Skepticism

The Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Hi all, ready to start reading The Top 10 Myths About Evolution? I sent the authors, Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, a list of questions this morning, and will be posting their responses to my interview questions later this month.

In addition to questions about the 10 myths and about evolution, I sent them these 2 general questions. I’d love to hear what you think about these questions so we can all compare notes when I hear back from the authors. As I’ve said, these questions are not directly about evolution, but more about general science education, specifically in America. I know many of our readers have had different experiences in other countries, let’s talk about that as well.

QUESTION 1: Many people are afraid that science will rob them of their spirituality and will even cause them to lose their faith, some even believe that this will doom them to eternal damnation. In fact, I used to be a born again Christian, but after I started reading about science in my mid-20s, I did lose my faith. I still consider myself a spiritual person, however. I just look for my spiritual fulfillment in different places now. As you state in the introduction, myths are quite powerful. You also say, “Many of these myths are based on ignorance, for which the best remedy is knowledge.” Do you believe that knowledge of science and the ability to think logically can actually cause people to stop believing beloved myths? Do you think this result is desirable?

QUESTION 2: I’m disturbed by the prevalence of libertarian thinking in the United States, and especially within the skeptical community. Many people seem to believe that the United States would be better off without a public school system. In my state of Colorado, a bill was recently introduced to the legislature that would have allowed students to opt out of classes that did not coincide with their religious beliefs (fortunately this bill did not make it to the floor.) Do you think that by improving public education we can cut down on the amount of pseduo-science that is believed by the general public? Or will more people simply take their children out of the public school system and even lobby for an end to public schools, claiming that parents should be able to control what their children are taught?

I’ll be posting more about this book throughout the month, ending up with the actual interview.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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18 Comments

  1. I would have thought, with regards to the second question, that those parents willing to make the special effort to homeschool their kids in anti-science will have been filling their heads with it so much that slight improvements in school will not be able to reach many of them anyway. I don't want to call any child a "lost cause" but I think that the kids who would be taken out of school would be from the group that would have been resistant to, and possibly completely rejected, science anyway, and that the benifits to the rest of the kids would be well worth the problems with this group. Also, just about the best motivator a kid can have is that "all the other kids are doing it" and hopefully, this might work science.

    Of course I'm a 23 year old PhD student without kids, so my ideas should be taken with a pinch of salt, a shot of tequilla and a wedge of lemon.

  2. What hopes do those" lost cause" kids really have? They can probably not continue onto any scientific higher education, because they lack the basics. (And what kind of job opportunities does that leave them?)

  3. Regarding the first question, I do think it is desirable to stop believing in myths as historical facts unless there is evidence to support them. Whether or not we stop believing in them as allegory is an altogether different question.

    As A child I remember learning some important moral lessons from Aesop's fables and Uncle Remus, but the stories were never presented as being factual. It was never even suggested that we accept the notion of animals talking to each other and expressing human thoughts and emotions as an article of faith, nevertheless, the stories did effectively convey important moral truths.

  4. Myths are powerful, and as Buck Fuddy says they can be powerful even when we don't believe they are factual.

    Hercules, Beowulf, Iron John, Gulliver, Batman, Kal El, do we need to believe that the stories about them are true? Of course not.

    If your faith is based on assuming that some myths are actual history then of course being disabused of this notion can have a profound impact on that faith, and I think that would happen to many people. But many others, perhaps more, would not be that shaken by the lack of evidence that a story from their childhood was anything but fantasy.

    As for the second point, I live in a fairly socialist country, and while I deplore the state mandated religious observance in schools, in some ways I prefer this to the idea of seperate religious schools as is increasingly happening back in the UK. In many ways our schools *are* our common culture, and give a level of integration that helps us as adults. I think that the obvious thing to do in public education is to leave out religious observance, but alas not everywhere has the first amendment!

  5. In case anyone didn't notice, I've added a handy "What we're reading" section to the right-hand nav bar. This way you can see what Donna's currently recommending for SkepLit! Clicking on the book cover will take you to the Literature category.

  6. I’m disturbed by the prevalence of libertarian thinking in the United States, and especially within the skeptical community.

