Wokeness invades London’s Natural History Museum

October 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve written twice before about the doings of Anna Krylov, a quantum chemist who’s a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. She’s had a distinguished career even though she’s still young, but my interest was in her recent piece in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters:  “The Peril of Politicizing Science“, which I highlighted in this post.

The piece is a hard-hitting critique of the intrusion of ideology of any sort—from woke to right-wing to Communism—into science, much of the piece based on comparing what happened in Russia (where Anna lived) with what’s happening with the increasing wokeness of science in the U.S. and U.K.  With statements like the one below, her essay aroused both approbation and opprobrium. Kudos to the brave editor who published it!

A short excerpt. I’ve eliminated her numerical references to make reading easier:

Just as during the time of the Great Terror [in the Soviet Union], dangerous conspiracies and plots against the World Revolution were seen everywhere, from illustrations in children’s books to hairstyles and fashions; today we are told that racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other reprehensible ideas are encoded in scientific terms, names of equations, and in plain English words. We are told that in order to build a better world and to address societal inequalities, we need to purge our literature of the names of people whose personal records are not up to the high standards of the self-anointed bearers of the new truth, the Elect. We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes. The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions),( Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program),) and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls). Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.

I added a link to the last example since I was part of that effort.

At any rate, Wikipedia says this about Krylov’s piece:

Krylov is an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and academic freedom.  She is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance and a member of its academic leadership committee. Her paper, “The Peril of Politicizing Science,” has received 55,000 views and, according to Altmetric, is the all-time highest-ranked article in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

Note, though, that Krylov is no opponent of diversity. Like many of us, she is a liberal, and Wikipedia adds this:

Krylov is active in the promotion of gender equality in STEM fields, especially in theoretical chemistry. She created and maintains the web directory Women in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, Material Science, and Biochemistry, which currently lists more than 400 scientists holding tenure and tenure track academic positions, or equivalent positions in industry, national laboratories, and other leading research establishments. She has delivered several talks on gender equality in STEM including a lecture at the international symposium in Uppsala, Sweden.

Later in August, I reported on a letter written by Krylov and many colleagues to her own university, objecting to public statements by USC’s Department of Gender and Sexuality studies about the Israel/Palestine conflict and the general atmosphere of anti-Semitism at her school.

This is all by way of background for the very short report below. Anna, who was in London, informed me that she had a great trip to the Natural History Museum, one that she documented in some of her pictures of London here.

But there was one fly in the ointment. As she said, “I I was shocked to see these stickers all over the place” in the Museum:

In other words, “Watch this space for self flagellation.”

That sticker bugs me as well. Why does every institution, including  natural history museums, feel that they have to apologize for and somehow rectify the views of our predecessors whose morality doesn’t comport with current views? As Anna said, this isn’t just one sticker—there are many.  I expect that every museum, art gallery, and historical display in the U.K. is going to go this way. They have no choice.

But Anna didn’t just get peeved, she wrote an email to the Museum which I reproduce below with permission (click to enlarge)

If the Natural History Museum responds (I’m not hopeful), I’ll let you know what they say.

Krylov (photo from Wikipedia)

Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!


There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy

August 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As we’ve seen, the once-respectable journal Scientific American is circling the drain, with an increasing surfeit of articles pushing a particular ideological point of view—a woke one. Well, this article, by writer Allison Hopper, has a bit of science in it, but it’s mixed with politics in such a toxic way that it’s almost funny. It’s full of unsupported assumptions and false claims, is based on no logic at all, and is false in its main claim for two reasons.  Those of you who still subscribe to this rag may want to either write the editor, Laura Helmuth, or cancel your subscription.

Laura had a distinguished career before she took over this journal (she has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in neuroscience and has edited or written for Science, The Washington Post, and Smithsonian). I have no idea why she lets this kind of tripe into her magazine. But she’s less to blame than the author, who doesn’t even have a coherent argument. All Hopper wants to do is show that American creationism has nothing to do with religion, but that white supremacy, not belief in God, is at the core of creationism.

Read and weep: this is a this is a three-hankie article:

Now over the last 12 years I’ve given plenty of evidence that creationism stems from religious belief: belief in the Bible for conservative Jews and Christians, and belief in the Qur’an for Muslims, with both books having their own creation stories. For one thing, I’ve never met a creationist who wasn’t motivated by religion, and all creationist organizations, including the Discovery Institute, are at bottom manifestations of religious belief, regarding evolution as inimical to belief in God. This is so obvious that only someone with a bizarre agenda could deny it.

