Monday, October 03, 2005

What Wonder Doth His Work Reveal

I came across a disturbing article in the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post. Written by Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, it bears the headline "What's Not Evolving Is Public Opinion" and its topic is the number of Americans who reject modern science in favor of a religious explanation for the origin of life and the universe.

The number is astounding -- astoundingly high. Keeter writes:

Regardless of how questions are posed, polls consistently find that 40 to nearly 50 percent of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of life's origins, while slightly more accept the idea of evolution. For example, in a recent Pew poll, 42 percent agreed that "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time," while 48 percent believe that "humans and other living things have evolved over time."

Even though it used different wording, a Gallup Poll last year found virtually the same split: 45 percent agreed that "God created human beings pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so," while 51 percent thought that "humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life." Gallup first asked that question in 1982, and found 44 percent choosing the creationist option and 47 percent endorsing evolution.
That's right: A large plurality of Americans believe, against all evidence, that the earth was created ex nihilo within the last ten millenia.

Are these people willfully ignorant or just plain stupid?

I had thought that these beliefs were limited to a small number of eccentrics. Instead, I discover, through articles like this, that government schools are failing miserably at conveying the discoveries of science that have taken place over the past 200 years. I'm surprised that there aren't Advanced Placement tests being offered in astrology and alchemy.

Of course, I was educated in private, Catholic schools. In my first theology class as a freshman at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, our initial unit was on Genesis. We learned the four literary sources -- Elohist, Yahwist, Priestly, and (later) Deuteronomic -- of the first five books of the Bible (the Torah, that is, or Pentateuch), and we learned that the first chapter of Genesis ("In the beginning ...") is a hymn of praise for God's creation written in the Elohist tradition, while the second creation story -- yes, there are two -- about Adam and Eve is in the Yahwist tradition. (In the first creation story, man is the last thing God creates. In the second creation story, man is the first thing God creates.) We also studied Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play, Inherit the Wind, a fictional portrayal of the Scopes Monkey Trial, so we could better understand how rational thought might sometimes come into conflict with religious belief.

To this day I am grateful to Father Chuck Burns, S.J., for starting us off on a path that appreciates rather than denigrates human intellect. (Of course, down the hall, in a separate unit of the same introductory theology course, another priest used a slide show to demonstrate graphically the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised penises. But that topic comes up in a later chapter of Genesis, so it may not be relevant here.)

In college, including in courses called "Judaism" and "Introduction to Biblical Literature," these lessons were confirmed and expanded upon. I didn't need to take evolutionary biology to understand the mythological nature of the Biblical creation story; theology was sufficient.

Naif that I am, I thought most people learned these things in school. That's why I could be amused reading about the self-appointed docent in Denver, for instance, who does "biblically correct" tours of a natural history museum there. According to an article in the Denver Post:
God made dinosaurs on the sixth day of Creation, the same day he made people, according to Rusty Carter's interpretation of the Bible.

"The word 'dinosaur' was not invented back then, but in Job 38, there's two large creatures, behemoth and leviathan," said Carter, director of the Littleton-based Biblically Correct Tours, as he prepared to give his first tour of the school year.

Either or both creatures were probably dinosaurs, he said.

Nineteen kids trailed behind Carter on Saturday morning at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, most of them nodding knowingly as their tour guide pointed out flaws in exhibits.

"What do you guys think? Is the world really 4.5 billion years old?" Carter asked. "Nonsense!" one girl called out. The adults in the group smiled....

Biblically Correct's tours cost $5 a person plus entrance fees, and most of Carter's clients are from Christian schools, churches or home schools.
P. T. Barnum would be proud. There really is a sucker born every minute.

But Denver is not alone, and there are a lot of suckers out there. The Washington Post reported last month ("In Evolution Debate, Creationists Are Breaking New Ground," September 25) on a full-fledged museum near Cincinnati, being built at a cost of $25 million and dedicated to passing off the creation myth as scientific fact:
The guide, a soft-spoken fellow with a scholarly aspect, walks through the halls of this handsome, half-finished museum and points to the sculpture of a young velociraptor.