    Libertarianism, as an idea written down in a book, is just a description of human nature tied to a proscription for problem-solving. On the first count, it's flawed, because it's not a very good description of our species. Generally speaking, it argues that free markets are somehow "natural", which is hard to square with the fact that the single most prevalent pattern in human history is a Big Man stepping up, making himself King, taxing his subjects, throwing their daughters into his harem and generally allocating their resources. The great markets of history — Alexandria springs to mind — have been founded by royalty.

    Markets are a tool for solving problems. We can critique them on that ground by evaluating their effectiveness. Sometimes they work, and sometimes — hey, whoops — they don't. Cigarettes, chlorofluorocarbons and CO2 provide plenty of evidence that the free market system cannot always police itself. We need some kind of regulatory agency, to ensure that all players receive the necessary criticism (CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error). Of course, regulatory agencies themselves must be held accountable. . . and we're right back at the Constitutional separation of powers. Rock on, Montesquieu.

    That's for libertarianism as written down in books. As practiced by people, it's a slightly different matter. Like every other school of thought, it has its own petty dishonesty. Ever seen those two-axis political diagrams, where people are rated on "social freedom" (say, along the horizontal) and "economic freedom" on the vertical? Ever wonder why those diagrams are drawn that way? The axes are hardly independent: in the real world, most social problems have an economic aspect. It's not an honest diagram if moving along one axis makes you move along the other!

    David Brin has an interesting essay on political classifications, which I recommend to everybody. He wrote it for a group called the "Libertarian Reform Caucus", which as I understand it seeks to make the Libertarian Party a little more, ahem, pragmatic. (Or, as Brin said in less formal surroundings, "much less — cosmically less — flaky".) I have a few rants of my own which I should gather into a semi-coherent word-thing about this topic, but I'll have to incorporate Bob Altemeyer's wonderful book, The Authoritarians. It's new, it's free, it's funny and it's bleak. Read it.

    Altemeyer has quantified the concept of "authoritarianism", demonstrating that submission to leaders — what Carl Sagan identified as an unhappy part of our evolutionary baggage — is a part of human nature, more prevalent in some people than others, and strongly correlated with both political and religious attitudes. He doesn't address the topic directly, but I think it's not hard to see that in the collision between naive libertarian ideals and experimental data, the ideals don't fare too well.

  7. I continue my opinionation about Question #2.

    Do you think that by improving public education we can cut down on the amount of pseduo-science that is believed by the general public?

    Yes. Teach the baloney detection kit in English and Civics. Explain why astrology and homeopathy don't work in science class. One reason lessons in any school subject are so dull is that they are presented as dry facts without motivation; introduce the motivation which actually inspired people to discover real science, and you automatically align yourself against pseudoscience. That's the stance we have to take if we want to teach children well.

    As Alan Sokal wrote back in 2004,

    Thus, I am indeed mildly disconcerted by a society in which 50% of the adult populace believes in extrasensory perception, 42% in haunted houses, 41% in possession by the devil, 36% in telepathy, 32% in clairvoyance, 28% in astrology, 15% in channeling, and 45% in the literal truth of the creation story of Genesis. But I am far more profoundly worried by a society in which 21–32% believe that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001, 43–52% think that U.S. troops in Iraq have found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al-Qaeda, and 15–34% think that U.S. troops have found evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And if I am concerned about public belief in clairvoyance and the like, it is largely because of my suspicion that credulity in minor matters prepares the mind for credulity in matters of greater import — and, conversely, that the kind of critical thinking useful for distinguishing science from pseudoscience might also be of some use in distinguishing truths in affairs of state from lies. (Not a panacea, mind you, but just of some use.)

    References for the percentages can be found in the original.

  8. >Libertarianism, as an idea written down in a book, is just a description of >human nature tied to a proscription for problem-solving.

    I have no idea what that means.

    What I mean by Libertarianism, as I see it coming out of the mouth of people like Penn Jilette, Michael Shermer and many others breaks down into two philosophies:

    1) The government should stay out of our private lives. With this I basically agree, but it has to be within reason, to maintain the rule of law and a society that is fair to everyone, not just to the rich and to bullies.

    2) The government should stay out of business because the free market is the most wonderful thing that has ever happned to society and to mess with it is to mess with democracy. To this, I say "bullshit."

    Donna

  9. >Yes. Teach the baloney detection kit in English and Civics. Explain why >astrology and homeopathy don’t work in science class.

