Evolution I: The bad, the good, and the ugly

First the bad (and somewhat old) news. In a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.�

It is hard to believe that there could be any good news behind this mind-boggling statistic that implies that up to 47 percent of Americans are unwilling to accept a fundamental tenet of evolution and believe that human beings appeared by a special act of creation about 10,000 years ago.

But there is a nugget of good news to be found, since this is the first time that even a simple majority of Americans had accepted that statement.

But even that small glimmer of hope is buried under more bad news. Even though a majority has come around to the accepted scientific view of the origin of humans, the US still lags far behind other countries. In a New York Times article on February 1, 2005, Dr. Joe Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University is quoted as saying that in other industrialized countries, 80 percent or more typically accept evolution, while most of the others say they are not sure and very few people reject the idea outright.

He goes on to say that in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries like Poland, perhaps 75 percent of people surveyed accept evolution, while in Japan it is close to a whopping 96 percent.

So what is different about the US? There are some obvious reasons that can be postulated. One is that the US is in the grip of Biblical literalists who indoctrinate young children with young-Earth ideas and frighten them with the flames of hell if they should deviate from that dogma.

Another is that evolution is either not being taught at all, or is being taught badly so as to be unconvincing, or its teaching is being deliberately undermined (such as using disclaimer stickers in biology textbooks that evolution is “only a theory”, teaching of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative) by fraudulent claims that it is not a scientifically acceptable theory. The response to these kinds of explanations is to argue for more and better teaching of evolution in schools.

While I am all in favor of better teaching of anything, I am not convinced that inadequate teaching of evolution is the main problem. It may lie in the way the nature of science is taught, and correcting this might require us to pay more close attention to the image we convey of how science itself works and evolves. This may require us to focus, not on more teaching of evolution or any other specific topic, but more generally on the history and philosophy of science.

More about this in a later posting…

Phony-sounding concern

Why do politicians feel the need to go over the top when it comes to public expressions of sympathy? Why cannot they state what would be a normal and understandable expression of sorrow and leave it at that?

The Plain Dealer on 1/27/05 had a report on G. W. Bush’s first press conference of his second term, which occurred just after the helicopter crash in Iraq that killed 31 US servicemen and servicewomen. He said “And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life.�

Does anyone think that he actually weeps when soldiers die? Or that he has periods of mourning for them? More likely, such incidents are but passing events that occupy his mind briefly to be quickly replaced by others.

It is the families and loved ones of the people who die who actually weep and mourn their loss, It is not that the rest of us don’t care but our depth of response has necessarily to be on a different scale, The normal reaction of any person who is given news of a tragic event but is not directly affected by it is to feel sadness, to feel sorry for the families who lost a loved one, and perhaps ponder the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

Those who supported the attack on Iraq might combine those feelings with a greater sense of resolve while those (like me) who opposed it might also feel some anger at yet another example of the deaths, injuries, and suffering caused to Iraqi and American people by this unprovoked and illegal war.

The recent tsunami killed about 250,000 people, most of them very poor, one third of them children, leaving ruptured and devastated families on a scale hard to fathom. About 30,000 of those deaths occurred in my country of origin Sri Lanka, but even then I did not “weep and mourn�, but experienced feelings of deep melancholy combined with shock at the scale of the deaths, surprise at its suddenness, and a sense of awe that nature could unleash such fury.

It is probable that “weep and mourn� was used as a rhetorical flourish, not meant to be taken literally, but it still strikes me as sounding phony in the forum of a press conference. It may sound natural coming from a clergyman in a sermon, alluding as it does to the Biblical story of Rachel grieving for her lost children. It may even sound appropriate for a politician giving a set speech in a formal setting where one expects some figures of speech. But in a question-and-answer format, which calls for a more conversational tone, it sounds artificial and forced, as if the speaker expects listeners to doubt the genuineness of his concern and so overcompensates.

