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August 23, 2005

ID catch-22

Matt Yglesias reminds us that teaching evolution is unpopular compared to "teaching the controversy." Only 12% of Americans surveyed support teaching evolution only, compared to the 23% who want straight creationism and the 55% of respondants who would prefer a smorgasboard of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design.

Matt's point is that we should redouble our efforts to persuade our fellow citizens of the merits of evolution. I can't argue with that. Unfortunately, most people don't understand enough about science to understand why neither creationism, nor "intelligent design" belongs in the public school science classrooms.

I'm going to be contrarian and suggest that pundits should concentrate on subtle stigmatization of creationism and ID. Setting a biology curriculum isn't just another divisive educational policy issue like standardized testing. It's not a matter of getting the facts out there or applying the right spin. People resist the teaching of evolution because they are fundamentally uncomfortable with a naturalistic worldview. Showing blow-by-blow how science demolishes pseudoscience won't allay their underlying discomfort.

The perception of evolution as being an elite opinion is usually described as a weakness. However, it's also a strength. It's a truism those who rail against  high handed elites often care quite a bit about what the shady cabal thinks. The conventional wisdom in American politics is that the blue team should go out of its way to allay the red team's suspicions of condescention or elitism. Unfortunately, it seems that we get branded as elitists no matter how hard we try to downplay any hint of disrespect or condescention. Maybe it's time to start playing up the elitist image, at least on the evolution issue.

Education policy is shaped by parents' aspirations for their kids. What's needed is subtle oppo-marketing of creationism and ID as being backward and superstitious.

Currently, society tends to defer to working scientists to set the science curriculum in public schools. Increasingly, however, citizens' groups are subverting their state and local science curricula. Often, these activists enjoy disproportionate influence because of general indifference to local issues. Countermobilization at the local level might be more effective than mass persuasion. The task is to get evolution-believing parents riled up enough to run for school board, and perhaps to get status-conscious parents up in arms about the threat of a science curriculum scorned by admissions committees and other gate-keepers.


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» Culture wars, elitism and education from Pandagon
Lindsay had a post up yesterday on how best to argue for teaching evolution in schools instead of fake science like Intelligent Design. She suggests, rightly I think, that this is a place where a little sneering might be a... [Read More]

» You might be taught creationism... from View From Above
...but that doesn't mean colleges have to accept you. Blatantly stealing an idea from the comments section at Slate, I hereby call on all universities to reject high school biology credits for students educated in states where creationism or intelligen... [Read More]

» Making ID Earn It from Lean Left
Amanda, rfiffing off this Majikthise post, says something important about ID: Again, I think it depends on the circumstances, but Lindsay’s characterization of how the people who rail against elites are usually yearning the hardest to be consid... [Read More]


Ridicule might be too obvious. I think being really passive-aggressive about the whole situation would be good.

"So, how about that Intelligent Design?"

"Oh, it's fine, we can do that. Not that it's really science, but hey, whatever works for you."

But seriously, you've hit on something. It's not enough to plug evolution; without showing ID to be a fraud, the tendency of the people to want "fairness" will win out. So we need both clear explanations of evolution and subtle mockery of ID and creationism.

It's win-win.

"Countermobilization at the local level might be more effective than mass persuasion."

This may be generally true.

In politics, persuasion matters only so much as it leads people to mobilization. The balance of forces and the balance of opinions are different things.

Might be interesting to see how many senators, congressmen etc are happy for their child to go to a school which teaches creationism. What are the highest status schools in the states? Do they teach creationism.

I think you may have hit on something here; teaching creationism is ok only if a school can demonstrate that 51% of its students are slack-jawed yokels.

61% of Americans support the idea of free ponies for their children. As Martin Lawrence in a lab coat might have said at one point: Get ta clonin'!

I agree. Rational discourse is wasted on those whose premise begins by accepting the irrational. That's why I explain ID to people as the "Star Trek" theory of evolution -- that ID proposes a hyper-intelligent entity, such as one or more space aliens, came to earth long ago and guided the creation of our species.

