Friday, June 08, 2007

How does the garden grow?

It looks like everyone's talking about the new Gallup poll that shows more of what we already knew: Nearly half of America is filled with evolution denying idiots.

But absent from the discussion in many other blogs is something else that I think needs to be pointed out and considered.

Question 24 asked Americans how familiar they were with both evolution and creationism. In each case the total saying they were familiar was about 85%.

I'll go ahead and call this one: Bullshit.

I've been discussing evolution as well as many other science topics for several years now, both in person and in online discussion forums. The number one thing that has always struck me is that, in most cases, those who criticize science can't even correctly define what they're criticizing!

Even in forums which are dedicated to people with strong interests in science, I still see the most basic of errors. I found myself correcting the same errors so frequently that it turned into my 4 Big Bang Common Misconceptions post last summer.

Long story made short: Americans think they know a lot more than they do. However, if we made them go back and take a high school exam, I doubt even 10% could pass them. In fact, the problem is so bad, that Fox has an entire TV show showing that adults can't answer the same questions as 5th graders.

So what we really have is a bunch of arrogant Americans that think they know what they're talking about, trying to write policy about things they can't even remember the definitions of from elementary school. A fertile soil of ignorance, watered with religious superstition, and bathed in the sunlight of assumed knowledge is what has led us to the deeply rooted weeds we have today.

The question is what to do about the weeds. I think the best answer is to attack it on each of the three prongs. If we can eliminate the soil, it will have no place to grow. But that's a huge task. Schools are already working extremely hard to educate students and ultimately, I think they do a pretty good job. As I see it, the trouble isn't the schools so much as the cultural attitude that what you learn isn't applicable to everyday life and can be thrown in the mental compost bin as soon as you get your grade.

But once you've composted something, it starts decomposing and turning into that slimy mess that all blends together. That's where you get weird mixtures of things like people thinking the big bang says there was "nothing" and was an "explosion", or that evolution "says we came from monkies". All those words are in there somewhere, but it's all jumbled and mixed together. But again, that's not the fault of the schools so much as cultural attitudes which are going to be nearly impossible to change. Perhaps schools could make the knowledge they instill a little less mental-degradable, but I think it's a stretch to expect them to start handing out intellectual styrofoam.

As far as getting rid of religious superstition, that's something else that's not about to change any time soon. People like Dawkins are slowly starting to unravel it, but I doubt that it will ever be gone in any real sense. Merely changed.

But what about the last case: Trying to prevent the arrogant attitude that Americans have that presumes that a high school diploma means they're "very familiar" with advanced topics? This is one area that I think there is a great deal of progress to be made. High schools should stress (especially in the last year) that this is just the beginning of the path to intelligence. They are merely the smorgasbord of introductions. But nothing beyond that.

Spending 12 years in the educational system seems like a long time, but given that those that are truly the experts can dedicate their entire lives to a single sub-field, 12 years sampling 6 different topics a day, doesn't make one qualified for much of anything. Instead, we should instill a sense of humility in students before turning them loose in the real world. And for those that don't learn their lesson, then we shouldn't play nice and pander to their nonsense.

When people start realizing that they don’t know what they’re talking about, they won’t feel the need to start trying to create public policy that perpetuates their misconceptions. Instead, they will be forced to rely on experts. I make no claim that the experts are always right, but at least there would be far less time wasted on things we know are wrong.

11 comments:

Randy said...

A fertile soil of ignorance, watered with religious superstition, and
bathed in the sunlight of assumed knowledge is what has led us to the
deeply rooted weeds we have today.


I dunno, I think fungi and mushrooms might have been the better metaphor here, growing in the hidden darkness and all that. I wouldn't compare "assumed knowledge" to sunlight myself. Fertilizer, maybe, and fungi love that.

Jon Voisey said...

I wasn't much happy with the metaphor either, but that's why I'm not an english major.

Anonymous said...

hey jon, the should make an article about the misconceptions of evolution as you did with the big bang theory. (shoudn't it be called the big expansion theory? I always wondered about that)

Jon Voisey said...

