The Dinosaurs On Noah’s ark

Just shoot me now.

A column in the Arizona Republic newspaper reports that the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has added a member to that state’s panel charged with reviewing science instruction in Arizona’s public schools.

And what eminent scientist or respected academic has been chosen for this important panel?

Here is a bit of instruction from a guy Superintendent Diane Douglas tapped to help review Arizona’s standards on how to teach evolution in science class:

The earth is just 6,000 years old and dinosaurs were present on Noah’s Ark. But only the young ones. The adult ones were too big to fit, don’t you know.

“Plenty of space on the Ark for dinosaurs – no problem,” Joseph Kezele explained to Phoenix New Times’Joseph Flaherty.

Flaherty reports that in August, Arizona’s soon-to-be ex-superintendent appointed Kezele to a working group charged with reviewing and editing the state’s proposed new state science standards on evolution.

Joseph Kezele, it turns out, teaches (his version of) biology at Arizona Christian University, and serves as president of the Arizona Origin Science Association.   The article describes him as “a staunch believer in the idea that enough scientific evidence exists to back up the biblical story of creation.”

Douglas has been working for awhile now to bring a little Sunday school into science class. This spring she took a red pen to the proposed new science standards, striking or qualifying the word “evolution” wherever it occurred.

Douglas wants the theory of Intelligent Design taught alongside the “theory” of evolution–a desire that confirms her total lack of understanding of the scientific method and scientific terminology.

A scientific theory is not the equivalent of a wild-ass guess. Scientific theories grow out of and are based upon groups of hypotheses that have been repeatedly and successfully empirically tested. Only after sufficient evidence has been gathered in support of those hypotheses will a theory be developed to explain the phenomenon in question.

Even then, scientific theories (unlike religious beliefs) remain subject to falsification–continued empirical testing to support or disprove the hypotheses upon which the theory depends. If a theory cannot be rejected, modified or confirmed by such empirical testing, it isn’t science.

Other beliefs may or may not be true (that sunset is beautiful!), but that doesn’t make them science.

Meanwhile, the new appointee to the panel reviewing Arizona’s science standards has already convinced the others to change the description of evolution from “the explanation for the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct” to “an” explanation–in other words, one “theory” among others.

As the columnist concluded,

So much for long-established scientific theory.

Kezele told Flaherty that there is enough scientific evidence to back up the biblical account of creation. He says students should be exposed to that evidence. For example, scientific stuff about the human appendix and the Earth’s magnetic field.

“I’m not saying to put the Bible into the classroom, although the real science will confirm the Bible,” Kezele told Flaherty. “Students can draw their own conclusions when they see what the real science actually shows.”

Because, hey, Barney floating around on Noah’s Ark.

Kezele told Flaherty that all land animals – humans and dinosaurs alike — were created on the Sixth Day.

And there was light and the light was, well, a little dim for science class, if you ask me.

The only good news here is that Douglas initially won the Superintendent’s office by a single percentage point, barely survived a recall effort, and decisively lost the 2018 Republican primary.

The bad news is, there were people in Arizona who voted for her.


Philosophy? Or Fear?

What does fear have to do with political philosophy?

According to a fascinating article in Business Insider, a lot.

Academicians who study such things tell us that, in the wake of 9/11, many people who were politically liberal became less so–scientists documented a “very strong conservative shift” in the US after the attacks, with more liberals supporting George W. Bush and favoring increased military spending.

The hypothesis social scientists developed about this effect is perhaps best summed up in a 2003 review of research on the subject: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals,” it said.

Researchers have also found that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalae. This is an area of the brain that has been associated with the expression and processing of fear. A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.

These results have been linked to evolution’s “fundamental drive for personal safety.” Other political consequences of our evolutionary past have been subjected to experimentation as well. For example, it seems that

washing hands with soap and water can make people less hostile to individuals who are different than they are. Bargh says that’s because to some extent, our modern prejudices are shaped by the way we’ve evolved to avoid unknown, foreign threats like disease.

These studies are interesting, and they have obvious relevance to the partisanship of our current era. That said, they raise thorny questions that have been the subject of philosophical dispute for eons: how much of human behavior is the result of conscious thought? Logical argumentation? Is there such a thing as free will, or are we human animals acting out a lifespan pre-programmed in our genes and modified–if at all–by our very gradual evolution?