In fact, in some ways, ID's theory can be dovetailed into Scientology, which also proposes that space aliens visited Earth millions of years ago. ID, therefore, helps validate Scientology, and vice-versa. Probably not what the Discovery Institute had in mind.

Scientists have led the fight against Creationism and ID. We need to show that more ordinary people also believe in evolution.

Another way to deal with the elitism issue is to keep pointing to the expensive suits that the evolutionists wear. If they were truly men and women of the people, they'd be wearing t-shirts.

This is a bit tangential but I hope you'll bear with me a moment.

You touch on the idea of evolution being an "elitist" opinion. That is where I believe conservatives are making inroads with it.

Intellectualism is set up as elitist and snobby. It's a part of the greater cultural divide between North and South, which I blogged about earlier today. We liberal Northerners are supposed to be ashamed for our efforts to broaden ourselves because apparently, it sets us up for putting down our own American culture. We're not "America best, America first" because we know there's more out there. This is wrong. This is evil. This is elitist.

"Elitist" is the catch all label to slap on whatever issue isn't rising to the conservative "values" du jour.

I've been a bit flabbergasted at the back and forth I've been having in comments at PK about this, especially in regard to the hiring of "liberal" university professors over conservatives. A conservative at my blog is complaining about the free market nature of the hiring system of universities. There ought to be some sort of rule that political litums tests are disallowed.

But isn't that the antithesis of the completely free market, trickle down economics system?

I see your point, actually. The thing that pisses people off about "the ivory tower" is its inaccessibility: that's also what gives the ivory tower its authority.

There will always be those who believe in something else, and I wonder if it's really such a horrific thing: I was taught the watchmaker story by an IDer in grade eight, and it got me researching evolution because what he said did sound plausible in that I didn't have a counter argument, but I knew that anyone "in the know" would laugh at him. (Those private forays into finding the counter argument fueled my interest in bioinformatics and A-Life in comp sci... So it actually was a positive, in my life.)

Anyway, a lot of kids ignore their teachers entirely: some, like me, went and looked for the science: some went to their pastors and got confirmation of the teacher's ideas, but none of our opinions makes a lick of difference to the evidence.

In the long run, the science speaks for itself. Those that are able to understand the science probably fall more in the category of those who'll be able to use science to create, administer, or fix sophisticated technologies - and in this market, that's a financial advantage. I imagine belief in evolution and middle or higher class will have some correlation. In other words, scientists will continue to be in demand.

So, I'm not sure there's a real threat to society as long as the evolution option is being presented: there's only a threat to the individual kids. I imagine, though, that if they're of a bent to care in one direction or the other, their home lives have already entrenched a belief system.

I have a somewhat different prescription: Stop talking about the Theory of Evolution and just attack ID.

The basic problem we will continue to run into is that most scientific theories are not intuitive. Not only most people in this country do not understand the Theory of Evolution, but they have a really hard time understanding it even when explained to them, since they have had no real science education. On the other hand, the simplistic assertion of ID that anything that looks created must have a creator strikes most people as nothing more than common sense.

My conclusion is that we will never win the argument as long as we're trying to explain the Theory of Evolution and why it is science and ID is not, etc. What we have to do is not to defend the Theory of Evolution, but to attack ID on its own merits. We shouldn't even mention the Theory of Evolution. When we do, we fall into a trap because we come across as elitists who dogmatically adhere to a theory that seems so antithetical to common sense. I think it will be much easier to keep harping on ID proponents to tell us exactly what mechanism it uses to explain the diversity of life on Earth. I know they don't have one, and they know they don't have one. Not only that, but they are incapable of coming up with one. I would go as far as to actually concede that the Theory of Evolution may be totally and absolutely wrong. OK, so we get rid of it. What then? What theory remains that provides a mechanism that can explain the diversity of life on planet Earth? Well, the answer is none. ID is not a replacement because it does not provide a mechanism.

