The importance of trust in the classroom

The more I teach, the more I feel that there is an inverse correlation between the quality of learning that occurs and the number of rules that govern the classroom. At its best, teaching involves trust between students and teacher, and among fellow students. The assumption should be that we are all there to learn and that we will help each other learn.

To be sure, the teacher has a responsibility to the students and the institution he or she works for to ensure that learning is occurring and that the unavoidable grades that have gained a stranglehold in our educational world are assigned fairly.

But apart from this minimal expectation, I feel that there should be no other rules, except those that are created collectively by the entire class in order that things run smoothly. It is for this reason that my courses are becoming progressively rule-free over time. This is also why I oppose efforts to treat course syllabi as quasi-legal contracts and to mandate what they should and should not contain

But I know that I am swimming upstream on this one. Many course syllabi are becoming increasingly crammed full of rules and regulations. Why? To my mind, this is a measure of the lack of trust that has developed between student and teachers. Students and faculty don’t really know each other as people. We don’t see ourselves as having come together for an endeavor (learning) which should be enjoyable and from which all of us will benefit and which will form the basis of a lifetime relationship. Instead we seem to see ourselves as temporary acquaintances engaged in a commercial transaction. The faculty member has a product or service (knowledge, grades) that the student ‘purchases’ with money, time, and effort.

A natural consequence of this commerce mentality is the need for rules, just like those in the marketplace. Students seem to feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from arbitrary actions by faculty members who are strangers to them, and faculty feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from complaints by students whom they don’t really know. This dynamic inevitably leads to a spiral of increasing rules since having written rules at all implies a lack of trust, which then results in people testing the limits of the rules, which creates the need for more protective rules, which leads to even greater distrust, and so on.

But the reality is that there are only a tiny handful of faculty and students who might take unfair advantage of one another in the absence of a detailed set of rules. In my work in many universities, it is hard for me to recollect cases of faculty members who did not take seriously their ethical obligation to treat students fairly.

This does not mean that faculty members cannot be arrogant, condescending, and unrealistically demanding. We are, after all, human. But it is rare that a teacher will act out of spite against a specific student. And if it does happen, there are mechanisms in universities to try and redress these wrongs when they occur, because the other faculty members know that we can only succeed if we as a learning community try to uphold the highest standards.

We don’t have written rules of behavior among friends. We don’t have written rules of behavior among family members. The reason is that the common interests that bring us together are strong enough to make us want to resolve the issues in a manner of friendly give-and-take. Why is it that we do not even try to create a similar situation in class? Surely a common interest in learning is strong enough to serve a similar role?

When I think about what is the one change that I would recommend to dramatically improve education at all levels, I come to the conclusion that we must create a greater sense of trust in the classroom so that we can minimize the number of rules and thus allow the natural enjoyment that true learning provides to emerge.

Creationism and moral decay

In the previous posting, I said that the reason that there is such hostility to the teaching of evolutionary theory by ID advocates and young-Earth creationists is that they feel that it implies a lack off special status for human beings, which leads to atheism, which has led to the current state of moral decay in the US from a more wholesome past. They feel that eliminating the teaching of evolution is the first step on the road to moral redemption.

There are many flaws in this line of reasoning but for the moment I want to look at one feature and pose the question as to why such people think that the moral state of America is in worse shape now than it was in the past.

It becomes clear that the reason is that the word ‘morality’ as used almost exclusively in relation to sex and nudity. Those who see us as currently living in a moral swamp use sex and nudity as the yardsticks for measurement.

Even taking this narrow view of morality, it is not clear that America is any less moral now than it was, say, fifty or more years ago. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot of public discussion now of sex-related issues and more nudity and sex in films and on television. But all that this might indicate is that things that were done and spoken in private in the past are now more in the open. In other words, we don’t have more sex. We simply have less secrecy and hypocrisy.

It is not that public piety and hypocrisy about sex and nudity has disappeared, as can be seen by the ridiculous flap over the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, which was portrayed as if it had irreparably damaged the nation’s psyche. In fact, America is a curious mass of contradictions when it comes to sex and nudity, publicly deploring it while relishing titillating stories in the media.

But it is hard for me to accept that we are in a worse state of morals than we were in the past when that word is used in a more meaningful and broader sense.

For example, it was only fifty years ago or less that civil rights legislation was enacted giving blacks the legal rights that white people had. Lynchings, beatings, fire hosing of peaceful marchers, Jim Crow laws, open discrimination in all areas of life, are all in the living memory of people. Was that a more moral time to live in?