George W. Bush is by no means the only politician who does this. I similarly cringed whenever Bill Clinton claimed “I feel your pain.� No, you don’t, I felt like telling him. No one can really feel somebody else’s pain. All we can feel is sadness, concern, and sympathy, all of which are worthy emotions, but trampled on by politicians in their eagerness to sound more-concerned-than-thou.

Science and proof III

Dan had a comment on the “science and proof II” posting that I think is of general interest that requires a fresh posting. He asks:

“Okay, do you have a quick explanation for why falsification is not the distinction between science and religion?

On a day to day level, it works for me. If someone says there exist leprechauns, but they are invisible, and leave no trace in our world, I know that the statement can not be proven wrong so it is not worth arguing against. But if someone says that species evolve from other species, it is conceivable that it could be proven wrong, so it is worth taking seriously. And if enough people try to disprove it and fail, that is good evidence that it might have explanatory power.”

Dan’s point is a good one. At a simple level, falsificationism sounds plausible. The theory that “All swans are white” can be seemingly falsified by the appearance of aa single black swan. Falsification’s appeal stems from the fact that we seem to be able to make a clean distinction between an observation and a theory.

But that distinction becomes blurred when you start looking at the kinds of things that scientists research, because then observations are no longer simple sensory perceptions. The statement “electrons exist” is not a simple observational one but requires us to use a vast array of theories from a range of disciplines in order to interpret the readings of the measuring insruments. So if the “observation” disagrees with the theory being examined, it is not clear where to place the blame. Is it on the theory being tested, or on one of the theories underlying the observations?

So in reality one is always comparing one set of theories with another set of theories and there is no rule that *forces* you to make a particular choice, although good taste and judgment and standard practices may lead the scientific community to a consensus decision.

The other problem with using falsification is that no theory has ever explained everything in its domain. There are always unsolved problems and contradictory results. Trying to reconcile these discrepancies serve as the basis for much research. If we applied the falsification rule strictly, then every theory we have would be falsified.

These are the kinds of things that caused falsificationism to stumble and fall.

Incidentally, even the swan example is not as simple as it looks. Defenders of the white swan theory can retain their belief by arguing that what constitutes a swan is not precisely defined and that the black creature was not really a swan, and other arguments like that. We may dismiss those arguments as silly and self-serving but they are not logically ruled out.

Warning! Shameless plug coming up!

All these issues are discussed in my book “Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs”, published by Phi Delta Kappan Foundation in 2000.

High self-esteem does not lead to high student achievement

After wasting space on Michelle Malkin last week, the Plain Dealer redeemed itself on Monday, January 31 with an intriguing op-ed piece by Roy F. Baumeister on the misguided attempts to cure various social ills by boosting the self-esteem of the people responsible for those ills. This was based on the theory that low self-esteem people resorted to violence, for example, in order to feel better about themselves. Thus it was believed that if we can raise their self-esteem, they will stop being violent.

A 1996 paper in Psychological Review by Baumeister and co-workers debunked that hypothesis by showing that violent individuals, groups, and even nations actually already think highly of themselves, and resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. Promoting high self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful.

Baumeister (who used to be a Professor of Psychology at Case until just a few years ago) now finds similar results in the research literature for student educational achievement. Inflated high self-esteem not only does not result in better academic achievement, it can sometimes even lower it.

These conclusions should be taken very seriously by educators, many of whom have put great stock in raising the self-esteem of under-achieving students as a strategy to boost their performance. The Education Trust reported in a 2001 study that children in high-poverty schools are given few assignments, that even those are of low-quality, and are then given As for work that would merit Cs and Ds elsewhere, all in a misguided effort to improve their self-esteem
In my own work with professional-development programs, an earnest and well-meaning teacher once told me of her frustration with attempts to improve students’ self-esteem in her exclusively black school district. After teaching a section of the mathematics course, she would give her students a practice test. She would then grade the tests and hand them back to the students, along with the answer key, and discuss the test. The “real� test, which was exactly the same as the practice test, was then given, with the students being aware beforehand that this was going to be done. The teacher told me that she adopted this strategy so that the students would score well on her tests and thus experience a boost in their self-esteem. Yet she was frustrated that her students still did badly on the test.

