was wrong. Some are being failed in university exams because they quote sayings from the Bible or Qur'an as scientific fact and at one sixth form college in London most biology students are now thought to be creationists.
Earlier this month Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin's theories as false. Evangelical Christian students are also increasingly vocal in challenging the notion of evolution.

In the United States there is growing pressure to teach creationism or “intelligent design” in science classes, despite legal rulings against it. Now similar trends in this country have prompted the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy, to confront the issue head on with a talk entitled Why Creationism is Wrong. The award-winning geneticist and author Steve Jones will deliver the lecture and challenge creationists, Christian and Islamic, to argue their case rationally at the society's event in April.

“There is an insidious and growing problem,” said Professor Jones, of University College London. “It's a step back from rationality. They (the creationists) don't have a problem with science, they have a problem with argument. And irrationality is a very infectious disease as we see from the United States.”

Jones is right that the growth of creationism represnts a step back from rationality. But he is wrong to characterize creationists as not having a problem with science. They do, indeed, have a problem with science, because science accords no evidential weight to ancient, allegedly holy, texts. The students who are quoting the Bible or Qur'an on their medical exams (who fully deserve to fail, incidentally) do not believe that the scientific method represents the only proper means of investigating the mechanics of nature. They make arguments aplenty, they just aren't scientific arguments.

Later we come to this:

The leaflets are produced by the Al-Nasr Trust, a Slough-based charity set up in 1992 with the aim of improving the understanding of Islam. The passage quoted from the Qur'an states: “And God has created every animal from water. Of them there are some that creep on their bellies, some that walk on two legs and some that walk on four. God creates what he wills for verily God has power over all things.”

A 21-year-old medical student and member of the Islamic Society, who did not want to be named, said that the Qur'an was clear that man had been created and had not evolved as Darwin suggests. “There is no scientific evidence for it [Darwin's Origin of Species]. It's only a theory. Man is the wonder of God's creation.”

Of course. God created everything from water. How could it be otherwise?

The article concludes with this:

Most of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists, according to a biology teacher at a leading London sixth-form college. “The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism,” she said, “and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole ... it's a bit like the southern states of America.” Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists.

It has been wisely said that against stupidity the Gods themselves toil in vain. I suspect that things aren't quite as gloomy as this article makes it seem. But it does provide some perspective on where the real problem in lies. Are these arrogant, ignorant students responding to some snide remarks from Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins? Or is it that their entire ability to think rationally and discern good arguments from bad has been compromised by the religious zealotry of their upbringing? Is the rejection of evolution a problem of PR, something that can be fixed if only evolutionists would present their arguments more eloquently? Or is it simply that too many people prefer the comforts of blind faith to the hard work of clear thinking and meticulous investigation?

Don't get me wrong. I think evolutionists should continue to make their case in public venues and confront creationism at every turn. What else is there to do, after all? But we have to get over this idea that there is some silver bullet, that if only evolutionists were doing some simple thing differently everything would be okay. It just isn't so. The facts are readily available to anyone willing to make the smallest effort to obtain them. Scientists have been leading the horses to water for decades. But they are determined not to drink.