Conservatives Evolutionists vs Progressive Intelligent Designers

TLS-ColbertSmall “c” conservatives are, by definition, ideologically committed to preventing or slowing the rate of change. The essential premise is that things are better the way they are, or maybe even the way they were, but definitely not the way they are going. Bill O’Reilly asserted the futility of this last night on The Late Show when saying to Stephen Colbert that conservatives believe they are losing the culture war to progressives. In response, Colbert noted that conservatism is always a losing battle because the culture always changes.

In a similar vein, Vox’s Matt Yglesias penned an interesting article about small conservative communities desperate to preserve the status quo. They are often resistant to new industry and new development coming to town for fear of what outside elements might come along with it. He noted the brutal truth that change was going to happen to these towns either way. By resisting the influx of outside influences, they were instead suffering the withering death of attrition as their young people went off to college and never came home.

In both cases, the conservative path is to ultimately have change thrust upon them by outside forces they don’t control and didn’t influence. In this way, conservatives are embracing a sort of cultural evolution. After all, in the natural world, evolution is simply the change induced by random events. It’s not directed. It’s not controlled. It’s not inherently good or bad. It just happens.

In contrast, small “p” progressives not only accept that change will happen, they advocate for it. They try to control and direct it. This doesn’t mean all progressive changes are good, but it at least means they were thought out and intended. They are open for debate, refinement, and improvement. Ironically, this puts progressives in the position of advocating for cultural intelligent design.

Go figure…

Data Over Dogma

dataThis can’t be stated often or emphatically enough. If you are willing to dismiss, suppress, or reject evidence because it conflicts with what you want to (or have been told you should) believe, then you are acting irrationally—by definition. And your judgement should be discounted accordingly.

While this situation usually comes up with regard to a specific topic, it reflects a larger problem with mindset. Sen. Marco Rubio demonstrated this most recently when, in an interview with GQ magazine, he was asked how old the earth is. After declaring “I’m not a scientist, man,” Rubio danced with all his might, ending with the declaration that “it’s one of the great mysteries.” (No Marco, it’s really not.) Rubio is previously on record as stating the “crux” of the disagreement is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as being isolated to the topic of geology or evolution, something that doesn’t impact the lives of the vast majority of citizens.  Rubio asserts as much when defending his GQ statement.  He said this didn’t matter, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians” that has “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.”

Yet, as I’ve argued in this space before, and as Paul Krugman points out in his recent column, it matters greatly. It matters because we are hindering a crop of potential petrogeologists who are limited to guessing where God hid the oil.  But moreover, it matters because we are teaching kids that evidence can be ignored if it’s uncomfortable. And it is this mindset which is particularly damaging, and not just to the field of science, and as Rubio has demonstrated, not just to kids.

We have adults rejecting global warming and progressive tax codes, not because of evidence, but because of ideology.  We saw dismissal and rejection of pre-election poll data, not because it was inaccurate, but because it supported the wrong conclusion.

We live in an increasingly technological world with a complex multinational economy. Our success as a society, a country, and a culture depends on our ability to carefully and rationally understand and control that abstruse system.  Reliance on irrational explanations and positions in the face of evidence backed models of the world is simply dangerous.

That is not to say that faith and ideology have no place in society. They add value to the lives of many. All the world is not explainable using logic and reason.  Faith and ideology help most fill the gaps. But where data and dogma collide… bet on data every time. All our futures depend on it.

Oh no you didn’t

Oh no you didn'tMy morning coffee was interrupted by a gentle knocking on the front door.  On the other side was a delightful older woman and her apprentice proselytizer sporting bibles, Watchtower magazines, and other paraphernalia of the trade.

She opened by explaining they were there to make sure I understood what the bible had to say, because they’ve found many people don’t know.  I politely replied that I had a bible, had read it, and was pretty familiar with what was inside.  I finished by explaining that I really didn’t feel the need for any additional guidance today.

That should have been the end of it, save for a few pleasantries, and I could return to my cooling cup of Joe and my newspaper.  But no.

She reaches into her stack of pamphlets and pulls one out while saying that perhaps she might interest me in some information on God’s creation because science is constantly trying to disprove it, and I might need to know how to respond.

