Thursday 11 November 2004

Bad science! Bad, naughty, wicked science!

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column, for those of you that don't already know, is the only thing in The Guardian that is absolutely consistently worth reading. It's brilliant every time. (Though I can't work out why it starts each paragraph with a little dot. Is that to prove it's scientific?) So I'm now going to break the habit of, oh, quite a few weeks by totally disagreeing with it.

Here's last week's column:

· For a bloke who looks a lot like a monkey, George W Bush has a strange disdain for evolution. Now, this might all seem very trivial to you, but the Bush administration has decided, just before this week's vote, to stand by its approval for a book that's being sold in National Park museums and bookshops. This book explains to young minds that the Grand Canyon is only a couple of thousand years old, and was created by Noah's flood, rather than by geological forces.

· Lo! Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Joe Alston heroically intervened and referred the sale of the book to his superiors but they sinisterly kept it on the shelves. They also appear to have ignored a letter from the presidents of the Palaeological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the American Geological Institute, the Geological Society of America, and more, all pointing out that the book was nonsense. And they told Congress that they'd have a review of whether they were going to sell the book, and then calmly didn't bother.

Now, I believe in evolution, I'm an atheist, and I think this book should be sold, for three simple reasons: firstly, people want to sell it; secondly, people want to buy it; thirdly, freedom of speech. Really, what's the big deal? Has there been any suggestion that National Park museums and bookshops should be prohibited from selling books that explain evolution? Nope. All that's happened is that a book that puts forward a theory as if it's fact has been approved for sale. What's the alternative? That we ban all books that contain theories presented as facts? That would stop the Bible, Torah, and Koran, certainly, but it would rule out rather a lot of science textbooks, too, wouldn't it? I'm a big fan of David Attenborough's documentaries. They regularly present theory as fact, and I don't think that's any reason to stop anywhere selling them.

When the theory of evolution was first proposed, it was regarded by most people as sheer lunacy, as well as being blasphemous in an overwhelmingly Christian society. Despite that, it has managed to gain mainstream acceptance. The reason it has done so well is that it is a brilliant scientific theory: it explains observed facts more simply than any other theory; it accurately predicts results; it has given rise to genetic engineering, which, whether you approve of it or not, undoubtedly works. There is a huge amount of evidence in its favour, and it is almost certainly correct. The reason the theory has grown to be accepted by so many people is not that the government foisted it on us and banned dissent.

When Galileo proposed that the Earth orbits the Sun, not only were the Church against him, but they had absolute control of the state. The Church made the law, and could have you killed for breaking it. People were tortured to death for blasphemy or for opposing the Church. And what happened? His theory gained widespread acceptance. There are two lessons here. The first is that good theories will overcome obstacles. The second is that government-backed theories are perfectly capable of failure.

Richard Dawkins himself wrote that, when he first heard the theory of evolution, he immediately recognised it as utter bollocks. It was, to him, clearly untrue. Like millions of other people, he changed his mind, because he came to understand that it was a better theory than its alternatives. As far as I'm aware, he has never claimed to have changed his mind because the government forced him to.

Anti-evolutionists believe something that is not true, but they're not stupid. They have learnt these lessons, which is why they developed Creationism: it's supposed to be able to compete with scientific theories on their own territory. It mainly fails, of course, because it is not truly a scientific theory; it's just dressed up to look like one; but its very existence acknowledges (ironically enough) that ideas need to compete to survive. That used to be a bedrock of science, but scientists have abandoned it of late. They no longer want their theories to have to compete against others. They want opposing theories to be banned and theirs to be state-mandated. This is bad for science, and its bad for society.

If the presidents of the Palaeological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America were to receive letters from fundamentalist Christians telling them that their books were nonsense, do you think they'd stop selling them? Do you think they should?

Of course, this is just a book for sale. What about the teaching of Creationism in some schools in America, that gets scientists so het up? Well, I'm all for it. The major priority of any scientific education should be to teach children the scientific method. Instead, most science teaching consists of facts that Thou Shalt Know. Teach children the scientific method, teach them how theories are developed and how they compete, teach them about great scientific theories that were proven wrong; and then you can send them into the world at least reasonably confident that they'll spot bullshit like Creationism for what it is. There is, of course, a caveat to that: while I have no problem with Creationism being taught in schools, it should not be taught in science classes, for the same reason that physics should not be taught in French classes.

