Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Devil in the Details

Since American students now rank a dismal 21st in scientific proficiency among their global peers, it should come as no surprise that four in ten American adults do not believe in the evolution of species.

According to a recent Pew poll, the number of people denying that human beings slowly evolved over millions of years is about the same as it was four years ago.  The main difference is that the belief gap appears to be widening based upon political party affiliation:
In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap.

When you consider that more than half of Americans also believe that the devil is a living, breathing entity who literally walks among us, the evolution poll results are actually a little better than I would have expected. Sizeable minorities also believe in UFOs, witches, ghosts and astrology. Throughout our brief history, the championship of ignorance as a virtue has dominated the American landscape, much to the bafflement of the rest of the educated world. And New York Times columnist Charles Blow smells a Republican conspiracy to explain the widening gap:
I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.
Blow notes that the self-described staunch conservatives denying evolution are also staunch viewers of Fox News, that cesspit of cable hate propaganda. The increasing denial of science, he believes, is the direct result of the GOP propaganda surge. 

But maybe, just maybe, their cynicism and cruelty will end up biting them in the butt. People still have to pay to get the message, and the pay is getting mightily reduced through the parallel surge of austerity. My comment:
The same people who deny evolution and climate change also believe that the devil is an actual living person. Polls show that between a half and two-thirds of Americans are convinced that Old Nick walks among us.
As the wealth gap between rich and poor widens, so too does the gap between ignorance and enlightenment, critical thinking and paranoia. People have got to blame somebody for their suffering, so it might as well be Satan. I reckon that a fair number of those most recently polled on evolution probably thought they were being questioned on evil-ution, and thus summoned their guardian angels for succor against the disembodied voice on the other end of the phone line.
Meanwhile, if the Republicans think they can maintain their grasp on power simply by fomenting the ignorance of their base, they'd better think again. Life itself is getting too damned expensive for millions and millions of people. Those losing unemployment benefits and food stamp assistance are already having to give up watching Sarah Palin in favor of eating. The cable TV industry just reported its worst year ever, losing a million new customers on top of the five million who've already cut the cord.
So who knows? Maybe people will go to the library. And when they discover that all the "Left Behind" books have been checked out, they'll discover Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," and get hooked on Science, vote their economic interests, and we'll all live happily ever after.
The devil you say!



James f Traynor said...

When it comes to science and evolution I've completely given up on the American people. I remember Gore Vidal, shortly before he died, looking out at the audience and saying ,"You're all ignorant, ignorant...". He'd finally given up on the lot of us, somewhat to the surprise of his interviewer. He wasn't specifically referring to science but to the appalling public ignorance of history and civics. To be sure, we're probably the most skillfully propagandized culture in the world. Still, the degree of our belief in our myths is amazing.

The ease with which the public is manipulated is remarkable. This whole business of climate change is a perfect example. Professional investigators have been successfully vilified to a remarkable extent. I've been a field person all my life and I've never seen anything like it. Darwin himself would have certainly collapsed in the face of it. Evidence grows every day that we may be in serious danger, of precipitating something beyond our control. We simply don't know what we're doing and what we're doing is extremely chancy from an environmental point of view as the evidence has increasingly begun to show.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

Via Karen's sidebar yesterday:

Bryan Fischer: 'Evolutionists' Should be Disqualified From Holding Political Office:

Will said...

I've posted this quote from my second-favorite Denis before, and I'm happy to do it again:

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. -Denis Diderot

Pearl said...

Mr. Blow's column about the evolution report contained the following
"I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the
extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others."

And herein lies the real problem of how people's belief in their 'faith'
prevents them from accepting the reality of reason based on established facts.
Therefore we shouldn't be surprised by the level of ignorance uncovered for evolution and other areas of basic understanding of our world. I remember a report once of how many people in the U.S. believed in the existence of angels, of heaven as described in religious treatises, of miracles, etc. which was quite astonishing.

The fact that global warming is a real threat to our planet and that we must do something about it may well seal our doom. But while we are still able we have to try and bring some kind of reality into the equation but not until we learn to live without the hold of religion. A very tall order I am afraid.

Of course, the powers that be, create such misery for the victims of
societies such as ours, that religion becomes the only thing that sustains
their lives and is used as a weapon by those in charge. This is even more
evident by the limitations of more primitive religions in poorer countries where ignorance reigns.
Happy New Year!

Pearl, the Grinch

Zee said...

