Taking on Perry’s take on evolution

“I hear your mom was asking about evolution. That’s a theory that is out there —
and it’s got some gaps in it.”
Rick Perry

Maybe science blogger P Z Myers is right about the Republicans — “it’s as if they’re selecting for stupidity.”

Rick Perry — who also believes wrongly that Texas, the state he governs, teaches creationism along with evolution in its science classrooms — made the comment quoted above during a recent campaign event, in answer to a boy’s question about the age of the Earth.

The response to Perry’s assertion about evolution was immediate, partly because of the rank ignorance of Perry’s assertion that evolution “has holes in it,” but mostly because Perry is a major player in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Liberal and moderate churchmen — Jews, Catholics, and non-evangelical Protestants, as well as a smattering of leaders of other faiths  — rushed to suggest that Perry’s views were not held universally by the faithful.

And the so-called “accommodationists,” those scientists and atheists — and no, they’re not the same thing — who seek dialogue and amity with fundamentalists have been equally quick to excoriate those of their intellectual colleagues whose response to Perry’s scientific illiteracy has been both direct and unforgiving.

Let’s be clear at the start that yes, evolution is a “theory,” but as has been well and endlessly explained elsewhere it’s not “just a theory.” We won’t repeat that long argument here; rather, let’s just remind ourselves that the popular use of the word “theory” is vastly different than the scientific meaning. Even gravity is a “theory” in the scientific sense; and even “Aliens killed JFK” is a “theory” in popular use. We all get this part, so let’s move on.

Perry’s assertion that evolution “has some gaps” echoes the completely discredited creationist tactic of “the God of the Gaps.” That notion was wrong, and so is Perry.

But perhaps the most relevant issue is, How should scientists respond to nonsense like Perry’s claims about evolution?

In the last post, I reviewed Stop Being Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Randy Olson’s manual on how to talk about science to politicians and the public. Part of Olson’s advice is that scientists should never “talk down” to the public. They should avoid the appearance of arrogance or excessive “braininess.”

Olson’s message would likely fall on deaf ears in the zealot’s camp of “New Atheists” that prominently includes Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers. Dawkins blasts Perry in “Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a Fact,” published by the Washington Post.

Well, as hard as I try to be fair and balanced in presenting issues that really do have two or more sides, evolution is one “issue” that really doesn’t. As one contributor to the Washington Post discussion put it, if 55% of the American public believed that the South won the Civil War, that wouldn’t make it true.

Evolution is, for all practical purposes, exactly what Richard Dawkins calls it: a fact.

And Dawkins — who, I freely admit, has an unpleasant penchant for calling his intellectual opponents idiots and morons, or, as in this case, an “uneducated ignoramus” — puts his case for the force of evolution’s truth as clearly and succinctly as anyone could.

Dawkins tells Perry, and anyone else who doesn’t get it: “The power of a scientific theory may be measured as a ratio: the number of facts that it explains divided by the number of assumptions it needs to postulate in order to do the explaining. A theory that assumes most of what it is trying to explain is a bad theory. ”

Dawkins expands on the advantages of evolution:

The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains – everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful.

And for anyone who sees only the tough, outer shell of Dawkins, the scientist, there’s this wonderful passage: “To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.”

Before you think that Dawkins has gone all soft and stuff, consider this direct — and in the view of many psychologists and other political analysts, correct — explanation for the Republicans’ evident need to deny scientific reality:

In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

A related analysis can be found in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant!, in which he argues that conservatives, and Republicans, too, prefer their reality to come down from on high, from an authoritative parent figure. People don’t vote on issues, Lakoff says. Rather, they “vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who [sic] they identify with.”

Science, essentially antiauthoritarian despite what some relativists claim, is tenuous when compared to religion. “This is the best answer we have” is less “solid” than is “This is what God says.”

It may be that Olson’s ideas about presenting substance with style fall short of a full understanding of the appeal of knownothingness — the appeal of certainty at the expense of truth, the comfort zone inhabited by Rush Limbaugh’s proudly self-proclaimed “Dittoheads.”

In this case, I’m with P Z Myers, whose disdain of accommodationism is always front and centre:

This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.

When a serious presidential candidate prays for rain in his state house, says that he doesn’t “believe in” evolution and climate change — as if what he believes has any effect on what’s real! — we may be past the point of a wry smile and a “tsk tsk.”

Don’t you think?