August 21, 2005

Intelligent Design and other Fuckwittery

See, things like this really, really piss me off.

Not the post's main subject, which I find fairly hilarious and a worthy use of $1mil.

No, the letter from the Boing Boing reader. I have no problem with her personal beliefs; they are her own. But it's representative of the entire ID farce. Specifically, I have a problem with the semantic usurping of an equal (if not superior) spot in 'science'.

What is not being said nearly often enough, and needs to be said much more clearly and frequently, is that the current spat over 'evolution' vs. 'intelligent design' is not, at its core, a conflict between two competing views of the origins of human life. It's something much more basic and frightening which needs to be emphasized.

It is in fact the ages-old conflict between reason and the power of personal belief.

That's it.

ID is a cleverly executed attempt to clothe Creationism in the guise of a 'scientific' idea. The sudden use of words like 'evidence' and 'theory' and 'hypothesis' by its proponents, well-schooled by strategists whether they like it or not, is indicative. What is telling, however, is how far up the actual underpinnings stick out.

In the letter shown, the writer rants on with the following:

Certainally not evolution considering there is not one single fact that proves it. No missing links, not even common sense. Lies are still being printed that were proven wrong in the late 1800's but they're still taught as fact.

'Not even common sense.'

See, there's a problem. The problem is that if common sense was an adequate guide to how the world really worked, we wouldn't have technology. We'd never have bothered sailing off into the unknown to determine if the world wasn't flat. On a much less anecdotal plane, we wouldn't have several esoteric and completely non-common-sense branches of science, which nevertheless work and provide us with the standard of living and frontier of technology we have today.

Let's take quantum physics. I defy anyone to label the axioms of quantum physics 'common sense' - especially at the time they were being proposed. Things that are in more than one place at once? Come on, be serious! Yet quantum physics is not a lie. It's not a myth. It's an experimentally verifiable set of propositions which allow us to enjoy such phenomena as the transistor and all of electronics.

But let's be clear: 'experimentally verifiable' does not mean 'common sense.' It doesn't even mean 'understood.' Why do electrons sometimes jump across empty space? Why or how do entangled photons flip states when separated by kilometers, triggered only by observation? We don't know. But we can rely on the phenomenon.

One common objection to this line of thought is that 'the entire point is that evolution is not experimentally verifiable.' While I'm not going to claim expertise enough to tell you that it is (simulation and stochastic experimentation notwithstanding!) that's not the point. The point is that ID is an attempt not to elevate a body of knowledge based on its verifiability or utility to the human race. Rather, it is strictly an attempt to discredit a particular body of knowledge and thought. Not because that knowledge and thought actively harms anyone - quite the contrary.

Simply because that body of knowledge and thought is dangerous to a set of beliefs held by those attacking it.

In other words, comfort in one's beliefs is more important that the investigation of reality.

That is the true conflict here, and the true danger. Defenders of evolution do not always (and in my opinion should not) attempt to fight the ID attack on the basis of actual experimental evidence; that is, in fact, playing the game the ID movement wants. To do so is to elevate ID to the status of an actual competing scientific paradigm. Once you've done that, you've lost - because the entire point of this fairly sleazy attempt to attack the science curricula in this country is to simply provide those who can't handle their beliefs being questioned a support structure based on stolen logic.

At stake here is not evolution, but the scientific method. The method which has given humanity's science and technology the structure on which to move forward and discover - the method which has given thinkers the ability to throw out ideas that haven't met standards. Publicity stunt calls to 'prove evolution' for a prize are something much more pernicious - they are an attempt to destroy the entire notion of operating on a hypothesis while searching for the means to make it a theory. "You can't prove it, therefore it isn't true."

One handicap the scientific community appears to have been operating under (from personal experience alone) is that the sheer illogic of the ID attack has prevented those within it from taking it seriously enough to combat. But that is a mistake. The key is not to take the content of the ID platform seriously - but to take the motives and methods seriously.

Those are what will, if left unchecked, turn the United States from a rational and science based power (and make no mistake, rationality and science are what made the US a superpower) into a weak and rigid shaow of its former self, with an entire generation denied the chance to learn the proper scientific method.

Why are the ID proponents so afraid? Why are they so virulently against evolution? It's not because the actual origins of humanity is a question that has current importance from a reality basis. It's because the acceptance of evolution is implicitly the acceptance of the notion that reason and method determine how the world works - and that reason sometimes tells you that 'common sense' is wrong, as is what you were taught by your elders or predecessors. Flat Earth was once a 'common sense' and 'theory.' Purely Newtonian physics was once a scientific and experimentally verifiable picture of 'all of reality.' However, the ability (and desire) to explain some holes therein, or just simply the desire to test these ideas against observed reality, led humanity to discoveries that moved it farther onward and upward.

But according to Intelligent Design, if you can't prove it, it's a 'lie.' If you can't justify it according to 'common sense,' it's a threat. To what? To a particular set of beliefs and way of life.