It is not hard to understand why the math teacher’s students were not putting in any effort to just memorize the answers to the practice test and reproduce them on the real test. It was because the “real� test was not a real test of anything meaningful. The task was so trivially simple as to be insulting.

This does not apply to just underachieving students at lower grade levels. Just yesterday a faculty member in the School of Engineering here at Case (which has ambitious, hard-working, and high achieving students) was expressing puzzlement because in order to get more class participation he would ask very easy questions but no one was volunteering to answer them.

But from the point of view of the students, this response is perfectly rational. If the question is obviously easy, then no kudos accrue to a student for answering it correctly. But if you do volunteer an answer and get it wrong, then you appear stupid in the eyes of your peers. So the safest course is to avoid answering.

The research on motivation suggests that students (and people in general) respond best not to praise and blame, but to neutral feedback that gives them a realistic sense of what they can do and what they need to do to improve. They also respond best to moderate levels of challenge. If the assignments are too hard, then they get frustrated. If they are too easy, then there is no sense of achievement in doing them. The challenge for any teacher is to gauge the right levels of challenge, provide appropriate support, and give informative and prescriptive feedback.

Baumeister’s work confirms that trying to raise self-esteem is not the way to go. While high self-esteem does provide some minor benefits (it feels good and supports initiative), he suggests that we might get better results by focusing more on self-control and self-discipline. It is a message that should be taken seriously.


1. Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?�, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, May 2003, vol. 4, No. 1, 1-44
2. Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem�, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33
3. Kati Haycock, Craig Jerald, and Sandra Huang, “Closing the Gap: Done in a Decade,� Education Trust: Thinking K–16 5, no. 2 (Spring 2001)
4. Kati Haycock, “Closing the Achievement Gap,� Educational Leadership, March 2001, 6–11.

Synthetic rage II

The fact that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not receive any nominations in the major categories for Academy Awards (it did receive nominations for makeup, cinematography, and original score) has created a fresh gusher of synthetic rage.

The inevitable press conferences are being held with the usual suspects denouncing this omission as indicators of the evil-mindedness of people in the film industry (“There’s no question that bigotry and prejudice rank among the liberal elite of Hollywoodâ€? – Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition) and alleging that this was another example of how Christians are under siege in the US (“It is well known that the Hollywood community has been anti-Christian for many years.â€? -Tim Wildmon, American Family Association), which is a curious charge to make in what is arguably the most overtly Christian country in the world, where its leaders (particularly the current president) often make public professions of their faith.

People, people, people, let’s get a grip. We are talking about the Oscars, for goodness’ sake, that annual orgy of self-congratulation by the film world, where success is as much dependent on talent and quality as it is on politicking, schmoozing, money, advertising, reputation, and boot-licking and back-stabbing skills. Why would anyone other than those actually involved in the making of a film much care whether it won awards or not?

And where were all these protesters some years ago when the obviously best film of ALL time, one that featured religion, political intrigue, the Sermon on the Mount, crucifixions, stonings, Roman soldiers, and a Pontius Pilate with a speech impediment, was not nominated for an Oscar in even a single category? Yes, I am talking about Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The many admirers of this landmark film bore this travesty of justice with equanimity. We did not feign outrage. We did not hold press conferences to protest. We were stoic, knowing that history would give Life of Brian the recognition it deserved long after pretenders to greatness like Citizen Kane had faded into obscurity. We are still waiting patiently…

Synthetic rage

I am mad! I am just furious!! So angry that I am tempted to use words like ‘tarnation!� and “consarn it!!!� Why, I feel so upset that I…

No, it’s no use. I just cannot sustain artificially created anger. And yet it amazes me that this ability seems to come easily to third-tier pundits who live in a permanent state of low-threshold fury, where the slightest provocation is enough to send them over the edge, ranting at their favorite targets.

