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?
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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?
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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.
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The Unbearable Lightness of Third-Tier Pundits

In the educational system that existed in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, students had to decide in the eighth grade what direction their future education would take, Since I knew I wanted to do physics, I chose to go in that direction and the rest of my education consisted of heavy doses of physics and mathematics with absolutely nothing in history, geography, literature, and social studies.

Naturally, this created huge gaps in my own knowledge base that later in life I have had to fill in as best as I can on my own.

This is not entirely a bad thing. One benefit is that I have not developed a hatred for the omitted subjects that those who have had heavy doses of formal education sometimes get. I actually like history and read about historical events for fun. And as I get older, I find that I know a lot of recent history by default, as I have actually lived through events that my children must learn about from history texts.
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Evolution III: Scientific knowledge is an interconnected web

In an earlier posting, the question was posed as to whether it was intellectually consistent to reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) or of a major theoretical structure (like the theory of evolution) while accepting all the other theories of science.

The short answer is no. Why this is so can be seen by examining closely the most minimal of creationist theories, the one that goes under the label of ‘intelligent design’ or ID.

ID supporters take great pains to claim that theirs is a scientific theory that has nothing to do with religion or God, and hence belongs in the school science curriculum. (This particular question whether ID can be considered a part of science or of religion will be revisited in a later posting. This is becoming a longer series than I anticipated…)

ID advocates say that there are five specific biochemical systems and processes (bacterial flagella and cilia, blood clotting, protein transport within a cell, the immune system, and metabolic pathways) whose existence and/or workings cannot be explained by evolutionary theory and that hence one has to postulate that such phenomena are evidence of design and of the existence of a designer.

The substance of their arguments is: “You can claim all the other results for evolutionary theory. What would be the harm in allowing these five small systems to have an alternative explanation?�

Leaving aside the many other arguments that can be raised against this position (including those from biologists that these five systems are hardly intractable problems for evolutionary theory), I want to focus on just one feature of the argument. Is it possible to accept that just these five processes were created by a ‘designer,’ while retaining a belief in all the other theories of science?

No you cannot. If some undetectable agent had intervened to create the cilia (say), then in that single act at a microscopic level, you have violated fundamental laws of physics such as the law of conservation of energy, the law of conservation of momentum, and (possibly) the law of conservation of angular momentum. These laws are the bedrock of science and to abandon them is to abandon some of the most fundamental elements of modern science.

So rejecting a seemingly small element of evolutionary theory triggers a catastrophe in a seemingly far-removed area of science, a kind of chaotic ‘butterfly effect’ for scientific theories.

Scientific theories are so interconnected that some philosophers of science have taken this to the extreme (as philosophers are wont to do) and argued that we can only think of one big scientific theory that encompasses everything. It is this entire system (and not any single part of it) that should be compared with nature.

Pierre Duhem in his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906) articulated this position when he declared that: “The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner.� (emphasis in original)

Of course, in practical terms, we don’t do that. Each scientific subfield proceeds along its own path. And we know that there have been revolutions in one area of science that have left other areas seemingly undisturbed. But this interconnectedness is a reality and explains why scientific theories are so resistant to change. Scientists realize that changing one portion requires, at the very least, making some accommodations in theories that are connected to it, and it is this process of adjustments that takes time and effort and prevents trivial events from triggering changes.

This is why it usually requires a major crisis in an existing theory for scientists to even consider replacing it with a new one. The five cases raised by ID advocates do not come close to creating that kind of crisis. They are like flies in the path of a lumbering evolutionary theory elephant, minor irritants that can be ignored or swatted away easily.

Extra note:

For those of you interested in this topic, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is having an all day symposium on “Teaching Evolution and the Diversity of Life� on Saturday February 12. I am one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Science and Intelligent Design� in classroom C from 9:45-10:45. Unfortunately the symposium is not free except for the 4:30 pm talk by Dr. Brian Alters.

The Plain Dealer ran a news item about the symposium and related topics in the Metro section yesterday (Thursday, February 10, 2005).

