First, a caveat - What this blog post contains will most likely offend some and not bother others in the least. It is not my intention to insult anyone's beliefs, insinuate that anyone's beliefs are incorrect or suggest that holding a particular belief casts a negative reflection of anyone, that is not my intention at all. My concern in writing this blog post is more a focus on scientific literacy and the too often rejection of solid science. If this post does offend anyone, I apologize in advance and am merely posting my opinions on this matter and thanks for reading.
I think the phrase in the title is more than simple satire. It is an effective commentary of sorts (indirectly). It illuminates the vast misunderstanding of much of the public about the theory of evolution as well as the rejection of a scientific theory most people think they understand but really don't have a clue about. Anyone that knows me also knows that I am an ardent defender of evolution. On many a messageboard I've debated those who attack it - most often supporters of creationism (in its many forms) or "intelligent design" (simply creationism dressed in a lab coat). I am also a huge advocate of science literacy and regularly comment on the sad state of it here in the U.S. A good report on this very topic can be found in the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators report. Each report has a section titled "Public Attitudes and Understanding". The last report was last year (2006) and it showed some small improvements in certain areas (such as environmental concerns) but overall still gut-wrenching to see in the 21st century. Some of the highlights from the report include:
Many people throughout the world cannot answer simple, science-related questions. Nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process.
Less than half the American population accepts the theory of evolution. Whether and how the theory of evolution is taught in public schools remains one of the most contentious issues in science education.
A sizeable segment of the U.S. population has some reservations about S&T. For example, in 2004 surveys, more than half of the respondents agreed that "we depend too much on science and not enough on faith," that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society," and that "scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions." However, agreement with the last two statements declined in recent years.
This table shows some of the questions asked and the percentage of correct answers. For the U.S., the overall decrease was quite disturbing:
Specifically, the understanding of evolution in the U.S. is reprehensible. With the amount of talk and debate about it, you'd think people in this country would know what the hell they are talking about - unfortunately most don't. In 2006, Gallup did a poll which assessed the public's opinion on evolution, creationism and intelligent design. To put the results into perspective, let's look at the results of a poll on the same subject years ago - in 1982. In 1982, the question was asked:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings -- [ROTATE 1-3/3-1: 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so]?
In 1982 38% agreed with #1, 44% agreed with #3 and only 9% agreed with #2. This poll was repeated years later in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004 and finally again in 2006. The results for the 2006 poll (24 years after the first poll) were sickenly similar. In 2006 36% agreed with #1, 46% agreed with #3 and only 13% agreed with #2. The amount of people who believe God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago is nearly half of the people!
A poll done by Newsweek shows similar and just as disturbing results:
Sixty-two percent say they favor teaching creation science in addition to evolution in public schools; 26 percent oppose such teaching, the poll shows. Forty-three percent favor teaching creation science instead of evolution in public schools; 40 percent oppose the idea.
Even more repulsive is the results in the 2001 Gallup poll (which had similar results to the 2006 poll) which asked the additional question:
How informed would you say you are about the theory of evolution? Do you feel that you are very informed about the theory of evolution, somewhat informed, only a little informed, or not informed at all?
81% of people asked said they were somewhat to very informed about evolution! These "informed" people have decided that evolution is trumped by creationism and intelligent design. That is sad. But why would people say they are so informed but swallow the humbug of ID and creationism? Most likely because what they think they know is, as Penn Jillette would say - BULL$&*%! People attend seminars and talks by the likes of Ken Ham which feed them a distorted version of what evolution is which often includes the origins of life and big bang cosmology. A wonderful example can be found in a part of the HBO series "Friends of God". A segment from one of the episodes focuses on a lecture by Ham and his cohorts and Pelosi asks several kids and a couple of adults what they think about evolution. The older individuals (the kids just reply "I believe in creation") claim that the evidence supports creationism and one girl implies that those who believe evolution "don't have all the facts". Then there's the skater/punk kid who wants to be a biochemist and work for the ICR (I can only hope when he gets to college he sees what kind of tripe he's been fed).
All of this information only supports a contention I've held for a while - most people actually know jack about evolutionary theory. They receive most of their information from TV (with the internet close behind) and apparently the sources are less than reputable. In my encounters with people online I often see references to creationist/ID websites or literature. Rarely do I encounter someone who references a text, scientific book or a peer-reviewed scientific journal and when I do it is usually one of several things:
1. The reference in no way even closely supports the person's claim.
2. A section of text is quote-mined from the work they cite.
3. The person cites a reference for their claim but has misunderstood what the reference is even about.
As an example of #1, I found an essay online which someone wrote about evolution. In this essay the author cites several scientific references along with many creationist references. However, the scientific references cited do not support the author's claims at all. An example:
"Pliopithecus was named a hominid because it was a cross between the spider monkey and a gibbon. "
Howell said nothing of the sort which is, again, who the author cites. Howell labeled Pliopithecus as "one of the earliest protoapes" which "looked much like a gibbon and is classed as its ancestor." (Howell, 1970).
