Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thoughts on a New Poll on Evolution

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," I wonder what he would consider a foolish consistency. Is it the "freedom isn't free" crowd trying to undermine habeus corpus, the very foundation of our legal freedoms? Or perhaps it is this,

It might seem contradictory to believe that humans were created in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years and at the same time believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. But, based on an analysis of the two side-by-side questions asked this month about evolution and creationism, it appears that a substantial number of Americans hold these conflicting views.
This quotation comes from the analysis of a new Gallup poll. According to that poll, "24% of Americans believe that both the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are probably or definitely true." A quarter of the population holds a view on the origins of humans that is not even close to consistent.

No doubt, part of this is a complete lack of understanding about both natural history and modern biology. The overwhelming majority of people do not have a sense of the fundamental facts of the world. How old is the Earth? How long ago were the dinosaurs around? When did the first humans appear? (4.55 billion years, around 245 million until around 65 million years ago, homo habilis appears around two million years ago while homo sapien comes on the scene about 250,000 years ago) these are big numbers and big numbers baffle the human mind. They all seem the same -- millions, billions, what's the difference? I understand the radical difference between a car costing $30,000 dollars and one costing $500, but one government program costing $3.4 billion and another costing $20 million both get filed under the category "a lot," even though the difference in this second case is a wee bit larger than in the first. As a result, we can easily have little sense of the history of our planet.

The contradiction, however, is not entirely traceable to a lack of scientific understanding. Does this show a need for greatly improved science education? Yeah, sure. But there's something else there as well. This inconsistency has two sides, and part of it is based upon the widespread American desire to embrace science. What you are seeing is the pluralistic desire for folks in this country to both hang onto their religious views and accept the work of science they don't fully understand. It's an attempt to have your religious cake and scientifically eat it too. Many Americans want to see the hand of God in an evolutionary process, whether it is there or not.

Where I think folks like Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner have it completely wrong is that they think that the proper route is to appeal to these people by trying to play the God side of the equation in order to compete with the Republicans (70% of whom, according to this poll, believe that human evolution never occurred). I think this is exactly the wrong tack. Democrats need to work the other part of that desire, to become the party of those who believe in science. Religious belief, it needs to be made clear, is a personal matter. Your theological leanings are your own business and as long as they do not cause physical harm or restrict the rights of any fellow citizen we think that you ought to be encouraged to believe (or disbelieve) whatever you want. However, when it comes to the way the world works, there ought be no path other than evidence-based thinking. We don't need, as Wallis and Lerner argue, to put more God in our politics, we need more science and a clear statement that our values are in concert with our reason.

We need to stress the consequences of putting desired beliefs before science -- hint, look at New Orleans or Iraq. Again, we are the fact-value voters, affirming your prerogative to hold the theology of your choice, but making decisions about how to make policy affecting the world on our knowledge of how the world really works -- whether we want it to work that way or not. We have no problem with religion per se, we have a problem with (1) demonizing anyone whose religious leanings are not identical to your own and (2) when religious convictions stand in the way of efforts to make the world a better, safer, more fair place.

The Creation museum and its overt attack on reason ought to be used as a powerful political weapon. Just as a decade ago the question "How much does a gallon of milk cost?" was the question that made candidates tremble, today, we ought to ask "Are you a proud member of the reality-based community?" whether they believe that public policy ought to be based on our best science. Once upon a time, it seemed like a good idea to have our best and brightest occupy places of great civic responsibility. We should be campaigning on a platform to restore exactly that.

People want to believe in science they don't really understand. We need both to try to improve science education so that more understand it better AND to put in places of power people who do understand it.