Similarly, the status of women just one hundred years ago was no picnic either. Women had no vote, few career choices, and little hope for advancement or being taken seriously in the scientific, business, and professional worlds. They were seen as primarily homemakers and mothers and little else. Was that a more moral time to live in?

And one has to only go back to about two hundred years to get to the era of slavery and genocide against Native Americans. Was that a more moral time to live in?

While equality has still not been attained, it is only those who are looking at the past with blinkers who could see golden ages then and wish to return to them.

I think that there is a strong case to be made that in some ways morality has increased over time so that even if one were inclined to make this kind of correlation between morals in a broad sense and the passage of time since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, one would have to conclude that morals have actually improved with the advent of evolutionary theory.

Natural selection and moral decay

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so upsetting. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God’s image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant in trying to have evolution not taught in schools or its teaching to be undermined by inserting fake cautions about its credibility. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.

I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don’t try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.

So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be a non-scientist.

It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Others won’t. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in that?

But my conversations with the ID people revealed that they have a much darker view of the consequences of teaching evolution. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.

Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. And they see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools.

They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards results in the slippery slope of moral relativism and situational ethics, where there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context.

They pin the blame for this shift in morals directly on evolutionary theory. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God’s special creation. This leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.

So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen by them as a fight for America’s very soul and this explains the passion which is expended by them on what, to the rest of us, might seem just another aspect of the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce ID as merely an ‘alternative theory’ is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.

While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels (and I will do so in a later posting), I was impressed with the sincerity of many of the people at the ID meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the ID movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader argument and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if ID was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (I will discuss this so-called ‘wedge strategy’ later.)

This is why ID advocates feel they cannot allow the teaching of evolution. For them it is not just a scientific theory they have problems with. They see this as a battle for the soul of America, and the world.

The home of the brave? Or the fearful?

I have done the people of Ohio an injustice. In a previous posting, I said that sometimes it seems to me that there is no half-baked idea that originates anywhere in the known universe that does not quickly find influential adherents anxious to institutionalize it in Ohio.

This was a slur on the people of Ohio implying as it does that we are merely followers. It appears that influential Ohio politicians are quite capable of coming up with original half-baked ideas all on their own. Evidence of this comes from the introduction of Ohio Senate Bill 9 that seeks to expand the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (which is already a very disturbing law) and apply these extensions to the people of Ohio.

Jeffrey M. Gamso, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio stated the case against the Ohio bill in his testimony before the Ohio’s Senate Judiciary Committee:

“The ACLU of Ohio opposes many of the provisions of S.B. 9. The proposed legislation makes criminal what is already a crime (and may criminalize obedience to the law); requires that people incriminate themselves and in some cases makes criminal their failure to do so; provides sweeping powers to law enforcement to demand identification from wholly innocent persons. It does all that while doing remarkably little to make us either safer or more secure. Like the USA PATRIOT Act, S.B. 9 effects a needless expansion of wide-ranging police powers which threatens the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect.

There are five broad categories of problematic bad legislation tied together in S.B. 9: (1) Legislation which simply duplicates already existing federal law; (2) legislation which provides government with broad powers to investigate and prosecute even wholly innocent activity; (3) legislation which prohibits possession of that which may be misused rather than the misuse itself; (4) legislation which attempts to restrain the people of Ohio from expressing their disapproval of the actions of the government, and (5) legislation which forces people to incriminate themselves. In addition, S.B. 9 may require, in some circumstances, government employees actually to violate existing law – and does so without shielding them from the consequences of such a violation.�

As a proud card-carrying member of many years of the American Civil Liberties Union, I have major concerns with the rapid encroachment of civil liberties in this country under the guise of fighting terrorism.

What amazes me is that so many people are so scared of the possibility of potential terrorist acts that they are willing to let politicians dismantle even the provisions of the Bill of Rights. It is a disturbing feature of modern American political life that people can be so easily terrified that they so surrender without a fight what they should hold most dear. It seems like people are unable to make judgments about how safe is safe enough.

One way to make such a comparison is to compare the probabilities of two scenarios. On the one hand, there is the probability that we are harmed by some terrorist activity that this law would have prevented if had been enacted. The other is the probability that this law once enacted, instead of being used to protect us, is used against innocent people. Which do you think is more likely?

