It feels good to see the IDist crackpots beaten back a little bit in their bid to control the Kansas school board, and I think it is necessary to keep up the pressure and prevent them from getting a better grip on public school education. However, Paul Nelson actually has a point with his little parable. It’s not the point he thinks he’s making, but it’s important to keep in mind anyway, and I’m going to dash some cold water on any sense of triumphalism on the pro-science side.

Once upon a time, there were a whole bunch of people who thought that what really mattered in thinking hard about design and evolution were state science standards. And school board elections.

Along came a 15 year old kid who loved science, read a lot, thought for herself, and generally saw the adults around her as missing the point. “As if,” she said to the cat sleeping at her feet.

Then she smiled and went back to her web browsing.

The End.

Elections and courts are stop-gaps. They are ways to temporarily block trends from becoming entrenched in our social institutions, but as I tell everyone, all we have to do is lose one and we’re screwed. We are on the losing side as long as our response consists of throwing up more and more sandbags in the face of a rising flood—we need to get to the source of our problems and work there, and if we put all our efforts into these legalisms and desperately close elections, we’re being distracted from the work that’s really essential.

This is a culture war. It’s not being waged in courtrooms and ballot boxes, but in people’s homes and churches and schools, it’s going on in newsletters and editorial pages and web sites—it’s going on in your neighborhood right now, and it’s going on in every small town in Kansas despite the results of their latest election. Nothing has changed except that now creationists will redouble their efforts in the unobtrusive channels at the roots of culture.

Creationists may be scientifically illiterate and dogged with superstition, but they are sociologically cunning, and more closely tuned to community activism than we scientifically savvy folks typically are.

So the part that Nelson is right about is that, in the long term, the elections don’t matter. What counts are the thoughts of 15 year old kids right now, and how their minds are being shaped, and I guarantee you that there are damn few of them who even knew there was a school board election going on. What are they reading? What are they being taught in school? What are their parents telling them, and what will they tell their kids 10-20 years from now? How will they vote when they’re franchised in a few years?

The part that Nelson misses, though, is that these kids may love science, but he is part of an organization actively conspiring to corrupt and mislead them. The Discovery Institute and Nelson himself sow lies and call them ‘science,’ and if the poor girl in his parable is browsing their pseudoscientific fluff while thinking she’s getting a nourishing dollop of good education, she’s in trouble. She’s going to suffer if she tries to take that early love of science to a higher level in college and grad school someday.

Of course, that matters too. The parable is actually making the chilling point that the school board elections don’t matter, because they have other channels to abuse and limit and warp children’s minds. And they are going to use them.


  1. #1 Great White Wonder
    August 2, 2006

    I just noticed The Gasbag putting in his 95 cents over at PT:

    And yes, PZ-esque attacks on religion rarely do anything but antagonize those who ought to be cajoled into a more scientific attitude (not that PZ is doing much except preaching to a clique anyhow, but let us hope that his tactics are not used more generally at any time).

    Of course, for a great many of us our skepticism towards religious myths and appreciation for science were inextricably linked as we grew up. So Gasbag’s smears are — once again — lacking foundation.

    Also, perhaps Gasbag and others who whine about the fact that Myers and Dawkins are “unleashed” ought to consider that the victories in Kitzmiller and now Kansas have occurred against the background of perhaps the most widespread publically disseminated anti-fundie “vitriol” that this country has ever observed.

    So much for Gasbag’s theory about “turning off” would-be voters. Perhaps Gasbag isn’t aware that most Americans are not fundie morons who think that the world’s scientists are engaged in an atheist-promoting conspiracy.

    Speak without fear. Our country may be run by irrationational religious idiots, but most of us are not as stupid as George Bush when the facts are put plainly in front of us.

  2. #2 Glen Davidson
    August 2, 2006

    I thought I’d link to what I actually wrote, though GWW did in fact include important caveats that belie his mean-spirited attack, within his quote(as in, I hardly suggested that PZ should shut up, I just don’t see how his tactics would succeed as a general strategy–GWW isn’t a very competent reader):

    What I thought about after posting the earlier response is that Dawkins actually writes in a manner that I think agrees largely with my PT post. Here’s Nature‘s paraphrase and quote of Dawkins:

    Dawkins akcnowledges that, particularly in the United States, there might be tactical reasons for trying to get on with religious people. “That is a perfectly reasonable political stance, but it has nothing to do with the truth.” “Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate.” Nature v. 422 p. 115 13 July 2006.

    Indeed. Not that I think PZ should censor himself, but has evolution ever won out in as heavily Xian a country as our own via scientists in general attacking religion? Dawkins is doing just fine these days, I believe, acting as atheistic outlier, while the general body of science mostly avoids antagonizing religion. Dawkins recognizes the realities of US politics, too.

    I myself do not hide my own lack of religion, though I typically don’t make a point of it (one problem with linking our presentation of evolution to the public with atheism–it’s hard enough to get the science across to a poorly educated American public, while demonstrating the tendency of science to diminish religion requires a much higher degree of understanding among those pre-disposed to default to religion).

    Not that GWW would be expected to understand nuance, including Dawkins’ nuances. He calls me “Gasbag” because he reviles nuanced discussions of the issues, which he understands about as well as Dembski understands science. Not only does he fail to understand politics among the fundamentalists, he opposes such an understanding, seeing this all in terms of war-like tit-for-tat terms, rather than wishing to learn how to persuade.