Aris - the Mechanism is God. Water becomes Wine. Loaves & Fishes multiply. Everybody loves a good magician, and in a puff of smoke can be satisfying enough as an explanation. There are even the scientifically minded who allow for the unprovable and unscientific possibility of supernatural experience - they just don't confuse it with science. If you're not scientifically minded, though, who the heck cares about what stupid science has to say? Last year it told-ja not to eat salt. This year salt's okay. Obviously a flawed system.

And even in the realm of science - I'm not sure we've figured out the mechanism behind aspirin, but it doesn't make it not work...

Arwen, here's how I would challenge ID so that science illiterates can understand why it's not science -- it's a crude analogy but we're dealing with a crude population:

Let's say we find a cake. Now, we've all experienced cakes and we already know that cakes are made by people called bakers. (For the sake of argument I'm conceding here that we know a posteriori that cakes are made via Intelligent Baking; obviously, this is unlike natural phenomena, but the point I'm trying to make is that even if we could somehow establish Intelligent Baking as accurate, it still would not be a scientific theory. Read on).

If someone says, "This cake looks like it was created by a baker," the statement may be accurate, but it is still a statement and not a description of the mechanism by which the cake came into existence. In this case the mechanism was the baking recipe that the baker used to make the cake. Unfortunately, we don't know who the baker is and he cannot give us the recipe.

Intelligent Baking proponents can keep saying, "This cake looks like it was created by a baker" but they cannot explain how it was baked because they do not provide a recipe (i.e. a mechanism) along with their assertion. So, a culinary scientist comes up with a recipe that when tested produces something very close to the cake. That becomes the prevailing recipe on how the cake was made and it is taught in baking schools as the way to bake the delicious cake. Then another culinary scientist comes up with another recipe that produces a cake that's even closer to the original's appearance and flavor and his recipe becomes the accepted recipe at all baking schools.

Intelligent Baking proponents can keep harping that "This cake looks like it was created by a baker" but since they have no recipe, their opinions on the cake are of no relevance to baking schools that want to produce competent bakers.

My point is that when we try to explain the mechanism that we accept as the best possible explanation for the diversity of life on planet Earth, we're talking to people who don't even know how to turn an oven on. If we explain that even if ID was somehow shown to be true, it still would not be a substitute for any theory that proposes a mechanism -- even if we were to find a microscopic tag inside every cell stating, "Made by God. Patent Pending," we'd still wouldn't have a mechanism explaining the diversity of life on Earth.

" pundits should concentrate on subtle stigmatization of creationism and ID"

America is already half fundamentalist. But a lot of it is regional. In Texas, you'd have to be quite subtle. But not in New York.

So I guess each sane person has to decide, do I care if they hate me in Texas?

Thats Some sort Of Political view that I'd like to read about! I'll read it later and write you my comments!

Scientists are too open-minded to assault their opponents politically as the Discovery Institute is doing. This is just like Iraq: the politicization of all aspects of society. If scientists don't want to be run over, they better push back.

Like a moral crusader who gambles, smokes, and drinks in private (yeah, I'm looking at you Bill Bennett), a scientist who claims to believe in modern science's extreme skepticism at work and practices religion at home is a hypocrite.

But the more immediate tactic to stop the teaching of ID is to let the public know that all the defects claimed for the theory of evolution by ID proponents are as well resolved by polytheism as monotheism.

Do the redstaters want their children taught in biology class that Christianity has no more to recommend it than Hinduism? THAT is the controversy, religion. There is no controversy in science over evolution.

My experience with school board elections has been that the ostensible issues are not the real drivers for the voters. In the case of creationism or intelligent design, those who push for its inclusion in the curriculum often make their argument in terms of parents' rights to protect their children from unwanted influences.

In the district where my children went to school, two fundamentalists were elected to the school board, not as fundamentalists or pushers of ID/creationism, but as champions of disgruntled parents who wanted to take back control of their kids' schools. One candidate made use of his large church and the private school associated with it to get out the vote and the other candidate was a former teacher with grandkids in the system and she played that for all it was worth. Both of them talked about values values values.

