Some Advice for Scientists

As you’ll probably guess, this post is inspired by the debate my co-author and I had in the thread below. In the end, I remain uncomfortable with the idea that we should disqualify huge swaths of the American population for public office using what essentially amounts to a religious test, and my reason for this is simple: human nature.

The state of science education in the United States is abysmal — and it is not the fault of evangelical groups clamoring for “equal time” for creationism. Our students suck at science for the same reason our students suck at math, namely: we don’t properly educate our science teachers. But even if we had a wonderful teacher training program and a solid science curriculum, we still would not have students who are equal in their aptitude for or interest in the subject.

We can and should do everything humanly possible to expose our citizens to, say, the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, but I guarantee that a significant proportion of our population will imperfectly absorb that information. Not only do our native talents vary, but our incentives are also wildly different. A plumber in Kansas simply doesn’t apply the theory of evolution to the problems he faces in his daily life. Therefore, he makes a rational choice not to read up on it.

The truth of the matter is, even the very smart are limited in terms of what they can learn and understand. On the whole, we are equipped to be specialists, not generalists. Thus, I feel it’s a mistake to declare imperfect scientific knowledge a political deal-breaker.

Of course, a scientist might interject at this point and state that the theory of evolution is so basic that it’s not unreasonable to demand that our leaders comprehend and accept it. My response? Evidently, you scientists are wrong. According to Gallup, creationism persists even among the highly educated. 22% of those respondents whose highest educational attainment was “post-graduate” stated that they were creationists. 22% is low compared to the corresponding number for those who did not have college degrees, but it’s still not zero. And that means simple idiocy is not the sole explanation for creationism’s endurance. There’s something else going on, and it’s called human nature.

My degree is in Biological Psychology, which means that I spent a lot of time in college examining human behavior and its basis in the workings of the brain. Among the many things that I learned about our species during this course of study is the fact that we’re not infallible thinkers. For example, suppose you asked the average man on the street the following: “If you were traveling in Israel, which would you fear more: getting hurt in a car crash or getting hurt in a terrorist attack?” Well, that man on the street is likely to state that he’d worry more about the latter possibility even though the numbers indicate that he should worry about the former.

There’s also this little thing called confirmation bias, which means that we fallen humans tend to favor evidence which supports our preconceptions over evidence which does not. And no — this is not an inborn flaw unique to Biblical literalists or to those of low IQ. Confirmation bias is present throughout the intelligence spectrum, particularly when one’s entire worldview is at stake. Don’t believe me? Well, then I’d recommend you read up on all the 20th century intellectuals who defended Stalin and/or covered up his crimes.

A scientist might also note that because our political leaders are responsible for allocating scientific funding and appointing bureaucrats whose responsibilities impact the scientific community, said leaders should be scientifically literate. My response? Given human nature, it’s probably not the wisest course to depend upon the government for your funding. It seems to me that it would be easier to convince a few wealthy patrons of the utility of your research than it would be to convince an entire electorate and all of its representatives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for an immediate privatization of all scientific study. But you might want to consider heading in that general direction — at least if you want to pursue your work free from political pressure. When you hold your hand out to the government, you leave yourself vulnerable to the whims of individuals who are not as educated as you are on matters scientific. And if politicians then interfere with your important research? Well, that’s your own damn fault, isn’t it? You’ve been hoist by your own petard.

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8 thoughts on “Some Advice for Scientists

  1. As I noted in a conversation with the same close friend who had Perry disqualified instantly on this basis, it's been my observation that creationists are generally every bit as pragmatic as scientists when it comes to every day living, caring for their families, etc…except on this one major issue – their unyielding belief that the Bible should be read literally. Here they demonstrate absolutely ZERO pragmatism…but it shouldn't be read as a sign that they are incapable of rational decision-making. On that, my sister and I agree.

    However, I think her 22% metric is flawed as well…if you asked only those who'd gotten a degree in something not completely fruit-bat worthless (read: French Literature, Education, etc…the degrees run as cottage industries by those who needed a job after they got their degree)…you'd get something more like 1%. There is a large swarm of people getting masters degrees in things that bare no connection to logical reasoning or the practical world. Sorry teachers…education degrees are as soft as they come…try your hand at a Masters in any of the sciences to find out what a real educational challenge is.

    Anyway…my point is that “post-graduate degree” isn't the same as “well-educated”.

    I still think that it shows bad judgment on the part of a Presidential candidate if he believes in something that cannot possibly be true with even a cursory glance at the world around him. If you're a creationist, how do you explain the long neck of the giraffe or the preferential breeding of dogs (!). Everyone has a dog or a cat, right? Everyone should therefore be aware that those animals have been BRED to be our pets and servants…and that this was achieved through human-induced natural selection. It's not hard to understand…it doesn't even take much time. It should be slap-you-in-the-face OBVIOUS that evolution, in some form, is happening as we speak. The Bible, if read literally, claims that all manner of animal were created instantly by God…but what about the plethora of specifically bred horses that run in the Kentucky Derby (HOME TO A LOT OF CREATIONISTS)? Did the perfect combination for racing champion exist in 5000 BC when God made the world? What about your faithful basset hound? Where was he five hundred years ago…y'know…when human record-keeping suggests that he DIDN'T EXIST!!