For me this is a no-brainer. The chances of being the victim of a terrorist attack are very small. Yet, if history is any judge, the chances that laws introduced under the guise of protecting us from ‘outsiders’ will eventually be used against us instead is relatively much higher.

So we should oppose this legislation and also seek to sustain the sunset provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act when they fall due at the end of this year.

To find out what you can do, go here.

What makes us good at learning some things and not others?

One of the questions that students ask me is why it is that they find some subjects easy and others hard to learn. Students often tell me that they “are good� at one subject (say writing) and “are not good� at another (say physics), with the clear implication that they feel that there is something intrinsic and immutable about them that determines what they are good at. It is as if they see their learning abilities as being mapped onto a multi-dimensional grid in which each axis represents a subject, with their own abilities lying along a continuous scale ranging from ‘awful’ at one extreme to ‘excellent’ at the other. Is this how it is?

This is a really tough question and I don’t think there is a definitive answer at this time. Those interested in this topic should register for the free public lecture by Steven Pinker on March 14.

Why are some people drawn to some areas of study and not to others? Why do they find some things difficult and others easy? Is it due to the kind of teaching that one receives or parental influence or some innate quality like genes?

The easiest answer is to blame it on genes or at least on the hard-wiring of the brain. In other words, we are born the way we are, with gifts in some areas and deficiencies in others. It seems almost impossible to open the newspapers these days without reading that scientists have found the genes that ‘cause’ this or that human characteristic so it is excusable to jump to genes as the cause of most inexplicable things.

But that is too simple. After all, although the brain comes at birth with some hard-wired structures, it is also quite plastic and the direction in which it grows is also strongly influenced by the experiences it encounters. But it seems that most of the rapid growth and development occurs fairly early in life and so early childhood and adolescent experiences are important in determining future directions.

But what kinds of experiences are the crucial ones for determining future academic success? Now things get more murky and it is hard to say which ones are dominant. We cannot even say that the same factors play the same role for everyone. So for one person, a single teacher’s influence could be pivotal. For another, it could be the parent’s influence. The influences could also be positive or negative.

So there is no simple answer. But I think that although this is an interesting question, the answer has little practical significance for a particular individual at this stage of their lives in college. You are now what you are. The best strategy is to not dwell on why you are not something else, but to identify your strengths and use them to your advantage.

It is only when you get really deep into a subject (any subject) and start to explore its foundations and learn about its underlying knowledge structure that you start to develop higher-level cognitive skills that will last you all your life. But this only happens if you like the subject because only then will you willingly expend the intellectual effort to study it in depth. With things that we do not care much about, we tend to skim on the surface, doing just the bare minimum to get by. This is why it is important to identify what you really like to do and go for it.

You should also identify your weaknesses and dislikes and contain them. By “containâ€? I mean that there is really no reason why at this stage you should force yourself to try and like (say) mathematics or physics or Latin or Shakespeare or whatever and try to excel in them, if you do not absolutely need to. What’s the point? What are you trying to prove and to whom? If there was a really good reason that you needed to know something about those areas now or later in life, the higher-level learning skills you develop by charging ahead in the things you like now could be used to learn something that you really need to know later.

I don’t think that people have an innate “limitâ€?, in the sense that there is some insurmountable barrier that prevents them from achieving more in any area. I am perfectly confident that some day if you needed or wanted to know something in those areas, you would be able to learn it. The plateau or barrier that students think they have reached is largely determined by their inner sense of “what’s the point?â€?

I think that by the time they reach college, most students have reached the “need to know� stage in life, where they need a good reason to learn something. In earlier K-12 grades, they were in the “just in case� stage where they did not know where they would be going and needed to prepare themselves for any eventuality.

This has important implications for teaching practice. As teachers, we should make it our goal to teach in such a way that students see the deep beauty that lies in our discipline, so that they will like it for its own sake and thus be willing to make the effort. It is not enough to tell them that it is “useful� or “good for them.�

In my own life, I now happily learn about things that I would never have conceived that I would be interested in when I was younger. The time and circumstances have to be right for learning to have its fullest effect. As Edgar says in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.�

(The quote from Shakespeare is a good example of what I mean. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would some day be familiar enough with Shakespeare to quote him comfortably, I would have said you were crazy because I hated his plays at that time. But much later in life, I discovered the pleasures of reading his works.)

So to combine the words from the song by Bobby McFerrin, and the prison camp commander in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my own advice is “Don’t worry. Be happy in your work.â€?

Sources:

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.,1999.

