Pharyngula

Both Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum are wrong, but I think Drum is infuriatingly wrong.

They’re arguing over a statistic, the observation that about 46% of Americans believe the earth is 6000 years old and that a god created human beings complete and perfect as they are ex nihilo. Andrew Sullivan sees this as a consequence of the divisiveness of American politics, that they’re using it as a signifier for red vs. blue.

I’m not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it’s less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the “other” is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Drum is quite right to point out that this is a bogus correlation: the US has been about evenly split on the issue for as long as we’ve been polling our citizens on it. There’s been a gradual drift to sharpen the distinction along political lines — a hundred years ago, the most likely proponents of creationism would have been liberal Democrats — but it’s largely because the Republican party has stepped in to embrace the demographic of ignorance and anti-intellectualism, becoming a kind of general know-nothing party. These differences have been here all along and are not a product of partisan politics; it’s just that one party had the brilliant idea of enthusiastically waving the flag of stupidity.

But Kevin Drum goes too far. He claims the fight over evolution isn’t actually all that important, and that the science doesn’t really matter.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

Oh, great. That’s all we need — for both parties in our polarized political system to abandon science.

Drum is making a very stupid argument. Most Americans have trouble balancing a checkbook — ever witnessed a confused high school student try to make change at a fast-food restaurant — so what the heck do they need algebra for? Why even bother with basic arithmetic? Teach them how to use a calculator in first grade, bam-pow, math education is done.

How many Americans read a novel as adults? How many bother with magazines, even, short of looking at the pictures? You don’t even need to read to be able to navigate our highways — knowing symbols and names are enough. Teach kids the alphabet, show ‘em how to write their name and roughly recognize place names, and wham-bam-zowie, reading is done by second grade. Ship ‘em out into the workforce by third grade.

We’ll just let the eggheads take the advanced courses, like geometry and creative writing and literature.

Drum isn’t arguing anything that extreme, of course, but it’s a logical consequence of his reasoning: he doesn’t use biology, and he doesn’t think most Americans use much biology, therefore it’s a frippery that can be set aside.

Now, I think evolution should remain in high school texts anyway. Why? Because it’s true. Biology is a science, and evolution is one of the pillars of modern science. For me, that’s a cultural signifier every bit as much as a literal reading of the Bible is for 46% of the country. But you know what? I could spend an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative and never so much as mention evolution. It’s just not that important, and it doesn’t tell us much of anything about our widening political polarization. We should keep up the fight, but at the same time we shouldn’t pretend it has an epic significance that it doesn’t. I’m not optimistic about anyone or anything “bringing the country together,” but not because lots of people choose to deny evolution. Frankly, that’s one of the least of our problems.

You know what? I could spend all day arguing science with a conservative (and I have!) and never once mention politics or economics or culture. Therefore, politics and economics and culture are unimportant.

Funny how that works.

The evolution statistic does have epic significance. If kids were graduating from high school unable to read or do basic arithmetic, we’d see that as a serious indictment of our educational system…and we’d be right to worry about our future as a technological society. That 46% of our citizens graduate with a complete denial of a most basic, fundamental fact about our world — that all of the sciences, not just biology, but physics, geology, chemistry, and astronomy concur that the planet is billions of years old — represents a massive failure of our educational system. In itself, it’s a small problem — it’s knowledge of one small detail. But as a symptom, it indicates a nation-wide problem.

I don’t just blame the schools, though: it’s not that they can’t teach a simple, fundamental fact. It’s that there is immense cultural push-back that opposes a scientific truth. If it were just an omission in the school curricula, it would be trivial to fix — but no, it’s a symptom of systemic rot in the whole body politic and a reflection of a crippling anti-intellectualism in this country. That’s what has epic significance.

It directly affects us in two ways.

One is that it’s nice to be able to American biology departments and medical research and say they’re doing fine, and it’s true that we have excellent opportunities for advanced research, but it’s our public schools that fill the pipeline leading to those places. Look in our research labs, and what will you see? Swarms of Chinese students. I have no objection to that, but think long term: most of those students will go home to build careers there, not here. Students who do not get the basics of science are handicapped when it comes to progressing up the academic ladder, so sure, let’s knee-cap our student base by telling them all that the most minimal, trivial understanding of an entire large discipline isn’t actually all that important. Where are our future American biologists going to come from, then?

