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October 18, 2005


the republican war on science (one party supports these wingnuts) to the nth degree.


This stuff really, really irritates the hell out of me.

In my home state (New Mexico), they're trying to push this at one of the elementary schools - not a private, religious school, but a public school. Yup, our taxes will pay for that bullsh*t if it passes.

If it's a religious school, fine.

But a public school? That's mixing church and state, and... oh wait, never mind, we're living in The Age of Dobson. Never mind.

it is for that reason that the lawsuit you cite is so important. And why Miers should be asked about this...

I've rarely met anyone who doesn't believe in some kind of magic. This can be the kind that posits that we've all been saved because one third of a triune deity became human and suffered on earth so we wouldn't have to in the hereafter or that tapping the steering wheel of your car 50 times between stoplights will increase your chances for choosing six winning lottery numbers. Few people can really, deep down, believe that some force isn't out there, guiding things down here.

The I.D. folks have cleverly crafted their attack on science keeping in mind this nearly universal belief that magic rules us. Ultimately, their question comes down to an age-old one: How can anyone believe that all the things we know in the world, from the complexity of eyeballs to the beauty of galaxies, are not the result of a great draftsman?

Since 95% of Americans - or 93%, whatever the figure - do believe this, and since a majority of Americans' understanding of science and scientific method is so very, very tenuous, I fear that ultimately, as they continue their 150-year-old assault on the theory of evolution (and related matters), they will win, even if they lose in Dover.

this is not about cellular complexity. this is about how we view the world. do we believe that prayer will divert a hurricane, or do we build levees. do we believe in faith healing, or do we go to the doctor. do we believe that the world will heal itself, or do we curb greenhouse gas emissions. it's about whether we understand that our actions have consequences and take responsibility for our lives, or close our eyes and trust to fate.

it is not about bacterial flagella.

i don't know "why now" for this anti-rationalism crusade, or why evolution has been targeted. i suspect it's because biology has been moving particularly fast lately and this is the backlash. don't make the mistake of thinking it's about evolution though... it is about whether psychics, mystics, snake oil salespersons are treated with respect in our society or stoned out of town. or better yet, indicted.

Few people can really, deep down, believe that some force isn't out there, guiding things down here. MB, isn't this bizarre though? what is it in human nature that so needs a daddy?

What if Evolution is the Intelligent Design? Now that is what I would like to ask the narrow minded clowns who would gladly take us back to the dark ages.

Meteor and 'pockets, there is a big difference between believing that there is a spiritual dimension to life (even an internal logic to the universe) and disbelieving in the scientific method. Science is the most valuable tool we have for understanding the material, physical world and the processes that shape it. Even people who don't believe in evolution nevertheless (for the most part, anyway) count on biologists and chemists to develop antiviral vaccines and medicines.

But there are many intelligent folks who believe that the material world is not all there is to the universe, and that doesn't mean they believe in a "daddy god" or somethng similar, or that they are deluded or shallow. It is a matter of keeping the realms separate, and not applying the rules and purposes of one realm to the other.

The real evil here is that people are miseducating children about what science is and the functions it serves. And some of these folks, I am sorry to say, are not on the intelligent design side. Some people claim far more for science than it can deliver, or than most scientists are comfortable with. And of course there is the separate evil of profiting from junk science and junk theories in general, a major problem these days, and these folks have a vested interest in keeping the public ignorant.

Science is very useful, but it goes only so far, and there is a room beyond that for belief and faith. Obviously if one is ill, one should consult a doctor. But ignoring things like the influence of state of mind on the immune system is short-sighted, in my view, even if it can't be fully validated scientifically.

Many of the world's great thinkers have been fairly sophisticated religious believers of one sort or another, and for many their faith gave a dimension to their lives that enabled them to endure hardship and to persevere in very difficult tasks. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are just a few recent examples.

The paradox is, as Merton explained in one of his books, some people say they will not believe in God without proof. But God does not show himself to non-believers; for the believer, the world abounds in proof. I don't believe in Merton's god, but I understand what he is saying. There is something, a sense of connection, that can only be experienced, and some sort of predisposition to believe in something beyond the material seems to be a prerequisite for experiencing it.

