December 29, 2007

Florida Creationists: Undermining Democracy in Favor of Protected Ignorance

A series of letters to the editor in The Tampa Tribune in response to the ridiculing and subsequent collapse of Creationists on the Polk County school board contains some rather dumb comments. They serve as good examples of the sort of sloppy, disconnected-from-reality thinking that gives rise to Intelligent Design Creationism in the first place. Still, among all the gems of crap published, one stood out in particular:

A Case Of Cyberbullying

It was telling in the reading of the paragraph that followed the sub-headline, "E-Mail Mocks Board's Stance," that there was no board stance at all, just a collection of responses to a Lakeland Ledger reporter's question by five of the seven Polk County School Board members. One of whom, it is clear, did not say it was desirable to see an alternative to Darwinian evolution taught.

But, that is not the real story!

What followed was a discussion of the response columns in the Ledger and the involvement of a group called Pastafarians, so called for their adherence to the line of thought put forth by the operators of the Spaghetti Monster Web site. The loosely affiliated group immediately pummeled the board in general and the individual members with e-mails. The only reason was to ridicule, demean and denigrate the poor souls who, in a moment of absolute naivete', answered an honest question, well, honestly. The result was to insult and ridicule the whole of Polk County.

Folks, when we sit and discuss the loss of our civil rights - freedom of speech among them - we have more to fear from the Pastafarians and their ilk than all the government agencies put together. Whether it is the pro-life, abortion rights, gay rights or immigration rights groups, their single-minded pursuit of "their" issue often results in the kind of "cyberbullying" seen here. Disagree with the party-line of any of these or a myriad of other groups (or Lou Dobbs, for that matter) and you will likely end up on the spot, with considerable energy focused on you and anyone unfortunate enough to be close to you.

I had to reread that last paragraph a few times. This guy is saying that no matter how ridiculous, how wrong, how indefensible the position of some politician, corporation, whatever entity we care to name might be, freedom of speech demands that we don't respond. According to this pinheaded point-of-view, what the Pastafarians did was bullying.

What kind of bullying is this? There were no threats involved. A group of people got together and decided to send emails that were both humorous and logically equivalent in terms of their content to the content of the Polk school board's arguments. A number of bloggers, myself included, publically ridiculed those arguments. That isn't bullying, that's free speech. Note, too, that Carnot names a single individual — Lou Dobbs — as engaging in this "bullying" behavior. So whether the scorn comes from a group or individual, in Carnot's mind it is a violation of the free speech of the scorned entity.

This is patently ridiculous, of course. According to this way of thinking, petitions are bullying. So are the frequent "ActionAlerts" issued by the American Family Association, such as this one calling on readers to boycott Ford Motor Company and contact local dealers in the process to advance their agenda. According to what Carnot has written, once an opinion has been espoused in the public square, it magically becomes sacrosanct. It cannot be criticized, let alone ridiculed, regardless of its merits of lack thereof.

Of course, that's not really what Carnot wants. He wants some speech protected, but not all. What he's ultimately advocating is that certain kinds of opinions, namely the ones with which he agrees, be protected from criticism, analysis and mockery. What he's advocating is a special kind of protection for religiously motivated speech, and so he applies the hot button word "bullying" to any attempts, whether by individuals or groups, to demonstrate the inherently fallacious nature of such statements. So much for "teaching the controversy." Carnot, instead, serves as a good example of why faith-based policy is a bad idea; in a world according to Carnot, we could never question statements like those made by Creationists on the Polk Board. Their word would carry more force, by design, than those who disagree and can make an argument for why they do so. Carnot is not only a lousy thinker, he's an essentially un-American one.

Of course, Carnot's letter isn't the only one on the subject, just the most egregiously ridiculous. Here are a few excerpts from others that are nonsensical for other reasons.
...When we see specified complexity, from a sand castle to a space shuttle, we rightly understand that it was purposefully made. And when we come across beaver dams or BMWs, we know instinctively that they were intentionally produced...

— Gary Ripple, St. Petersburg

Leaving aside that instinct isn't a way of knowing but a way of reacting without thought, this argument simply holds no water. In fact, a BMW is significantly less complex than the chaos of mineral ores and monomers from which it originated. If it were more complex than those natural progenitors, we couldn't figure out how to drive the things. It's the simplification of the original complexity, not its increase, that demonstrates design in such cases. Moreover, our instincts can certainly be wrong; instincts frequently get animals who have them killed when they are in an environment or situation for which those instincts weren't specifically adapted. Humans, however, do have a propensity for pattern recognition — so much so that we often see patterns where none exists, such as in the phenomenon of pareidolia. Science isn't about trusting our instincts and biases, but about removing them from our understanding of a given phenomenon to the greatest extent possible. While we may not do so perfectly as individuals, peer review, mathematics and repeatability go a long way in reinforcing this basic goal. Ripple clearly doesn't get that point; his is the classic argument from incredulity which is Intelligent Design Creationism in a nutshell.
As someone schooled in the sciences, I'm always a bit confused by the intense opposition from scientists to the teaching of modern scientific evidence that calls into question a century-and-a-half-old theory...