Well, Hopper does deny it.  She says that the roots of creationism really lie in white supremacy and not religion. Here’s the logical connection that leads her to that conclusion.

a. If two falsities are in the Bible, they can be connected as causal.
b. Two falsities that Hopper deals with are Biblical creationism as limned in Genesis, and the claim that humans started out with white skin and then God, marking the descendants of Cain, made them black.
c.  The supposedly black descendants of Cain have been historically portrayed as bad people, and then as black people, as the “mark” given to those descendants is said to be black skin.
d.  Therefore the Bible evinces white supremacy, since humans, made in God’s image, started out white, but a bad subset of them were turned black.
e.  In reality, human ancestors were black, so even the Bible story is wrong.
f.  The white supremacy story comes from Genesis (4:15), a book that also tells the creation story.
g.   Ergo, creationism stems from white supremacy.

(Note, as I say below, the white supremacy argument is itself based on religion!)

You’ve already noted a number of fallacies in this argument. One is that if two bad things are in the Bible, particularly in the same part of the Bible, they can be connected, and one can assert that one bad part gave rise to the other. Well, there are a number of mass killings in Genesis: beyond the extirpation of humanity by the Flood, there’s also the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah. And of course the Old Testament itself is full of genocide. By this logic, one could say that creationism stems from an impulse to murder. (Indeed, Hopper connects creationism with “lethal effects” on black people!).

The other bit of “evidence” Hopper adduces to draw creationism out of white supremacy is this (I am not making it up):

In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s.

Well that’s a strong proof, right? No matter that a lot of people who didn’t support the Klan still went after evolution in the 1920s and before.

And that’s all the evidence that Hopper has. She makes no case that creationism comes from a desire of whites to be on top save the occasional depiction of our African ancestors as white people (and, because they’re often men, this shows misogyny as well). But that claim really argues that our view of evolution comes from white supremacy!

Do you think I’m kidding? Here are a few sentences from Hopper’s article:

I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.

. . . At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, white skin was created in God’s image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story goes, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin. Historically, many congregations in the U.S. pointed to this story of Cain as evidence that Black skin was created as a punishment.

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

One bit of advice for Ms. Hopper: besides the obvious one that you’re wrong about where creationism comes from, PLEASE stop using the term “black bodies” for “black people”. Yes, I know the phrase is au courant, but it dehumanizes black people in the same way that “slaves” dehumanizes “enslaved people.”  You are using racist language. And what, by the way, are the lethal effects of creationism on black people? Is Hopper speaking metaphorically or literally here?

But I digress.

Hopper is right that the Genesis account of the Bible is creationist, and says that Adam was made in God’s image. But does it say what color Adam was? I don’t think so. It’s just assumed that he was white, but on this point Scripture is silent. In fact, we don’t know, though Hopper asserts it confidently, that the earliest human ancestors were black, though humans certainly split from our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimps, in Africa, and evolved black pigmentation at some point. This is because humans probably evolved from chimplike primates (as “naked apes,” we’re outliers), and chimps happen to have white skin. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

Chimpanzees are covered by a coat of brown or black hair, but their faces are bare except for a short white beard. Skin colour is generally white except for the face, hands, and feet, which are black. The faces of younger animals may be pinkish or whitish. Among older males and females, the forehead often becomes bald and the back becomes gray.

Here’s a photo from Forbes, but you can find lots of photos like this.

Old and young chimps from NBC News:

It’s entirely possible that the first members of the hominin lineage after it split from the chimp lineage had light skin, and darker skin evolved later via natural selection. If this is the case, Hopper’s argument falls apart. But it doesn’t matter, because, really, who cares besides evolutionists and anthropologists—and energetic anti-racists like Hopper—about the skin color of the earliest hominins? I’m not claiming that the earliest members of the hominin lineage were white, and I’m certainly not making a case for white supremacy, for our later hominin ancestors were surely much darker. All I’m saying is that these early hominins could have been white or gray. Hopper has no way to be sure, and in that case she has no argument.

It is likely that after several million years, hominins in Africa did evolve dark skin, and that those hominins were the ones that gave us fire, tools, and other rudiments of culture. But I don’t see how that buttresses Hopper’s argument. Even if it did, her big fallacy is not assuming that the first hominins were black, but connecting white supremacy supported by some religionists with creationism, with the former giving rise to the latter.

Why does Hopper make this argument? Because she has a goal:

My hope is that if we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will provide more ammunition to get science into the classroom—and into our culture at large.

