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.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

It's the Brits, too!

The annual Darwin Day events are coming up (on or around February 12, Darwin's birthday), and I'm writing this on the train to work, where I'll greet Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Genie will be the keynote speaker for the Stony Brook version of the Darwin Day international (and entirely grassroots) science education effort. How fitting then – in a predictably sad sense – that the latest news about evolution-creation isn't good. What is a bit surprising is that this time it isn't Kansas or Alabama: it's the United Kingdom, the nation that buried Darwin at Westminster, next to Newton and Churchill!

According to a recent poll commissioned by the BBC (for their “Horizon” science program) only 48% of Brits think evolution is the correct explanation for the diversity of life on earth – not very different from their American counterparts. 22% of respondents chose “creationism” and another 17% “intelligent design” (as if the two were actually conceptually distinct). Moreover, when asked what should be taught in public science classes, 69% said evolution, but more than 40% went for either creationism or intelligent design – again, not substantially different from American responses.

This has apparently shocked British scientists, such as Martin Rees (I'm sorry, I just can't bring myself to call anybody “Lord” with a straight face), the President of the Royal Society. Rees said that “It is surprising that many should still be sceptical of Darwinian evolution. Darwin proposed his theory nearly 150 years ago, and it is now supported by an immense weight of evidence.” Indeed, that immense weight is there, but it shouldn't be surprising that the general public doesn't feel it.

It isn't, as Andrew Cohen of Horizon claimed, a problem of insufficient science education, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Telling students more facts about biology isn't going to have evolution sink into the general consciousness. What we are facing is a much more complex problem (as I have argued at some length in Denying Evolution) that includes the effects of centuries of religious indoctrination, a general distrust (especially in the US) of “academic eggheads,” and a complete lack of understanding of the philosophical basis of science. Most people – Americans, Europeans or what else – simply do not appreciate the complexity and tentativeness of scientific explanations. Indeed, most people don't seem to have a grasp of what it means to “explain” something.

Take the very simple fact that large numbers of otherwise intelligent individuals don't seem to grasp the rather elementary idea that “God (or the Unnamed Intelligent Designer) did it” is not an explanation of anything. It may even be true as a matter of fact (though I highly doubt it), but it doesn't do any explanatory work. An explanation is an account of how (and, if applicable, why) things happen. When I say that Tom died because he was shot by Jim, who was jealous of Tom' flirting with Jim's wife, I am providing explanations of both how the fact happened (Tom died because he was shot with a particular kind of weapon, and specifically because a bullet passed through his heart, thereby fatally disrupting the functioning of one of his vital organs), and why it did (the psychological motive that led Jim to kill). Had I simply said “Jim did it” when confronted with the fact of Tom's death at Jim's hand, I would not have provided any explanation at all, I would have plainly restated the fact itself.

Since the European education system doesn't do much better than the American one at teaching critical thinking and the nature of science (or, for that matter, comparative religion, which would put the other side of the debate in the proper historical and cultural perspective), why on earth should anybody be shocked and surprised that Brits ain't doing better than those folks in Alabama?


  1. One problem I noticed in the discussions in the media about the popular (i.e., not scientific) evolution-creationism controversy is the use of the word "belief." If a scientist talks about "believing in evolution" in the same sentence as "believing in creationism/bible/god", non scientifically schooled people will get the idea that it is same concept, and confuse a scientific, provisional appraisal with a religious dogmatic appraisal. I think it would be beneficial if all scientists that are part of this debat avoid this kind of language.


  2. I just discovered another alternative to evolution, its called multiple designers theory - a branch of ID that postulates there were multiple creators:

    This website claims that multiple designers theory is more developed than regular ID, because it uses known differences in organisms as evidences to suggest that there were multiple designers.

    Obviously this is a tactic, but it is being taken seriously (as a tactic) from what I can tell.

    Interesting because it acknowledges all the arguments of ID, but by insisting on a finite set of multiple Designers, it will expose that a lot of ID advocates are really not ID advocates, but creationists.

    I wonder if any brave science teachers will actually use this as an option to teaching evolution when mandated by school boards to teach alternative theories.

  3. Although the above link works, the URL displayed got truncated. The full URL is:


  4. Interesting, Alan. Must have been the idea of some Hindu...

    Anyway, back to the "Brits too" thing. I think that is hardly surprising, actually, that such high numbers would answer as they did in GB. I think any other country in western Europe or the Americas would have such type of answers.

    That's something I always try to ask my friends (and myself) when we come across some statistic like that saying that X% of americans believe/want/reject whatever: how would the average Brazilian population answer?