Second, this is going to be the century of dependence on the sciences. Climate change is going to hit us all; environmental crises are going to rise up all over the place; we’re going to face shortages of energy and fresh water; emerging diseases will be a major concern; new biomedical technologies will cause cultural shocks; the whole world is going to change. Most people, I agree, will not be doing the research that leads to changes, and most of those problems will require political and social changes to correct, but how are you going to convince people to, for instance, change their fuel consumption habits when they’re in complete denial of the basic facts? How can you expect people to appreciate the importance of ecology and global interactions when you tell them that evolution doesn’t matter? How will you get them to make rational decisions to control pandemics when they can’t comprehend probability, epidemiology, and viral/bacterial evolution on even the most basic level?

Most importantly, though, this utilitarian attitude that all that matters is what people can directly use in their day-to-day life is a denial of the Enlightenment and principles on which our country was founded. It’s a rejection of the liberal ideal that human beings should be well-rounded and informed individuals — the informed citizenry that should be the foundation of a democracy. We can’t expect everyone to be biologists or poets or political scientists, but we should expect that one outcome of a public education is an appreciation of the breadth of human endeavor, and at least a smattering of the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects, sufficient that, to make it practical again, students can make informed career decisions and understand a basic argument from evidence from an expert. We lack that now. And to wave away a simple but essential starting fact about our existence as unimportant is deeply offensive.

I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Jefferson, who understood deep down how important the principle is, even if he never heard a word about evolution.

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Shorter Thomas Jefferson:

If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.

Comments

  1. #1 thebioguy
    United States
    June 12, 2012
  2. #2 BOb
    bobland
    June 12, 2012

    Funny your quoting Thomas Jefferson after your aggressive incoherent and incoherent rant, which contains a quite frankly bizzare dogmatic statement that “this is going to be the century of dependence on the sciences”, who or what is depending on science for what exactly? Its like saying that the stone age was the century of dependence on stone and fire.
    also you mention global warming which is due to the advances and inventions of science and technology in the first place.Surely if technological progress is causing potentially apocalyptic problems shouldn’t we stop are reliance on it? After all no cars or electricity factories no environmental destruction or global warming?

    Also another funny fact, you attack religion and then go on to mention how swarms of Chinese people are tkaing over Biology labs in America. It may just be a coincidence but you may want to note that China also has the fastest growing number of Christians in the world. Maybe there is something in that.
    In any case before you write anything else you should consider reading books by writers such as Mary Midgley.

  3. #3 jchoigt
    Atlanta, GA
    June 12, 2012

    I like your Jefferson quote – it’s particularly appropriate when we’re discussing financing of public schools. What is the source?

  4. #4 adam brame
    June 12, 2012

    “and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

    I think he just called Obama ignorant!

  5. #5 Bill Dauphin, avec fromage
    Connecticut, USmfA
    June 12, 2012

    BOb:

    …you attack religion and then go on to mention how swarms of Chinese people are tkaing over Biology labs in America. It may just be a coincidence but you may want to note that China also has the fastest growing number of Christians in the world.

    Does it not occur to you that “fastest growing” does not equal “biggest,” nor that “fastest growing” inherently implies large numbers of Chinese people who are not currently Christians? Do you not consider that, given a total population of 1.34 billion people in China (not to mention vast numbers of ethnic Chinese in other countries around the world), there might be plenty of room for the Venn diagram of Chinese graduate students in American labs and Chinese evangelical/conservative Christians?

    Please to think about this differently.

    ***
    PZ:

    I agree completely with you and Jefferson, and esp. with your point about utilitarian approaches to education being a denial of the Enlightenment, but I think the shared premise from which both Sullivan and Drum draw their wrong conclusions — that some (presumably large) fraction of the 46 percent who tell pollsters they believe in young Earth creationism (even if they wouldn’t know that term for it) are in fact expressing a cultural signifier rather than a well considered, deeply held belief — has a grain of truth to it.

    In fact, one of your own points — that the proportion answering that way has stayed relatively consistent over time — actually suggests something other than simple belief/disbelief in a fact claim is at work, since the growing weight, depth, and interconnectedness of the evidence for evolution ought to be changing the numbers over time.

    Instead, I think what’s happening is that a lot of people who neither know nor care much about the actual facts of the “debate” nevertheless know that godless materialistic liberals believe in evolution, and they’re not that.

    That’s no reason not to keep fighting for better science education at all levels, of course, but it is a reason to suspect that even winning those battles won’t change the poll numbers much, unless we also change the cultural context that demonizes humanistic materialism.