...the greatest testimonies of the Bible's truths and God's existence are the transformed lives that bear witness to both each day. No such empirical or life-changing evidence has been found for Darwinism or, for that matter, fairy-tale food fiends.

— Joe Burns, Brandon

"Schooled in the sciences?" I don't know what that means precisely. A high school chemistry class, maybe? "Transformed lives" aren't empirical evidence by their very nature; it's an untestable and subjective claim and primarily an empty descriptor. "Transformed" can mean anything at all. Burns, I think, needs some more schooling in the sciences, because he doesn't have a grasp of the fundamentals. As usual, those who oppose science are excellent arguments for why science education needs to be improved in the first place!
...Evolutionists are afraid of competition. They say ID is not science when in fact it's more scientific than evolution. Evolutionists pick and choose the data to fit their foregone conclusions. Their examples of evolution are nothing more than adaptation, not evolution. There's no fossil record of animals changing from one species to another. The fossil records show immediate, fully intact creatures from the beginning...

...The world is much too complex not to have an intelligent designer. It takes more faith to believe in "nothing creating something" than for "something to create something."

— Gary Worley, Lakeland

And again, another good example of how the best arguments in favor of improving science education come from those who oppose science. Worley has never read a single scientific paper; no one who has done so in the field of evolutionary biology, phylogeny, etc., could make a statement so inane and incorrect as "evolutionists pick and choose data." In fact, we often find things that surprise us and force us to discard a hypothesis we've concocted, but the nature of scientific inquiry is such that even being forced to reject a hypothesis in light of new data adds to, not diminishes, knowledge. Ruling something out, in fact, is far more important than proving something we thought could be the case before a study is conducted. That Worley hasn't a clue about what evolutionary theory actually says is made pointedly obvious by his statements that the fossil record shows "adaptation, not evolution." Adaptation is evolution, after all. And of course there are no fossils of creatures changing from one species into another; a given organism is a member of a species. The process of change isn't fossilized, just the organism, giving us a snapshot in time. It is by taking these snapshots and arranging them into a sort of photographic flip-book that we see the process of change.

An analogy: you have a photograph of your uncle Fred at age 5 and another of him at age 80. You've only known the old version of Fred, so you don't recognize that the five year old is the same person at a different point in his life. Then you inherit a photo album that's all about Uncle Fred; you have a sequential series of photos showing him aging. Now you are able to look at all the photos and see how Fred changed between ages 5 and 80, and it becomes clear that the child in your first photo and the elderly gentleman in the last one are the same person. Now, none of the photos themselves show Uncle Fred aging; each one just shows a different stage of his life. Only by taking them all together and having them in sequence does the process of change over time become apparent. Are we then justified in removing one of the photos from the album and stating that since we cannot see Fred growing old in that one photo, Fred never ages? Do we conclude that Uncle Fred was born at age 80? It sounds like something only a real blockhead would do, but that's exactly what Worley and those like him are doing when they make the claim that there are "no transitional forms in the fossil record." Of course each organism preserved in stone is a complete one and a member of a particular species! It's just one photograph in a series, and the circumstances are exactly the same as our hypothetical Uncle Fred photo album. People who make this argument either don't know what the words "fossil record" means or else are trying to sell books and/or advance an agenda that ultimately has nothing at all to do with science. I suspect Worley falls into the former class, "ignorant and thus easily mislead."

The rest of Worley's argument is, again, argumentum ad ignorantum. How does Worley know how complex the world is? How would one even quantify such a statement? It may well be overwhelmingly complex when viewed through his eyes, but that doesn't mean that a huge number of people, equipped with knowledge of some basic laws and the right tools, all working together, can't break that complexity down into simpler parts and see how it all fits together — and that process is called science. As far as competition for evolutionary theory, bring it on! Show us the data! Publish something empirically based that presents a devastating line of evidence against evolutionary theory and you will become known as the greatest scientist of the age. However, if you merely spew rhetoric based upon profound ignorance and refuse to engage in scientific research and having done so fail to provide any evidence to back up your contentions, all you have is an opinion. Even worse, what you have is an opinion based on nothing but what you would like to be true of the world and that has no basis in reality.

You'll have done exactly what the Polk County School Board Creationists did when they voiced their own ignorance and were mocked in response. That's when you need ol' Bob Carnot to step in and convince others that your opinion should be protected from scrutiny and response. Thus does ignorance and malfeasance undermine democracy for all of us. That is why it's so important, in fact, that Pastafarians and bloggers and Lou Dobbs (who, by the way, I can't stand) exist and have the opportunity to shine a light on this idiocy.

In case Carnot or Worley or the rest come across this entry at some point in time, please be aware that I'm sitting here in my pajamas and mocking you right now. I write it in the hopes that others will also find it and likewise mock you because you are the stuff from which jokes are made.

Sphere: Related Content