James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2002.

Why is evolutionary theory so upsetting to some?

One of the questions that sometimes occur to observers of the intelligent design (ID) controversy is why there is such hostility to evolutionary theory in particular. After all, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are pretty much guaranteed to find that the theories of any scientific discipline (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, in addition to biology) contradict many of the things taught in the Bible.

So what is it about evolution in particular that gets some people’s goat?

I had occasion to attend the annual program held by the ID advocates in Kansas a couple of years back, having been invited to be on a panel that was to debate the question of whether ID was a science. I took the opportunity to speak with a lot of the people who were attendees of the program about why they found evolution so offensive. The people I spoke to seemed to be almost all Biblical literalists.

It became clear very quickly that their main concern was that evolution by natural selection implied that human beings had no special status among living things. Natural selection implies that while human beings are quite impressive in the way they are put together, we did not have to be the way we are. Indeed, we did not have to be here at all.

To understand this concern better, here is a somewhat imperfect analogy to understand how natural selection works.

Think of starting out on a journey by car. At each intersection, we toss a coin and if it is heads, we turn left and if it is tails we turn right. After millions of tosses, we will have ended up somewhere, but it could have been anywhere. It might be San Francisco or it might be in the middle of a cornfield in Kansas. There is no special meaning that can be attached to the end point. We can try and reconstruct our journey starting from the end and working backwards to the beginning (which is what evolutionary biologists do) but the end point of our journey was not predetermined when we began.

The important point is that, according to natural selection we were not destined to end up as we did. The many small random genetic mutations that occurred over the years are the analog of the coin tosses, and the end point could have been something quite different.

For people who believe that humans are created in God’s image, this is pretty tough to take because it is a steep drop in one’s self-image. One day you are the apple of God’s eye, the next you are the byproduct of random genetic mutations with no underlying plan at all. One can understand why this is so upsetting to those who want to feel that they are special and that their lives have a divine purpose.

Those who adhere to a belief structure labeled ‘theistic evolution’ strike a middle ground and argue that God created the laws of natural selection but guided the process by working within those laws. This is analogous to intervening only during some or all of the coin tosses to influence the way the coin landed. So what may appear to be random to us may not have been truly so.

Depending on how far one wants to take this, one can argue that God intervened at every coin toss or intervened only sparingly, say to prevent us doing something really stupid like driving off a cliff.

Yet other religious believers say that they are comfortable with God just creating the world and its randomly acting laws and then letting the chips fall where they may, by taking a completely hands off attitude and not intervening in any of the coin tosses.

Where one falls in this spectrum of beliefs depends on what one feels comfortable with. But it is clear that the fact that evolution by natural selection is not goal-directed is what bothers many religious people the most. They dislike the fact that according to the theory of evolution, all we can say is what we have evolved from, and that we cannot say that we are evolving towards anything.

More on this topic later…

The questions not asked

You can tell more about the sorry state of the mainstream news media by the kinds of questions that are not asked as by the questions that are.

Take for example the news this week that North Korea publicly acknowledged having nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-nation talks, saying that it wanted bilateral discussion with the US. The news communiqué from the North Korean government said that the reason it had developed nuclear weapons was to defend itself from possible attack by the US.

In response to this announcement, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that “The North Koreans have no reason to believe that anyone wants to attack them,�

Really? Let’s see now. The Bush administration famously created the ‘axis of evil’ that consisted of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The first country (Iraq) has since been invaded by the US, and the second country (Iran) now has US forces on two of its borders (Iraq and Afghanistan), with the bellicose language and arguments that preceded the attack on Iraq being now reprised against Iran

Then there is the fact that there are nearly 40,000 US troops in South Korea, along the border with the North.

Also, Rice identified North Korea as an “outpost of tyrannyâ€? at her confirmation hearings just last month. And Bush earlier called the North Korean leader a loathsome “pygmy.â€?

Given all this, I think a person might reasonably conclude that the North Koreans have grounds for being concerned about an attack.

So when Rice pooh-pooh’s North Korea’s fears about an impending strike, you might think that a reporter might question her about these past statements and ask her why she expects the North Koreans to believe her. But as far as I can tell, it did not happen.

Or as another example, take the case of the recent horrific bombing in Beirut that killed the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. In response to this event White House spokesman Scott McClellan is quoted as saying that the United States will consult with other members of the U.N. Security Council about how to restore Lebanon’s independence by ending what he termed foreign occupation.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher went further and said that the killing undercuts Syria’s stated reason for keeping 14,000 troops in Lebanon which was to maintain the multiethnic country’s stability.