  6. #6 Bill Dauphin, avec fromage
    Connecticut, USmfA
    June 12, 2012

    Hmmm… I swear the comment the first half of my comment above responds to was there when I hit submit, but now I don’t see it.

    Also I left off “…to have little or no intersection” from the end of the last sentence of the first paragraph after the blockquote. This is my first comment since the site redesign: No Preview feature?

  7. #7 Yoshi
    June 12, 2012

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects! – Robert A. Heinlein

  8. #8 jchoigt
    June 12, 2012

    “Specialization is for insects!” Although I mostly agree with this sentiment, insects, particularly the social insects, are the most evolutionarily successful group of animals in terms of both # of species and biomass. Just food for thought.

  9. #9 Bill Dauphin, avec fromage
    Connecticut, USmfA
    June 12, 2012

    Yoshi:

    I love Heinlein, but…. well, in my own case: yup, nope, nope, nope, nope, yes (badly), yup, probably not, nope, probably, yup, sorta’, yup, yup, what kind of equations?, depending on the problem, hasn’t come up, use’ta could, working on it, probably not, hopefully not.

    So what should I make of my mediocre score?

    Seriously, though, what you’re talking about is practical life skills acquisition, and [a] it’s not the same thing as education (unless you’re falling into the utilitarian fallacy PZ points out) and [b] one of the benefits of living in society is that nobody really has to have all of those skills. Unless you’re living in a libertarian “paradise” or homesteading some extraterrestrial frontier with Lazarus Long, a little specialization is probably OK — if not even beneficial — even for us non-insects.

  10. #10 Ali_A
    Canada
    June 12, 2012

    I actually agree with Kevin Drum that this statistic is not too important, but probably for a very different reason than Drum himself.

    That 46% of the American population reject evolution outright is indeed very bad, but much worse if the fact that 28% believe that the Sun goes around the Earth instead of the other way round.

    And if that wasn’t bad enough, of the remaining 72%, 55% believe that it takes a month or a day (not a year) for the Earth to go around the Sun.

    [See the full survey here. Table S3 on page 5: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/extref/nclimate1547-s1.pdf ]

    So, do the math: 28% think the Sun travels around the Earth, while 55% of the remaining 72% think it takes a day or a month for the Earth to go around the Sun.

    That totals up to 67.6% of the American public who don’t know what a “year” even is.

    So, which is a bigger problem? The 46% who don’t believe in evolution, or the 68% who don’t know what a year is? (Or, if you prefer, the 28% who believe that the Sun travels around the Earth.)

    So I agree with Drum in a perverse way: ignorance about evolution of nearly half of America isn’t that serious of a problem, when you realize that over two-thirds don’t know elementary facts about our world that even five year olds should be aware of.

  11. #11 Bill Dauphin, avec fromage
    Connecticut, USmfA
    June 12, 2012

    Ali_A:

    The numbers you report, and those in the OP, suggest nothing so much as a population that is broadly and generally too stupid and/or ignorant to pour piss out of a boot… and yet, it seems that society remains more or less functional, which suggests to me that something else is going on. My guess — and it’s admittedly no more than that — is that some large fraction of poll repsondents don’t take these factual questions (as opposed to those that ask about opinions, or that relate to the respondents’ cultural identification) very seriously, and just answer casually and/or fllippantly.

    Shorter me: I don’t think it’s credible that 2/3 of Americans don’t know what a year is; we need a better explanation.

  12. #12 Mark
    PA
    June 12, 2012

    “The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives”

    To say this has zero effect on their lives is frighteningly wrong. By far, the biggest concern in my mind is that the 46% who choose not to believe in evolution are actively deciding that scientists – and thus the entire enterprise of science – are wrong. They are raising their children to disregard what science teaches us, essentially telling them that the scientific approach has no validity. Through denial of evolution, global warming, health effects of pollutants, etc., we are raising a generation in which many children are being taught that a consensus scientific view has the same validity as the opinion of a blowhard on talk radio.

    Contrast this with scientifically literate societies which value knowledge – such as Japan, China, etc. – and how can we possibly believe that the US will continue to be a world leader in science and technology?

    Denial of science is a huge first step toward third-world status.

  13. #13 maus
    United States
    June 12, 2012

    What would Sullivan know about being well-informed? He’s an adherent of the Bell Curve and by extension, a practitioner of “scientific” racism.

