About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Thank God for Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman has recently published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he tackles so-called "intelligent design theory," and the controversy over the teaching of evolution. However, unlike many scientists who insists in thinking that this is a matter of science, or at most of education policy, Krugman hits the nail on the head and puts the problem in the broadest context.

Krugman maintains that the strategy of advocates of intelligent design is the same as that of critics of global warming, or of enthusiasts of supply-side economics. To wit, attack the science in the public area, exploit the few dissenting voices within the scientific community (which, after all, is made of human beings with all their frailties, including the search for fame and money), and present your manouvers as a genuine push to contribute to the "market of ideas."

The result, in both the cases of supply-side economics and global warming, has been that a large sector of the public is now confused about what scientists actually think, with a lingering feeling that the jury really is out there (in the case of global warming, the jury has come back long ago: it's happening, and humans have at least something to do with it; in the case of supply-side economics, there isn't a shred of empirical evidence to show that tax cuts are economically beneficial).

Krugman suggests that the same is happening to the "controversy" between creationism and evolution, because intelligent design (unlike standard young-earth creationism) is fuzzy enough, and makes apparently "reasonable"enough claims, to serve the purpose.

A colleague of mine told me of a very effective way to show to students that something isn't a scientific controversy. He walks into his introductory college-level class with a pitcher full of water, and puts some ice in it. He then asks his students to predict what will happen once the ice melts. About 9 out of 10 of them say that the water will overflow from the pitcher. This, of course, doesn't happen, because of the density properties of water. My colleague then turns to the class and says: "See? There is no scientific controversy about the physical properties of ice. The fact that the majority of you predicted the overflow simply means that you are ignorant of basic physics." Ouch. Similarly, there is no scientific controversy about the evolutionary theory, but the demagogues that support intelligent design want you to believe there is one. Are you going to allow them to make a monkey out of you?


  1. Unfortunately President Bush sees intelligence where there is none.

  2. ...Least of all in the White House...

  3. I see George W Bush as emperical evidence that "intelligent design" is a hoax.

  4. Since the "intelligence" that ID people think is necessary to explain biological diversity is outside of naturalistic phenomena, then the whole idea is supernatural, and by definition, not science.

    BTW, I used the same melting ice example to identify what a real controversy is, as opposed to people just not knowing what they are talking about.

  5. So does this mean that sea levels won't rise when the ice caps melt?

  6. Simon, nope, the answer is different for the ice caps, for an interesting reason: the caps are of fresh water, while the ocean is salted -- which alters the density/level relationship.

  7. ...and another thing: a lot of the ice is on land - mainly Greenland and Antarctica. If that melts, it flows to the oceans and all of the water's volume will be added to said oceans.



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