With a level of success that varies by the day, I try to balance religious faith—really more a sense of spirituality—with the skepticism of the life-long scientist that I am.

It isn't easy.

Therefore, I try to be respectful of the beliefs of others as long as they are not forced on me in the public arena.

Which also isn't easy, as, increasingly, religious fundamentalists are successfully forcing their views on the rest of us, especially in the public schools.

Still, as I have argued in relation to other topics, it is important to try to be respectful, as words matter.

It does none of us any good to refer to fundamentalists as, for instance, generally ignorant. One of my college dormitory-mates was/is both a religious fundamentalist and a brilliant zoology and mathematics student at the same time. Go figure. As you can imagine, we had some interesting
evening discussions over bridge games.

Insofar as I can recollect, he wasn't trying to foist his views on anyone. If you asked him about his religious beliefs he would enthusiastically tell you about them, but he wasn't trying to legislate them into law.

I, too, shake my head at some of the beliefs of the American general public, especially such as those reported on today by Karen.

But even as I shake my head, I try to fight back my emotions and remember words attributed to Barney Frank—though I cannot find the original source:

“There’s something to be said for cultural respect,’’ the nation’s most prominent gay political figure [Barney Frank] said in 2004. “Showing a bit of respect for cultural values with which you disagree is not a bad thing. Don’t call people bigots and fools just because you disagree with them.’’

(The quote was attributed to Frank by a Boston Globe columnist, Jeff Jacoby, back in '09. I don't have unpaid access to the original column, but it has been widely attributed to Jacoby, and is reprinted in full at the foregoing link.)

Still, Gore Vidal was right. The American public is woefully ignorant of science, history and civics, and not particularly interested in remedying said ignorance, even when the topic du jour has been daily in the news and will significantly affect their lives:

Zee said...


I posted some final thoughts on how universities relate to their local populace--often negatively--on the previous thread.

Zee said...


Sorry, I gave you all a bad link to Jimmy Kimmel and the public's knowledge of the Affordable Care Act.

This one should work:

Jay - Ottawa said...

You want science? About vital matters? You’ll love this link for starters.

If you get through that article, there’s another you might enjoy.

No need to become a full-fledged scientist in climatology to help prevent the suicidal extinction of the human race, which could come sooner than you think to a continent near you. The word “extinction” sounds pretty far out, but it’s beginning to come up more and more often in scientific circles. Why such drastic talk? Because that’s what the numbers keep pointing to, unless we change our ways very soon.

Climatologists are trying desperately to reach out to threatened populations along with their policy makers. The problem is twofold: about half the population probably does believe in delusions like the Rapture when their god will take care of the devil and the details; but that does not mean the other half pays attention to science, even if they do say they believe in Darwin. Prove to me that half the population, or even a quarter, appreciates the findings of climatologists.

“Human-made climate change concerns physical sciences, but leads to implications for policy and politics. Conclusions from the physical sciences, such as the rapidity with which emissions must be reduced to avoid obviously unacceptable consequences and the long lag between emissions and consequences, lead to implications in social sciences, including economics, law and ethics. Intergovernmental climate assessments purposely are not policy prescriptive. Yet there is also merit in analysis and discussion of the full topic through the objective lens of science, i.e., “connecting the dots” all the way to policy implications.”

Pearl said...

Zee: I find your comments admirable from a humane point of view. However, I truly believe that in the future upon us, we will be forced to make
decisions that will involve the survival of the planet and the people living on it or vice versa. This will necessitate the motives and actions of those who have the skills to accomplish this feat and those who believe in other beings or beliefs to be the decision makers will paralyze the actions necessary to keep our world continuing.

We need education for survival to be paramount now, with more emphasis on
technical accomplishments and less in useless adventures such as senseless
wars, political gridlock, with wastage of money and resources occurring at an alarming rate.
We no longer have the luxury of time with nature taking over in its reaction to undue stress on the environment among other things. Religion fosters a belief in something that is out of our hands and it is distracting and
stalling the necessity for humans to start taking responsibility for their
own lives and futures.
It is useless to pray for and to someone for help when there has never been actual empirical evidence that this has ever been effective.

