Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Scientifically Illiterate

Being ignorant is not something to be ashamed of, there's just so much to learn in the pool of accumulated knowledge that it's impossible to know everything. Though when it comes to science, there is not only gross ignorance in the understanding of science but a pride attached to that ignorance. Yet it's these people who take pride in not understanding who present the greatest attacks on scientific theory. They reject what not only they don't understand but proudly misunderstand, then feel the need to coerce others into their cone of wilful ignorance.

Rudimentary knowledge
Is it really too much to ask that people at least understand the basics before opening their mouth on a subject? There's a reason I don't talk about 19th century English Literature or the Meiji period in Japanese history - I don't know the first thing about them. Sure I've had to read some Jane Austen in high school, and I've seen some anime dealing with that era of Japanese history, but that by no means makes me even slightly qualified to talk about those. If I wanted to write something about Meiji era Japan, I would spend a long time researching it. And even at that point, all I could do is echo what the experts say. I'm not in a position to rewrite history.

That rewriting science is precisely what creationists are trying to do, instead of learning about evolution from the scientific establishment, they seek the voices of those who aren't part of that establishment. As a result the same tired arguments are recycled so I'm willing to bet that in 50 years time we'll still hear how evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics and that a global flood made the grand canyon. Indeed the funniest comment I heard from a creationist was being asked "If there was no global flood, how do mountains and canyons form?" Grade A ignorance on display, and these are the people who aren't willing to break that ignorance.

Some people simply don't know better and they are a product of poor teaching by their peers. But it boggles my mind that the likes of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort can preach their nonsense after decades of arguing the topic. Kirk Cameron still parades his Crocoduck around, despite it being a complete misrepresentation of what a transitional form is; indeed if we found a Crocoduck that would really be the end for evolution. Yet it's hard to imagine that in the years he's been using that straw man he's not once actually looked up what transitional forms really are, or been corrected by people who do know what transitional forms are. As for Ray Comfort, a padded cell may be needed.

It takes not only a propensity to find information, but a knowledge of where to find information to be able to form a solid understanding of the concepts. For an understanding of evolutionary theory it's best to ask scientists about it. There are plenty of books on the subject, with a substantial amount of pop science literature to explain it to the layman. There's that old saying, "opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one", but this doesn't mean that opinions are of equal worth. Ideas with evidence behind them trump ideas without evidence, or are contrary to evidence. Sure the Crocoduck could exist, but it's not a 50/50 chance of it being so. It's only in the context of all other evidence that we can consider whether it should be in the fossil record. The way evolution has been deduced from evidence is that no Crocoduck should exist anywhere in the fossil record - it would be an anomaly. Kirk Cameron's objection to evolution is quite simply false and it's a perfect example of the importance of understanding a topic before speaking out on it.

Having an open mind
Creationists are now using the insults that were once levelled at them: evolution is a religion, evolutionists have faith, evolutionists are intolerant, evolutionists are closed minded. It's that last point I want to address. As mentioned above, ideas are not of equal worth for so many reasons. The reason why creationism is rejected is that it contracts the facts of science. A young earth creationist rejects: cosmology and the age of the universe, astronomy and both the age and distance of stars, it rejects nuclear physics and the radiometric decay of unstable isotopes, geology both in the age of our earth and the formation of the planet, plate tectonics, the fossil record, dendrochronology, ice core dating, the spread of life on this planet, and everything that has been observed in biology over the last 150 years including mutation, natural selection and speciation. It's a total rejection of science and scientific evidence so evolution and creation are not on equal footing.

So it's quite well established that one idea is not as good as another, so the source of the information and it's context both need consideration. In effect, everything is evidence and each one of us applies a filter to that evidence in order to form a worldview. All evidence comes to us either through our own observations, or vicariously through the storytelling of others. Each book or article we read, each show we watch or radio podcast we listen to, they are all summations of evidence and we are at best a 2nd hand receiver of the information. A news article on the BBC website would not be written by the one who did the experiments, they would be a 2nd hand source and we would be consumers of 2nd hand information.

This leaves us as vicarious observers of reality in a perilous position, all we have is one person's word over another. Why should the layman trust Ken Miller over Michael Behe when it comes to evolution? Or an even more extreme example, why trust Richard Dawkins over Ken Ham? Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron manage to keep in business despite not knowing the first thing about the topic at hand. It all comes down to trust. So why should we trust Dawkins' word over Ham's? Because of the type of evidence backing Dawkins.

It's not to say that appealing to Dawkins over Ham on evolution will mean that Dawkins is always right and Ham is always wrong, that would be an appeal to authority. It's that Dawkins' books and lectures have 150 years of scientific backing, something of which Ken Ham spends most of his time trying to destroy. Dawkins could be wrong on a lot of things, indeed many scientists feel he is wrong on certain aspects of evolution and many others feel he is wrong on matters of theology. He isn't the authority on reality, rather he's an expert in the field of natural science. Ultimately he's considered an expert because of the time and dedication to study the evidence that's available and even make his own contributions to the field.

Keeping an open mind is being open to evidence, it's being able to understand what types of evidence are accurate and being able to tie multiple lines of evidence together. It's not taking ideas on face value, that would simply be being gullible. The type of evidence, how it was derived, and how it fits in with the rest of the evidence all need consideration. No process is perfect and especially not our own experiences, so it's important to keep in mind that there can be fallibility in any information. It takes critical thinking skills to understand the processes on which the information was derived, there are basic tests of parsimony that can be used with a strong degree of certainty. Taking some humility with the uncertainty no matter how small is vital, but inferring that uncertainty means that any idea has a 50/50 chance is quite simply absurd.

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