Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.

The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.

Checklist for Quacks

July 13, 2007

Have you ever sat down and wondered, “Am I a scientific quack?” Well, probably not. But I’ve met enough True Believers in pseudoscience to give myself pause. What I really am the person to come up with a scientific breakthrough? How will anyone ever believe me? Doesn’t science trudge along, a la Thomas Kuhn, in the dominant paradigm until the evidence suggesting otherwise is just too overwhelming to ignore? What if I’m part of the new paradigm that will supplant the old, and I want to get the word out?

After all, weren’t many breakthroughs originally derided? Who believed the Earth actually revolved around the Sun? Who knew that Helicobacter pylori bacteria played a role in ulcers? Who knew that RNA interference played such a large role in cell function? Or that cells were programmed to self-destruct as a natural part of development? Or that a thing as wacky as prions actually existed? (After heliocentricity, these ideas won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005, 2006, 2002, and 1997, respectively).

Luckily for all of us, Cosmic Variance has compiled an Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist. Excerpts follow:

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective… Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

No sarcasm there. Rule 1:

Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

But! But! Seems a bit demanding, doesn’t it?

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no.

Rule 2:

Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.


Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously…. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant.

And finally, Rule 3:

Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

Not likely. But in case someone still needs convincing, have them submit their theory to the Crackpot Index.

Quote Mining

June 22, 2007

I really should be working on a research project. But I’m not.

Just came across this great piece on Behe’s misleading quote-mining in the End of Evolution–the first thing that really struck me about the book. The misrepresentations are really oustanding.

Also, this blog has an excellent list of reviews/ criticisms of Behe’s new ‘work.’ Cheers.

I Believe in Evolution, Except for the Whole Triassic Period

June 19, 2007

Thank you Onion.


This so-called Triassic period saw the formation of scleractinian corals and a slight changeover from warm-blooded therapsids to cold-blooded archosauromorphs. Clearly, such breathtakingly subtle modifications could only have been achieved by an active intelligence.

(Via 20 gram Soul)

Overwhelming Evidence

June 18, 2007

I came across a fascinating post at an Intelligent Design Creationism blog, called “micro vs. macro evolution – where to draw the line?”

Given the source, and the title, I immediately chuckled. Of course, this is a very difficult question for those whose religious beliefs lead them to reject the overwhelming evidence in support universal common descent. I’m going to offer some excerpts from this post in order to point out a few common themes among conservative Christians and their relationship with Intelligent Design proponents (most of the latter fall into the former category, but many Young Earth Creationist Christians have problems with the ID guys). First sentence:

Like many Christians (and unlike many Intelligent Design purists), I believe that Darwinian evolution cannot possibly account for the diversity of KINDS of animals.

Notice immediately the language of “belief.” There is no appeal here to evidence for a point of view, as this poster isn’t even trying to pose as interested in the science of it all. Also, the concept of “kinds” is highly ambiguous. What makes mammals a different kind from birds? Where’s the line between birds and reptiles (of which they are actually a subset)? Where do you stick a platypus, or an archaeopteryx?

I believe that our designer designed each KIND independently. But, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s clear the designer recycled designs in a pattern roughly parallel to the evolutionists’ discredited “tree of life.” And at this point I have to make an unpleasant conceit to godless evolutionists: the designs of many parts of our body appear to be modified versions of those used in the design of apes. Yes, these smelly, dirty, brutish animals served as a launching point for our design and, though we certainly didn’t descend from them, we have a certain designerly connection to them, much as Windows Vista does to Windows Millennium Edition.

The adjectives are quite fun. Godless evolutionists may certainly describe Dawkins and PZ Myers, but it would be a hard term to fit to Francis Collins. There are probably more religious people who think the theory of evolution is well-proven then there are non-religious people, simply because there are more of the religious, at least in this country.

And of course, animals are “smelly, dirty, brutish” but we could never, ever have descended from them. What evidence is offered as refutation? None. And of course, there is no indication that the writer has considered the overwhelming evidence for universal common descent, be it fossil or genetic. It’s all about what one chooses to believe. In this sense, many believers are much more postmodern than the evolutionists who they think lack a belief in truth. Fascinating.

