Friday, February 24, 2006

How to deal with dumb design?

Reading the news from the US, I often come across information about creationism. Thankfully, we don’t have much of a problem over here in Europe. Of course, the Church has its view about divinely-guided evolution (though why God would have to guide it if he can foresee the end result is beyond me). However, neither creationism nor the ID monster it has transmogrified into are much in evidence around here. I suspect that a big reason is that there are no well funded organisations pushing that particular brand of BS uphill in Europe. So, when I was told by a student the other day that it isn’t so clear whether evolution is correct, I was dumbfounded. The student clearly had no idea what he was talking about as he came from a purely humanities background and simply must have somewhere heard or read this semi-intellectual claptrap. As such, he seems to me to be a prime example of the victims of creationists – the majority of humanity that do not have the relatively specialised knowledge to tell the difference between science and pseudo-science.

The failure of the education that student has been receiving is two-fold. Firstly, that he could be at university and holding beliefs that are akin to thinking that the Earth is flat. Secondly, that he could be blissfully unaware of just how outrageous those beliefs are. Unfortunately, my immediate reaction was not satisfactory – I laughed off the matter saying that yes I know that they think that kind of thing in the US and that if their technology and society falls behind because of this it will be their problem. This claim is neither true – it will be everyone’s problem – nor did it help the poor student to realise just what he was claiming. This raises two questions. In the context of the particular situation, the question is how I should deal with such cases. More generally, the question is how I, as an intellectual, ought to deal with views that have no intellectual validity but which are socially influential.

Dealing with second question first, it is necessary to start by pointing out a particular quandary which is quite familiar to anyone who finds themselves in my situation: by reacting, even negatively, to a particular view, one gives it some intellectual cachet as it thereby becomes a thing that is discussed while, by not discussing it, one allows errors to persist unchallenged. I think the answer has to be sought case by case and depends on several factors. Of course, just as with a disease that strikes the body, it is better to act to prevent people being susceptible in the first place rather than having to deal with the actual problem. This has the added advantage that this would not lead to the objection that one is merely opposing views one does not like, rather than ones that are really inferior in some way.

However, given that harebrained ideas are just as common as rabbits and often reach plague proportions, it is necessary to know what to do about them. I think that intellectuals have as much an obligation to oppose such views as they do to propose better ones. Carl Sagan, in his role as a public intellectual, is a very good example here. I guess that over the rest of the semester I will simply have to show how much evolution is a part of our understanding of the world. Thankfully, the content of the course is such that I can not help but show this.

In general, there are two reasons why a particular view ought to be discussed. One is that it is interesting for some reason. The other is that it is influential. I find creationism duller than bilge water (as that is bound to be full of all sorts of interesting micro-organisms). However, it is influential, making it necessary that I deal with it on occasion. At the same time, these kinds of instances really reveal how important a rounded education is. Had the student received a proper education in the basics of science he would be in the position to evaluate creationism himself and the whole problem would not have arisen in the first place.


At 24/2/06 11:49 pm, Blogger FreeThinker said...

The good news is that "ID" is slowly going away. Check out the National Center for Science Education for what we are doing about it.

I like your blog, fellow freethinker!


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