Failing sensible science education policies, the USA has a rather brilliant safety mechanism, in the form of local democracy. Education decisions usually only apply to small districts. Even if an entire state (yes, you, Kansas) bans the teaching of evolution and replaces it with Creationism or Bible studies, so what? Other states don't have to follow suit. People can move state if they wish. And, in the federal system, as in science, bad ideas have to compete or die. What do you think will happen when an entire generation of children from one state get lower SAT scores, fewer places in worse universities, no lucrative jobs in the science or technology sectors; when local technology firms find they can't get any new employees who understand the work and start shutting down and moving state, causing job losses? The people in that state will vote to reintroduce evolution to the curriculum. And, being Americans, they'll actually have the power to do so. People aren't so stupid that they have to wait and see all that happen, though: when the Kansas state education board deleted evolution from curriculums in 1999, it took only two years for the decision to be reversed. Even in the Bible Belt, Creationism's just not as popular as some would have you believe.

Anyway, I'm thankful that Mr Goldacre redeems himself with this:

But if it's back doors to enlightenment you're after, you need look no further than Bach Flower Remedies' new Yoga in a Bottle, which has several marketing advantages over real yoga: mainly, it requires the deployment of absolutely no exercise. Its only side effect is to eradicate the opportunity for meeting nice women at yoga class, but if you're so physically non-viable that you've decided to buy yoga in a bottle, then you probably gave up any hope of action between the sheets several years ago, you decadent, obese, lazy, pathetic, unfit, feckless, unmotivated moron.

That's what I like to see.


Andy said...

When the theory of evolution was first proposed, it was regarded by most people as sheer lunacy, as well as being blasphemous in an overwhelmingly Christian society.Really? I have no doubt that some people thought that - there are written records to prove it. But how can we have any idea whether most people thought that, given that scientific opinion polling didn't start until the 1930s?

Squander Two said...

Blimey. I didn't think that was a controversial statement. And I'm surprised to hear anyone holding up opinion polls as examples of accuracy these days.

Darwinism directly contradicted the Church's teaching at the time, and it wasn't one of those nuanced bits of interpretation that Christianity indulges in; it was written in The Bible in very plain language, in the first chapter. It was part of the definition of what God is. Europe and America were overwhelmingly Christian societies, in which the vast majority of people believed in the origin of life and of species by divine fiat. These are not things about which people change their minds overnight, and telling them that they're related to monkeys doesn't, strangely, help to persuade them of your point of view. Until the Church started trying to absorb Darwinism (which it certainly did not do immediately), accepting evolution involved abandoning one's faith. If millions of people had done that, we'd know.

Andy said...

My point was not about whether Darwin condradicted the Church's teaching, but whether most people regarded it as sheer lunacy.

It's not enough to demonstrate the contradiction between Darwinism and church dogma and then infer that most people regarded Darwinism as sheer lunacy. You also have to have some idea about how religious people were and if they accepted church dogma with such conviction that they would regarded any contrary opinion as sheer lunacy.

I certainly know people who attend church, but admit that they're not really sure if they believe everything the church teaches, and questioning religious dogma was hardly new by the time of Darwin. So I don't think we can simply assume that people like that were a minority 150 years ago.

Squander Two said...

Hmm. I perhaps should have structured my response a little more clearly. Yes, I gave a bit of vague back-up to the argument in the second paragraph, but that wasn't really the point. My point was that I didn't think that was a controversial statement. I admit I haven't undertaken any major study of contemporary public attitudes to Darwin, but, as far as I'm aware, it is accepted historical fact that most people did not immediately accept Darwinism -- which is hardly surprising. You seem to have got a bit hung up on my use of the phrase "sheer lunacy" -- I reserve the right to use a bit of hyperbole in my writing, but feel free to replace it with the phrase "fundamentally wrong". If you know something I don't about how a majority of people, upon hearing of Darwin's theories, immediately accepted them and abandoned the teachings of the Church, do please show me the evidence. Really.

By the way, you're guilty of a bit of conflation here:

"You also have to have some idea about how religious people were and if they accepted church dogma with such conviction that they would regarded any contrary opinion as sheer lunacy."

We're not talking about any contrary opinion; we're talking about a particular contrary opinion. People would disagree with the Church about all sorts of relatively minor things, but Darwinism implied that God didn't create animals, plants, or human beings. I'm sure you've heard God referred to as "the Creator" -- according to Darwinism, He isn't. That's pretty fundamental.

Also, I should clarify my points a bit, since you have misunderstood. Christianity is the reason most people disagreed with Darwinism. The idea that people are related to monkeys, not to mention chaffinches and long-eared bats, is what people regarded as lunacy. Two separate points.