Sunday, January 13, 2008

Science, Politics, and Evolution

While cruising the blogs this, morning, I ran into a mention of this article at Reason magazine's online edition:

Biological evolution became a hot topic in the presidential campaign last May when Republican presidential hopefuls were asked during a debate if "there was anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution?" Three held up their hands, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.). Evolution deniers Brownback and Tancredo have now dropped out of the race. So what do all the remaining candidates—Republican and Democratic—think about biological evolution? And does it matter?

Evolutionary Politics

That link is from the original article, but I've mentioned that incident before. To me, this matters, because science policy under the Bush Administration has become a disaster. In the recent past, which I'd define as most of the Twentieth Century, government policy was to fund science, but to (largely) stay out of the business of choosing which science was acceptable and which wasn't. That changed during the Bush Administration.

Not only has Bush done some rather obvious things like reducing medical research funding and restricting stem cell research after "fixing the intelligence", but less obvious examples of this behavior are plentiful. A Bush appointee to NASA, who hadn't even finished college, nevertheless felt compelled to lecture NASA's scientists about what was and was not acceptable language concerning evolution. There was, apparently, a similarly lame-brained effort to silence NASA's chief climate change scientist. Bush's former Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona, accused the Administration of refusing to allow him to discuss politically sensitive medical subjects in public. Scientists at the Department of the Interior continually found the results of their research being censored in memos. In an interview on Charlie Rose, Nobel laureate James Watson said that the Bush Administration has been a disaster for medical research. A similar case can be made for science in general.

What's more, if present trends continue, America is in danger of sliding into ignorance. RJ Eskow, whose article contributed the graphic at the top of this column, writes:

The Catholic Church rejects the "intelligent design" movement and unequivocally supports the teaching of evolution. The National Council of Churches is a progressive association that represents 55 million American Christians, and it has taken a leadership role in resisting "ID" and other impositions of private belief onto the public sphere. (For some reason, the mainstream media have ignored this organization so thoroughly that I've described them as "America's Secret Christians.")

Unfortunately, their efforts have been more than offset in this country by an activist coalition of fundamentalists and conservative politicians. The result is an all-out war on science that has caused scientific fact to be banned from IMAX theaters, and resulted in a museum exhibit failing to find a corporate sponsor.

Unscientific American: US Almost Last in Understanding Evolution

[links from orginal]

The graphic, which you can see full-size by clicking on it, shows that we are behind only Turkey among industrialized nations in our disbelief in evolution.

If we are to survive the next few centuries, we need science to be unencumbered by political or other fashion. What we choose to do with that science, as individuals and as a society, is up to us. However, the ability of scientists to enquire freely and publish their results as they see them must not become a political matter. Requiring schools to teach pseudo-scientific nonsense to placate religious fanatics will do nothing to help achieve this.

So what do the candidates think about evolution? The Reason article goes on to note that Senators Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback, as well as former governor Mike Huckabee, were the three who raised their hand at the Republican Presidential debate to say that they didn't "believe" in evolution.

I was a bit surprised to learn, however, that Rep. Ron Paul was apparently a little shy about raising his hand at that debate:

Tom DeRosa, president of the hardcore anti-evolution Creation Studies Institute asked the candidates (PDF): "Will your office support and encourage a more open approach to education in the presentation of scientific facts that contradict the theory of evolution?" Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), and Huckabee all answered yes. A reasonable interpretation is that they favored allowing creationism to be taught in science classes.
In a South Carolina forum, Paul was asked about his views on evolution, to which he replied, "I think it's a theory, the theory of evolution and I don't accept it as a theory." He also said that he thought it was an inappropriate question to be asking presidential candidates.

Evolutionary Politics

[links from the original]

So, yes boys and girls, Ron Paul is either a creationist, or at the very least is someone who, while he professes to believe in free markets, doesn't believe in the free market of ideas. I take this as further proof that how much you believe in a free market is often directly related to how well that market is working in your favor.

On the Democratic side, things are more hopeful. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Mike Gravel all have stated strongly that evolution is a reality. Clinton said:

I believe in evolution, and I am shocked at some of the things that people in public life have been saying. I believe that our founders had faith in reason and they also had faith in God, and one of our gifts from God is the ability to reason.