    I'm sorry…but this is too fundamentally simple for me to accept that the President of the United States does not understand it. I have no problem with an scientifically-ignorant man who is otherwise a skillful politician being in the Congress…but there is a huge difference between the skills necessary to be in Congress and the skills necessary to be the President and leader of the free world. We're looking for someone TRULY SPECIAL…that should be our standard…and it used to be the standard we sought.

    We have no problem excluding Bachmann because she seems to lack some key knowledge and experience that would qualify her for this special position…why is it bigoted to exclude a man from the office because he too lacks basic fundamental knowledge that you literally need to make informed decisions at this highest government office?

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  2. Well, number one, I don't think I've ever run into a creationist who denies microevolution. You're right – you would have to be completely stupid to deny things like dog breeding. Where your typical creationist has trouble is with the case for macroevolution, i.e., the creation of entirely new species via natural or artificial selection.

    Secondly, I think scientific knowledge is far less relevant to the responsibilities of a federal politician than is Constitutional, historical, and economic knowledge. If we're going to institute qualification tests of any kind, they should be in these subject areas. Because believe me, I know a lot of people who would pass your evolution test, yet possess completely wacked out views on economics. Priorities!

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  3. I think the proper test includes all four of those things. Our presidents used to be made of more sensible stuff than they are nowadays. My tests run along the lines of common sense. It's bloody obvious common sense to me that evolution is closer to the truth than young-Earth creationism…and it's not like I'm a geologist or paleontologist and therefore have a mountain of knowledge on fossil history.

    As for completely new species…what about superbugs? Anti-biotic resistent bacteria created by the abundance of antibiotics in our midst. It's not like those are mico-evolutions…they often are a fusion between two completely different strands of a family of bacteria.

    Or if you don't like that…what about flower breeding? We often cross two COMPLETELY unrelated plant species to create a wholly new species…for example, the tulip and rose have been crossed…they have nothing at all in common genetically beyond both being flowers. Or the ivy stalk and the iris (producing colorful climatis-like vines that bloom other colors besides white).

    What about hybrid fruit? Did the clementine exist before the last hundred years? That's a hybrid…a cross between two different species of fruit!

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  4. I know that some creationists I've encountered in Virginia have made the argument that all of our manipulation of DNA to cross-breed animal and plant species is ungodly…that God created the perfect diversity of life without our help and that we are now playing God by changing that balance. A lot of my examples are human-induced evolutions. I cannot, off the top of my head, think of an example of a natural mixed-species evolution occurring without our influence within modern historical record.

    HOWEVER…I would argue that the fact that we can create a cross-breed evolution proves that the concept of evolution in nature is sound. After all, to get a cross-breed, we are generally just facilitating (and expediting) the process of the natural reproductive works of the natural machine in directions we fine useful.

    I would also argue that bottle ecosystems like Australia and Madagascar are strong evidence of the process of species formation and evolution in action…if God created all the living things some 7000 yeas ago, why would he put some creatures only in one small area…and why, when we reach those regions, do those ecosystems suddenly change? Rabbit swarms and frog swarms in Australia (caused by the introduction of a species into their midst) have completely changed the delicate bottle ecosystem on that continent. That's stuff you find on the evening news…not just in a science textbook.

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  5. Hey, you don't have to argue with me. I took university level biology, remember? I took a lot of university level biology, actually, because that was half of my major. But I think you over-estimate what's actually out there in the general information stream. Just for example, one of my conservative lesbian friends – who happens to accept evolution, oh by the way – didn't know about the rabbit issue in Australia until one of her other online friends told her. Even a story that's on the evening news doesn't get fully absorbed.

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  6. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, but I've learned not to assume that anything academic is “bloody obvious common sense.” I don't know how many times I've had to stop and think before explaining a particular concept that I felt was “bloody obvious” but my otherwise intelligent student found inscrutable.

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  7. Well…the one thing we can probably agree on at this point at least is that if one of us were a liberal and the other playing our usual role, this civil debate would have been impossible. It's often maddeningly difficult to have a level-headed discussion with a progressive if you disagree with them.

    In the republican tent, there is competitive bickering and significant disagreement, but at least we rarely resort to calling our in-party opponents racists or idiots or too fringe to be allowed to participate. Which is why I was so gravely disappointed when GOProud got shunned at CAPC by a few of the big name conservative social groups. That's not the republican way.

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