    The thing is that those high Brit (or elsewhere) numbers do not reflect as much in the public "debates", the pressure to change definition of science or things like that.

    That is, if asked, most will say "yeah, I believe the Bible", but (almost) nobody really cares or knows what's up. And that makes all the difference.


  5. "An explanation is an account of how (and, if applicable, why) things happen. When I say that Tom died because he was shot by Jim, who was jealous of Tom' flirting with Jim's wife, I am providing explanations of both how the fact happened ..."

    Rather pointless concepts to commentate on from someone who thinks that random forces literally rule the universe. (not moral ones) And it would be also pointless (+ fallacious) to apply the fact of "sin" to, in this case, conservative politicians only. If it can apply to one person who is jealous about a situation with his wife, it must apply to ALL persons who do similarly.

    It one considers himself a true realist, that is the way it would have to work.

    Otherwise it would an case of a * STOLEN CONCEPT
    (The Objectivist Newsletter, Jan 1963) Using a concept while ignoring,
    contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically
    and genetically depends. "All property is theft." "The axioms of logic are
    arbitrary." (something is arbitrary only in distinction to that which is
    logically necessary.) "All that exists is change and motion." (change is
    possible only to an existent entity) "You cannot prove that you exist."
    (proof presupposes existence) "Acceptance of reason is an act of faith."
    (faith has meaning only in contradistinction to reason)


    Although this issue of Dick C's hunting accident has been going on in the media for a few days, I've been out of the country and had no knowledge of it till a few minutes ago. Strange how so life appears so peaceful until one gets back to the information bombarded lifestyle we live in. In this age we live in, we know everything about everyone else’s sins and find in this medium (or are at best distracted by it) fewer and fewer reasons to do anything whatsoever about our own heart issues.

    So what's good about that?


  6. cal,

    I don't understand how your post relates to this thread; could you clarify?


  7. Noah, I didn't know what Massimo's commentary on the shooting incident had to do with the topic at hand either.(which must have had something to do with the VP). But I guessed he was laying out an example of how to establish facts in various political types of situations.

    Or something like that.

    After all, Brits and most other European citizens, are often suggested to be far more sophisticated, (usually defined as plain old secular), than the average American. But if someone is going to start complaining about ideals that people from various walks of life straighforwardly choose for themselves, he might as well just say that he is firmly against "choice".


  8. cal,

    Are you refering to M's shooting analogy? If so, it has nothing to do with the VP. I was written before that news broke, so I think you may be reading too much into it.

    The anology was used to demonstrate that one needs more than "God did it," or "Tom did it" to dmonstrate the validity of a theory. But he stated that pretty plainly in his post.

    Now, I've heard that the Brits were more sophisticated, and I've heard that Britan as a country was more secular (although, I don't think you can truthfully call your country "secular" when you still have a state established church.)However, consulting my dictionary and thesarus, I see no place where sophisticated = secular.

    As to your last point: Does that mean you would be in favor of restricting the right of people to choose their religion (or lack there of) because you disagree when they don't choose Christianity? Since when does having philisophical problems with someones veiws mean you don't support their right to have them?

    (Sorry for speaking for you Professor.)


  9. Noah: “Are you refering to M's shooting analogy? If so, it has nothing to do with the VP. I was written before that news broke, so I think you may be reading too much into it.”

    Then I imagine that MP must have had a “special” news resource. Otherwise he may be the closest thing to a prophet that one will rarely ever see in our day and age.

    ”The anology was used to demonstrate that one needs more than "God did it," or "Tom did it" to dmonstrate the validity of a theory. But he stated that pretty plainly in his post.”

    Love or hatred for “Tom” can also obliterate evidence, as you well know. (To the pure (i.e. innocent) all things are pure.)
    So this simplistic approach of using minuscule “details” to help us either understand or define God can be flawed for just a huge variety of reasons. If God is God, he defines and is and authority on the details, not the other way around.


  10. Cal,

    "Then I imagine that MP must have had a “special” news resource. Otherwise he may be the closest thing to a prophet that one will rarely ever see in our day and age."

    Wow. Or there is a simpler possibility: your critical thinking skills are rather reduced, and you can't distinguish between a mild coincidence and a deep truth...

  11. mp:
    Statements about how or why you arrived at that choice of a given hypothetical story were complete speculation on my behalf. I thought you'd notice that.

    I wouldn't get too "wowish" about it or anything. Not much to marvel here.

