Of Pandas and Petitions

February 21, 2006

Kenneth Chang’s NYTimes offering today, “Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition,” is a bit of a breath of fresh air. As PZ says, it’s encouraging to see a journalist avoiding the “50-50 representation of competing viewpoints” pitfall and actually critically examining the claims of one side. What did he find? Only about a quarter of the signers of the Discovery Institute’s meaningless petition are actually biologists:

And even the petition’s sponsor, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says that only a quarter of the signers are biologists, whose field is most directly concerned with evolution. The other signers include 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine.

Chang goes on to point out that “of the 128 biologists who signed, few conduct research that would directly address the question of what shaped the history of life.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point that the Discovery Institute is and always has been grasping at straws, attempting to claim that a unified base of expert scientists challenges modern evolutionary biology. As we can see, their base is neither unified nor expert, but consists mostly of people with an ideological axe to grind and no particular knowledge of biology. I don’t doubt that chemists, engineers, physicists, and professors of medicine are generally intelligent people, but I certainly don’t acknowledge their expertise on questions of biological science.

In point of fact, the Discovery Institute and its predecessors have consistently been forced to whittle down their claims to the point of meaninglessness. Even with such a watered-down statement as the one on their petition, they’ve only been able to gather a little over 500 signatures over the course of five years. By comparison, as Josh Rosenau points out, the NCSE’s Project Steve (a petition expressing support for evolutionary theory, signed only by scientists named Steve/Stephen/etc.) has over 700 signatures to date. For another point of comparison, the Clergy Letter Project (a letter that, among other things, urges school board members “to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge”) has been signed by over 10,000 clergy members.

As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that creationism and ID are at best fringe positions with no legitimate scientific standing. These are not points of argument within the scientific community, but rather artificial controversies introduced by external parties with a broader and more sinister agenda. It’s nice to see that more people are starting to realize these things, even if it’s disappointing that the lunacy has been indulged for so long.


The Denial of Objective Reality

January 31, 2006

The last thing most people want to do these days is to recognize reality.

The attempts to justify alternate “ways of knowing,” the politicization of science research and education, the preponderance of overemotional and manipulative rhetoric, the perversion of journalistic integrity and standards, the rise of religious fundamentalism over common sense—these are all expressions of the same impulse towards denying the existence and significance of an objective reality. Escapism isn’t a phenomenon unique to the 21st century, or even to the modern era, though the advent of truly global warfare and modern weapons technologies had a profound effect on the modern consciousness. Certainly scientific inquiry has always been a thing to fear for some, especially when it reaches unpleasant conclusions, conclusions that challenge the status quo and force us to adopt new ways of thinking about the world. Likewise, people have always felt the need to deal with the realities with which they’re confronted, to find some way to make fact compatible with mythology, prejudice, and preconception. So when I mention this impulse towards denying reality, I don’t mean to suggest that it is unique to 2006—I realize it has a longer history than that.

Nevertheless, it seems to have become increasingly widespread and increasingly relevant in recent years. Even as science and technology experience exponential levels of growth and development, even as we learn more and more about the world around us, most people maintain a belief that facts are to some degree malleable. Reality, within this mindset, is secondary to belief and emotion. The core of the fallacy here is that reality (by definition) actually exists independent of belief and emotion; denying reality doesn’t make it any less real, nor does it keep reality from affecting us. There is an objective, empirically knowable world out there, and while we can certainly entertain some interesting philosophical scenarios about our senses being deceived, we all rely on our senses to give us an experience of the world, and those who retreat to faux nihilism in order to justify ignoring specific parts (the objectionable ones) of the empirical world are being intellectually dishonest.

This tendency is a result of a number of things, but mostly it’s a result of dogma. Religious dogma, political dogma, cultural dogma—the common denominator is the steadfast reliance on ideas that don’t respond or correspond to reality. Most of it, I suppose, tends to be tied to religious/theistic dogma, given that speculation about metaphysics (not to mention many religions’ teachings that the material/corporeal world is not something to worry about and is only a means to an end) is likely to lead to a disdain for the material world, and therefore a disdain for empirical fact. Intelligent Design/creationism proponents tout their beliefs as science because they don’t like the implications of the available data and of the accepted scientific theories; politicians and corporations work to distort science to their own ends, filtering out the research that doesn’t support the “conclusions” that have been pre-chosen according to self-interest; blowhard pundits spout shameless nonsense day after day for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, since the facts are either too much of a hassle to analyze rationally or else not supportive of the pundits’ views; journalists and newscasters twist stories to meet their own largely commercial ends, now that “news” has bled into “entertainment.” In nearly every significant area of life, there is a central drive toward ignoring or outright rejecting facts that happen to be inconvenient. If this isn’t chronic denial in the psychological sense, I don’t know what is.

The bottom line is this: the world doesn’t go away when we close our eyes. It is something that needs to be viewed, studied, analyzed, and dealt with, regardless of how much easier it may be to cover our eyes at the parts that challenge us. Truth seems to have fallen by the wayside as something to strive for, as a noble and important value to hold up beside beauty, freedom, and love (although I suppose at least two of those three are also disintegrating as ideals). This is not as it should be. The limitations of what we know about the world are significant enough without people deliberately ignoring the things we do know for the sake of expediency. Without a steadfast pursuit of truth, those other cherished ideals—especially freedom—start to become trivial.

We should be dealing with the world, and with the social and political and scientific realities of that world. Choosing to arbitrarily ignore these things should be unthinkable. Life doesn’t stop being complicated because we pretend it’s simple. Anyone who advocates this “facts don’t matter” attitude should be openly and publicly criticized–the facts do matter. They always have, and they always will, no matter how many people choose to indulge their ridiculous preconceptions at the cost of things like truth, honesty, and accuracy.