Against the forces of ignorance

Biologist Jerry Coyne:

Suppose we asked a group of Presidential candidates if they believed in the existence of atoms, and a third of them said “no”? That would be a truly appalling show of scientific illiteracy, would it not? And all the more shocking coming from those who aspire to run a technologically sophisticated nation.

Yet something like this happened a week ago during the Republican presidential debate. When the moderator asked nine candidates to raise their hands if they “didn’t believe in evolution,” three hands went into the air—those of Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo. Although I am a biologist who has found himself battling creationism frequently throughout his professional life, I was still mortified. Because there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms, anyone raising his hand must have been grossly misinformed.

I don’t know whether to attribute the show of hands to the candidates’ ignorance of the mountain of evidence for evolution, or to a cynical desire to pander to a public that largely rejects evolution (more than half of Americans do). But I do know that it means that our country is in trouble. As science becomes more and more important in dealing with the world’s problems, Americans are falling farther and farther behind in scientific literacy. Among citizens of industrialized nations, Americans rank near the bottom in their understanding of math and science. Over half of all Americans don’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and nearly half think that humans once lived, Flintstone-like, alongside dinosaurs.

Now maybe evolutionary biology isn’t going to propel America into the forefront of world science, but creationism (and its gussied-up descendant “Intelligent Design”) is not just a campaign against evolution—it’s a campaign against science itself and the scientific method.

2 thoughts on “Against the forces of ignorance

  1. Commissar

    I’m a Biologist myself and a committed Darwinian, but Evolution isn’t scientific fact, it is still a theory.

    Only the idiotic or those blinded by fundamentalist religion could deny the Origin of the Species is corrent, but the cast timescales involved make abolsute proof impossible. Its the small gaps in the argument that the religious nuts are able to exploit.

    Our own politicians are not immune to similar playing to the masses, my Labour MP has been in the local rag these past few weeks singing their praises after they printed the name, address and photograph of a sex offender on the front page. Claiming ‘pædophilia is the most disturbing of all crimes.’

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  2. jaywalker

    I am always amazed that fundamentalists demand rigorous evidence for evolution but not for their religion. And their demanding is mostly a rhetoric device. The chance of their conversion given the evidence is nil.

    PS Mr. Commissar: Gravity is also a theory. The workhorse of science are not facts but relationships between facts (called hypotheses). See Karl Popper on the notion that you can only disprove a theory but never verify one (“black swan”).

    Evolutionary theory works and humans have used it for millennia. Look at dog or horse breeds. Now, scientific progress has advanced so far that we can track the mutating genetic building blocks themselves.

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