Thursday, July 30, 2009

As I Was Saying...

Dan Kennedy of The Guardian has a story on how the publicity surrounding the "Birthers" (the mistaken idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) is giving the United States a bad name on the world stage. Kennedy's piece is more a glorified book review than anything but he makes some good points along the way. The book he is reviewing is Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Kennedy writes:
Idiot America – not the book, but, rather, a state of mind – is based on what Pierce calls three "Great Premises":

1. "Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units."

2. "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough."

3. "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it."

These premises, Pierce argues, are at work in absurdities such as the very loud, very public and very idiotic controversies over "intelligent design" (the story of Genesis dressed up as science), the fate of Terri Schiavo (a brain-dead woman who spent years being kept breathing in a Florida hospice thanks to the intervention of talkshow hosts and cynical politicians) and global warming (Pierce spends some time in Shishmaref, Alaska, a once-frozen village now literally melting into the Pacific Ocean).
The problem is that these people are well-funded and their operations are well-staffed. Not a day goes by that there is not a story somewhere about the Discovery Institute and their relentless attacks on the teaching of evolutionary theory, attacks that a large section of the public is quite willing to accept as truth.

Is the DI's principle spokesman a biologist? No, he's a lawyer with no training in biology. When they tout a list of scientists who dissent from evolution, does it matter that there are no field biologists on the list and only one palaeontologist? Not to the general public, many of who are quite willing to believe that the earth was created 6 000 years ago, despite the fact that there is as much evidence for that as there is that the earth is flat. P.T. Barnum once said that people have a tremendous "need" to be fooled. Sadly, that happens all too often here.

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  1. Jim,

    I think you know I agree with you about the science. I do not agree with your conclusion why ID and YEC groups are so successful. Obviously they have a competitive advantage in our society that make them so successful. Throwing rhetorical dirt balls at them will not make them go away.

    The "Idiot America" label does not describe my well educated friends who nonetheless doubt evolution. They are intelligent people of good will, who simply cannot look fairly at the evidence. To do so would threaten their theology, their social networks, their marriages, even their livelihoods. To put it bluntly, there are "good reasons" they do not examine the evidence, or if they do, cannot see the obvious.

    People don't "'need' to be fooled," they need to survive. And in our societal environment there are societal niches where believing in a literal interpretation of Genesis is a good survival strategy. They have good ordered lives and seem to be honest and upright in other aspects of their lives. They also produce above average number of well adjusted offspring who, although tending not to go into certain academic careers, do better than average in school and life in general.

    Just a plea to keep the dialog civil.

  2. Hornspiel, it was not my intention to throw rhetorical dirtballs. Your point is well-taken in that most of the people that espouse this viewpoint are not idiots. I should not have implied that they were. But there seems to be a willfulness on the part of many in the GOP to accept the parts of modern science that they take advantage of, like the internal combustion engine, antibiotics and the like, but reject the areas of science that they don't feel comfortable with, like evolution, geology and astronomy, as if somehow, scientists have gotten everything else right but have gotten those horribly wrong. This, despite over 150 years of observations and predictions.

    One of the things that is frustrating about the controversy to me is something that you have pointed out. I go to church with people that are the most upright Christians that I know, willing to give beyond the breaking point, to share the Gospel with people who want nothing of it and they are so well-spoken and kind that I am embarrassed to be in their company at times. Many of these people have not thought much about the age of the earth or evolution but if they do, they take the YEC position hook, line and sinker. That is understandable because they do not have the background to evaluate the arguments. Those are not the people that really hack me off. It is the people from the Discovery Institute, AIG and ICR that pretend to speak from positions of authority. These people, with no expertise whatever, shout very loudly that the scientists who have devoted their working lives to understanding the biodiversity and age of the world and who have had years of training are "liars" or "delusional" (see today's post) and, quite frankly, that's insulting.

    But you are correct. I let myself be ruled by my indignation and did not act in a Christian manner. Thank you for your rebuke. It was needed.

  3. HornSpiel,
    The other thing about the folks at the DI and AIG and the like is that they have passed from just plain ignorance about the fossil record, the genetic data and the geological data into culpable ignorance. They claim there are no fossil intermediates. When some are pointed out, they ignore them. When the genetic information linking humans and the higher apes is presented to them, they ignore it. Then, hey presto, they turn right around and say "there are no fossil intermediates" as if there was no data to the contrary. I think it is Kenneth Miller who tells the story that he attended a creationist talk by Duane Gish one time and when Gish got to the part about the lack of fossil intermediates between land-dwelling mammals and whales, Miller stood up and told Gish about all of the fossils that had actually been found showing the transition. When he went to Gish's talk the next night, there was absolutely no mention of the fossils from the previous night. Gish just went on with his usual presentation as if nothing had happened. That is, if nothing else, intellectual dishonesty.

  4. Anonymous2:13 AM

    Yes isnt it completely obvious that the "discovery" institute is the prime driver of this idiotization of everything, and the dumbing down of the cultural conversation in the USA altogether.

    It is of course bank-rolled by a rabidly intolerant homophobic right wing billionaire

  5. And who might that be?