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I accidentally rediscovered a paper — actually, a transcript of a talk — on a controversial topic (human psychological dimorphism) in a controversial field (evolutionary psychology). It’s called ”Is There Anything Good About Men?”. Its originator has since written a book from his work. I’d read the speech once before but lost track of it.

The site I found it on was a gaming site, which I absolutely did not expect. The site author’s summary of the talk and the subsequent comment thread were enlightening. Several commenters brought intelligent criticisms to bear, the strongest and most central of which being that gathering a bunch of data and then coming up with a believable explanation that accounts for it all is merely the beginning of an investigation. The explanation is not a fact or even a theory, that process isn’t the scientific method, and if that’s all you do, you’re not a respectable scientist (or a scientist at all, technically). On the flip side, there was the site author’s characteristic frustratingly level-headed attitude of refusing to accept irrational, emotional responses. Data becomes objectionable when it’s collected improperly, not because it offends you or because it’s been used to justify immoral behavior in the past.

Like I said, an interesting read, and more enlightening that the first time I came across it.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This conversation didn’t exactly happen, but it was close.

“Guess what I discovered: it’s unconstitutional to require evolution to be taught in school.”

“Really? How so?”

“It contradicts the Christian story of creation. That means it directly attacks a main tenet of a major religion. The government isn’t supposed to promote any particular religion. Logically, it shouldn’t be allowed to inhibit any particular religion either.”

“Right. So what does that tell you about the government’s proper role in education?”

“Wait. You believe me?”

“Sure. Why shouldn’t I? You were serious, right?”

“...no. I was being silly.”

“You took two fairly evident and easily-defensible facts, drew a completely logical conclusion from them, and you say you’re not serious? How do you even do that? Why would you do that?”

“You understand politics. I don’t. I put an absurd notion forward so you’d tell me the simple, obvious factor I overlooked.”

“I don’t think you overlooked anything. Your reasoning seems sound. What do you think the error is?”

“It’s got to be something. The Supreme Court says it’s illegal for states to outlaw teaching evolution. Forbidding that subject favors Christianity.”

“First, you didn’t answer my question. I asked you to identify the flaw in your logic, not guess whether there is a flaw — and ‘a bunch of old white guys who went to fancy schools disagree with me’ is not a valid response to either of those anyway. Second, you see the conundrum. If government forbids teaching evolution, they favor a particular religion, and if they mandate teaching it, they disfavor a particular religion. Their only legal move is to do neither.”

“That’s crazy! If you go by that reasoning, there can’t be any government education requirements at all, in any subject, since they might teach something that contradicts some religious teaching.”


“You are serious.”

“Absolutely. The federal government of the United States has no business forcibly educating any of its citizens that all or even part of his or her faith is false. Period. It’s that simple.”

“But the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming.”

“That’s utterly irrelevant. This isn’t about what theories are sound. It’s about what the government may force people to do.”

“So if my religion requires human sacrifice, I can just kill anyone I want? I mean, hey, the government can’t oppress me!”

“Oh come on. You know the answer to that. This is a case of conflicting rights. Your right to practice your religion loses priority to my right not to be murdered. You couldn’t legally sacrifice me unless I volunteered. But it’s an invalid analogy. There is no right to education in the U.S.’s highest legal documents. Now lift yourself out of grade school and give me a counterpoint that you don’t already know will fail.”

“Okay.... Widespread, quality education is necessary for the general welfare of the country, and the government is required to protect that.”

“Gah. The ‘general welfare’ clause is an ill-defined briar patch and always has been. It’s been used to justify almost all losses of freedom Americans have suffered.”

“So you don’t think education is crucial to a country’s very existence?”

“Oh, I do! It’s absolutely vital. But federal involvement and central control have made education worse, not better, and cost taxpayers billions in the process. The U.S. was globally competitive on the academic front for most of its existence, including the whole time before education became federally regulated and mandated. The current system is more concerned with keeping those billions of dollars flowing into it than with teaching. You’re getting worse education overall (and less religious freedom, as you yourself pointed out) than if Washington did nothing.”