Mr. Boucher also said that this “shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence that shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that’s given for the security — for the Syrian presence really doesn’t work. It has not provided internal security for Lebanon, and therefore, in light of that kind of event, we need to look at the whole range of issues that we’ve had, including Syrian presence in Lebanon.â€?

Now when statements like this are made, the adage about glass houses immediately jumps to mind. How can these spokespersons say that one bombing in Lebanon, however major, underscores the need for the removal of 14,000 foreign troops there since no security has been created by them, when just down the street in Iraq there are more that ten times that many US troops present, yet civil war seems a possibility, bombings on the scale of what happened in Lebanon are almost routine daily occurrences, and lawlessness is so rampant that even the road to the Baghdad airport is now a no-go zone?

The reason that these spokespersons can make these statements is that they know they will not be pressed on the awkward contradictions.

The point is not that there may not be good reasons that explain away the contradictions. The interesting question is why these people are not even expected to make the case.

These are not isolated instances, and in future postings we will look at further examples and pose the question of why it is that reporters who have access to these spokespeople do not seem to ask the obvious questions.

Can we ever be certain about scientific theories?

A commenter to a previous posting raised an interesting perspective that requires a fresh posting, because it reflects a commonly held view about how the validity of scientific theories get established.

The commenter says:

******
“A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe.�
******

I would like to address just two points: What does it mean to “test� a theory? And can scientists ever “verify� a theory and “be certain� about it?

Verificationism as a concept to validate scientific theories has been tried and found to be wanting. The problem is that any non-trivial theory generates an infinite number of predictions. All the predictions cannot be exhaustively verified. Only a sample of the possible predictions can be tested and there is no universal yardstick that can be used to measure when a theory has been verified. It is a matter of consensus judgment on the part of scientists as to when a theory becomes an accepted one, and this is done on a case-by-case basis by the practitioners in that field or sub-field.

This means, however, that people who are opposed to a theory can always point to at least one particular result that has not been directly observed and claim that the theory has not been ‘verified’ or ‘proven.’ This is the strategy adopted by ID supporters to attack evolutionary theory. But using this kind of reasoning will result in every single theory in science being denied scientific status.

Theories do get tested. Testing a theory has been a cornerstone of science practice ever since Galileo but it means different things depending on whether you are talking about an experimental science like chemistry and condensed matter physics, or a historical science like cosmology, evolution, geology, and astronomy.

Any scientific theory is always more than an explanation of prior events. It also must necessarily predict new observations and it is these predictions that are used to test theories. In the case of experimental sciences, laboratory experiments can be performed under controlled conditions in order to generate new data that can be compared with predictions or used to infer new theories.

In the case of historical sciences, however, observations are used to unearth data that are pre-existing but as yet unknown. Hence the ‘predictions’ may be more appropriately called ‘retrodictions’, in that they predict that you will find things that already exist. For example, in cosmology the retrodictions were the existence of a cosmic microwave background radiation of a certain temperature, the relative abundances of light nuclei, and so forth. The discovery of the planet Neptune was considered a successful ‘prediction’ of Newtonian theory, although Neptune had presumably always been there.

The testing of a historical science is analogous is to that of the investigation of a crime where the detective says things like “If the criminal went through the woods, then we should be able to see footprints.� This kind of evidence is also historical but is as powerful as those of futuristic predictions, so historical sciences are not necessarily at a lower level of credibility than experimental sciences.

Theories in cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolution are all tested in this way. As Ernst Mayr (who died a few days ago at the age of 100) said in What Evolution Is (2001): “Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations. Such inferences must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests. However, most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties.� (emphasis added).

In saying that most inferences are ‘accepted as certainties’, Mayr is exaggerating a little. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, it has been accepted that scientific knowledge is fallible and that absolute certainty cannot be achieved. But scientists do achieve a remarkable consensus on deciding at any given time what theoretical frameworks they have confidence in and will be used to guide future research. Such frameworks have been given the name ‘paradigms’ by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

When scientists say they ‘believe’ in evolution (or the Big Bang), the word is being used in quite a different way from that used in religion. It is used as shorthand to say that they have confidence that the underlying mechanism of the theory has been well tested by seeing where its predictions lead. It is definitely not “merely a theory and a model� if by the word ‘merely’ the commenter implies a theory that is unsupported or untested.