    What do you think are the odds of things like this being taught widely in public schools?

  10. writerdd,

    Sorry if I wasn't clear. Your two-part breakdown is essentially what I meant when I said "a proscription for problem-solving". A doctrinaire libertarian would say that the proper means for resolving an economic issue is to dump it into a free market and let the market wisdom sort it out. Interfering with this process is bad. That is, as you said,

    The government should stay out of business because the free market is the most wonderful thing that has ever happned to society and to mess with it is to mess with democracy.

    I agree with your evaluation of this claim. Why? Because (a) it doesn't work often enough, and (b) that's probably because it's based on a bad model of human behavior.

    As for your second question:

    What do you think are the odds of things like this being taught widely in public schools?

    Too small, but not zero.

  11. "And if I am concerned about public belief in clairvoyance and the like, it is largely because of my suspicion that credulity in minor matters prepares the mind for credulity in matters of greater import — and, conversely, that the kind of critical thinking useful for distinguishing science from pseudoscience might also be of some use in distinguishing truths in affairs of state from lies."

    I've rarely seen a better answer to the question, "Who does hurt?" Truth is, by promoting a lack of critical thinking, all woo hurts everybody.

  12. >Sorry if I wasn’t clear. Your two-part breakdown is essentially what I meant >when I said “a proscription for problem-solving”.

    I wasn't disagreeing with you. Just rephrasing the definition in my own terms.

  13. Blake Stacey and writerdd

    I found your comments interesting, but I don't agree with your characterization of Libertarianism, or the "free market" in particular.

    You say that:

    "Markets are a tool for solving problems. We can critique them on that ground by evaluating their effectiveness. Sometimes they work, and sometimes — hey, whoops — they don’t. Cigarettes, chlorofluorocarbons and CO2 provide plenty of evidence that the free market system cannot always police itself. We need some kind of regulatory agency, to ensure that all players receive the necessary criticism (CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error). Of course, regulatory agencies themselves must be held accountable. . . and we’re right back at the Constitutional separation of powers. Rock on, Montesquieu."

    I don't think that markets are for "solving problems" – They are institutions for processing information. To think of them as tools for solving problems is completely wrong – what are the problems, and what constitutes a solution? If you want to use something as a tool to solve a problem you need to be able to state the problem reasonably clearly, and have a reasonably clear notion of what would constitute a solution. In modern complex capitalist society these things are most often absent. We do not have the situation where we have a problem – say: how do we feed 60m people? – which the market is then able or not to solve. What we have is 60 million people who want to eat, and the market processes that information, along with information about the availability of food and how costly it is to produce, to co-ordinate the activity of those 60m people so that most of them usually get fed. Its not clear in this context what "not working" would mean. It certainly does not mean failure to measure up to some standard like: does everyone have enough to eat? or even: is the market processing information efficiently? The best we could hope for is: can we change things so that the market processes information better?

    I'm not sure what your point about cigarettes is, but chlorofluorocarbons and CO2 are not evidence that markets somehow don't work, or cannot police themselves. What CO2 in particular shows is what happens when there is no market, and shows that markets do not always arise spontaneously. Sometimes government action – and property rights in particular – is required to get a market going. Chlorofluorocarbons: yeah there are cases where the Government needs to ban dangerous stuff; does anyone deny this?

    I agree that markets are not perfect, and I definitely agree that CITOKATE. But free markets in which goods are openly traded is the most effective form of criticism of economic activity that humans have discovered. Sometimes regulation is needed, but this regulation should be aimed at making the flow of information more efficient (for example requiring public companies to publish accounts that meet a certain standard), and preventing monopoly, and other collusion among market participants. It should certainly not be aimed at "guiding" the market towards any particular outcome. The other point to make about regulators is that they are not disinterested benevolent actors, they face a particular set of incentives and they have their own interests – it is these that will be most important in determining what regulations are actually enacted and enforced, not the "public interest", supposing that even exists, and can be described. Its because of this that regulation – even when everyone agrees its the only thing that might work – so often makes things worse.

    Thanks for posting the links – I'll follow them up when I have more time.

  14. Speaking for myself, I am not totally against free markets. But they can't be completely free. They must be controlled so corporations and rich bullies don't take advantage of the rest of us who don't have the economic power that they have. This is happening more and more in American since Reagan started dismantalling regulation in the 80s and I see it as a very, very bad trend.

