November 18, 2004

Creationism In Seattle

I only recently found out that Seattle is home to a hotbed of anti-Darwinism known as the Discovery Institute, and have been reading about their efforts in that context. I've only begun to realize how active they are on several policy fronts, pushing right wing talking points into the media on whatever issues come to hand.

Then today, the Seattle Times has an editorial about them, and I thought it was a good way to point out why fighting for a reality-based society can't be fought as a swing-issue struggle anymore than we should continue a swing-state national campaign strategy. So here goes:

Now that religious conservatives have done well in the elections, it's a sure bet attacks on the teaching of evolution will escalate to levels not seen in decades.

When I mention this possibility to people around Seattle, I mostly get shrugs.

The attitude is: It's not our problem. If the red states want to teach their kids evolution is wrong, well, have at it.

Disengaging like this may feel good. But it ignores a key fact: Much of the assault on evolution originates right here in the bluest city, Seattle.

The corner of Third and Pike is home to the Discovery Institute, a think tank that for eight years has argued that Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong.

It should be supplanted by a new theory called "intelligent design," the institute says. The premise is that life is too complex to be explained by the random processes at the heart of evolutionary theory. So there must be a guiding hand. ...

The Discovery Institute, like every other creationist outfit, has yet to produce even a shred of original research proving their point. But their war isn't being fought on the territory of the scientific establishment per se. The real target is the rest of the country, among that majority of people to whom science-esque arguments dressed up with the proper jargon sound as good as the real thing.

You can't blame people for that, there's just too much to know. Evolutionary biology is much farther away from run-of-the-mill life than economics. And of course, we all know how easy it is for snake-oil economists to mindlessly repeat terms like laissez-faire, free markets, Invisible Hand, etc. and get even the supposedly educated pundit corps nodding along like ambulatory bobble-head dolls.

The goal of people like this is to create reasonable doubt in the public mind about whether or not there is scientific consensus on evolution. Being a reality-based issue, there are at least two equally valid answers to the question of whether or not there is consensus about evolution. Why? Because real life is complex, and nobody's found a cure for complexity that wasn't worse than the disease.

There happens to be a great deal of disagreement over lines of descent, the development of cellular mechanisms, whether or not protists (which include seaweed and diatoms) should all be grouped into one big family or categorized in anywhere from four to a dozen separate groups, and it just goes on, and on, and on. Yet about the basic idea that life as we know it is all descended from common ancestors over billions of years through the mechanism of natural selection, there is no scientific disagreement. Which is to say that while a few individual scientists may hold alternate beliefs based on their personal ideology, the verifiable scientific evidence points to evolution, and that body of evidence is growing all the time.

If they can portray the scientific community as hopelessly confused on such fundamental issues, it isn't a stretch to assert that 'nobody knows' whether or not global warming is happening or even whether stem cell research could be useful. By creating a story line where any secular investigation of the facts is portrayed as being inconclusive by definition, and the material truth unknowable, the listener might as well pick that version of the story which suits them best at the moment. This has implications beyond whether or not people believe that we're distantly related to other primates.

Their success in the goal of getting talking points to the public and creating their own alternate narrative for discussion is even illustrated by the writer of this piece who clearly means to criticize them, emphasis mine:

...Last month, a school district in Pennsylvania became the nation's first to say intelligent design could be taught as an alternative to evolution.

That exceeded even the stated goals of Discovery, which hopes, for now, only that schools will begin teaching that evolution is "a theory in crisis." The institute has lobbied for changes in science curricula in a number of states, including Ohio and Georgia.

"We are making a great deal of progress getting people to realize there are legitimate scientific criticisms of Darwinian theory," said John West, an associate director at the institute.

That last part is OK with me, even though I think it's wrong. So far there haven't been any serious holes poked in evolution. But there's no harm in asking tough questions. ...

The line of the creationists, which is a more accurate description than the PR screen of intelligent design, is that they only want to 'ask tough questions'. Their own words out of the mouth of a critic.

Science is founded on asking questions, even about long-established ideas. Yet a truly 'tough' question is one that's based on evidence, and a question that's asked out of uninformed antagonism doesn't merit the respect of being described that way. So in this, they are certainly making progress in getting their message out, but that message doesn't contain a single "legitimate scientific criticism."

Unfortunately, the author manages in this instance to miss his own point, even though he goes on to say that schools aren't the appropriate forum for this debate. It would not have been difficult at all to find someone whose full-time job is asking tough questions about the mechanism of the origins of life, and get them to explain why creationists don't so much as get the time of day in a scientific debate. That would hold a lot more water than the columnist reducing it again to an issue of mere belief, little different than the debate over putting a monorail in Seattle's downtown.

Posted by natasha at November 18, 2004 12:24 AM | Science | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

If Seattle is a "hotbed of anti-Darwinism", then I suppose Boston is a "stronghold of assault-rifle advocacy", and Berkley is "hornet's nest of fundamentalist Christian activism".

Hyperbole aside, it appears that bad ideas can take root in the unlikliest places.

With that in mind, there's a useful article about this, by Paul R. Gross, co-author of "Creationismís Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design", worth checking out:

"Patience and Absurdity: How to Deal with Intelligent Design Creationism"

Posted by: Michael at November 18, 2004 10:00 AM

Donít you remember how difficult it was in science class to memorize facts and theories found in biology, chemistry, and physics? How overwhelming and humbling it is to find out how small you are after learning the vastness and complexity of our eco-system on Earth or the prospect that the Earth is much older the 5,000 years. Put yourself in the shoes of an ultra-religious person for a moment. They have a very difficult time grasping the complexities of the world (donít we all sometimes, especially now in our current political situation). But even notions of constant change and adaptation are hard for the ultra-religious to grasp. The learning process itself is an example of the evolutionary process within our own mind. I mean a prime example of this difficulty with complex issues is our very own president, who canít identify any mistakes that he has made, learned a single lesson during his first term, and quite honestly makes it obvious that he does not give a damn.