Good luck with that!  Because creationism really comes from religion, and accepting evolution would overturn the faith of many Biblical literalists (about 40% of Americans), you’re not going to change their minds by telling them: “Hey! Your creationism is really a manifestation of white supremacy because the story of Adam and Eve is a tale of white supremacy!”

But were Cain’s descendants really black? Hopper assumes that they were, and that’s how many people have interpreted the story, but let’s read what the Good Book says (King James version; Genesis 4:15).

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

This is a “mark”, not dark skin, and I can’t find any scholar who interprets the Hebrew as meaning “dark skin”. Furthermore, the “mark” placed on Cain was not to identify him and his descendants as miscreants, but to protect them.  Here, from the King James Bible again, are verses 9-16 from Genesis 4:

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

The “mark” is clearly given by God to protect Cain, so even if it were dark skin, for which there’s no evidence, it means that dark skin marked Cain and his descendants as people protected by God. How does that comport with Hopper’s narrative?

I’ve already gone on too long picking additional in Hopper’s Swiss cheese of a narrative, but I have one more bit of evidence that tells against her risible theory.  And that is this: historically, in the United States black people have been far more creationist than whites. If creationism draws from white supremacy, then haven’t black people heard the news?

Here are some data from a Pew Study in 2015: see bars 4-6 from the top:

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: an insupportable argument, weakly based on erroneous science, and gracing the pages of what was once America’s premier science magazine. How low the mighty have fallen!

All I want to add in closing is that Hopper is dead wrong in claiming that the roots of creationism are not in religion, but in white supremacy. And, as the supreme irony in her argument, the “white supremacy” argument is rooted in, yes, the Bible! So even her main thesis is wrong. Yes, no matter how you slice it, even Hopper’s way, creationism is an outgrowth of religion.

In case they ditch this article, I’ve archived it here.

Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

August 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers not to go after religion very strongly (though he has on rare occasions), believing that if you diss somebody’s religion, it prevents them from accepting the science you want to purvey—especially evolution. And he’s probably right, at least if you try to cover both subjects in a single lecture. The result is that Tyson is soft on faith, as you can see in the video below.

This video was put on YouTube last year, but I don’t know the venue or the title. Tyson shows a ranking of 34 countries and the degree of acceptance of evolution of their inhabitants. It’s well known data, but Tyson cherry-picks it to try to show that “religious” countries can be relatively high in accepting evolution, touting accommodation and giving us “hope in the world”. At least that’s how I understand his aim. Examples he adduces are these:

a). Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.” (That was centuries ago, and Britain is no longer so religious!)
b.) Likewise in Germany, where Protestantism was born under Luther, acceptance of evolution high as well. Ditto with Catholic Italy.
c.) Eastern bloc countries are low on religion, as you might expect as they were largely atheistic countries under communism, but fall in the middle on accepting evolution

Tyson finds this “hard to understand”, presumably because religion is supposed to be inimical to accepting evolution. He gives an anecdote about sending people who question the absence of God in the AMNH’s Big Bang exhibit over to the “human evolution” exhibit, concluding that the AMNH’s evidence for evolution is much stronger than the Big Bang in buttressing acceptance of evolution (he doesn’t mention physics). I grant him that, but so what?

Tyson then boasts about how he bested Dawkins in a panel discussion, showing a video of their verbal fencing. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve faced. Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and then goes on to give his own anecdote. In the meantime, Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off, but implicitly arguing that you can’t criticize religion if you want people to accept evolution.

The answer that I give is that you can be both an antitheist and a promoter of evolution—you just don’t do it at the same time. Does Tyson think that Dawkins should simply take off his antitheist hat and never criticize religion at all? That idea neglects the fact that the downside of religion goes far deeper than merely preventing acceptance of evolution. Look at what the Taliban does, for instance, or how Catholicism has led to all kinds of inimical restrictions on sex, to the terrifying of children, and to pedophilia. Look how hyperorthodox Jews turn women into breeding stock.  Religious wars and disputations have led to the death of millions. Next to that, creationism is small potatoes.

So no, Dawkins shouldn’t shut up. After all, The God Delusion was one of the best sellers of our time, moving more than a million copies.  And as the old Dawkins site “Converts Corner” attests, it helped dispel the religiosity of many people.  So Richard’s antitheism was instrumental in helping drive people away from faith and towards rationality—and science. (Note how many people in the Corner link the rejection of religion with the acceptance of science.)