The latest example of this comes from Michelle Malkin, to whom the Plain Dealer allocates precious space on its editorial page on January 27, 2005 to vent a thousand words of indignation at the Department of Homeland Security because it had recently sent a permanent resident (aka ‘green card’) approval form to Eugueni Kniazev, who had been killed in the World Trade Center attack.

So Ms. Malkin is outraged by what amounts to (drum roll, please) a governmental bureaucratic mistake. She hides the silliness of her concerns with the familiar pre-emptive tactic that is now used to silence any opponent: i.e., the recipient was killed during the September 11 attacks and anything said or done in their name is automatically exempt from criticism.

She takes this particular incident and that where two of the 9/11 hijackers were given flight school approval, to extrapolate into a reality-free zone and conclude that this means that the DHS is hopelessly incompetent and probably allowing vast numbers of people into the country to freely carry out more attacks.

She also invokes the grief of the family of Mr. Kniazev, raging on their behalf at the insensitive DHS for subjecting them to this reminder of their dead relative.

In the real world occupied by the rest of us, we know that correcting faulty information in the computers of big organizations is a frustrating and often futile exercise. Families of deceased people get mail for them for a long time afterwards, from the institutions they were affiliated with to marketers of credit cards, phone companies and the like, so one more mailing from some government agency is hardly likely to cause a fresh wave of overwhelming grief.

So what might actually lie behind Ms. Malkin’s fury? It becomes less mysterious if one is aware that Ms. Malkin is the author of a recent book approving the internment of all Japanese-Americans (including children) during World War II and has been on the minor-league punditry circuit arguing for racial, religious, and nationality profiling to be taken now against all people of Middle Eastern origins and of the Islamic faith.

Ms. Malkin manufactures synthetic rage over the action of some hapless (but hardly evil) clerk at the DHS in order to support and advocate actions that should cause genuine outrage. Indignation-fueled rhetoric is being used to either hide vacuity or to promote agendas that cannot stand close scrutiny. Judging by the talking heads on political talk (or more appropriately “yell�) shows, it seems like a strategy that can be translated into a lucrative career.

So excuse me while I go and practice getting angry some more. It can’t be that hard if the likes of Ms. Malkin can do it…

Patronizing students

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.

Barely has the dust settled on the push to include Intelligent Design into Ohio’s science standards than we now have Marion state senator Larry A. Mumpers introducing Ohio Senate Bill 24 in order to “prohibit instructors at public or private universities from “persistentlyâ€? discussing controversial issues in class or from using their classes to push political, ideological, religious or anti-religious views.â€? (Sorry, no link to this quote from the subscriber only Columbus Dispatch news item by Kathy Lynn Gray on 1/27/2005.)

This is bound to raise the free-speech, academic freedom debate in all its full-blown glory and I am not going to revisit that. But one statement by Senator Mumford jumped out at me. He feels that college students need this kind of legal protection because “These are young minds that haven’t had a chance to form their own opinions.�

Such words can only be uttered by someone who has never really listened to adolescents and young adults or tried to persuade them to change their minds. Does he really think that young people have not already formed strong opinions about things?

The education literature is full of research on how people’s minds are resistant to new ideas. Students cling to Aristotelian ideas of motion, and harbor serious misconceptions about the seasons and the phases of the moon, even though they may have been taught the standard views many times in the course of their education.

And this happens in the area of physics, where students do not even have a commitment to retaining their old ideas, or are often unaware of what those ideas are until asked to explicitly articulate them. Imagine how hard it would be to change their minds about politics and religion, which are much closer to the surface of their consciousness.

Many a professor (including myself) has been aghast at discovering that all their careful lectures and arguments have had little impact on what students really believe, even though the students may be highly adept at reproducing the professor’s views on exams.

This kind of comment betrays at best a naivete, and at worst a contempt, for the ability of college students to think for themselves and resist indoctrination by their teachers. But this is not going to prevent politicians like Senator Mumpers from going ahead in their condescending efforts to “protect� students.