Then, the poster goes on to say that there is diversity within a population, and that certain traits will be selected for, thereby ceding that evolution occurs on certain scales. So why can’t it account for new “kinds” (whatever those are)?

But it is micro-evolution, and never strays outside the boundary of a KIND. A dog cannot evolve into a cat. In ten million years, I contend, a dog’s descendants will still be recognizable dogs. Indeed, even after a billion years of microevolution, a dog’s descendants will still be something other than cats.

This is silly. If change occurs, then over more time, you have more change. Now of course evolutionary biologists would never claim that a dog would turn into a cat. What they do note is that if at some point in those ten million years you have two populations of dogs that are separated for a period of time, by geography or habits or any other factor that prevents interbreeding, those populations will diverge over time. That’s speciation. And that is considered by many to be the dividing point between micro- and macroevolution. Natural selection does not pretend to predict a dog will become a cat, but to explain that dogs and cats at some point diverged from some common ancestor that had biological similarities to both. The prediction made is that any two other groups separated for a period of time will eventually diverge as well.

But where do we draw the line between kinds, between microevolution and macroevolution? Can a donkey be bred from a horse? Can an alpaca be bred from a camel? Can a tiger be bred from a lion? These all may sound in some way ridiculous, but all of these animal pairs can interbreed, which suggests that they may be of the same kind. Where things can get tricky is when the hybrid born of the mating is itself sterile. Does this mean we’ve crossed a line between kinds, and found the limits of what evolution can change?

These cases of species that are close enough to interbreed but not produce fertile offspring are excellent examples of the fluid nature of biological change. Tigers and lions can produce offspring because they diverged recently enough that they have yet to accumulate the level of genetic difference necessary to prevent all reproduction. However, they have diverged enough to be both noticeably different (unlike species that we humans can’t tell apart with our naked eyes) and noticeably incapable of producing fertile offspring (unlike some species of songbird that while they do not reproduce together in the wild for behavioral reasons, are still physically capable of doing so). Again, an excellent example of speciation and evolution at work, breaking down the idea that each “kind” was created in a perfect, separate form.

I myself have no particular problem with a theory suggesting that all cats are descendant from a common ancestor. I’d even concede that all birds share a common ancestor – from hummingbirds to ostriches. Given enough time, I could see that change happening – it’s just a few orders of magnitude beyond the flexibility humans have brought to the domestic dog. Some quasi-evolutionists even allow for all of Primates (soulless monkeys and apes lumped together with humans) to have descended from a single designed ancestor. I myself could never believe such a thing, since I find it revolting to think my ancestors might have been animals.

Instead of the argument from personal incredulity, you get the argument from personal revulsion. Methinks this blogger has too high a view of humans and too low a view of animals. Biologically speaking, that is.

Some Intelligent Design proponents such as Michael Behe go so far as to say that yes, all species evolved from a common ancestor. They’ve been exposed to the evidence enough to know that arguing against this well-proven fact is simply impossible. However, to maintain some “proof” of an involved God from the physical world (pure faith is the enemy) they take their criticism to the level of evolutionary mechanisms. This critique still fails, but is substantially more subtle than run-of-the-mill Creationism, and has enough pseudoscientific sounding jargon backing it up to fool the scientifically uneducated market they’re aiming at: America’s conservative Christians.

And then you get tension between Christians who believe what they believe because it feels right (and/or it jives with their relatively unscrupulous reading of Scripture) and those Christians who are trying to make a (in their view) scientific argument for believing something. But this blogger talks about the revulsion that rely underlies all of Creationism, including the Intelligent Design movement: many simply reject the proposition that God is not necessary to account for the origin of the human species because it is religiously unpalatable. These rejectionists laud people like Behe (look, he says random mutation doesn’t work!) or Collins (look, a scientist who still believes in God) or Einstein (look, a guy who misleadingly uses the word “God” when talking about nature, thereby confirming our hopes that he’s on our side) to support what they believe by faith, and reject the parts they dislike.