"We're placing this one in the hall that explains the post-Flood world," explains the guide. "When dinosaurs lived with man."

A reporter has a question or two about this dinosaur-man business, but Mark Looy -- the guide and a vice president at the museum -- already has walked over to the lifelike head of a T. rex, with its three-inch teeth and carnivore's grin.

"We call him our 'missionary lizard,' " Looy says. "When people realize the T. rex lived in Eden, it will lead us to a discussion of the gospel. The T. rex once was a vegetarian, too."
"Dinosaurs lived with man"? These are people whose idea of an instructional video is an episode of The Flintstones.

It would all be laughable if it weren't all so frightening. That upwards of 40 percent of Americans are ignorant of -- or choose to ignore -- everything learned since the Enlightenment about geology, paleontology, genetics, biology, and astrophysics is astonishing.

It's like they've never opened a book, never seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel, never paid attention to the annual Nobel prizes in physiology or chemistry. Do they also hold to a Ptolemaic, pre-Copernican view that posits the sun moves around the earth along with the moon and the stars? What do they make of the discovery of the tenth planet in our solar system (if they know what the "solar system" is), Xena and her moon, Gabrielle? (Is that the first planet-moon combination named for a lesbian couple?)

Lest anyone think this is a conservative/liberal debate or religious-believer/non-believer debate, I think just a few references will disarm that notion.

John Derbyshire is a Burkean conservative who writes for National Review. He is as disturbed as I am at the prospect of teaching myth as science in our schools. Reacting to this summer's off-hand comment by President George W. Bush that so-called "intelligent design" theory should be taught in science classrooms, Derbyshire wrote:
This is Bush at his muddle-headed worst, conferring all the authority of the presidency on the teaching of pseudoscience in science classes. Why stop with Intelligent Design (the theory that life on earth has developed by a series of supernatural miracles performed by the God of the Christian Bible, for which it is pointless to seek any naturalistic explanation)? Why not teach the little ones astrology? Lysenkoism? Orgonomy? Dianetics? Reflexology? Dowsing and radiesthesia? Forteanism? Velikovskianism? Lawsonomy? Secrets of the Great Pyramid? ESP and psychokinesis? Atlantis and Lemuria? The Hollow Earth Theory? Does the President have any idea, does he have any idea, how many varieties of pseudoscientific flapdoodle there are in the world? If you are going to teach one, why not teach the rest? Shouldn’t all sides be “properly taught”? To give our kids, you know, a rounded picture? Has the President scrutinized Velikovsky’s theories? Can he refute them? Can you?

And every buncombe theory — every one of those species of twaddle that I listed — has, or at some point had, as many adherents as Intelligent Design.
Derbyshire continues:
I think intelligent teenagers should also be given some acquaintance with pseudoscience, just so that they might learn to spot it when they see it. A copy of that excellent magazine Skeptical Inquirer ought to be available in any good high school library, along with books like Gardner’s [ Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science]. I am not sure that either pseudoscience or its refutation has any place in the science classroom, though. These things properly belong in Social Studies, if anywhere outside the library.

And what should we teach our kids in biology classes, concerning the development of living things on earth? We should teach them Darwinism, on exactly the same arguments. There is no doubt this is consensus science. When the Intelligent Design people flourished a list of 400 scientists who were skeptical of the Theory of Evolution, the National Center for Science Education launched “Project Steve,” in which they asked for affirmation of the contrary view, but only from scientists named Steve. (Which they estimate to be about one percent of all U.S. scientists.) The Steve-O-Meter stands at 577 as of this July 8, implying around 57,000 scientists on the orthodox side. That’s consensus science. When the I.D. support roster has 57,000 names on it, drop me a line.

