Class Warfare Blog

August 9, 2017

A Modern Quandary

I have been reading “Sociology is a Martial Art: Political Writings by Pierre Bourdieu.” This is puzzling to me because I haven’t been having any trouble sleeping, so why would I want to read a sociology text? (Sorry, old joke.)

In a context different from the one I will address in this post ( his was the impact of television), Professor Bourdieu wrote “How can I reconcile the exigency of ‘purity’ inherent in scientific and intellectual work, which necessarily leads to esotericism, with the democratic interest in making these achievements available to the greatest number?” His concern was that the primary function of television seemingly was to dumb down even simple discussions. Here I want to address the topic of the anti-evolution crowd and the anti-climate change crowd.

Without specialized training, it is hard to follow the science in these fields. I have a graduate degree in chemistry and I am not versed in the nuances of either subject (although I guess I could create a small summary of each). So, without esoteric training, how are the citizens in a democracy supposed to assess the validity of such concepts.

We could start with having better basic education, explaining that a scientific theory is a mechanism that explains a great many facts as well as makes predictions available to expand out knowledge. Currently people use the word theory as a synonym for “wild ass guess.” “I have a theory about that …” they will say. No, they don’t. At best they have an hypothesis and more likely they have a guess that is poorly substantiated at best. To say one has a “theory” makes one sound better than to say “I have a guess as to….”

It also does not help that each topic has a cadre of sociopolitical opponents. If the Theory of Evolution is correct, all of fundamentalist Christianity and most of doctrinaire Christianity is off to a rubbish heap somewhere. Basically, if God didn’t created humanity magically, we couldn’t have “rebelled” against his authority, so there was no original sin, and hence nothing for the human sacrifice that was Jesus to absolve. (Bye, bye!)

Climate change has political opponents who have economic stakes at risk. The Koch brothers fund anti-climate change efforts to protect their oil refining, oil pipeline, and other industries, while David Koch supports NOVA science education programs on PBS, including programs on climate change (possibly as a suppressing maneuver?).

So, ordinary citizens are left to evaluate what appears to them to be a propaganda war. “Scientists” have lied to them before as have businessmen, so it is hard to decide which side of either of these debates is trustworthy.

I find the argument that climate change was invented for scientists to be able to secure grants for their work (It is a hoax!). Whoever invented this red herring obviously has never interacted with scientists, each of which has a big ego, and the first of them to discover such a plot would gleefully expose his colleagues to shame and humiliation for participating in it. Most scientists minored in gloating in college.

So, what’s a citizen to do?

I think part of the problem has to do with the evidence not being on display. I hear Christian apologists often ask the question: Where are the transitional fossils? This questions goes back to the time of Charles Darwin when there was a very sparse fossil record. The key facts that the public needs to know is that fossils do not form all that often, so are passably rare and that with regard to transitional fossils, fossils that show one species transitioning to another, there are large numbers of them available. Maybe a video (to reach the masses) needs to me made of the amount of evidence underlying the Theory of Evolution. The amount of evidence, from many, many different and unrelated fields of science is incredibly vast. Just a list of peer-reviewed articles supporting the theory scrolling on like the credits of a Hollywood movie (like they do on TV, at super high speeds) would take hours. Flashing photos of all of the fossils that apply to animals no longer in existence but which fit into the evolutionary family tree of Earth, would also take quite a long time (blink, blink, blink, maybe a running counter would help: 1, 2, 3, …, 3008, 3009, …).

The same could be true for Climate Change. We could run publicity shots of the smiling faces of the scientists in the field who support the tentative conclusion that humanity is contributing to the current round of climate change (blink, blink, blink, maybe a running counter would help: 1, 2, 3, …, 178, 179, …). Then the photos of those reputable scientists who oppose the current consensus on climate change could have their photos flashed (blink, blink, blink).

There is no way ordinary citizens could be brought up to speed on these topics through educating them, because even with the head start in such training I have, I do not want to put in the effort. Instead, I trust the scientists in their field to represent their findings correctly (to the best of their ability) and I trust the egos of their colleagues to prick any intellectual bubbles that are flimsy or unfounded.

Another route might be to create an independent evaluation board to provide basic explanations of science topics to legislators and citizens. The Town of Brisbane, Australia did this a while back (don’t know whether they still do) when they created the office of Town Scientist whose job it was to explain scientific topics to the town governing board and citizens of the Town of Brisbane. For the longest time the State of California had an independent political official whose job was to explain issues voters needed to address and that office was never politicized or demeaned, and it worked really well for quite some time (don’t know whether it still does).

This is a modern problem, because back when “governance” was by autocrats/monarchs, they didn’t give a fig about whether the people understood or not. Ironically, it was the advent of merchants (aka business people) who accumulated wealth (aka power) enough to make it important that a wider swath of a country’s population be made to understand governmental decisions. With the advent of modern democracy, issues are now submitted to the ballot and candidates for office are voted upon, too. We need to figure out how to “reconcile the exigency of ‘purity’ inherent in scientific and intellectual work, which necessarily leads to esotericism, with the democratic interest in making these achievements available to the greatest number” and we need to do it fast. Life ain’t gonna get simpler.

September 17, 2013

What’s In a Name?

I note that the creationist/intelligent design crowd keep attacking Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, not just “evolutionary theory,” but Darwin’s theory. I am not sure they are bright enough to think of this strategy but I have my suspicions. By tagging evolutionary theory as being “Darwin’s” theory, they tag it with its nineteenth century creation date.

In fact, if Darwin were alive to day, he might have trouble recognizing his theory. He did not live to see the flowering of genetics or the discovery of DNA or the mapping of entire genomes, or radioactive dating techniques. Over a century of measurements have come about that test the theory of evolution and, lo and behold, the theory has held up pretty well. Minor adjustments have been made, but by and large, the theory of evolution has been tested (and tested, and tested, …) and passed all of the tests. In fact, the theory has been added to, it has been refined, it has been clarified, but overall, it has been verified.

Very few theories come with a name attached. We don’t talk about Maxwell’s theory of heat or Newton’s theory of light, or Becquerel’s theory of radioactivity, certainly not outside of history of science classes. We do refer to “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” but that theory is more recent and Einstein had kind of a rock star presence in the mind of the public, plus his theory was incomprehensible to most average citizens, giving it the mystique of genius.

So, by emphasizing the theory of evolution to be “Darwin’s” the deniers are trying to undermine the mountains of modern evidence that support that theory.

The deniers say we should “teach the controversy” by teaching both the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design and let the student’s decide. That would be interesting. After months of instruction on the theory of evolution, showing facts, tests, outcomes, a teacher would then say: “Or, it could have been magic. What do you think?” Do they think that this is a debate that can be voted on, like American Idol or The X Factor?

There is no “controversy.” For those who think there is, they haven’t studied the theory enough to know what it says and what it doesn’t say. Most people would recognize that asking that theory to explain the phases of the moon is stupid because that is outside the purview of the theory, but so is the Big Bang, how life began, and a whole host of other things thrown into discussions of “the controversy” by these people.

There is no controversy regarding the theory of evolution. And rhetorical devices won’t further our learning. If you think the theory of evolution is wrong at it’s core, you don’t understand it or don’t want it to be true.

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