Ossie Davis, stereotype threat, and academic underachievement

Veteran actor Ossie Davis died last Friday. In reading the tributes to him, I was struck by what he had said just a year earlier when he received the Kennedy Center awards.

“We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were on a stage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis on how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So, any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.�

This comment underscores research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson on what makes black students underachieve academically. They identified one possible cause as something they named ‘stereotype threat.’ When members of an identifiable group are placed in a testing situation where failure would reinforce a negative stereotype of that group, this places a pressure on them that makes them under-perform. This was true for blacks in any academic situation, for women being tested in mathematics, and even for white men competing academically against Asians, as is illustrated by this cartoon.

doonesbury.jpg

In Davis’ case, we can see that he felt immense pressure to always succeed on stage and never do anything that would reflect negatively on him or his performance. Any action that would be a sign of individual failure if done by a white person would, if done by a black, be taken as a sign of black people’s incapacity or incompetence.

It is possible that because of this fear, Davis could not afford to take risks in performing and try edgy and unflattering roles, the kinds of things that might have made him an even greater actor. He may have suffered from ‘Sidney Poitier Syndrome’, which I have named after another great actor who seemed to always play characters that were kind, noble, clever, ‘perfect in every way’ as Mary Poppins said.

This was carried to an extreme in the nauseating film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?� in which Poitier played this brilliant, wonderful, flawless human being whose white fiance’s parents’ struggle to overcome their prejudices and accept him as their son-in-law.

I wonder how much Davis and Poitier regret that, even at the height of their powers, they were not able to expand their skills and improve their craft by playing unflattering, evil, sinister, or criminal characters, the way white actors like Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro do. Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that their sacrifices enabled later generations of black actors to do so.

Similarly, it was not that long ago that Doug Williams faced a similar stereotype threat when he was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (XXII in 1988). There was a ridiculous notion floating around then that quarterback was a ‘brains’ position and that perhaps blacks could not handle it. I remember Williams saying that he felt pressure to succeed just to prove that blacks could do it.

Fortunately Williams, like Davis and Poitier, was a gracious man and handled the pressure exceedingly well (340 passing yards, four touchdown passes) and his Washington Redskins handily defeated their Denver opponents. He was even awarded Super Bowl MVP honors.

These days the presence of top-flight black quarterbacks at all levels of the game is taken for granted, and it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have questioned their abilities. But we do not know how many black quarterbacks before Williams, or actors before Davis and Poitier, did not handle the pressure as well as these pioneers and hence had lesser success or even outright failure and did not make it to the heights that they did.

But even though stereotype threats have been somewhat suppressed in football and acting, it is still alive and well when it comes to schooling and is likely to continue to suppress academic performance of the affected groups until we break free of that kind of thinking.

Sources:

1. Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual
Test Performance of African Americans,� Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 5 (1995): 797–811.

2. David J. Lewin, “Subtle Clues Elicit Stereotypes’ Impact on Black Students,� Journal of NIH Research, November 1995, 24–26.

Evolution II: Science is not a smorgasbord

In an earlier posting, I noted that the US population is roughly evenly split on whether or not to accept the basic tenet of evolution on the origin of humans. What is interesting is that the people who reject evolution feel quite free to do so. They seem to feel that there is no price to be paid.

This is because science is taught pretty much as a set of end results and disconnected facts: The universe is over ten billion years old. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Our genetic information is encoded in our DNA.
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How I keep up with the news

I hardly ever watch TV news and talk shows or spend much time with other elements of the mainstream media. I don’t read the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or other so-called national papers unless someone directs me to a specific article. I also don’t read the popular news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report.

It seems to me to be a waste of time to try to follow all these so-called news outlets, since they all parrot the same establishment interests, with a narrow range of news and voices, all serving the interests of the elites.

However, I am a news and politics junkie and try to be fairly well informed, and I thought I’d share with you those sources of news and opinion that I find helpful in keeping up with events. I have permanent links to these sites on my blog home page.

