Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the nature of ignorance and the futility of facts

Two or so weeks ago, Adam Laats (author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era and historian at the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University) posted the following perhaps obviously-titled commentary (To Teach Evolution, You Have to Understand Creationists) at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle often has some interesting (often either pleasantly interesting or agonizingly irritating) commentaries, and I found this one worth comment.

Denialism is well-established phenomenon, and Laats writes on the nature of creationists. Specifically, and somewhat aggressively, he points out the ignorance of evolutionists in the ongoing clash, using Paul C. Broun's famous remarks as a starting point. From the article's introduction (bold emphasis mine):
"If you follow the news about culture wars, evolution, and creationism, you've probably seen it by now. Earlier this fall, U.S. Rep. Paul C. Broun Jr., Republican of Georgia who ran unopposed for re-election, said in a widely distributed video that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell."

I don't agree. But the ferocious response to Broun's remarks tells us more about the widespread ignorance among evolution supporters than it does about ignorance among creationists."
I guess it's good that Laats doesn't agree with a statement attacking the entire foundation of modern science and medicine, for which an inordinate amount of evidence has been amassed.

But what is this about ignorance among evolution supporters? Well, Laats insists, evolution supporters are ignorant in assuming creationists are ignorant. He points to Broun's formal credentials:
"I disagree with Broun's views on evolution—and on a host of other topics, for that matter. But if we hope to understand creationism, we need to abandon the trope that only the ignorant can oppose mainstream evolutionary science. It is a comfortable delusion, a head-in-the-sand approach to improving evolution education in the United States. In the end, it stems from a shocking ignorance among evolutionists about the nature of creationist beliefs
First of all, Broun is no ignoramus. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and an M.D. He is the most recent in a long line of educated creationists. In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan similarly defended his role as a man of science. In response to Clarence Darrow's accusation that only "bigots and ignoramuses" opposed evolution education, Bryan listed his many college degrees."
While I think many of us have taught enough pre-meds to know that a B.S. in chemistry and an M.D. are not assurances of wisdom, or even common sense, the fact that Broun is as educated (formally) as he is while still assuming a denialist stance is eye-opening. (It's also a little embarrassing). 

I would argue that Broun, having received his B.S. and M.D. degrees in 1967 and 1971, respectively, in the Deep South, may indeed be ignorant. His education took place in the heartland of fundamentalism in an era before the massive leaps in bioinformatics and genetic knowledge. How likely is it that, in his career as a politician and practicing physician, he has kept up with the literature? (N.B. I would think a physician should understand embryology and evolution, admittedly, given the seriousness of antibiotic resistance, drug development, and reproductive issues, but I don't know how broad or narrow his practice was).

But as the case probably is, this may be an issue more of confirmation bias. Laats doesn't say this explicitly, but it's hinted at as he discusses the formal credentials of a large number of creationism supporters and creationist science educators:
"Yet even among those 52 percent of Americans who know that scientists support evolution, large majorities still want schools to teach creationism. And, among those teachers who teach young-earth creationism, a majority—like Broun—hold a bachelor's degree or higher in science and almost half have completed 40 or more college credits in biology. [...] 
Nor can we take solace in the delusion that these teachers are somehow rogue agents of a vast right-wing creationist conspiracy. As Berkman and Plutzer demonstrate, the creationist beliefs of teachers embody the creationist beliefs of Americans in general. The teachers are not ignorant of evolution, yet they choose to reject it."
This raises some important questions: what does it mean to be ignorant with respect to science issues? What Laats is saying is that teachers and many Americans do know the requisite facts, have added up all the pieces, and have come to the conclusion that evolutionary biology is bunk. And that's certainly true in many cases; confirmation bias is objective science's biggest enemy. Our pre-existing beliefs color how we categorize and interpret data. Because of selective memory and selective reasoning, important facts get put in the dust pile and other facts get exaggerated. 

But is a confirmation bias-driven rejection of the facts altogether different from ignorance? Or is it just another level: ignorance on an argument-scale, rather than a fact scale? I'd be careful before I concluded that ignorance wasn't a problem among creationists. (Of course, that doesn't mean that throwing facts at the problem will improve anything).

So if facts don't work (re: educated creationists), is there hope for science education at all for converting denialists over to the side of scientific truth? A sobering comment from Laats:
"David Long, an anthropologist and science educator now at George Mason University, conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of creationists in college, reported in his Evolution and Religion in American Education (Springer, 2011). Among his batch of creationist biology majors, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs. Most striking, this woman was not convinced by the scientific evidence in her biology classes; rather, her home life in high school, including an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, had turned her away from her conservative Protestant upbringing. Of the biology majors Long studied, none was convinced of the truth of evolutionary science by scientific coursework alone."
Only one abandonment of creationist beliefs, and not even due to scientific education built from a foundation of decades of peer-reviewed research. That's a yield in need of optimization.

Another point:
"This commitment to creationism by those who know the facts of evolutionary science makes no sense to mainstream scientists, many of whom have always been utterly flummoxed by the durability of creationism. And a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee blunders into an uncomfortable truth: Broun's views may fairly represent those of his constituents. Do we really want to demand that an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?"
I myself am guilty of "a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee". And I stand by that.

This is the "uncomfortable truth" that Laats points out, highlighted above: Broun may represent his constituents' views. Hence he is, Laats hinted, indeed qualified for the committee.

No, no he isn't. Science shouldn't be a democratic process; we don't vote on the laws of the universe or whether carbon or nitrogen has a weight of 12 amu. Whether or not 50% or 95% of Americans believe the creation myth, evolution is factual. That aspect of science has implications: bacteria evolve resistance to drugs; embryonic stem cell research is powerful; the climate will continue to change and we influence that. Science-based issues are increasingly common. These are issues the House Science Committee has power over, via control of funding agencies. And the problem is, science-based issues depend utterly on facts.  Leadership should reflect that; leaders should strive to eschew confirmation bias with respect to these issues.

Near the end of his essay, Laats echos a sentiment that's been increasingly shared among scientists trying to solve the denialism problem:
"As it stands, scientists' blundering hostility toward creationism actually encourages creationist belief. By offering a stark division between religious faith and scientific belief, evolutionary scientists have pushed creationists away from embracing evolutionary ideas. And, by assuming that only ignorance could explain creationist beliefs, scientists have unwittingly fostered bitter resentment among the creationists, the very people with whom they should be hoping to connect."
This is in contrast to the Dawkins school of thought, but it's a fair point. And a challenge for science educators.