So let's debate the follies of intelligent design on the merits--it is injecting religion where it doesn't belong, and miseducating science students. When they teach Darwin in Sunday School so that children can experience "what the debate is about" then we can talk about creationism in the schools. Or maybe we should just talk about bird flu as an example of intelligent design and debate just what the designer has in mind as it mutates.

I guess I can't resist commenting on intelligent design, so here are my three thoughts:

First, we wouldn't be having this debate about evolution if people actually felt that science education was important -- not as an opportunity to express our cultural values, but as a foundation for economic development and security. For example, the US put more effort into teaching math and science during the Cold War.

Second, while most people do believe in magic (at least a little), biology is the only subject that is getting attacked. No one screws around with physics, even though the theory of the Big Bang overlaps with creationism. There could be many reasons for this.

Third, I think many people feel that science is anticlimactic, whereas myth is romantic and awe-inspiring. Well, honestly, restricting yourself to rational truth does get in the way of some good storylines. But science has a miracle of its own: it is amazing that so much in this world can be explained through reason. Scientific theories can be pretty dry, but they are a special form of wisdom. If more people realized that, they wouldn't be so willing to throw them away.

Mimikatz, I would suggest that miseducating science students is the shallowest of sins in the intelligent design kerfuffle. Hardly anyone remembers what they learned in high school biology by their fifth reunion, and what goes on in the science classrooms of this coutnry is not an educational paragon to begin with.

That's why I'm saying the debate over teaching creationism in the classroom is very much broader than a bacterial flagellum, or even a finch's beak. For educational purposes, it is trivial whether I.D. is mentioned or not. But we are using the high school syllabus as a -- what's the word? -- not a shibboleth, but -- ? -- something we fight over in stead of what we're really fighting over.

The whole debate is like divorced parents arguing over whether their kid goes to soccer practice or guitar lessons. For the kid, it may not really make that much difference. But the parents are working through a lot of other issues -- it's a vehicle.

If the debate were just about what happened in the classroom, there would be about 6 parents at a PTA meeting having this debate. There's a lot more going on here, and it's a false front on both sides of the issue to pretend it's not.

I wish the country really did care this much about our youth's science education, but frankly that is not how this nation works.

I'm afraid I didn't follow your comments on how spirituality and rationalism can coexist, at least without 'compartmentalizing' as has been discussed earlier (here and few comments following it). I understand that spirituality exists, is important to people, and serves a role in human affairs. I probably shouldn't have belittled it by referring to it as the need for a daddy. I was trying to be cute (not offensive) and really just asking, WHY do humans have spirituality? It's not obvious to me why it is so powerful.

I guess the other tangent I meant to say, is that this guy Behe's whole approach to science (from his webpage) is what's referred to as a "reverse" approach. Doing science "forward" is starting with a function -- like, a cell divides to give two genetically identical daughter cells -- and trying to understand the underlying mechanism of how it happens. That's not what Behe does. He starts with something that could conceivably be a mechanism -- in his case, that DNA under certain non-physiological conditions can adopt different shapes -- and then tries to figure out what function it serves in a cell.

A lot of good scientists use the reverse approach, or combinations of forward and reverse approaches. In fact my whole graduate thesis was predicated on a reverse experiment I did. It's not something they take away your scientist badge for (although one really should do it in private and wash up afterwards).

But it's sort of a funny insight into how he and ID'ers in general see the world -- things are there for a purpose, so when we see something it is a fair question to ask what its purpose is. Most scientists realize that a lot of things in a cell are not there for a purpose, they're just there, either through historical artifact or whatever.

Some folks asked in an earlier thread whether subscribing to evolution vs. ID had any practical consequences. I said no at the time but I guess this is kind of an example. Not to be totally snotty about it, but Behe's publication record sort of argues against taking the reverse approach to the extreme.