  14. #14 Jackie K
    Melbourne, Australia
    June 12, 2012

    I do agree with Andrew Sullivan that many may be digging in their heels and clinging to this as a way of fighting the liberal democrats – as from here it seems US politics has got so much more divisive in recent years. I don’t agree with Kevin Drum that fundamentalists don’t take this belief seriously – fundamentalists know they don’t need to fight evolution in universities etc because if you get people as kids in school that will have a big enough impact.

  15. #16 Ali_A
    Canada
    June 12, 2012

    Bill Dauphin:

    Earlier I thought too that the respondents were not taking the questions in the poll seriously, and hence not even trying to provide the right answers. How else is it possible that such profound ignorance is so prevalent?

    But I don’t think this explains those numbers in light of the fact that other questions in the poll were not similarly answered.

    Look at some of the other questions in Table S3 and S2. The first true/false question was answered correctly by 86% of the respondents. The second question also received a 84% value.

    This shows that the responders are not randomly picking answers, and are actually trying to determine the correct answer. This becomes more apparent when you look at the answers from table S2. The relatively difficult probability questions receive poor results, while the simpler ones receive much higher grades. And these aren’t true/false type questions, where random guessing would give you the right answer x/N percent of the time. These math questions actually have to be calculated by the responder. So the percentage of correct answers should be very low across the board if the users were not taking the questions seriously. But as we can see, some questions were correctly answered to a high degree, others were abysmally poorly answered.

    And even in the case of the easy probability questions, I doubt it can be said that they were easier than answering a question about how long it takes the Earth to go around the Sun (or if it does do so in the first place). So if anything, even the easy probability questions should have fewer correct answers than the one about the Earth and Sun if the responders were not consciously trying to answer the questions accurately. But they don’t.

    So it appears to me that the respondents actually _are_ deeply ignorant about these basic facts, since they don’t appear to be randomly picking answers here.

  16. #17 'Tis Himself
    Connecticut (different part than Bill Dauphin)
    June 13, 2012

    I know large numbers of reasonably intelligent, reasonably well educated people living in a blue state who are creationists of some flavor.

  17. #18 M
    June 13, 2012

    It is a cultural signifier, and no it doesn’t have that much impact on society (even though naturally biologists would disagree).

    But most importantly, it is not ignorance. It can’t be combatted like ignorance. If someone doesn’t know where the post office is, you tell them, now they know – ignorance was combatted. If someone believes in Creation, you tell them the truth, they still believe in Creation. Cultural signifiers cannot be combatted like a lack of knowledge can be. You have to attack the culture, break it up, smash it so that people don’t want to be part of it any more. Right now the numbers that disbelieve in global warming are increasing each year. Are these people “forgetting” the facts? No. They’re just being told that being members of a certain culture requires professing a disbelief in global warming, and they want to be part of that culture, so there you go.

    You want to fight it, fight the culture in the first place. Make it disgraceful to be a Republican. Make it immoral to be a Republican. Make it embarrassing to listen to Rush Limbaugh. When the culture is rejected, the beliefs will instantly and magically revert to numbers reflecting real ignorance (i.e., whatever percent of the population really doesn’t know how old the Earth is).

  18. #19 Sophist
    June 13, 2012

    “Specialization is for insects! – Robert A. Heinlein”

    Bullshit. You couldn’t have 10% of the technology in his books without massive and widespread specialization. Jacks-of-all-trades don’t invent spaceships.

  19. #20 GregH
    June 13, 2012

    “Denial of science is a huge first step toward third-world status”

    ^This

  20. #21 Ian Kemmish
    June 13, 2012

    Actually, most people expect to be (able to be) ignorant and happy, which is a quite different kettle of fish….

  21. #22 Quran Tutor Online
    http://www.thequrantutorsonline.com
    June 13, 2012

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  22. #23 AstroLad
    June 14, 2012

    “a hundred years ago, the most likely proponents of creationism would have been liberal Democrats”

    Democrats yes, liberal no. They would have been mostly “Southern Democrats” who were Democrats only because they hated the Republicans for the Civil War.

  23. #24 Mark
    June 14, 2012

    “who were Democrats only because they hated the Republicans for the Civil War.”

    And who then became Republicans only because they hated the Democrats for Civil Rights

  24. #25 Wow
    June 14, 2012

    “That 46% of our citizens graduate with a complete denial of a most basic, fundamental fact about our world …represents a massive failure of our educational system.”