    Most of the people I have heard giving what I call the strong libertarian position are either rich or fundamentalist Christians. I have ideas why the latter group has bought into this (even though within their religion they are against personal freedom), but I injured my wrist and can't type a lot right now.

    I consider myself a weak libertarian. But I can't support the libertarian party because it is so extremist that its position takes away all protections for normal people such as myself.

  15. I've often referred to myself as a "small l" libertarian. I think that individual freedom, both social and economic is essential to our society. I personally don't care its relationship to "democracy". In fact, I laugh at the whole idea of democracy as an ideal. It is a tool. A democratic republic is the best form of government we have come up with for a free society, so it is a valuable tool, but it is still just a tool. The imporant thing about our society is not that it is democratic, it is that it is free. If we ever come up with a better system of government, we should use that…but I'm not holding my breath.

    That said, the "Big L" libertarians of the Libertarian Party are indeed nuts. In fact, they are more anarchist than libertarian. I laugh at the term "small government". We live in a country of three hundred million people. The government is going to be big. The issue is not the size of it but what we want to give the government the power to control.

    The main purpose of any good law or regulation is to keep people from crushing other people in the pursuit of their own interests. (There are plenty of bad laws and regulations designed to save people from themselves, but that is another topic…) You need this in the economic sphere just as much as you need it in the social sphere. We have laws that say just because I am bigger and stronger than somone else doesn't mean I can beat, kill, or rape that person. Likewise, being more powerful economically doesn't give someone the right to do the economic equivalents to someone else. We need laws for both.

    There is definite over-veneration of the free market in a number of circles, but the true irony is that you need regulation to maintain a free market. An unregulated economy doesn't reduce to a free market. It reduces to monopolies as the big players squeeze out the littles ones and consolidate.

    On the other end of the spectrum, there is trying to control people economically in the name of preventing victimization. I do have the right to call someone a nasty name and hurt his or her feelings or to make more money than he or she does…and there are fools on the other end of the political spectrum who think I shouldn't have either of those rights. And just as people over-venerate the free market, others over-venerate the "little guy", turning it into a magical designation that makes you no longer responsible for a single iota of your own economic well-being.

    The right to succeed economically is essential to a free society. Unfortunately, the only way to give people a chance to succeed is to also give them a chance to fail. There will be winners and losers. You can (and should) help the people who don't find success so they don't starve to death, but you can't make everyone a winner like some modern hippy Little League team where everyone gets a trophy. It would be nice if you could, but you can't.

    So, in spite of the fact, that I think people need protections both social and economic, I get nervous when people start talking about "fairness". It is no better a justification for over-intrusive policy than is "morality". I suspect that this is where a lot of people like myself get some libertarian leanings.

    After all, the word "libertarianism" comes from "liberty", and is all about individual freedoms. That's not a lack of government. Using "libertarianism" as a synonym for "anarchism" is hijacking the term.

    (Ramble over.)

  16. So, what about public education, specifically, in regards to libertarian ideas about, well, killing it off comletely? I think that's asking for a collapse of the little community that's left in this country. The common culture is largely built in schools andz spread through secular education — one negative example but showing this result is the way they took all of the Native American kids and put them in bording school to Americanize them (hahah), before the law required that schools be opened in each community.

    What would happen to society if we did away with common educational experiences? (Not to mention that whole groups of people, like the Amish, would be sentencing themselves to a lifetime of menial labor without an adequate education to do much else.)

  17. I suppose if libertarians are serious about wanting a system that's reasonably fair, not just one that allows them or their corporations the most opportunities to acquire more wealth, then they couldn't possibly be opposed to something that allows everyone the same chances of being successful.

    I wonder however, if like a lot of republicans, many libertarians are perhaps already pretty well off, and blissfully unaware of how difficult it is to get wealthier if you can't spare any money to make more money.

    And this is why public education and taxes are so important. Just because they can afford to send their kids to (private) school and to the doctor, doesn't mean everyone can. In order to make sure everyone at least starts off on a level playing field, you need to help some people along.

    Unless someone actively boycots their own chances of success by refusing to go to school or refusing to accept scientific facts for religious reasons, they should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents, only for their own mistakes.

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