It was at that moment I wished I was a woman and could pull off that whole finger-wagging head-shaking “Oh no you did not” indignation move.  But alas, I’m just a gesture impaired male.  Either way, it was clear my coffee was going to get colder.

I responded, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand that science is not trying to disprove religious mythology.  That is neither its purpose nor its intent.  It exists to explain nature in a way that allows us to predict and manipulate it.  This is a role that religion does not fulfill, nor aspire to fill.  Science is dependent on a method of discovery and rigorous explanation that is completely indifferent to your beliefs.  Science is not a democracy, nor is it dependent on faith.  You don’t get to pick and choose where it leads.”

“You drove up here in a car whose existence is the product of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and a dozen other scientific disciplines.  You have a cell phone in your purse, you’re wearing synthetic blend clothes, and you’re schlepping out brochures drafted on computers and produced on high-speed printing presses.”

“The world you live in is the product of science.  It’s unfortunate that you feel threatened by aspects of science, but unless you’re willing to go back to your cave and huddle around the fire you need to find a way your theology can coexist with it.  Anything less is a major act of hypocrisy on your part.”

Science doesn’t want to play in your sandbox.  Stop dragging it in.

There’s no Tea in Sanity

Tea-Party-MeetingBrad Plumer writes that the GOP party-wide rush to denounce climate change is being driven by a small minority of fervent Tea Party types.  While it’s an interesting read in its own right, there’s a larger subtext I find downright frightening.  There’s no reason to suppose these findings are limited to their climate fantasies.

Two points struck me:

Researchers on cognitive social networks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently found that “when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”


Tea Partiers are also by far the most confident in their beliefs — more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.” Note that this dovetails with earlier research finding that when you give those dismissive of global warming more information, it only serves to harden their doubts.

Self-identified Tea Party types make up just 12 percent of the population.  But that’s apparently enough to give them and their warped reality sway over public opinion and policy.  And there’s apparently little the rest of us can do to induce any sanity on them either.  The more we dump rational arguments and data on them, the further convinced they are about their delusions.

Are we doomed to the anti-science Christian theocracy they envision?  A world where our money is tied to gold, the government is apathetic to your plight, education is relegated to kitchen tables and churches, corporations are free to pollute their way to profits, unions don’t exist, and medical care will only be available to those with enough chickens to trade for it?

I’m certainly not expecting the GOP debate tonight to dissuade my fears.

1 in 7 students are taught creationism in school

Photo by latvian on Flickr

A recent survey of high school biology teachers shows the majority don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students.  Fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance, while the majority hedge on the topic in order to avoid potential conflict.  A full 13% openly teach creationism.

President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call to inspire a new generation of science students stands in stark contrast to the stifled educations being offered to most of today’s kids.  The argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t prevent producing scads of software engineers and physicists.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot of the innovation space with the rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so there is a need for people who really understand the life sciences.  But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general.  Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution?  It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.

The prevalence of creationism in schools does matter.  Children require inspiration to pursue careers in science and technology. And teachers, especially science teachers, who don’t have enthusiasm for the field or reject the discipline altogether are certainly not being inspirational.

It would be easy but overly simplistic to dismiss this as just a problem in our schools.  The reality is that teachers are human.  They reflect the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the society as a whole.  Considering that repeated studies have shown about 45% of the population in general believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, science teachers are already well outside the mainstream.  The answers here don’t lie in fixing the schools as much as in fixing society.  Children are not often motivated toward goals their parents openly reject.  When almost half of parents reject science as hooey, it’s not surprising that kids are not flocking to the field.

Industry doesn’t help here either.  While demand for science and tech jobs has picked up a bit, the outsourcing of entry level positions to overseas markets continues to make it challenging for average students to find work after college.  If the U.S. is to grow the next generation of talent, we have to be willing to plant the seeds domestically by hiring fresh grads.

In addition, society doesn’t treat science as credible, cool, or aspirational.  The CSI and Mythbusters television shows have helped make science seem a bit more interesting and mainstream.  But science and tech careers are still things perceived to be pursued largely by those geeky kids who seems inexorably destined for lab coats from birth.  Yet that minority of kids will not be sufficient to fuel a new Apollo program.

If this is truly a Sputnik moment, we need to inspire a big chunk of the “normal” kids to get their geek on.  Teachers are a part of that. Government is a part of that. But unless society as a whole embraces it, it will not succeed.