Get ready for the legal battle…

Problems with censorship

An amusing news item from the BBC website illustrates a real difficulty with censorship.

A devout Baptist couple who bought a Doris Day DVD from a supermarket were shocked to find a sex film instead.


“It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film, it certainly pulled no punches,” Mr Leigh-Browne said.

“My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

“The film became progressively more graphic, there was no plot to it, it was just sex.”

Alan and his wife Anne, 60, a retired teacher, complained to Safeway the next day and all copies of The Pajama Game were removed from the store.


What was interesting about this news item was that at the first sign of sex in the film this couple, despite being described as devout Baptists, did not stop watching but kept viewing right through to the end. Although they say they were “very shocked�, they clearly did not feel that they had compromised their souls by seeing this film.

This highlights a practical problem for would-be moralists and censors. In order to keep the world “pure” for the rest of us, they have to believe that they themselves will be uncorrupted by the things they have to view to check for content suitability. But how do we decide a priori who will or won’t be corrupted by this kind of experience? I can understand not allowing children to have free access to certain kinds of material, but how do we choose among adults? I have the feeling that most people, if asked, would say that they can watch such a video without being “harmed”, whether they would freely choose to do so or not.

Also, the news item said the couple complained to Safeway but did not say they actually returned the DVD…

Science and proof II

In his comment on my earlier posting on “Science and Proof”, Kurtiss Hare raises an interesting point about the value of religion and what kind of validity criteria I was referring to, so I thought I would elaborate.

When it comes to the *value* of belief structures to an individual, then there are really no external criteria that can be imposed. For example, for someone who has experienced a personal tragedy, a belief in God and a divine purpose for life may be of far more value than all the science in the world.

The point I was trying to muddle through to about science is that it is not being “proven true” that gives scientific theories their credibility, but the fact that they seem to work well, are reliable, and can be used to make predictions.

The probability argument that Kurtiss raises is interesting but has two directions in which it can be taken. The first (which I think is the one he makes) is that the fact that very few planes crash means that the probability of that particular application of the scientific theories (i.e., arriving safely) is high.

But does that translate into a high probability of the underlying scientific theories being true? No, because if you you want to assign a “truth probability” to a scientific theory then you have to compare (for any given theory) the number of predictions that are confirmed to the total number of predictions that are conceivable. Since for any non-trivial theory the number of possible predictions is infinite, the truth probability for *any* theory (however “good”) turns out to be zero!

This seems paradoxical but philosophers of science have not been able to get around it.

Science and Proof

On a plane earlier this week, I was seated next to a very nice woman and we struck up a conversation that quickly turned to religion. She was a Biblical literalist who belonged to an evangelical Christian church. In the course of comparing the scientific and religious approaches to describing the world, she made the claim that the theories of evolution and the big bang had not been “proven” and that thus they were articles of faith, just like any religious dogma.

This is a familiar argument to anyone (like me) who has been involved in the whole brou-ha-ha about whether “intelligent design” should be taught alongside Darwinian natural selection in science classes, and it reveals a common misperception about the nature of science.

This view is not held just by religious people, it is widespread. In the first class in my course on the history and philosophy of science, I ask students how they would distinguish science from non-science and invariably they begin by saying that science consists of things that have been proven true.

But nothing, even the most robust of theories, is “proven to be true” in science. But does that mean they are pure articles of faith, on a par with religious beliefs? Surely not. Newton’s laws and the laws of hydrodynamics have not been proven true either, but the woman and I both boarded the airplane confident that the those laws would hold and that we had a very high chance of arriving safely at our destination. Are there any religious beliefs to which we would trust our lives as confidently?

Clearly, the fact that the laws of science are not proven true does not diminish their worth and validity. Thus their credibility must be based on something other than simple proof. But most teaching of science, at any level, pays little attention to this important feature of scientific knowledge. And so the public policy discussions on issues like intelligent design rarely get beyond a fairly simplistic level.

Too bad.