The author referenced a book by the late F. Clark Howell titled Early Man which was a Time-Life book targeted for what appears to be the middle school aged. The complete reference is:
Howell, F. (1970). Early Man. New York: Time-Life Books.
Another example by this author in the same essay is an example of #3:
The author states:
"Also, Roger Lewin, a paleontologist, acknowledges that the mitochondrial DNA method is in support for Noah's Ark story. ."
To which I reply:
The "Noah's Ark" hypothesis is not supporting the biblical story. It is the name given to the origination of the human lineage from Africa – now called the "Out of Africa" hypothesis. His exact words are:
"In other words, the mitochondrial DNA technique appears to support the argument that modern humans evolved in one place and then migrated, replacing premodern populations – the Noah's Ark hypothesis." (Lewin, 1988, pp. 131).
This is not stating that some people built a boat for all animals to wait out a world-wide flood in – very different things. Mellars, Aitken and Stringer (1992) give a short explanation specifically of what the hypothesis postulates:
"One view – frequently referred to in the more popular scientific literature as the 'Garden of Eden' or 'Noah's Ark' hypothesis – asserts that biologically and genetically modern human populations evolved initially in one fairly limited and closely prescribed region of the world and subsequently dispersed – at varying times – to all other regions, either with or without significant degrees of genetic intermixture and interbreeding with the pre-existing populations within the same regions (127)."
Here we have the author citing a reference which they think supports the biblical story of Noah when it, in fact, explains a theory which directly contradicts their claims. The citations to the references are as follows:
Lewin, R. (1988). In the Age of Mankind. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
Mellars, P., Aitken, M., and Stringer, C. (1992). Outlining the problem. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 337, 127-130.
#2 is a favorite found in creationist literature - even entire books have been written utilizing this tactic. Quote-mining is simply taking a section of text from a work out of it's context so it seems to say something which the author didn't intend. One widespread example is a section of text from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species about the eye. An example from the creationist book The Collapse of Evolution by Scott Huse reads:
Charles Darwin acknowledged the inadequacy of evolution when he wrote:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. (Darwin 1872).
However, Huse neglects what Darwin wrote next:
"Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real."
The author took a section of text out of context and it made it seem that Darwin believes that evolution cannot explain how the eye could have evolved - but in context Darwin said nothing of the sort.
So what is the deal with all the misinformation? Well, first off, reading scientific literature isn't for everyone - much of it is very complicated and not directed toward a lay audience. Even much of the work which is written for a lay audience is still often too complicated for much of the populace to grasp or to want to learn further about. Enter the creationists who pop in with pretty, simple diagrams and their nice, neat Power Point slides and relate their version of what "science says" to something most of the populace is familiar with - the Bible. Most people will not take the time to check the claims of people like Ham and see what actual science says about the fossil record or even how fossilization occurs, it's easier to engage in low effort thinking and just accept their straw-man version of evolution. Therefore we have intellectual laziness, ignorance and personal ideology combined to create a force which shows up in the results of polls by Gallup and Newsweek and reports by the National Science Foundation.
It is extremely sad that in the 21st century that a well supported and established scientific theory like evolution is trumped by an idea founded on a collection of Iron Age myths. It is sad that in a time when so much knowledge is so unbelievably easily accessed - through the internet, vast libraries, documentaries, radio programs - that this self imposed ignorance is still rampant in the most powerful country in the world. Not to mention even in the face of a unanimous consensus by the scientific community (the AAAS, AGS, NAS, NSF, BRS et al., hell even the APA issued a statement against ID, all have made public statements against ID and creationism as not being scientific or supported by the scientific evidence) - people choose to accept the easiest route, the route that they can relate to or easily grasp.
This is why I believe, just as the late Carl Sagan did, that science education and literacy are of the upmost importance in the U.S. If we do not focus on this and get the populace caught up with science, then we'll be resigning ourselves to a dark age of scientific understanding. It is bad enough and only seems to be getting slowly worse as time marches on. This is why I ramble on, this is why I take some much time when debating online, this is why I take so much time to explain things to people in conversations, this is why I do what I can to spread knowledge and destroy the ignorance - so that science (as Dr. Sagan believed) can be that candle that leads us out of the dark.
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