Mimikatz, let me be clear that I am not attacking those with spiritual beliefs. I, too, think there may be something beyond our corporeality. Maybe we're all suffused with dark energy, and that is what some call the soul.

It is not the prevalence of faith(s) in the supernatural that disturbs me. It's the combination of faith(s) and ignorance about (as well as antipathy for) science that is driving this effort to inject religion - and a specific religion, to boot - into the classroom.

If they demand it, I say give it to them. Require comparative religion classes as part of No Child Left Behind. Let these be taught without one murmur of judgment from the teacher or the textbook. Then watch the I.D. people scurry back to their holes.

Actually, any *theory* that equates the action of god (with a small "G") and an alien race has some appeal to me. But ID is a pretty dangerous doctrine.

In some ways I think that *Intelligent* Design does more harm to religious thought than to science, although it certainly does damage to both.

For those "Santa Claus Christians" (they believe as long as they get their presents) who need physical proof of God's existence, their belief may be strong, but their faith must be weak indeed.

As some have said before, there is a huge difference between belief and faith - for example, you can believe in ghosts, but you don't have to have faith in them.

I don't think the ID debate is about spirituality vs. science - science does not deny spirtuality - that area just is not in the scope of science. I think this is more a denial of our animal origins and the discussions that then follow regarding our evolutionary past and what it means to be human.

If we have been "created", then our "nature" is god-given. It's OK to be violent, we were made that way by our Creator. It's OK that males are dominant over females, etc. Whereas if we have evolved, our nature is fluid and changable and it is not an insult to god if we want to change that, however difficult it might be to struggle with our animal past.

I agree that the debate about ID is about much more. Your comparison to the divorced parents is very apt. It is a surrogate for the real debate, which is whose way of life is better, I think. It is very hard for most people to simply tolerate differences in views without feeling the need to defend their own and, often, belittle others. Both the conventionally religious and the non-religious seem to see themsleves as beseiged, although defenders of science, despite my sarcasm, aren't really saying that they have to teach Darwin; it is they who want to put religion in the schools.

As to spirituality, maybe there just IS a spiritual (or non-material) dimension to life. But as to why people believe the things they do, which I think is a different question, people want explanations, mostly, and they want at least the illusion of control, I think. In "Adam, Eve and the Serpent" Elaine Pagels explores how so many people could come to believe in original sin (the idea that human birth from sex makes us inherently flawed) when it is not only counterintuitive, but has created so much unhappiness. She concludes that for many, if not most, people, some explanation for the evil and suffering in the world, even one like original sin, is better than no explanation at all. Believing that the world is random is intellectually and emotionally very difficult. The less control one has in ones every day life, or the more terrifying the world seems to be, the more appealing are views that promise explanations and a measure of control. The more control one has, the more they may seem ridiculous. It is very hard to take the position that there are causes and conditions for what happens, but they are often so complex that we can't really understand most of the time what causes what. (This is why science is so appealing--it carves out those areas where we CAN have testable hypotheses and explanations, and keeps expanding that area.)

Historically, there is a correlation between times of social upheaval and increases in fundamentalism. Karen Anderson wrote a very interesting book called "The Battle for God" which looks at historic episodes of Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism and the similar threads that run through them. It was written just before 9/11, but is very illuminating.

Meteor, sorry. Sometimes I react too easily too. I agree the problem is the attack on science in the sphere where science ought to have a major role--like public policy. You are right about the danger of comparative religion. In my earlier incarnation as a high school teacher, I taught a Humanities class with a unit on comparative religion. Though I had been brought up to understand my Christian heritage, I was never required to be a believer, and so just approached it the same way as I did the other religions. This was very disturbing to much of the class, much more than I had expected. Others, of course, found it liberating.

And I never thanked you for the SF recommendations you made some months ago in a thread on Kos. I enjoyed Vernor Vinge immensely.

It is very hard for most people to simply tolerate differences in views without feeling the need to defend their own and, often, belittle others

Guilty as charged. I'm sorry.