Perhaps they would not have won by such large margins had there been open debate about creationism but I think they would still have won. The people who voted for these candidates already felt like underdogs in relation to the school system.

I think the current way of talking about including intelligent design "theory" in biology curriculums plays on this feeling with all the blather about being "fair".
Unfortunately, there are too many groups among the users of public schools who feel they are dismissed or short-changed; the fairness and values rhetoric resonates with them.

Hmmm. Latest thing to tell ID proponents: "I'd approve of it, but it just plays into the hands of those sci-fi alien-loving types."

The problem is that most people believe in some sort of Intelligent Design. That God (or a Flying Spaghetti Monster) created the world and the rules the world plays by. But did he just touch off the Big Bang and say goodbye? Or is he sitting around going - "Jeepers, did I screw up on that whole appendix thing or what? How many generations will it take for mankind to evolve out of that? Hmmm. Let's match Timmy and Susie..."

And that lack of precision is where ID is weakest. They take a position on the God-created side, but refuse to tie it to any particular religious belief, or make any suppositions that could be invalidated.

I say - let them teach ID, but only when they state a theorem that gives the exact nature of the rules the Creator/Designer operates under. If they say none, then reply - well, you're talking about God then, aren't you?

I think you're right about being more aggressive. First we win, then we change hearts and minds, not the other way around. I've taken to called ID "scientific defeatism" and, when I'm feeling nasty, "Vichy science." Like you and several of your commenters, I think many people will be far more sympathetic to evolution when the faults of ID are pointed out.

Maybe it's time to start playing up the elitist image, at least on the evolution issue.

The Scopes Monkey Trial drove the Neanderthals out of the temple for 50+ years.

It's time to do it again.

Well, OK... my bumper sticker sez "Virgin Birth + Easter Bunny = Intelligent Design"

I'll spell it out:

Creationist hospital.

Its simple. Want to teach creation? You are only allowed at the creationist hospital. The evolutionist hospital is banned from use. It wouldn't be right to treat the believer with by prodcuts of evolution. It would taint their souls.

No debate. A choice. Creationist hospital or not? Shut up or put up when your child is sick and reality matters.

61% of Americans support the idea of free ponies for their children. don

Actually, only 5% know what the phrase ". . . and a pony" means.

And maybe, that's the problem.

Hey epistemology- I can't be a functioning scientist and belive in god? why not? faith isn't rational.

My problem with ID is, well, everthing mentioned above, plus. I imagine 10th grade bio class as tought with a section on ID or "the contreversy" or whatever they wanna call it. Your teacher presents you with all this information and says "everything we see and know, God did it. And everything we can't explain, God did that too". and at sophmore H.S. stoner logic level, my first thought would be "hey, now i know the answer to all the essay questions" and I'd never bother to be curious again.

When i was taking upper level college bio classes, the fun part of reading the texts were the ways different authors would deal with different areas of ambigiouity or ignorance. Sometimes they'd say "there is some debate... or sometimes they'd out and say "we don't know" or "this mechanism is not entirely understood"

and that was allways a little spur to me to keep on working. With ID in the picture, why would anyone bother? God took care of it allready.

I agree: pound on the ID'ers. And keep it simple. Let them talk about "irreducible complexity", "explanatory filters", "universal probability bounds", all they want, but when they get to the punch line, and say "Aha - here we have Design", force them to come clean and admit that what they really mean is "a miracle occurred here". This points out the bottom line of their position: miracles count as scientific explanations, and begins to make the point that ID'ers are introducing mysticism and/or superstition into science.

Maybe it's easy for you not to condescend. I have this elitist compulsion to point out that the spelling of the noun is "condescension." And I always view with a sniff of distrust any ideas couched in misspellings.

Alternatively, you could just let ID run and continue its main function in life at the moment, which is to give the rest of the world a bloody good laugh at the wingnuts' expense. Honestly, we (I'm in London) think it's hilarious that this is even being discussed in an ostensibly developed country. Coming next...why it's a matter of opinion that the world is round and (courtesy of The Onion) "Gravity to be taught alongside Intelligent Falling".

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