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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Florida, critical thinking and evolution

Here we go again, just this morning the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that directs teachers to engage in “critical analysis” of evolution in public schools. The bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Alan Hays of Umatilla, says that evolution “has holes in it,” and that “no one has any record -- no fossils have been found.” That will come as a big shock to the thousands of natural history museums around the world, displaying hundreds of thousands of fossils.

But of course factual truth has never been the forte of creationists. Nor has honesty. The bill is ironically called “The Evolution Academic Freedom Act,” and who would possibly want to be against academic freedom? The bill aims at protecting teachers who wish to be critical of evolution teaching in public schools, except for the minor detail that there doesn’t seem to be a record of any teacher filing a complaint on the matter (I guess they are all truly scared out of their wits by the evolution police).

The Florida Senate has already passed a similar bill, which would prohibit school officials from penalizing teachers that challenge evolution based on “scientific information.” I wonder where these teachers would get such information. Oh, right, from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, the so-called think tank that actually drafted the “model” legislation on which the bill is based.

Not all is good in creationist heaven, however. Discovery Institute’s associate director John West (whose insane book on “Darwin Day in America” I just reviewed for Free Inquiry) was unhappy about the difference in language between the House and the Senate bills (the House version has removed language about challenges to evolution and replaced it with the milder requirement for critical analysis): “It makes me wonder whether some people who are for [the bill] are actually trying to scuttle it,” West told a Fox affiliate (who else?). Could it be that intelligent design (in the form of simple political opportunism) is at work in the Florida legislature? Shocking.

Indeed, time is of the essence, as the legislature’s session ends Friday, and if the two versions of the bill will not be reconciled by then, the whole thing will be mired in political deadlock (who said political inaction is a bad thing?). According to the blog maintained by Florida Citizens for Science (quoting an article in the St. Petersburg Times) “key senators have indicated they did not expect to take up the measure again if it drastically differs from their already approved bill.” Good for the senators who are willing to stick with their version of irrationalism!

Regardless of the outcome of this umpteenth creationist attack on public education, one has to wonder how all of this is possible in the first place. The answer is complex and multifactorial (as I tried to outline in Denying Evolution), but one pattern seems to emerge clearly from an analysis of the last few years of similar episodes. To put it simply, we have three factors at play: a Machiavellian engine, a dope, and an irresistible climate of political opportunism. The Machiavellian engine is of course the Discovery Institute, which is well funded and staffed by people who are deeply misguided, but certainly not stupid. It continually works to figure out ways around the law and to create the public perception of an intellectual debate that is not there (and Fox News isn’t the only one falling for it, unfortunately).

The role of the dope is played by whoever locals happen to be manipulated by the Discovery Institute for the occasion at hand: in this case we have Representative Hays, and in Dover PA there were several school board members, most prominently Alan Bosnell and William Buckingham. Unfortunately, it’s always easy to find a dope, especially among politicians of a certain conservative fundamentalist and faux-populist stripe.

As for the third factor, political opportunism is neither endemic to this country nor a novel feature of the 21st century. It is likely that several people who voted in favor of the Florida bills have qualms with their content, but that they need to return political favors, feel that they have to support the party (“right or wrong,” etc.), or are simply elected in a district where ignorance and bigotry are widespread enough to become politically effective. After all, this is a country that seems to think that a crucial “electability” question for a Presidential candidate is whether he or she does or does not wear a silly flag lapel pin -- apparently regardless of any substantial issues actually at stake.

Why is it so difficult, on the other hand, for liberal progressive forces to conjure up anything like the triplet of causes just described, this time on the side of rationality and good science? Well, we have the National Center for Science Education (which West describes in his book as an evil force headed by a truly horrible and hell-bound woman, my anthropologist friend Eugenie Scott). But the annual budget of the NCSE is peanuts compared to that of the Discovery Institute -- because it is much easier to rally ignorant bigots than intelligent people (the latter have a self-defeating proclivity to think that their fellow citizens couldn’t possibly be that stupid). It is easy enough to find progressive legislators willing to put forth worthy bills (factor two), but they then have to contend with the above-mentioned propensity of their colleagues to shy away from whatever action may be perceived by the public (or by media like Fox) as -- God forbid -- too much to the left of “the American people” (while in fact, the US simply does not have a functional political left at this point: we have center, center-right, right, ultra-right and the completely insane right).

That’s why it is up to all of us to be constantly vigil and stand up whenever necessary to protect reason and education. As Carl Sagan aptly put it, science truly is a delicate candle in the dark, always in danger of being snuffed out by the likes of the Discovery Institute and the Florida legislators.


  1. Ahhh, my home state acts dumb again. Sigh....
    I'm almost to the point of saying let's go ahead and "teach the controversy". Most of the science teachers (I hope) are on the side of science. They should be able to teach the validity of evolution and the vapidity of ID.
    "Good morning students. Intelligent Design says that evolution is false and that the lack of transitional fossils proves it. Science says 'Here are the fossils.' Obviously then, the ID proponents are trying to mislead you." etc, etc.
    Maybe we could take this new law (if it passes) and turn the tables on the IDists.
    P.S. It's Bonsell not Bosnell

  2. Die Anyway,

    I wish you were right. Maybe you are, for now. But I've heard of how the anti-science, fundamentalist American Taleban is training a lot of "biology teachers" out there, in "universities" with the funniest of curricula. I've seen some of these curricula on line, and it is unbelievable that anyone would allow such people to be called biologists. They also seem to be offering "masters" and "doctoral" degrees. You know, trying to legitimize themselves, because how many will go and check their fake degrees?

  3. In some global sense it may not matter. American students are already behind the world in science and engineering. New technologies, new medicines are coming. They'll just be coming from China, India and similar places. While Americans are jumping on the acupuncture and feng shui bandwagon, the Chinese are heading for the Moon.

  4. In some global sense it may not matter.

    True. And I usually say to my American friends here that I wouldn't care either, were it not for the dangerous fact that you guys are sitting on a huge amount of nukes...

    I'm afraid that, the stupider the populace gets, the easier it would be for some (more) crooks to take over and decide it's time to get Armageddon here sooner, you know, so they go to heaven (obviously) and everyone else suffers forever -- the fundie's favorite wet dream.

  5. I think the proponents of the theory of evolution are the ones committing the fallacy of begging the question.

    They explain the origin of species by starting not from before the appearance of species but after the appearance of species, and use species to explain how species come about, when they should instead explain how species came about from before their appearance in history.

    To explain the origin of species by using species is not to explain the origin of species, why? because when you use species to explain the origin of species you have abandoned the issue of explaining the origin of the very first appearance of species, you are just telling us how species bring about more species, but you have never as yet explained their very origin as species: namely, how at a point in time when there were no species, at a later point in time species came about.

    It's like a thief trying to convince the judge that the money he has with him came from money he used to do business which earned him more money, while the issue is where did he get the very first money he has had in his possession.


  6. To Odrareg: My friend, you do not know of what you speak, and it is YOU who are committing at least three fallacies I can name right off the bat. First, you seem blissfully ignorant of the definition of the term “species” in science: a reproductively distinct population of organisms. Note from this definition that EVERY living organism, even viruses, qualifies as a member of a species, even if only a species of one or two, merely by being a living organism, that, and your argument is just going in circles, so your rant is just one HUGE non-sequitur AND a tautology. Second, you are committing the Humpty-Dumpty fallacy in conflating evolutionary theory with origin of life research. Sorry dude, but those are two completely different areas of study. So please, genius, before you run off at the keyboard, get your facts straight and look to your own errors in reasoning first. To paraphrase Steven Novella, my logical fallacy meter just broke!


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