As for spiritualism - we need to change our emphasis on one's self, and begin to connect with the rest of humanity starting with those we are in contact with.
Religion separates people more than it connects them since as you stated,
there are so many versions of religious beliefs, their origins and their gods. Children should be raised to care about others without judgment
recognizing that we all need each others' help to survive. The future is grim and we cannot afford to move away from measurable reality with what is facing us. There are too many walls between humans which foster hatred, anger, blame and inability to understand that we all desire similar basic needs to allow us to function fully and be able to contribute to the common good.

This is all generalization, but there are societies which are reaching these potentials and are a signpost for the rest of the world. We are witnessing the suffering in the U.S. of so many of its citizens with terrible loss all around, unable to deal with the problems anymore. Religion will not solve
things as I believe it never really has in the history of mankind, and we
have to think in terms of how to educate people to the other great
possibilities depending on our own abilities and skills. The fact that
religion is now being questioned more than ever with people becoming
disillusioned and leaving their centers of worship is a signpost we should pay attention to.

I know my opinions may not be those of many fine and decent people, and I do not judge friends if they think differently from me. However, I find that often when those I get close to become more open, they admit that they have questioned their religious beliefs but are afraid to discard them with their need for a feeling of protection and safety and a sense of 'belonging' which they don't find elsewhere. Food for thought.

Will said...

Excellent post, Pearl. It reminded me of another quote, this one from Gandhi:

"To give pleasure to a single heart by a single act is better than a thousand heads bowing in prayer."

Noodge said...

@ Pearl: I agree with Will. Excellent post.

The only thing I might add is to that we need to be careful to distinguish between organized religion and an individual's belief in G-d.

The latter helps lead us to "care about others without judgment
recognizing that we all need each others' help to survive." The former leads to "wars, political gridlock, with wastage of money and resources."

Zee said...


I can't disagree with your assertion that down through history, organized religion has caused more problems than it has solved.

Still, I feel a little bit sad for those of your friends who—in intimate moments—have “admit[ted] that they have questioned their religious beliefs but are afraid to discard them with their need for a feeling of protection and safety and a sense of 'belonging' which they don't find elsewhere.” There's so much more to faith beyond those simple needs

Me? I question my faith/hope on a daily basis and consider myself the better for that doubt. So if doubt is “food for thought,” well, I dine on that fare daily and feel none the worse for having done so.

I don't seek protection, safety or a sense of belonging in my faith or hope or whatever it is. For me, it's intellectual honesty, an acknowledgment that whenever I ask “Why?” about my existence, science holds no answers. If you have never asked yourself that same question, “Why?”, well, that completely addresses the difference between you and me on the topic of “faith.” And I don't view a spiritual quest as being somehow “self-centric.” If I view God as being in everything, doesn't that, almost by definition, make me more connected to humanity than less so?

Just to be clear about my own disorganized beliefs—or as clear as one can try to be about such matters—I have no illusions that prayers to some hoped-for “higher power” will solve any of humankind's ills, and I further believe that those who do pray with such a purpose in mind will be sorely disappointed. We will have to fix things ourselves, if we can. No deus ex machina here.

Still, I do believe that there are aspects of humankind's existence that cannot be answered by science alone.

But that admission should not be taken as any endorsement for the views of those religious fundamentalists whom Charles Blow and I feel the need to try to tolerate, those whom you gently chide for being ignorant of such matters “as evolution and other areas of basic understanding of our world,” and who “believe... in the existence of angels, of heaven as described in religious treatises, of miracles, etc. which are quite astonishing.”

You may find that all “quite astonishing.” Me? When the issue is human behavior, well, I've long since stopped being “astonished.” I may respectfully consider such beliefs to be incorrect, but I'm not at all surprised that people might hold them.

A wise old Yorkshireman once told me, “There's nowt so quair as folk,” if I can render the dialect correctly. After long observation on my I own part, I've taken that advice to heart and nothing astonishes me any more. And, IMHO, it shouldn't astonish you, either, as a person of great education, age and experience.

Those people who reject today's scientific understanding of our world are frightened. They seek the simplest explanations possible that will allow them to deal with their own need for “protection and safety and a sense of 'belonging.'” Nothing astonishing there.

Again, IMHO, you should feel some small element of pity for them, rather than “astonishment” at their beliefs. And, yes, still feel some measure of respect for them, simply because they are human beings whose life stories are—for whatever reasons—very different from your own.

You may be convinced that these people and their children must be re-educated in some particular way lest they stand in the way of a global catastrophe, but just what do you propose to do to them that won't violate their basic human right to believe as they choose to believe?

To paraphrase the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think.