Progressive individuals strive to learn from mistakes and successes their entire life, this is the process of growth and evolution, yet even the president (who is obviously not progressive) tries to detach himself from the learning, growth process. Learning is difficult. You might say that learning is 'hard work.' Evolution is difficult, and difficult to comprehend. As another example, Calculus is difficult to learn for many, and some cannot even come close to grasp the concepts, but I always use that as an example: Just because someone cannot grasp the concepts of Calculus, does not mean that Calculus is irrelevant. I believe that with evolution, many cannot comprehend it and strips them of their comfort level. Evolution makes the ultra-religious feel naked, humbles them, and they feel shame because of it.

An ultra-religious person cannot comprehend chaos theory and probably does not understand that chaos coexists with order. Fractal geometry is off their radar. Evolution is one more concept that they cannot deal with. An ultra-religious person wants to believe that there is an over-powering order, a prime mover, and usually their prime mover is in all actuality their own individual ego. They have all the [simple] answers. Hell, all they need is four words and they can exist in perfect ignorant bliss. "Jesus is my savor." Thatís it, they are content with their ignorance. All they need is one simple book taken literally, the Bible. But for us progressives, We'll take the knowledge found in an entire library, thank you very much. We are not content with our ignorances. That is what distinguishes us. Not that we are elitists (though it comes across that way at times): I mean, we're not the one who says that We believe in the One True God, the Lord, and all others are going to hell because they do not conform. Ultra-Christians are the ultimate elitists. This is their ultimate hypocrisy.

Sometimes it seems like they are saying: "Here is my ignorance, hereís my ego that I call 'God,' and I am going to cram it down your throat." They wished the Renaissance never happened. This attack by the evangels against the secular humanists astonishes me. Do they wish the dark ages would return? Do they wish religion truly dominates, we live in a theocracy, and its dogma reigned supreme? The renaissance brought us the age of discovery; the renaissance transformed our culture, our arts, our sciences. I can tell you quite frankly, they would not be living in United States with their SUV, centralized heated home, and medical advancements keeping them alive with science, drugged on Prozac. Without a new level of consciousness found during the secular revolution of the renaissance and then after, our society would not remotely look like it does today.

Evangels have declared war on the secular humanists, and this is a war I am willing and able to fight. The next four years will be a constant battle, and we are going to need all the intelligent fighters we can get.

Posted by: TABS at November 18, 2004 10:30 AM

Wired had a long artical on 'intelligent design' and that Seattle based anti-think tank about a month ago, but this is what I found:,1283,65693,00.html

Posted by: tabs at November 18, 2004 11:39 AM

Hi Natasha,

No gonzo here, I'm way down. But still here. I hope you're well.

Posted by: paradox at November 18, 2004 12:12 PM

I suspect that the evangelists don't know much history, let alone what they may have forgotten. The Dark Ages (or Middle Ages) is illustrative of what happens when religion runs all factions of life. I suspect these new evangelists are also rapturists, and are assured in their ignorance of the past of the planet and of man, that jesus will be here as soon as fra bush leads Israel to the sea, and ignites biblical prophecies. I'm sure I don't have their story right, but as small "g" god type kind of guy, I really don't want to know much more about them. I just know that here in Kansas, we have been fighting this battle a long time, and it's one step forward, now two steps back. Education is the only cure for ignorance, but chosen ignorance has no cure. Failure to see fact where it is is foolish. Seeing fact where there is none is stupid.

Posted by: bruce in oz at November 18, 2004 12:43 PM

Posted on evolution today:

Posted by: t at November 18, 2004 01:45 PM

A while ago, I read Carl Sagan's book 'The Demon-Haunted World", and it talked about how in Russia, for years, people refused to believe in the basic principles of genetics. There was no scientific reason for this rejection, it was just something that many refused to believe for a long time. I think human beings have rejected things like Darwinism and genetics because it indicates that our existence has forces working on it that are in direct opposition to a core belief. In Russia, the idea of Genetics flew in the face of the more Communist notion that all people are completely equal, and here, the idea of Evolution worries those that want to believe that God controls our existence and our success, not a chaotic system of 'survival of the fittest'.

Posted by: thehim at November 18, 2004 05:30 PM

If Seattle is a "hotbed of anti-Darwinism", ...

Better put, there's a hotbed of anti-Darwinism in Seattle.

And thanks for all the good links.

Posted by: natasha at November 18, 2004 07:26 PM

Isn't there some way to disallow creationism as it is not science ? Isn't science based on theory and proof ? How is this Intelligent Design a theory ? Can't it be discredited technically and sent down to religion class where it belongs ? Where is the exact disconnect in ,say, the Texas public school system ?

Posted by: edgy at November 19, 2004 12:39 PM

This kind of thing has bothered me for awhile, not just the ID, but the whole idea of a subjective reality. 'Everyone has a right to their opinion' turns into 'Everyone's right',
my reality is just as valid as yours.

Magical thinking becomes just as valid as Science, because you can't 'prove' its not true, so it could be true, so some dim bulb believes they have a perfectly reasonable rational for believing crap.


Posted by: agave at November 19, 2004 03:35 PM