The strength of Dawkins, and the murk of accommodationism

Richard Dawkins hits this one out of the park: he slams the ignorance of Rick Perry specifically and the Republican party generally. There is no excuse for the foolishness we get from Perry, or Bachmann, or Huckabee, or Palin, or Robertson, or any of the candidates who have sought validation through the Republicans — it’s as if they’re selecting for stupidity.

There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

Any other organization — a big corporation, say, or a university, or a learned society – -when seeking a new leader, will go to immense trouble over the choice. The CVs of candidates and their portfolios of relevant experience are meticulously scrutinized, their publications are read by a learned committee, references are taken up and scrupulously discussed, the candidates are subjected to rigorous interviews and vetting procedures. Mistakes are still made, but not through lack of serious effort.

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.

Darwin’s idea is arguably the most powerful ever to occur to a human mind. The power of a scientific theory may be measured as a ratio: the number of facts that it explains divided by the number of assumptions it needs to postulate in order to do the explaining. A theory that assumes most of what it is trying to explain is a bad theory. That is why the creationist or ‘intelligent design’ theory is such a rotten theory.

What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells – each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity – all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something – in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.

Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea – natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life – creationism – is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains – everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

There are many reasons to vote against Rick Perry. His fatuous stance on the teaching of evolution in schools is perhaps not the first reason that springs to mind. But maybe it is the most telling litmus test of the other reasons, and it seems to apply not just to him but, lamentably, to all the likely contenders for the Republican nomination. The ‘evolution question’ deserves a prominent place in the list of questions put to candidates in interviews and public debates during the course of the coming election.

That Dawkins took to clearly stating exactly what was wrong with these bad anti-science candidates doesn’t sit well with some people. Jamie Vernon at the Intersection (of course) thinks his opinion piece was an ineffective violation of all that the mush-brained accommodationists hold dear.

In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?

Oh, man. These clowns always practice industrial grade irony. If describing Perry in unflattering terms in the first paragraph is a barrier, what is the fact that Vernon called Dawkins a “crotchety old man” in the freakin’ title of his post? I don’t mind if the softies want to try their supposedly subtler, more psychologically informed tactics on the opposition, but somehow they never do — Vernon doesn’t do anything to persuade Perry, and doesn’t even suggest alternatives — and instead they always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.

So get out there, Mr Vernon. What are you doing to inform people of the disastrous ignorance of Rick Perry? What are you doing to oppose his candidacy? Are you even willing to state that he’s unfit for office, and why? Don’t you think evolution-denial is a very good marker for science illiteracy?

This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.

Perry is a disastrously bad candidate (as is Bachmann). Call me a radical, but maybe it’s a good idea for the opposition to oppose them, openly, and with thorough, rational explanations? And if the candidate is an ignoramus, as Perry clearly is, SAY IT.

And then Vernon perpetrates this nonsense:

The problem is that the Governor, and many like him, subscribe to a type of thinking that embraces hierarchical authoritarianism. People who participate in this form of thinking are not satisfied with the uncertainty that comes from evolutionary science. They need black and white answers…answers that the existing science cannot provide.

Let’s see. Perry is an authoritarian who is unpersuaded by science. Isn’t this sufficient to convince Vernon that he must be opposed?

And then, basically what he’s saying here is that evolution is uncertain. It is not. Evolution is an established fact; Dawkins, no doubt intentionally, chose to make that the focus of the title of his piece, “Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a fact”. There is no uncertainty here. The community of scientists has spoken, and has said repeatedly, in black and white terms, and with near-unanimity that evolution happened.

Vernon is claiming that Dawkins is all wrong because Perry is looking for clarity. But clarity — clarity supported by evidence — is exactly what Dawkins offers. Vernon is full of crap.

What Dawkins does, as do many of us on the side the accommodationists hate, is provide sharp, clear, strong positions. What Dawkins does in that op-ed is play the role of Joseph Welch, confronting wicked folly and stating his position lucidly and with acid contempt for the forces of ignorance and deception.

You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

If Jamie Vernon had been writing in 1954, he would no doubt have castigated Welch for his harshness, and suggested some compromise…perhaps a few more hearings, helpfully exposing a few more Communists, perhaps asking for a little more respect for the distinguished senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. Unfortunately for Mr Vernon, history now regards the apologists and the silent as accomplices to a dark period in American government, and the people who spoke up in opposition as the heroes.

(Also on FtB)