“I said I wasn’t serious.”


quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This year’s Miss USA pageant picked one of its fifteen semifinalists by posing three questions to all the contestants, recording their answers, putting these videos on the internet, and opening them up to a public vote. Those questions were:

  • Have you, or would you, use an online dating service?
  • Should evolution be taught in schools?
  • How do you feel about being in a tasteful nude photo shoot?

#2 caused a bit of a stir.

Numerous news agencies and Scientific American magazine report that only two of the fifty-one contestants “backed evolution”. I have no idea where these journalists got that count, but even though the vast majority of answers were vague or wishy-washy, the count of contestants who personally believe that evolution is real and/or technically answered the question “yes” is far higher than two. At least three said they personally believe evolution is a real phenomenon. About ten straight-up said it should be taught. Then we get into the ones who are only kind of in favor of it but not really supporters. About ten more were weakly in favor of teaching it or favored teaching it with some hamstringing qualifying condition, like making it an elective or only teaching the observable facts supporting it but not the theory itself. Over twenty more advised teaching it along with “the alternative” or “everything” and letting the kids decide for themselves what to believe. (See this link for fairly accurate breakdown and quote sample.)

The blog entry at It’s Not a Lecture summarizes things best, I think: this was a popularity contest, for crying out loud, not a policy discussion. Of course the contestants will be wishy-washy and noncommittal. Like, duhhh!They’re not trying to give thoughtful, rational answers. They’re trying to schmooze as many different viewers as they can. It’s a tempest in a teapot, deliberately constructed so by pageant officials (probably) to turn more heads their way.

So are the contestants’ stances indicative of the attitude of America in general? Well, they can’t logically be considered so. The environment of the question and non-randomness of the sample mean you can’t extrapolate like that. On the other hand, if you look at what typical Americans actually believe, the Miss USA hopefuls were comparatively pro-science. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans are Young Earth Creationists. Other polls put the figure closer to half the country, and Gallup’s own earlier polls meander between 40% and 50% going back to 1980. Two out of five Americans believe the Judeo-Christian God created the Earth and universe similar to their current state a mere six to ten thousand years ago. Two of the remaining three believe that life did evolve over eons but God guided and/or invented the process.

Convincing people of things is hard. Very hard. Facts do a lousy job by themselves. Worse, this issue is scattered with misinformation, overloaded terms, and preconceived notions, circumstantial evidence, and deep political and religious convictions. There’s the notion that scientists favor evolution because their real goal is not to discover knowledge but rather to spread their atheist faith. There’s the notion that so many scientists favor evolution only because lots of other scientists do, not because each scientist weighed the evidence personally and came to an independent conclusion. When Young Earth and intelligent design explanations are dismissed or excluded from curricula, it’s because of a conspiracy to squelch dissent rather than because those explanations were honestly found flawed or unconvincing. (After all, if you compete and lose, is it because the winner was better than you or because the judges were crooked?)

There is a problem of terms. In formal scientific use, an explanation doesn’t get to be a “theory” until it’s withstood a hell of a lot of testing. In everyday English, the word is merely a synonym for “educated guess”. “Evolution” can refer to the general idea that animals, plants, bacteria, and so on change over time, or it can refer specifically to the modern Darwinian-based theory of that process’s details (which you can disagree with without rejecting the former).

A big problem is the idea that the evolution explanation and the creation explanation are equal alternatives in a 50/50 conflict of opinions — opinions being those things that everyone is entitled to (with exactly as much weight as everyone else’s) and that, by definition, cannot be incorrect (since that status can apply only to knowledge). This notion permeates the Miss USA answers and most public comment threads on the interview controversy.

I asked an acquaintance who’s a moderator on the atheism and skeptics StackOverflow sites for advice. His approach is to point out that the modern theory of evolution doesn’t say a thing about how life began, so it doesn’t contradict the idea that God created life. He follows that up by pointing out that, if you were to design life yourself, how smart it would be to design a way for living things to get more survivable over time. That gets them un-defensive enough to listen to evidence supporting evolution’s existence. I’m not sure how he approaches the fundamentalists who point out that even though evolutionary theory doesn’t claim an act of God didn’t start life, it does contradict the Christian creation story, or who believe random changes and natural selection can account for minor variations between or within similar species (say, wolves to foxes or horses to zebras) but not macroevolution (like plankton to giraffes).


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