Clinton Says She Would Shield Science From Politics

In that NYT article, she also is quoted as supporting a $50 billion effort to study and fight climate change, which would include research for "energy alternatives to foreign oil". It then goes on:

Her remarks yesterday, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, amounted to a spirited attack on President Bush for waging what she called a “war on science” that has allowed political appointees to shape and in some cases distort science-based federal reports.

Mrs. Clinton said she would restore the office of White House science adviser to the higher status it held in the administrations of her husband and President Bush’s father. And she said she would encourage Congress to revive its Office of Technology Assessment, an advisory group that was shut down in 1995 after Republicans in Congress withdrew its financing.

Clinton Says She Would Shield Science From Politics

Of course, it's easy to object to the policies of the current Administration when you're in the opposition, but at least the rhetoric is in the right direction here.

Mike Gravel may have gotten the best quote on the subject:

When LiveScience asked [Senator Gravel] if he thought creationism should be taught in public schools, Gravel replied, "Oh God, no. Oh, Jesus. We thought we had made a big advance with the Scopes monkey trial....My God, evolution is a fact, and if these people are disturbed by being the descendants of monkeys and fishes, they've got a mental problem. We can't afford the psychiatric bill for them. That ends the story as far as I'm concerned."

Evolutionary Politics

I'm sure there are folks asking why this matters. What possible relevance to our world could the respect Presidential candidates have for science matter? The Reason article concludes:

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence. A January 4, 2008, editorial by Science editor Donald Kennedy correctly argues, "The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?" Kennedy concludes, "I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

Evolutionary Politics

[emphasis mine]

The ability to tell the difference between fact and fantasy matters. Having the wisdom to understand that when one's beliefs are in conflict with reality, that it isn't reality that needs to change, is vital. We've seen how things work out when a President doesn't have that ability.

(h/t Crooks And Liars).

UPDATE: Added the name of Bush's surgeon general. I knew that comma was there for a reason. :)


Phil said...

Struck a nerve with me here Cujo.
This is one of the most under reported deliberate travesties of Bush's tenure.
This alone is going to cost this country billions of dollars to rectify.
It is so fundamentally wrong to try and muzzle scientists that this alone should cause revolt, but the revisionism that has gone under the radar is what scares me.
The Grand Canyon is officially under six thousand years old. OFFICIALLY!
The Park Service put fucking signs up!
Abstinence only, stem cells, dinosaurs and people co-existing the list goes on and on.
They have deliberately set this country back to the Middle Ages and no one seems to care!
It will take years to root out these creationist motherfuckers and restore any resemblance of intelligence in our school systems.
The really sick part is that since these people have finally gotten a taste of inflicting their brand on the public finally, they are going to fight tooth and nail before we stuff them back into their caves to plot their return anew.
A national tragedy, fucking with our scientists and teachers who have a hard enough time without having to intentionally uneducate kids to bumble around society, five hundred years behind their peers in other countries.
Bush and his enablers have killed a generation of children's possible contributions to science.
That is unforgivable.

Cujo359 said...

It's just one outrage after another, isn't it? Some people care, but nowhere near enough, apparently. Just like how not enough pbople care that we started a war for no good reason, have been hemorrahging our civil liberties at an alarming pace, and trashed our manufacturing base.

I just don't get it, and yet it's true.

Anonymous said...

The irony, of course, will be the day when they try to explain away poverty in Darwinian evolutionary terms... and no-one knows what they're talking about.

Yes, I'm sure that will be a great day for America...

(Have you seen Idiocracy? The premise seems frighteningly plausible.)

Cujo359 said...

Another irony is that I've had arguments with more than one economist who couldn't bring themselves to believe there was such a thing as evolution.

Haven't seen Idiocracy. It sounds depressing. Stephen Baxter's Evolution has a similar theme - humans eventually become speechless arboreal creatures at some time in the future.

Phil said...

One of the things that just kills me with these creationists is their unwillingness to extrapolate time, backwards.
they claim the world is only six thousand years old.
In my mind, I am damn near fifty. In my Fifty years of memories, I can remember my great grand parents.
Extrapolate that.
They remember theirs etc. etc, etc, pretty soon it doesn't take too long and you are going back a thousand years.
Same with Redwood trees or Bristlecone Pines and boom, you get past six thousand years pretty quick.
But Nooooo.
Makes me crazy.

Cujo359 said...

Cripes, there's been at least six thousand years of history, as in writing. There's cave art from 50,000 years ago. Anyone who assumes the world is six thousand years old is a fool, assuming he's not a drooling idiot.