    Alternatively, a massive failure of the american people.

    You’d have to be WILFULLY ignorant to hold to that idea of YEC.

  25. #26 Wow
    June 14, 2012

    “It’s a rejection of the liberal ideal that human beings should be well-rounded and informed individuals”

    Compare and contrast with earlier:

    “That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America”

    Seems you two have more in common than you let on about.

  26. #27 Martin
    June 15, 2012

    Not everybody can be informed about everything.

    So if people are not informed about some things *you* find important then they are ‘know nothing’ and ‘abandoning science’ and ‘offensive’?

    Worse, if people who have looked at the same facts and interpreted them differently then they ‘are in denial of the basic facts’?

    This is intellectualism at its vacuous ideological and has nothing to do with science, or scientific reasoning.

  27. #28 Wow
    June 15, 2012

    “Not everybody can be informed about everything.”

    Nope, it’s not about that, it’s about being wilfully ignorant.

    If I recall correctly, even in that benighted barbarian backwater called The USA you have a school curricula that includes science, right?

    So how can there be 46% who missed the entire stuff about the earth being REALLY REALLY old?

    I was told about that at 13 in science class, along with the same thing in Geography (talking about the age of the dinosaurs).

    In fact, are 46% of the people ignorant of DINOSAURS? Jurrasic Park was a movie, I’m told, all about them.

  28. #29 Wow
    June 15, 2012

    “if people who have looked at the same facts”

    What facts lead to a 6000 year old universe? And where in school are you taught them?

  29. #30 travc
    June 15, 2012

    PZ says…
    “we should expect that one outcome of a public education is an appreciation of the breadth of human endeavor, and at least a smattering of the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects, sufficient that, to make it practical again, students can make informed career decisions and understand a basic argument from evidence from an expert.”

    Wow… that is a great way to put it.
    IMO, primary education isn’t really about getting people to know some set of core facts… it is much more about teaching people enough that they get a glimmer of the vast amounts of stuff they will never bother (or have a real need to) know.

    As for the “cultural signifier stuff”… there is some truth there, but it has always been so. The enemies of the Enlightenment are those who are certain they know the Truth.

  30. #31 'Tis Himself
    Connecticut (different part from Bill Dauphin)
    June 15, 2012

    Not everybody can be informed about everything.

    So if people are not informed about some things *you* find important then they are ‘know nothing’ and ‘abandoning science’ and ‘offensive’?

    Everyone is ignorant about a lot of things. But there’s a difference between common ignorance about a subject and willful ignorance about the same subject.

    I know very little about biology. My only formal education in it is high school biology taken over 45 years ago. My understanding of evolution is actually rather slight and spotty. However, I accept that the experts who do understand evolution, people like PZ, consider it to be the best explanation about how life forms change over time.

    We all accept what the experts tell us. If my dentist, who appears to be competent and honest, tells me I need a root canal, then I sit in the chair and let him canal my root.

    I’m an economist. People at Pharyngula have asked me economics questions and I answer them to the best of my ability. While we may discuss my answers, nobody dismisses them because I’m accepted as knowledgeable in my field.

    Willful ignorance is when someone refuses to learn about a subject for reasons not related to that subject. A creationist rejects evolution for religious reasons, not scientific ones. Libertarians and neocons reject my Keynesian economics for ideological, not economic, reasons.*

    I have no problem with people not understanding economics. I’m sure PZ has no problem with people (like me) who don’t understand evolution. The people we do have problems with are those who refuse to learn about these subjects because they don’t want to question certain beliefs actually unrelated to these fields. They “know nothing” and refuse to learn anything.

    *Actually most Austrian economists admit there’s some basis for Keynesian economics. Most people who reject Keynesian economics are those libertarians who don’t understand it while not understanding Austrian economics either.

  31. #32 Oz man
    Sydney australia
    June 15, 2012

    Thank god Australia doesn’t have this problem.
    Btw 90% of Indonesians believe in creation
    As opposed to around 5% of Australians.

  32. #33 Casey
    Florida
    June 16, 2012

    First comment in two years of reading — this is the best post I have ever seen on the blog. Pins down the reason I am leaving the Rep party. No room for conservatives unless they’re know-nothing thumpers. Any of the founding fathers would be drummed out of the party today, at least I can’t think of one who wouldn’t be.

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