For news sites, antiwar.com is a site that I have been reading since the time of the US involvement in the former Yugoslavia. It has had a consistent antiwar stance, while providing useful links to news and commentary you might not see elsewhere. The people behind the site are old-style libertarians and paleoconservatives who see US foreign policy being taken into dangerous interventionist and imperial directions by both Republican and Democratic parties.

The site provides links to a lot of news reports and is refreshingly open to opinions from all elements of the conventional political spectrum (defined by virtually meaningless distinctions such as Democratic/Republican and liberal/conservative), yet maintains a consistent antiwar perspective. It gives space to articles from the world’s press and to a range of analysts from Noam Chomsky to Lew Rockwell to Pat Buchanan to Alexander Cockburn to Charley Reese.

It was as hard on Clinton’s interventions in Yugoslavia as it is now on Bush’s policies in the Middle East. The editorial director Justin Raimondo’s columns (which appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, see top right of the antiwar.com home page for the link) are well worth reading

Another establishment voice is the BBC, but this site at least has a world-wide perspective, something that is sorely lacking in the major US media outlets.

Cursor is a very readable guide to current events with links to important news of the day.

I also read quite a few blogs. Some of them I read daily, some of them occasionally. Here are those that I particularly admire and recommend and the reasons why I consider them well worth bookmarking..

James Wolcott, columnist at Vanity Fair, can deliver a smackdown to sacred cows and pompous fools with a wit and venom that I can only envy, since I have neither the skill nor the temperament to match him. “I wish I could write like that� is the thought that keeps popping into my mind whenever I read him.

There are few around to match the knowledge and expertise on the Middle East that Juan Cole has. Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, is a scholar of the region who has published widely and extensively. He also knows the languages of the region and thus can keep up with the media there to provide truly Informed Comment, which is the title of his blog.

The nice thing about Cole’s site is that it combines scholarliness with lively and up-to-date commentary. And when the need arises, he can deliver a rebuke to the ignorant warmongers in the pundit class that leaves them reeling. Take for example his recent comeuppance of Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, a third-tier TV, web, and print pundit, who had the temerity to disparage Cole’s knowledge of Iraqi and Iranian politics.

Cole said:

“I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can’t read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq’s neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg’s opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.â€?

Cole ends up issuing this challenge to Goldberg:

“So let me propose to him that we debate Middle East issues, anywhere, any time, he and I. Otherwise he should please shut up and go back to selling Linda Tripp tapes on Ebay.�

I wouldn’t bother packing my bags, Juan. Chickenhawk Jonah is probably cowering behind his mother Lucianne (who along with her son rose to dubious fame as the peddlers of the Linda Tripp tapes from the Monica Lewinsky era), peering around and wondering if it is safe to show his face in public again.

(Update: Apparently Jonah rose up briefly from the canvas only to get knocked down again by Cole.)

Incidentally, Justin Raimondo also dissected Jonah in 2002, showing that not only is Jonah is way out of his depth, he is a slow learner to boot. One feels almost sorry for him, getting publicly humiliated in this way, although he keeps asking for it.

Atrios (aka Duncan Black) is well known in the blog world as the creator of the site Eschaton. I like his site because he monitors the news media and other blogs and finds interesting items and perspectives that I would otherwise have missed.

Joshua Micah Marshall, who maintains the website Talking Points Memo, is a knowledgeable Washington-based journalist who has access to informed sources inside the beltway and writes well on important topics.

And if you are not aware of the daily syndicated comic strip The Boondocks, you are missing a treat. Those of you who think Doonesbury tests the limits of edgy political and social comic strip satire will be surprised by how much further Aaron McGruder’s strip takes that form. He speaks truths and provides a level of sharp political commentary that is missing in the news and editorial pages.

Establishment papers such as the Washington Post are so spineless that they occasionally refuse to run The Boondocks, such as the two-week series where Huey and Caesar decide that the reason that Condoleeza Rice is such a warmonger is because she has no love life and decide, in order to save the world from her disastrous actions, to run personal ads seeking a mate on her behalf. To maintain on a daily level such a high level of political incisiveness and still be funny takes real skill.

Huey for President!