Well, my personal response is this: I don't believe the universe was created by an intelligent/sapient entity. I don't believe humanity was either. I believe, based on what evidence I have been shown and based on things I can touch, that the existence of myself and my surroundings are the result of path-dependent stochastic chance.

If you tell me that I'm wrong and that in fact the universe was created by an intelligent entity, then you are trampling my beliefs.

This brings me to my final point. Please note that nowhere in the mainstream has anyone stated that ID or creationism should not be taught. Quite the contrary. If a church, or private organization, wishes to instruct people in the tenets and ideas of the ID movement, that's fine. What is at stake is the curriculum in the publicly funded, government based education system. This system has a responsibility to teach the scientific method in order to further the continuance of science and technology in and by those it teaches. ID is a set of ideas and beliefs. If churches, clubs, or what-have-you want to apply those methods to Creationism on their own time, that's fine. Send your child to church school. Send your child to an after-school group. But don't deny my child the right to learn about science without bending the entire structure of the methodology in order to include a minority, constructivist belief system. Do that on your own time.

If you force me to remove my child from public science classes because what is being taught no longer permits skepticism of 'common sense,' then you have used a religious belief to deny that child the benefits of secular taxation and schooling.

And then I'm going to have to come for you. I supported taking down the Taliban for the same reasons. Not because of their beliefs - but because of their willingness to squash dissenting worldviews.

I'm not saying you can't believe in Intelligent Design all you want. What I'm saying is that any attempt to change my child's science education in a a secular school based on it, because you don't like the possibility that common sense is wrong, or random chance can produce Shakespeare, will make you my opponent. You have chosen to elevate a belief set over a methodology, and to (explictly) set 'intelligence' and its 'own beliefs and ideas' over rational examination and observation of reality - and you're damn well not going to do the same to me.

Be warned.

Posted by jbz at August 21, 2005 4:16 AM | TrackBack


I'm not sure you fully appreciate the theological threat posed to Christianity by evolution. Under the tenets of mainstream Christian theology, the it is the fall from grace that necessitates salvation through Christ. Hence, if you question the accuracy of a strict, literal reading of the first several books of Genesis, you're stripping Christianity of its whole raison d'etre. It's in this context that one can understand why evolution is perceived as a much greater threat to Christian theology than heliocentrism or uniformitarianism: being a theory closely touching the origins of humanity, it directly contradicts the tale of the Garden. Heliocentrism was far less of a threat (Biblical accounts of sunrise/sunset can be explained as figures of speech, leaving only the mention of the unmoving sun in Joshua, which is less theologically critical and not unambiguously geocentric). Uniformitarianism is a threat both to the young earth doctrine, which it contradicts, and to Diluvian explanations for topography, which it obviates; still, it doesn't fly in the face of Genesis quite so much as evolution does. It doesn't really contradict creation per se; rather it questions the math behind the assumptions of a young earth. The long sequence of begats is far less fundamental to Christian theology than the fall from grace.

If Christian theology had been dependent upon the phlogiston theory, then we'd find thermodynamics being a controversial subject, even though the failings of the phlogiston theory are easily experimentally demonstrable. If Christiany had based itself on aether wind, then Michelson and Morely would be as unpopular as Darwin is. The real problem with evolution isn't that it's logical and rational, as it's no more logical or rational than many other widely held theories, but that Darwin touched a particular nerve.

As for the state of the US as a technological power, I'm not quite so concerned. I would first observe that the US has long relied on imported talent to supplement local talent. I would further observe that the US need for research scientists (as distinct from engineers) is fairly limited. I would then observe that many scientists are able to be quite productive despite holding highly irrational beliefs; I cite as examples Kepler (who purportedly didn't actually *believe* that planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun, but rather saw it as a mathematical tool, akin to imaginary numbers, which simplified the math for calculating what the believed *did* happen: everying moving around the earth) and Newton (though some of his later eccentricities have been attributed to mercury poisoning).

I would expect that most future scientists growing up in places like Kansas would realize that ID has more to do with religion and politics than with science and would take it all with an appropriately-sized grain of salt. Those that don't, mostly the deeply religious, would primarily go into disciplies (chemistry is perhaps the best example) that happen to be far-removed from theological conflicts.

As for the hypothetical "I don't want this nonsense taught to my child" argument, I think this is only scratching the surface of a much larger question: financing of education. Religious people don't want to pay for secular education. Secular people don't want to pay for religious education. Religious people don't want to pay for the religious education of those with different beliefs. People without children in school often don't want to pay for any education. The system we're left with is a compromise which leaves many (perhaps most) people less than entirely satisfied. The status quo is to a large degree a result of historical accident, and enough people are invested in the status quo to make it difficult to change the system in a meaningful way.

Posted by: Mark Gordon at August 22, 2005 9:23 AM
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