Friday, October 30, 2009


Counting ... and Holding ... Noses

Anika Smith, the the tankwoman in pink of the Discovery Institute, is at the DI's Ministry of Misinformation, touting the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll showing that, even in Britain, a majority think that "other possible perspectives," such as intelligent design and creationism, should be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

Smith attempts to blunt the obvious rejoinder that the respondents are unaware that there are no other scientific perspectives this way:

While Darwin's apologists* might try to explain the poll numbers as an example of ignorance influencing people's beliefs, the numbers themselves suggest a different picture.

Across the board, most respondents from the ten countries polled thought that "other perspectives on the origins of species" "such as intelligent design and creationism" should be taught in science class*. When the poll is weighted to include only those respondents who have heard of Charles Darwin and know something about his theory of evolution, the percentage supporting alternate theories increases, from 60% to 66% in Britain and 60% to 64% in the U.S.

The basic truth is that most people want evolution to have to compete for its place of dominance in their schools.

The problem, of course, is that all creationists (in this case, referring to those who oppose the teaching of the unadulterated science of evolution) have heard Darwin's name ... he is the originator of the very thing they oppose and has been made the whipping boy of every preacher who wants his or her flock kept ignorant of the world around them so as not to put any doubts in their heads as to what the preachers are preaching. This point is neatly illustrated in the DI's own drumbeat use of "Darwinists" to refer to scientists and their supporters.

As to those respondents who '"know something about his theory of evolution," that is a self-assessment by the respondents, which has been shown to be unreliable. See: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments."

Andrew Husick, writing in The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis University's community newspaper, has a wonderful explanation why the opinion of the public at large as to what "competes" scientifically with evolutionary theory is not the proper measure:

The idea that the best information can be obtained by taking the average opinion of a large number of people, regardless of their capabilities, is a logical fallacy. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, proved this by imagining a country whose emperor was never seen by any of his people, and stayed walled off in a secret palace. Feynman posited that a traveling salesman who wishes to know the length of the emperor's nose could traverse the whole country asking every citizen for his or her opinion, and then take an average of the answers. In theory, the answer should be very accurate because it is the average of a large sample. Unfortunately, every person who participated was taking a guess, and not working from any real information, rendering the survey inaccurate. The salesman knows nothing more about the emperor's nose after the survey than he did before.

The analogy holds in this example. We can go and ask all 308 million people in the United States for their opinion on this matter, but most of them are not informed enough to make this decision effectively, and we won't be any closer to the goal of educating schoolchildren about science. We don't poll the general public for their input on the curriculum of medical school, and I think we would all prefer our surgeon to be trained by a surgeon instead of by plumbers, policemen, or politicians. Simply because we have a democratic system does not imply that the public at large should make the final decisions about every issue, especially when they are not equipped to use the correct decision-making calculus. Most people in America can not make informed decisions about biology, because they are not biologists.

This is especially the case when those same people, in the US at least, are being barraged with deliberate misinformation about biology by the DI and other religious opponents of science. The real lesson of the poll may be how badly scientists and educators are doing swimming against this tide.

Finally, Smith makes the now obligatory DI disclaimer:

It should be noted that Discovery Institute opposes efforts to mandate teaching alternative theories in the science classroom — we'd rather have the whole picture of evolution, the scientific arguments both for and against the theory, presented instead.

As we saw in the recent Texas curriculum battle, this is just a case where the creationists are stripping another term out of their script to try to avoid the Constitution's ban on proselytizing by government, while still pushing all the same moribund arguments under the "strengths and weaknesses" ploy.

I suppose we should update the phrase to "cweaknesses proponentsists."


* While Smith's use of "Darwin's apologists" is a not-so-subtle attempt to portray the science of evolution as a religious position, it is not the supporters of science who are characterizing it in that manner, unlike the case of the sympathizers of ID, who recognize its religious nature.

When the poll is weighted to include only those respondents who have heard of Charles Darwin and know something about his theory of evolution, the percentage supporting alternate theories increases, from 60% to 66% in Britain and 60% to 64% in the U.S.

Yeah, like that would mean anything. For all we know, most of them might have got their evolution information from Uncommon Descent or DI.
The very act of promoting polling the general public as a means of testing scientific theory, by itself, clearly demonstrates the promoters are ignorant of the scientific process. It's no different than Roadrunner cartoon physics.
I wonder if Ms Smith would be willing to undergo, say, a face lift, live on TV (I hear 'reality' shows are big these days) with the surgeon guided by the twittered input to polls on what to do next at each stage. To make her feel safe, they could use an audience of fellow cdesign proponentsists to make the choices (we wouldn't want EVILutionists taking advantage, would we).

My suspicion is that Ms Smith would not be willing to stake her face and life on the proposition that folk who don't know what they're doing suddenly become knowledgeable if there are a bunch of them.
I never will understand why Intelligent Design keeps being referred to as a (teachable) body of science in the same manner as evolutionary science. ID consists ENTIRELY of challenges to existing evidence - and offers no coherent theory to account for the majority of evidence which remains unchallenged. In science, a healthy skepticism of existing evidence (and theory) is important and necessary, since it often leads to new discoveries. But raising mere skepticism to the level of a competing body of science is pure nonsense - and not really even feasible.
But raising mere skepticism to the level of a competing body of science is pure nonsense - and not really even feasible.

When skepticism -- in this case, more properly called denialism -- is all you have and you want to elevate it to something that can be used to counteract the effect of science, the only strategy that recommends itself is to call denialism "science." In that sense, it is rational, even if it is ultimately dishonest or, at least, delusional.
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