It is a surrogate for the real debate, which is whose way of life is better, I think

What the real debate IS, is I think a very interesting question. And possibly one we can go somewhere with, unlike spirituality which I think I am never going to really understand well. I've been spouting off that the real debate is mysticism vs. rationalism but I don't think I buy my own rhetoric. As myself and YK point out above, why is it focused on just biology, and why now?

Clearly there are two sets of people who are kind of pissed at each other. I don't think it's just over whose way of life is better -- who's happier.

I think it's all of a piece with stem cell research, abortion rights, end-of-life ethics, and to a lesser degree genetic testing and genetic engineering.

Abortion rights and right-to-die debates are long-simmering. Maybe that's what's built up the steam.

Genetic testing, engineering and in particular stem cells and new contraceptive technologies like the morning after pill have all been cocking the valve (is that an expression?) the last few years.

Whenever we argue about these issues, it all comes down to personal rights and privacy which is very frustrating for those who would think these scientific and medical technologies are Wrong.

Evolution is different. It's still about biology, about whether we view our bodies as our own or as God's creation. And when we talk about the classroom, we don't need to worry about privacy or personal freedom -- students have few rights, and their education is paid for by the public. So finally there's a vessel for this debate over whether we are humans, bound only to ourselves, or God's creatures bound to him, and it can be couched in terms where personal privacy doesn't enter into it. Thus all the frustration of those other debates is being channeled into the classroom. When the last thing most people care about is what's being taught in high school biology class.

So that's what I think it's really about -- not whose way of life is better, although of course ultimately that's what it's all about, is who's Right -- but specifically about whether it's OK to use new medical technologies that interfere with our own traditions and, arguably, therefore with God's plans.

Am I jumping off the deep end yet?

The less control one has in ones every day life, or the more terrifying the world seems to be, the more appealing are views that promise explanations and a measure of control

Helpful... I am something of a control freak, perhaps that is what is in my own make-up that makes the idea of a God so often repulsive to me. Thanks for thoughtful reply mimikatz.

what the "Intelligent Design" crowd is really saying is that it's "magic"... if something can't be explained then it's "God's will" or "magic"... hardly science... It's amazing that these people have figured out "the mad monkey dance" leads to children being born.

If they demand it, I say give it to them. Require comparative religion classes as part of No Child Left Behind. Let these be taught without one murmur of judgment from the teacher or the textbook. Then watch the I.D. people scurry back to their holes.

Meteor, that's a neat idea. In addition, maybe we should take the ID people's slogan, "teach the controversy," and use it to justify teaching about abortion and contraceptives in health classes. I wonder how conservatives would react to that? :)

and after the snark....

I think what's going on is two-fold....

first, there is a group of fundies/evangelicals that would like nothing more than to turn this country into a theocracy -- and have been working on it for the past 20 years, look into Focus on the Family's Dobson and all the enterprises he's involved with - he keeps pretty interesting company. Part of their strategy is to incorporate prayer into schools - as an organized function, not as a private individual right (which isn't banned in schools, but which is misrepresented by the xian right as being forbidden). They've been working on that for decades... now comes the evolution vs. ID debate - they tried the creationism route before and were shot down as creationism is supported by only a couple of religions and government funded enterprises like public schools can't endorse any religion over another. So they stripped out any "creator" or "god" references and replaced them with "Intelligent Design" or "Intelligent Designer" which to the people pushing it still means "God".

The second thing I think that's going on is the medical technology aspect of things that have peoples ethical panties in a knot.... and let me be clear, there are some things that SHOULDN'T be done, cloning people, cloned or genetically altered animals for food, even genetically altering plants - BAD IDEAS. So if you want to get some scientists and intellectuals on board with the ID push you take their ethical qualms and mix them all up with abortion, embryos and stem cell research. You tie up research and funding for for the stem cell research till the ethical/moral debate is hashed out. And advance your push to include ID in the classroom as an "alternative" to evolution...

so what do they gain in this process? The kids don't learn any or very little science, critical thinking isn't being taught (science, literature and philosohpy are the primary courses that teach this) and the final outcome is that you have a bunch of kids that will unquestioningly follow/believe what they're told to do.... A perfect flock.

genetically altered animals for food

all domesticated livestock and crops are "genetically altered." when's the last time you saw a wild cow?