I've considered it, but I'm not a biologist and freely admit that I know little more than the basics. But at least I'm quite solid on those which is more than I can say for most Americans.

Meanwhile, Big Expansion would be a much better moniker but isn't nearly as catchy. Big Bang was coined to mock the theory but it just stuck.

Thomas said...

One of the biggest problems with compulsory education in the US today is that schools too often stress the connection between educational level and labor capital as if the only reason to pursue schooling is to increase one's value as an employee.

There seems to be little emphasis on learning and exploration for its own sake, nor on the other motivations for education: research and expansion of human understanding, to benefit one's fellow humans, personal satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, etc. Most disturbing, education's implicit pact with responsible democracy is almost completely ignored save for a few lines at the front of high school civics textbooks.

We would do well as a culture divorce education from the presumption of a salary increase.

Stephen said...

While we're digging in the dirt, why not open the whole can of worms? What's the minimum people should know about Evilution? I've read Origin of the Species. What else would i need? Do i need a lab, too? What if i disagree with his treatment of some part of the topic? For example, what if i think he totally missed what happened with dogs?

In the past thirty years, a number of science "facts" have changed. For example, the size of Pluto, the number of stars in the galaxy, the age of the Universe. All of these have changed by nearly a factor of two. How current do i need to be?

In my opinion, basic knowlege of how science works needs to happen first. Then, going through the arguments on what evidence supports Evolution and why can happen. Same for the Big Bang. And, yes, there is material that needs to be repeated.

My fourth grader had to learn lots of long names of parts of animal and plant cells this year. It's no surprise to me that my wife did not remember any of this, masters degree notwithstanding.

Then, what about math? It's hard to imagine dealing with statistical arguments while struggling with long division.

Jay Solis said...

Great post. Despite the critique of your metaphor, I think you got your point across just fine.

And I love the idea of trying to instill some humility in the last year of high school. I agree that arrogance is a huge problem in this country.

Michael S said...

I agree that most creationists don't have a very good grasp of evolution or cosmology. I was raised as a fun-duh-mental Christian, and thought I had all the answers as to why all this evolution nonsense was just absurd.

Then I challenged evolution face-on. I brought every creationist argument I had to bear against evolution, and asked how people--from laypersons to professors to random people on the internet--could still believe in it given all its "flaws". Of course, my challenge was met with fact, evidence, logic and reality, and after several years I had nothing left. The few arguments I actually had against the real claims of evolution were easily shown false, but the most staggering fact I learned was that I'd been fighting an enemy as imaginary as my god; nearly all of my arguments were against a strawman that didn't represent anything evolution claims.

Rather off-topic, but that fact is what led me to dismiss religion completely; if the smartest, most educated, most responsible persons in the church couldn't have the integrity to present the most basic claims of evolution correctly, how could I trust them to present anything else correctly? I understand, of course, that being wrong about one thing doesn't make you wrong about another, but since my entire belief system was based on the more-or-less infallibility of the church, that kind of threw a wrench in the cogs; if my omnipotent god would allow so many people to be so deceived in his name, I didn't care to follow him anymore.

David Marjanović said...

When in 2001 it became clear that Captain Unelected's tax cuts would only benefit the richest 1 % of the population, someone made a poll. 19 % of Americans believed they belonged to the richest 1 %. I wonder if these are the same ones who believe they know it all about evolution and cre_ti_nism but wouldn't recognize either if it bit them in the proverbial ass...

Anonymous said...

I think we should just slaughter them. They won't change. They're happy with things as they are. Not only that, but they're perfectly willing to kill for their own misguided values, why shouldn't we rationalists respond in kind?

A great man once said that belief without blood can only go so far. At some point, there has to be blood.

Anonymous said...

I think we should just slaughter them. They won't change. They're happy with things as they are. Not only that, but they're perfectly willing to kill for their own misguided values, why shouldn't we rationalists respond in kind?

A great man once said that belief without blood can only go so far. At some point, there has to be blood.