Is my opposition to the GOP tax bill really grounded in my analysis of its provisions and my conclusion that it is morally and economically indefensible? Or did I just inherit less gray matter in my amygdala?

Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?

It’s a conundrum…



In politics–and perhaps in life–saying “I was wrong” can be the hardest thing to do.

Paul Krugman recently considered the refusal of political actors to admit error when their predictions (generally of doom and gloom) fail to materialize.

You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.

Of course, changing one’s position on an issue–evolving, as it were–is politically dangerous. Being labeled a “flip flopper” is often fatal to electoral success. (As Krugman notes, “gotcha” journalism is a lot easier than policy analysis.) Krugman goes through several high-profile predictions that failed to materialize without triggering much in the way of media finger pointing; the political figures who made those predictions have been allowed to pretend they never said that–or in the case of the more rigid ideologues, to insist that they were right, and the administration is “cooking the books” to hide the “real” facts.

[A]s far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admitted that none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.

The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.

Krugman’s focus, of course, is on economic predictions, but intellectual integrity is, as he insists, a character issue that manifests itself in many areas of life. People who refuse to admit to their mistakes are deeply flawed; they cannot be trusted to learn from experience. An ability to learn and grow is an essential attribute for someone who seeks public power, and an important and necessary characteristic of successful, well-adjusted people generally.

The problem is, we have a political system that rewards pandering, not honesty, and it is increasingly difficult to tell whether a purported change of mind is an appropriate response to evidence inconsistent with prior expectations or a cynical effort to win the approval of a critical voting block.


Science and Constructed Realities

Americans are, by and large, fans of science. They just don’t know a lot about it.

Recently, the Pew Research Center did a “deep dive” on the attitudes of scientists and the general public, to assess the similarities and differences.

On the one hand, there is high regard and wide support for investments in scientific research: Fully 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people, and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment. More than half of adults (54%) consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world or above average compared with other industrial countries; 92% of AAAS scientists hold similarly praiseworthy views.

When the questions got down into “the weeds,” however, the results were much like surveys about the Constitution (in the words of one report, “Americans Revere Constitution, Have No Idea What’s In It.”)

So we find stark differences between what scientists believe, based upon careful empirical research and the scientific method, and what Americans think scientists believe.

The differences in beliefs about the nature of reality are wide. For example, 88% of scientists think GMO foods are safe; 37% of Americans think they are safe. There are less dramatic, but still substantial, gaps between scientists and the public about the Big Bang, evolution, and climate change.

What is even more interesting, however, is Pew’s finding that Americans who hold beliefs at odds with settled science believe that scientists are “split” on these issues. So Americans who reject the science of climate change tell survey researchers that scientific opinion is divided on the matter. As Pew delicately puts it, “Perceptions of where the scientific community stands on both climate change and evolution tend to be associated with individual views on the issue.”

More evidence–as if we needed it–that we humans see the reality we choose to see.


Good for Pope Francis

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.

Recently, there was a small furor about Pope Francis’ restatement of the Catholic position on evolution:

The “Big Bang” and evolution are not only consistent with biblical teachings, Pope Francis told a Vatican gathering – they are essential to understanding God.

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything — but that is not so,” the pope told a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The Pope’s pronouncement was not a departure; as I understand it, this has been Catholic doctrine for at least 50 years, but the Pope chose an arresting– and indeed, very significant– metaphor to make his point.

I’m not Catholic. For that matter, I’m not religious. But (unlike Catholic conservatives, who are evidently not happy campers) I really like this Pope. He seems to focus on what religion should be about: how people treat each other. His approach to doctrinal issues seems to be a process of engaging with ultimate meaning, and it’s far less rigid and legalistic than his predecessor’s. He’s been a breath of fresh air.

I have many friends who are deeply religious. Some are in the clergy. All of them respect science and accept evolution. All of them approach biblical passages and issues of ultimate concern alike with admirable modesty, looking for life lessons and trying to fathom the essence of moral behavior. None of them worship a cartoonish deity who issues unbending edicts, favors some nation-states (or sexual orientations, or football teams) over others, or otherwise behaves more like Superman (or a magician) than an all-knowing God.

Creating one’s God in one’s own image is really the ultimate blasphemy.

This Pope seems to get that.