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!
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?