    I probably wouldn’t have posted again, but I was able to find the Dawkins’ quote from Nature and thought it would be only proper to show how an intelligent person like Dawkins thinks (I approve of Dawkins’ other comments in the same piece), by contrast with GWW’s senseless attacks against anyone with understanding. Now I likely am out of here, since there’s little point in responding to one who is as reactionary in psychology as GWW is.

    Glen D

  3. #3 Great White Wonder
    August 2, 2006

    Over at PT, Coin wrote:

    I’m not sure more Saganesque pop science is the solution (having a few more Bill Nyes out there would help, but I don’t think we need any more Dawkinses).

    Here’s a question for folks out there who are uncomfortable with the rhetoric of scientists who don’t appreciate the marvelous benefits of mythology to the human condition: do you think that folks like Sagan and Dawkins are substantial CAUSES of fundamentalist lunacy in this country? i.e., do you think that any alleged spreading of fundamentalism in this country is due in substantial part to the rhetoric of folks like Sagan and Dawkins?

    If so, could you provide some evidence to support that view? I’d be interested in seeing some. And no, the fact that atheists — especially popular ones — are continually berated by fundies is not particularly convincing. Nor is some anecdote by a fundie that he became a fundie because he or she read something by Richard Dawkins.

  4. #4 Squeaky
    August 2, 2006


    “do you think that folks like Sagan and Dawkins are substantial CAUSES of fundamentalist lunacy in this country? i.e., do you think that any alleged spreading of fundamentalism in this country is due in substantial part to the rhetoric of folks like Sagan and Dawkins?”

    I don’t have any evidence to support the following statements. However, I wouldn’t say they so much are causes of fundamentalism as they have helped cement the fundamentalist stance on evolution. They speak right into and confirm the fears that fundamentalists have–that the purpose of science is to disprove God. This is the fear and stereotype they hold towards scientists, and so Dawkins only confirms those fears and strengthens their resolve to oppose science. Seems to me if people on this side of the debate would understand what causes the opponent to entrench themselves, they would try a tactic that might not. It’s needless.

    Steve s:
    “50% of the public already can’t tell you why it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Creationism-lite in public schools isn’t going to unpublish a single paper, undecode a single gene, or unperform a single experiment. Smart people will continue to believe in evolution, and researchers will continue to use it, and zealots will continue to talk smack about it, and the world will keep on spinning.”

    This is indeed a major part of the problem–the general public’s ignorance of science. The battle lines here are very active, while (sadly) probably 75% of the population could care less.

    Glen Davidson:
    Thanks for clearing up your tirade towards GWW. Reading your 1st post, all I could think was “What the?” Now that I know you were “gasbag” I understand the bone you were picking with him.

  5. #5 GH
    August 2, 2006

    However, I wouldn’t say they so much are causes of fundamentalism as they have helped cement the fundamentalist stance on evolution. They speak right into and confirm the fears that fundamentalists have–that the purpose of science is to disprove God. This is the fear and stereotype they hold towards scientists, and so Dawkins only confirms those fears and strengthens their resolve to oppose science.

    This is total BS. The scientists like Dawkins haven’t cemented anything. The fundies had their mind made up long before Dawkins came along. We need more people like Dawkins not less. If more and more people spoke and understood science as he does we wouldn’t have the problems we have.

    What we need are less fundies and I know a few who Dawkins straight tell it like it is style has helped move away from their fundyism in this area.

    Being pussy won’t help anyone.

  6. #6 Scott Hatfield
    August 7, 2006

    Torjborn wrote:

    “I too think that there is a difference between science and religion here. But it is a qualitative difference.”

    Yes, I agree–otherwise, the boundary between science and religion would not be fuzzy.

    And: “Justification by testing (sanity checking) and interconnections between theories makes the claims of science firmer than the unjustified and mostly isolated claims of religion, though still provisional.”

    I agree, but I want to add a digression that might explain why believers often feel their faith claims are “justified.” Theology represents an attempt to unify isolated claims, or at least render them more coherent, providing some sort of justification; in a sense, the mainstream/orthodox view that emerges has a certain gravitas due to the antiquity and ubitquity of the conclusion in question, and this allows a believer (like myself) to conclude that the item is questioned IS justified, but only within the context of the belief system.

    It is amazing, frankly, to consider the detail with which certain claims have been ‘worked out’ or allegedly harmonized. Those deeply immersed, therefore, often come (understandably) to the false conclusion that they are in the possession of some sort of objective truth, though of course such conclusions are personal, subjective and have no standing in science.

    And: “I would feel more comfortable calling this “claim fixation”, with facts and theories fixated in science and beliefs fixated in religion. But the point that is made that it is essentially the same structure and process is important, and clears up a lot of muddled thinking on my behalf..”

    I agree that we tend to BEHAVE as if science and religion are making similar sorts of claims, but I don’t believe the structure and process you are alluding to is inherent to science, but rather proceeds from the way our minds are organized.

    Natural selection has tended to reward tribalism not just in terms of personal kinship, but in terms of the beliefs held by this or that group, rendering them as ‘truths’ to be contrasted with the falsehoods of outgroups. It meets our NEED TO BELIEVE to frame propositions as beliefs; it’s this sort of thing that leads Conway-Morris to caricature Dawkins as “England’s most pious atheist.” The strength of science, I think, lies elsewhere. By all means, let us examine the similarity in the ways claims are made and held both within science and religion, but let’s not blur the distinctions which are needed to keep science from becoming a belief system, if not a religion.

    And: “(Call it “term fixation” if you will, but proper naming and analogy or correspondence works miracles. :-)”

    OK, I laughed, you caught me off-guard, that was truly funny. I enjoy this correpondence and hope it will continue.



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