And Darwinism ought to be taught conservatively, without skepticism or equivocation, which will only confuse young minds. Darwinism is the essential foundation for all of modern biology and genomics, and offers a convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences. It may be that, as we get to finer levels of detail, we shall find gaps and discrepancies in Darwinism that need new theories to explain them. This is a normal thing in science, and new theories will be worked out to plug the gaps, as happened with Newtonism a hundred years ago. If this happens, nobody — no responsible scientist — will be running round tearing his hair, howling “Darwinism is a theory in crisis!” any more than the publication of Einstein’s great papers a hundred years ago caused physicists to make bonfires of the Principia. The new theories, once tested and validated, will be welcomed and incorporated, as Einstein’s and Planck’s were. And very likely our high schools will just go on teaching Darwinism, as mine taught me Newtonism fifty years after Einstein’s revolution. They will be right to do so, in my opinion, just as my schoolmasters were right.
On the religious question, I have already indicated how, through my own experience, I learned that the Catholic church teaches there is no contradiction between the church's doctrine and scientific teaching about evolution. As explained by Mark Brumley, editor of Catholic Dossier, in a 1996 article about Pope John Paul II and evolution:
To paraphrase Santayana: Newspapers ignorant of history are condemned to reprint it. How else should we interpret the recent headline, describing Pope John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "Pope Says Evolution Compatible with Faith"?

There's not much "news" there. Fifty years ago Pope Pius XII said almost the same thing in the encyclical Humani generis: "The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, insofar as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter."
Pope John Paul, Brumley wrote,
said that evolution, so far as it concerns man's bodily origins, is really a theological non-issue. With certain qualifications such as God's ultimate role in man's creation, the direct creation of the human soul by God and man's inherent dignity as a person, the theory of evolution needn't be seen as contrary to Christian revelation.
And it's not like Catholics are alone among Christians -- or religious believers in general -- in holding that the scientific body of knowledge related to evolution is not contrary to religious faith. Washington Post blogger Joel Achenbach points to an article by Presbyterian minister Henry Brinton:
He believes religion and science ask different questions (why and how, respectively), and he has no troubled [sic] reconciling evolution with his deep faith in the guidance of God. He believes that creationism (aka Intelligent Design) has no place in a science curriculum. This is obviously a high-stakes issue for the pastor of a Christian church, and his article strikes me as not only lucid but courageous.
Achenbach quotes Brinton's article as saying:
It's a tenet of my faith that there is divine intelligence at work in every aspect of the universe. Where I differ from some Christians is in my acceptance of evolution as a part of God's creative plan. I think natural selection fits very nicely with the Ten Commandments, for instance: Break the rule about adultery, and you will find your longevity threatened by a sexually transmitted disease or a jealous husband; and, on the positive side, it appears to me that love and altruistic actions generally enhance a life, rather than diminish it. There's an elegant simplicity to natural selection that fits very well with the concept of a God who's willing to take His time with us, and let us face the logical consequences of our actions, both bad and good.
Getting back to my original point, should we see the results of the Pew and Gallup polls as evidence that government schools are abject failures when it comes to teaching science?

The Associated Press reported in December 2000:
American high school 12th graders scored near the bottom of all nations - out performing only Cyprus and South Africa. A comparison of the high-school elite - those who took physics and advanced math - showed American tied for the bottom. William Schmidt of Michigan State University said, "for sometime now, Americans have comforted themselves when confronted with such bad news about their education system by believing that our better students compare favorably with the better students in other nations - but, this test again bursts another myth."
Writing for the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 2002, Alan Dove noted:
For years, tests and surveys have highlighted a paradox in American science education: the nation that leads the world in research brings up the rear in public understanding of science. How can this be?

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, begun in 1995, yielded an important insight. Comparing the educational systems of 50 countries, the study found that US students scored near the top of the group at the fourth-grade level. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill after that. By the eighth grade, the American students drop into the average group, and they almost reach the global bottom by the time they finish high school.