So yes, evolution, like all the other major scientific paradigms, both historical and experimental, has been well tested.

Beware the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade

In a previous post, I seemed to be taking two contradictory positions. On the one hand, I argued that Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ (of the Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin variety) contribute almost nothing valuable to the public discourse. On the other hand, I argued that they should be countered. So why should we waste time on people who have little to say?

The answer is that though they add nothing to the public debates, they do subtract a lot. To understand this point, let’s start with historian Juan Cole, author of the invaluable blog Informed Comment. He says:

“Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies. One of their jobs is to marginalize progressives by smearing them as unreliable.�

Cole nails it. The main purpose of these people seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. Because they swarm through the media in such large numbers, they convey the misleading impression that they represent the mainstream, and their style of argumentation (shouting, sarcasm, ridicule, quips, and barbs) is such that the lack of actual evidence and reasoned arguments is not immediately apparent.

There are a host of well-funded foundations and think tanks and media outlets which are willing to hire telegenic young people who are facile with words and let them loose as front line troops in the media war to persuade the public that policies that in reality will harm them are good for them. These people get repeated media exposure and soon, like Paris Hilton, are famous for just being famous, although they really have little of substance to contribute.

The antennae of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade are carefully tuned to pick up the cues about what their patrons want. Want the public to support an attack on a country like Iraq that never threatened the US? Want to privatize social security and cut back on Medicare? Want to undermine public education? Want to take away even the little support that poor people get from the government? In a flash, the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ Brigade come storming out of their luxury penthouse barracks, laptops blazing, occupying all the vantage points in the media so that more thoughtful voices are squeezed out, leaving little room for reasoned discussion. They can do this confidently knowing that they will rarely encounter a knowledgeable interviewer or host who will hold them accountable or ask them to back up their statements with anything resembling a useful fact or a line of coherent reasoning.

Another ‘benefit’ of having the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™ around is that they enable other extreme voices who voice much the same policies but in a more sophisticated manner (people like Charles Krauthammer and William Safire) to acquire that much-sought-after media label of ‘moderate’. These pundits are anything but moderate in their proposals. They only manage to appear so because they lack the shrillness of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™, the shock troops whose function is to soften up the ‘enemy� (i.e. public opinion) so that they will be more easily taken captive by the smoother-talkers and their pro-administration sponsors.

This is no trivial matter. The consequences are serious because this kind of know-nothing punditry lays the foundation for bad policies that go unchallenged. Again, as Juan Cole continues:

“The thing that really annoyed me about Goldberg’s sniping was it reminded me of how our country got into this mess in Iraq. It was because a lot of ignorant but very powerful and visible people told the American people things that were not true. In some instances I believe that they lied. In other instances, they were simply too ignorant of the facts to know when an argument put forward about, say, Iraq, was ridiculous. … They were never contradicted when they said this on television, though.
…
“The corporate media failed the United States in 2002-2003. The US government failed the American people in 2002-2003. That empty, and often empty-headed punditry, which Jon Stewart destroyed so skillfully, played a big role in dragooning the American people into a wasteful and destructive elective war that threatens to warp American society and very possibly to end the free Republic we have managed to maintain for over 200 years.�

To be a member of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ requires you to have no sense of shame because you will have to urge policies for others while exempting yourself from its consequences. For example, Jonah Goldberg was one of the most vociferous voices urging an attack on Iraq. When asked why he did not enlist himself if he felt so strongly that Iraq was such a menace to the US, he replied that it was because he was 35 years old, a new father, and enlisting would require him to take a cut in income.

Really? The fact that this war has resulted in the deaths and dismemberment of many American soldiers in similar or more dire need of exemption, and left many, many young children fatherless and motherless and in serious financial trouble, not to mention the deaths and devastation in Iraq, does not seem to cause him any unease as long as he personally does not have to bear the sacrifices he is urging on others. And chickenhawk Jonah is by no means alone in this kind of behavior.

He also said that “one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people.� Not “bring the guilty to justice.� Not “try to prevent such future occurrences.� Not “find out what made people commit this mass murder.� No, what is most important is to satiate his desire for death.

One wonders about the moral sensibility of a person who can so fervently wish for the death of anyone, let alone innocent people. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has tracked that over three thousand Afghan civilians, more than the number of those who died on September 11, none of them complicit in the attack on the World Trade Center, died as a result of the US bombing of that country.