I meant genitically altered as in gene splicing or other artificial manipulation - not breeding for character traits

actually my Grandmother had a cow that went feral - everytime the butcher came to do it in, it jumped the fence and ran away.... the cow could tell when it's time was nigh.... at one point the butcher parked his truck a half mile down the road and walked in, but the cow left before he got there.... Cow finally got tired of the various murder attempts and left for good... hanging around in the woods and chasing cars on occasion.

It's more than just evolution they're after: it's science itself.

I have a pet theory that they know that science is coming for them: in biology, in economics and in systems sciences. We're getting a much better understanding of how these things work, and I don't think that understanding is going to be kind to the authoritarian right-wing crowd that believe that wealth is a sign of God's favour and that the poor deserve what they get.

Folks might like to know that on the progressive religious side of this discussion, our know-nothing brethren are described as the "God in the gaps" bunch. That is, they keep hoping that their ancient conception of an angry Father-God can keep his authority by explaining the material circumstances that science fails to fully explicate (or an uneducated public think science fails to explicate.) As a practical strategy for upholding belief in technically advanced societies, this stopped working in the early 20th century, but they'd like to get us back there.

There is plenty of theology, developed in those same technically advanced societies, which doesn't cage "God" in ever shrinking gaps. There is an interfaith center for the study of Science and Religion that churns out this stuff in Berkeley, for example.

And if there is anything our fundamentalists hate more than evolution, it is religious folks who don't buy their line. Their schtick is power over us all.

Another piece to the discussion. Part of the opposition to abortion and, by extension, some of the end-of-life issues, is a fear of being marginalized, even being terminated early. Kristin Luker did a bunch of research on this in the '80s, on what psychological traits are characteristic of anti-abortion activists. I think that this is the fear, along with the related fear of losing human exceptionalism, that many professional fundamentalists play on. maybe they want a theocracy. But maybe they just want power, as shown by their willingness to take Abramoff's gambling money. I think we should always make a distinction between the right wing leadership, especially the religious leaders, and their more well-intentioned followers.

If the ONLY way to explain complexity is that there must be a designer, how does Behe explain the complexity of his hypothetical "Intelligent Designer"? Was the designer designed? If so, who designed the "Super Designer" and so on, ad infinitum.

I think we should always make a distinction between the right wing leadership, especially the religious leaders, and their more well-intentioned followers. Yes. I've made the mistake of doing otherwise and thereby made enemies I didn't have to have. We got enough enemies we can't avoid without making more.

About the fear of being terminated early -- my partner is teaching freshman ethics at a college with a religious affiliation. During the Schaivo mess, she was astonished to discover the degree to which her 18 and 19 year old students identified with Terry, in the sense of saying "my parents wouldn't kill me." While much of US society was identifying with the husband, these college kids were feeling that fear of early termination. One could argue them into a broader perspective pretty easily, but the fear of termination came first.

We know reading is the basics of learning
And learning…well…I forget the rest
But teach a child to read and he or her
Will sure pass a literacy test

Intelligent design?

I rest my case?

(Even an unintelligent designer could have improved on the design that resulted in the babble above...)

thank you. this was a great article on the whole darwin/intelligent design chaos.

just to put my own two cents in:
People need to realize that evolution is not a belief. Evolution is a scientific theory, backed with years and years and years of study. I'm all for personal belief, and putting faith in what makes you happy and comfortable. Make up a story about how your cat came to be- if it makes you happy, believe in it full-force. But you can't disregard science, logic, and reasoning.

These are the facts. You can't cover them up with a generalized drape (intelligent design) just because you can't understand them.

A narrow mind will cut off the circulation to the soul. Believe in whatever you like. But don't forget the wider view of the world.

(the "you" in this post refers to anyone blinded by the comfort and security of "intelligent design". don't take it offensively.)

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