The US research enterprise compensates for this nosedive by focusing on undergraduate and graduate student training. This approach explains the paradox in which an ample pool of highly qualified scientists drives competitive research while the general public remains largely ignorant.
Dove seems to think that one solution to the problem would be more federal funding for, and interference in, local education. I think the opposite: We need to get rid of the federal Department of Education, promote more private schooling (which, because it is better at engaging parents, students, and teachers in a joint enterprise, always engenders higher standards and higher expectations and, consequently, better results), and urge families to abandon government schools that are more interested in feeding the bureaucratic maw than in educating pupils.

Whatever choices we make, we have to overcome this woeful ignorance that manifests itself in calls for teaching creation "science" in schools instead of real science. Especially since it's pretty clear that the teaching of real science is dismally lacking as it is.

My final question is: Why do the believers in a literal view of the biblical story creation have such little respect for the greatest of God's creations, the human intellect? There is no contradiction between religious belief and the scientific search for knowledge. None.


Tim said...

My final question is: Why do the believers in a literal view of the biblical story creation have such little respect for the greatest of God's creations, the human intellect?

Some of them would claim that the human intellect was corrupted by the Fall, along with the rest of creation.

I've met people who think dinosaur bones were placed in the ground by Satan, so that the tempter might lure Christians away from Biblical truth.

Anonymous said...

Do they also hold to a Ptolemaic, pre-Copernican view that posits the sun moves around the earth along with the moon and the stars?

Well, according to a NSF-funded study by Dr. Jon Miller of Northwestern indicates that around 1 in 5 American adults hold that very view (link is to a blog discussion of the article, along with the article).

I know college-educated people who didn't know that all objects fall with the same acceleration, regardless of mass (ignoring drag).

But isn't it the local schools who are mixing politics with education? How will migrating students to private schools fix the problem? The schools will enter into a free-market situation, in which they will tailor their lessons for what the students and parents want to hear, not what they need to hear. And what of the students that can't afford private school? They would be consigned to the stigma of public housing, free health clinics, and public education.

I would argue that much of the decline in American education has its roots in a cultural shift that ridicules "liberal elites" and promotes "everyday people". Many religious people see science as an attack on their faith and -- inflamed by a minority of vocal and idiotic scientists who aggresively celebrate the decline of religion and attack it as "fairy tales" -- lash out at these figures.

Besides, who wants to be a hard-working scientist when you can be a get-rich-quick real estate agent, middle manager, or day trader?

-Justin Moore

Katie said...

Excellent post!

I learned of the creation story as just that, a story. I was never aware, until adulthood, that people actually believed that creation literally occurred as written in the Bible.

In the intervening years, I've read more about what these folks believe about creation. It's really quite astounding!

Items such as:
---the Grand Canyon was created in several days when the great flood subsided
---fossils are fakes
---every plant and animal that ever was and ever will be was on the ark (but other creationists say that there were only two of each "kind" - for example, just 2 dogs total.)
---and of course the one you mentioned - man & TRex lived on earth at the same time

I refuse to use the term "creation science" because it is as far removed from "science" as one can get. I just stick with calling them creationists.

And if I hear one more uneducated boob say, about a scientific theory --"Well, it's just a theory." or "It's never been proven 100 percent." --- I think I'll .... I'll.... well, I just don't know, but I'm so depressed every time I hear how stupid people are!

Interesting survey info I saw recently - 60% of people earning less than $20K per year believe in the literal creation story; only 29% of those earning over $50K believe it literally. And 65% of those with no high school diploma also believe the literal story.

Every time I start to believe I am still a Republican, I listen to the "leaders" of the Republican party and I really have to think twice. Is this quickly becoming the party of the Know-Nothings (literally!)?

Litotes The Clown said...

Thanks for the inspiration re: What Wonder Doth His Work Reveal

For better or worse you have inspired a blog by an evil clown:

Evil Clown Inquires: Divine Design Predestined For Extinction?

The next line should have been: Origin Of The Specious

Best Wishes,

Litotes The Clown