    I can't see the dates (only time) of when things are posted here. Maybe you can. Cheney shot his compadre sometime thro the weekend I guess. And I was many, many miles away from the states when it hit the news. What day did you post your note about Brits and story that went with it? You probably don’t think I’m serious when wondering how your arrived at that story – but on that issue, I kind of am. Unlike most people here, I don't rule out the idea that persons, both God-centered and otherwise, can be inspired, enlightened and motivated by supernatural means.
    (even if they happen not to know what it is they have done or why)

    In any event, the concept of "coincidence" is remarkably hard to prove in this irreversibly cause and effect world. Remember I am the person who tends think such an inference has more to do with Greek mythology than with fact.

    That is: It has got add at least multiple degrees of difficulty to the equation by not admitting that at least SOMEBODY “did it”, opposed to saying that “nobody did it”.

    That’s all.


  12. Cal,

    I've accused you of being dishonest before, and maybe I was wrong. I'll let M and others who post here be the judge of that.

    But your last two posts either prove dishonesty or something much worse for which you should seek proffesional help.

    I'm not trying to be insulting (although I admit it may be hard to take it any other way.)

    M's analogy was just that. It can't even really be called a coincidence because the two situations are dramatically different. A closer coincedence would if M and the VP had the same thing for dinner today, and just as meaningless.

    You've stated before that you want reasond dicourse form this site. How do you defend in light of anything you've posted on this thread?


  13. Noah,

    Am I to assume that not only are 'the brits' not able to make up their own minds on philosophical matters, but also that I can’t wonder on about why Massimo chose a certain story over any other story?

    I can’t even imagine why you would take every word I say literally and not try to place a thought in it's proper context. (in this case, just searching out a matter) Similarly, I would try to fit M’s comments into a proper context, (???) but I still am trying to figure out what the(jealous spouses)story had to do with brits and cr/e/vo.

    To humor you, because you need to be humored a bit, I’ll explain to you why reviewing what a prophet is and is not, isn’t at all like believing in and speculating about aliens. But if you happen to consider this commentary irrational, I guess that’s entirely your business.

    Several thousand years ago, ancient Israel had been ruled by prophets and priests until the time that Israel chose instead that it be ruled by a king.

    Even today we note that priests obviously still exist (Hebraic and other strains too, of course) in all kinds of capacities. Some are good - actually love God and are honorable people - some are not good at all. So why not consider what the role of prophets is too then? Is there a “rational” reason that prophets might not exist today? And by prophets, I’m not referring merely to what some think of as, in the sensational sense,'fortune tellers'. I’m thinking more so of a person who is something like a sage, who follows and prescribes practical wisdom.

    Without increasingly better tools and means, most persons only assume that they know what rationality does in fact mean. And then, some people really do "know".


  14. Okay, I goofed.

    It was in fact "judges and prophets", not priests and prophets that ancient Israel was governed by before to having kings as rulers. But still hoping to discover what it may mean for someone to be a prophet in the present age tho.

    maybe I'm the only one who concerns themselves with such (ahem!) nonsense on this blog, anyway. :)


  15. cal,

    This has nothing to do with the british poll. It has nothing to do with the Bible or faith or Christianity. It has nothing to do with prophesy.

    Simply put, you have made the single weakest connection between unrelated events in the history of human discourse. I belive you have done this in a feeble attempt to save face after being shown to be wrong.

    I disagree with die anyway sometimes; I've had heated debates with asg and cato; I even disagree with Massimo at times, but in all these cases the discussions have been pretty rational.

    I was honestly taken aback by your last few posts. I can't beleive that you honestly beleive what you've written. I've noticed that I'm about the last person who engages you on this blog. That ends now.


  16. Okay?

    so I still have no idea what it is you are 'taken back by'. Was it first, that I more or less joked that M might be one of the few remaining prophets? (er..big deal?) Is that sort of a inference an absolute "no no" on this blog? If so, why on earth?

    Was it because I wondered why MP chose the story, if it came before the VPs actual accident? If a person can't ask those relatively simple questions, this is not a free speech zone. Furthermore, I am not having this dead serious, knock-down, drag-out argument that you seem to think we are having at all. Where you get (what seems to be anger and frustration) about any of this, is truly beyond me. You seem to see dishonesty, or ill will, in what I think were mild challenges to something someone else wrote. I think that is a little strange. So if it is any consolation to you, Noah, you've left me almost as confused as you seem to be.

    In spite of the fact that we are (apparently) on dramatically different wave-lengths, please do have a wonderful life.


  17. Could anybody please suggest a reading skills/text interpretation course for grown-ups, by any chance?

    If the well-educated read (and interpret) like that, I'm starting to fear for all those home schooled kids all over again...



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