Afghanistan is a country with a wretched history, abused and kicked around repeatedly by great powers playing their global games. Its inhabitants are among the poorest of the world’s poor. Yet Goldberg is comfortable calling for their deaths because he and his friends feel the need to lash out.

This is the time of year when soon-to-be college graduates are looking for jobs. Are you bright, articulate, photogenic, able to write glibly, have a highly developed sense of sarcasm, and are willing to sacrifice your integrity and say anything in order to advance the agenda of your patrons? Join the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ and be all you can be!

Wanted: “Godwin’s Law”-type rule for science

Mike Godwin coined a law (now known as Godwin’s Law) that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.�

This makes sense. As the discussion drags on, people start running out of fresh or relevant arguments, begin repeating themselves, lose their tempers, reach for something new to say, and Hitler/Nazi comparisons inevitably follow.

But Godwin’s Law has been extended beyond its original intent and is now used as a decision rule to indicate that a discussion has ceased to be meaningful and should be terminated. In other words, as soon as the Hitler/Nazi comparison is brought into any discussion where it is not relevant, the Godwin Rule can be invoked to say that the discussion is over and the person who introduced the Hitler/Nazi motif has lost the argument.

I was thinking that this might be a good model to follow in finding a resolution to the interminable discussions over whether so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory (ID) is a part of science. My rule would read as follows:

“As soon as the advocates of any theory go to legislative or other non-scientific bodies to get their theory labeled as a science, they have lost the argument and their theory is automatically declared to be not a science.�

Why do we need such a rule? Because ID advocates are the latest in a long line of people who have tried to bypass the normal processes of science by going outside the scientific community to implement their agenda.

The historical record of such attempts is not pretty. The Roman Catholic Church attempted in 1616 to ban Copernicus’ theory. The Soviet Central Committee tried in 1949 to dismiss Mendeleevian genetics as pseudoscience. Louisiana and Arkansas passed legislation in the 1980s to force the teaching of so-called ‘creation science’ in science classes and were overturned by the US Supreme Court. Even more recently Kansas tried to ban the teaching of evolution and failed. All these attempts ended as debacles for their proponents but in the process wasted the time and energy of huge numbers of people.

ID advocates, like their predecessors in having failed to convince the scientific community of the merits of their case, now argue that the scientific community is conspiring to unfairly keep their theory out, and that this is why they need to appeal to legislative or judicial bodies to get their way. In making this argument, they reveal a profound misunderstanding of the way science operates.

The agenda of scientists is not a secret. It is, simply, to have good science. And few will deny that science has delivered the goods in spectacular ways. It has achieved this by allowing the scientific community to achieve consensus as to what is the best paradigm to govern research activity in any given field at any given time.

This does not mean that individual scientists always make the best decisions in any given situation. It does not mean that scientists are incapable of making mistakes. It does not mean that scientists don’t have philosophical and scientific prejudices that color their views. It does not mean that scientists cannot be arrogant or pig-headed.

But despite all this, no reasonable person will dispute the point that science has been extraordinarily successful. This happens because scientists, whatever their other views and attributes, need to have good science because that is what is important to the health of their profession. Good science is in their best self-interest.

Good science would not happen if outside bodies were the arbiters of what is science, since they have their own agendas and can thus be pressured to make decisions on political or other grounds. So if ID advocates are successful in their efforts, they would be threatening the very foundations of science’s success.

In their opposition to such legislative intrusions, scientists are similar to artists and craftsmen. Would anyone argue that legislatures should decide on what constitutes a good painting?

In the long run, academic communities in scientific disciplines, despite their wide internal divergences, know that they must serve as the judges of what is good for their field and take that responsibility seriously. This is why the elaborate mechanism of peer-review, despite its faults, plays such an important role and why scientists, despite their differences in nationalities, religions, ethnicities, languages, ages, and genders, repeatedly arrive at remarkable levels of worldwide consensus on what is good science and what is bad science, and what is science and what is not science.

As the philosopher of science Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science, (1982): “In science…there is no basis for validation superior to the collective contingent judgment of the paradigm-sharing community itself.�

But the proponents of ID, like their predecessors, just don’t get this and keep trying to have outside agencies legislate what is and is not science. These discussions, like those on internet discussion boards, can drag on and on and waste the time and energy of everyone concerned since, if history is any guide, the net result is to revert to the original situation where scientists decide what science is.

So let’s invoke my rule and declare that ID is not a science. Then we can get on with real work.