Last week, Rick Perry made some factually false and deeply disturbing claims about how evolution is and ought to be taught in Texas. In the ensuing flurry of criticism (fueled by the fact that Perry simultaneously doubled down on his climate change denial), retired British biologist Richard Dawkins was invited to comment on the matter at the Washington Post’s website. His piece opens by heaping bile on Perry and any political system that allows him to rise to a place of prominence, before repeating a typically Dawkinsian (somewhat florid, always passionate), but somewhat tangential defense of the awesomeness of evolution.
Texan science policy wonk Jamie Vernon suggested that Dawkins’s approach, opening by calling Perry an “uneducated fool” and an “ignoramus,” might not be the best way to sway any Perry supporters’ views on evolution. One could object that this may not have been Dawkins’s intention. Indeed, I can’t be sure what audience Dawkins intended to reach. His encomia against Perry will do nicely for Democratic partisans, but people from the liberal end of the spectrum don’t need to be told that evolution is awesome – they generally know it already. Then again, folks who might need convincing about the merits of evolution are exactly the sorts of folks who probably have a high opinion of Perry, and of the anti-intellectual strain of politics he represents, but they aren’t likely to read past the first paragraph, let alone take any argument after that point terribly seriously (motivated reasoning, etc.).
There are plenty of reasons to write stirring diatribes against Rick Perry. He’s a hairdo and little else, with an awful record as governor of Texas. He executed an innocent man. He violated a treaty to execute another. He executed a mentally ill man. He’s hell-bent on undermining Texas schools. He suggested seceding from the Union over the stimulus bill. He doesn’t care about any science that doesn’t help him get elected. If you thought things were bad from 2001-2009, Perry would be even worse.
There are also plenty of reasons to write an ode to evolution. The 21st century will be the century of biology, a century defined by personal genomics, by the ability for home hobbyists to tinker with biology the way kids play with Legos today. Every insight into biotechnology, every invention, every discovery, every drug, every biofuels advance, rests on an understanding of evolution. Evolution ties it all together, makes it make sense, and makes it possible for people to make advances unimaginable even a decade ago. It’s a beautiful theory, not just scientifically but aesthetically, a simple and pervasive idea that makes the world better.
But I think Jamie is right that you ought not to combine those arguments. That evolution rocks is not really an argument that Perry should not be president, and that Perry should not be president is surely not an argument in favor of evolution. These are distinct ideas, and trying to advance them in the same piece seems likely to lose you any plausible audience.
There is, of course, a different take. PZ Myers read Jamie’s post, and uses it to attack “accommodationists,” a group which he doesn’t really define, and which he misdescribes by any plausible accounting, even if he were only trying to describe Jamie Vernon himself. These accommodationists, Myers writes:
always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.
So get out there, Mr Vernon. What are you doing to inform people of the disastrous ignorance of Rick Perry? What are you doing to oppose his candidacy? Are you even willing to state that he’s unfit for office, and why? Don’t you think evolution-denial is a very good marker for science illiteracy?
This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.
What’s Jamie doing? Well, he’s been working for Scientists and Engineers for America, doing policy analysis and activism training for them. Before that, he was a post-doc in Texas, working on gene therapy in PZ Myers own model organism, the zebrafish. He’s getting ready to begin a policy fellowship through AAAS, working on science policy at a federal agency.
That’s not just happy thoughts, that’s work in the trenches, trying to change how science is perceived by politicians and the public. To pretend that Jamie is politically disengaged is absurd, and, to borrow a term from Dawkins, ignorant.
But what about other “accommodationists”? Are we all milquetoasts on Perry’s anti-science remarks? Hardly. As you probably know, I’m one of the more vocal people who get tagged as “accommodationists,” and I’ve been rather vocal about Perry’s statement. I told Politifact Texas that Perry’s remark was “false,” and that’s how they graded it. I told Talking Points Memo, “The idea that the standards require or even permit the teaching of creationism is wrong. … Under almost almost any plausible interpretation of what he said it’s either not true or he’s advocating something that’s unconstitutional.” On this blog, I wrote, “he’s not just wrong, but advocating a policy struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court 24 years ago… to claim it as a statewide policy is simply false, and Perry’s been involved in Texas politics long enough to know better. … Perry’s creationist ideas were as wrong and inappropriate for science classes 27 years ago as they are today.”
That’s not “psycho-mojo.” It’s not passivity and silence. In my private life, including this blog, I’m happy to state unequivocally that Rick Perry should never be President of anything, even his local kennel club. Talking to reporters on NCSE’s dime, IRS regulations forbid me from commenting on political campaigns, so saying that his claims about science education are nonsense is about as far as I can go in that setting.
And if anyone doubts that I (again, a prominent accommodationist) think evolution denial is anything but a mark of science illiteracy, you need only consult the post where I address that exact question, or my comment in Science magazine:
Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, … “Whatever the cultural context or reasons for it, rejection of evolution has profound consequences for a person’s ability to fully integrate new and existing science into their own lives, to participate in their own medical care and in the 21st century economy,” he says. “If NSF’s surveys downplay that fundamental concept, they will be measuring science literacy in name only.”
PZ closes with a contorted analogy between Jamie and McCarthyites, a maneuver that only narrowly evades a Godwin violation, and about which the less said, the better.
Note, too, that PZ now declares himself an “activist,” and apparently an expert on political rhetoric and tactics. Which is amusing, since not long ago he declared, “I’m no good at politics, I freely admit.” Maybe he should set aside his own non-expertise and the guidance of someone who doesn’t even live in the US, and listen to people who deal with US politics and especially the politics of science full-time.