At the same time, with his evolution books like The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (my favorite), The Blind Watchmaker, Richard not only educated people about science, but got them to accept evolution and its marvels. How many people have attested that it was Richard’s writings that brought them to accepting evolution and appreciating science?

So while Tyson may be right about dissing religion and selling evolution in the same lecture, Dawkins has been inordinately successful in not only helping drive religion from our world, but in getting people to accept and love science. You can say that without the first activity he would have been more successful at the second, but Dawkins, like me, has more than one goal in his life.

By the way, if you analyze the data Tyson presents in his talk above, it actually provides some support for the incompatibility of science and faith. What I did in the Evolution paper below (click for free access) was to correlate these 34 countries’ acceptance of evolution with their religiosity. And the correlation was negative. (As President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, which publishes the journal, I got the privilege of publishing one article, and I wrote this one. As you can imagine, it took some trouble to get it accepted, but the journal did print it!).

If you take Miller’s data shown in Tyson’s talk, and correlate it with the religiosity of the 34 countries, with each dot representing a country, you see a strong and significant negative correlation: the more religious a country is (moving right on the X axis), the less likely its inhabitants are to accept evolution (moving down on the Y axis). Here is that plot with the caption from my original figure:

Figure 1. The correlation between belief in God and acceptance of human evolution among 34 countries. Acceptance of evolution is based on the survey of Miller et al. (2006), who asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (Original data provided by J. D. Miller.) “Belief in God” comes from the Eurobarometer survey of 2005, except for data for Japan from (Zuckerman 2007) and for the United States from a Gallup Poll (2011b). “US” is the point for the United States. The correlation is −0.608 (P = 0.0001), the equation of the least-squares regression line is y = 81.47 − 0.33x.

Now this shows a correlation, not causation, so it may not show, for example, that belief in God makes people resistant to accepting evolution. Another interpretation is that acceptance of evolution is the causal factor, and that leads people to become atheists (this may be true for some folks). But I think, as I said in the paper, a third factor is in play here that leads to the correlation: human well being. For if you plot either various indices of well being, like the UN’s “Happiness Index” or the “Successful Societies Scale” (a measure of social support) against religiosity, you find out that the happiest people, and the healthiest societies, are the least religious. (See my paper for the evidence) And if you lose your religion because your society, as a healthy and happy one, makes religion superfluous, you naturally begin to accept evolution. (As I always say, “you can have religions without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) In support of the idea that low well-being makes one religious, I often cite the full quotation from Marx (most people leave out all but the last sentence):

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

At any rate, I believe Tyson distorts the data by cherry-picking individual points.

Therefore, my explanation for the correlation above, including social causation, is this, written in my Evolution paper:

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

If you’re interested, read the paper, for it’s written not for professional evolutionary biologists but for the educated layperson.

By the way, the correlation between acceptance of evolution and religiosity also holds strongly for the 50 American states as well. I couldn’t get the data for religiosity of individual states, but in my lecture on the incompatibility of faith and science, I do show a slide in which I there is a bar graph depicting the acceptance of evolution in each state. I found separate data for the ten most religious states (red arrows) and the ten least religious states (blue arrows), and put the arrows next to the states in the bar chart.

As you see below, all the blue arrows are above all the red ones. That is, every one of the ten least religious states has higher acceptance of evolution than all of the most religious states. Why? I think the reason is the same as for the correlation among countries.


Thus endeth today’s sermon. Praise Ceiling Cat, and may fleas be upon him. Amen.

How do you change the minds of science deniers?

August 12, 2021 • 10:45 am

This article just appeared in Nature, and while it’s well intentioned, and gives advice that will work sometimes, it’s not, as the author implies, a panacea we can use to convince science deniers of the truth.

Click on the screenshot to read (it’s free).

Now there are lots of techniques for changing the minds of creationists, anti-vaxers, people who think the Jews plotted the 9/11 attacks, and so on. One is good old-fashioned mockery, and don’t think that that’s not effective. There are few things as effective at getting you to examine your views than being laughed at by people you respect (or should respect).  Then there is giving lectures on the evidence, or writing books about it. That’s what I spent much of my career doing to counteract creationists. I debated one of them once (Hugh Ross), but it was clear that the audience (the Alaska Bar Association) was in no position to adjudicate the evidence, and of course debate usually involves rhetoric rather than truth (viz., the “Gish gallop“). I won’t be debating creationists again.

Author Lee McIntyre has another way: a kindlier version of debating. McIntyre has just written a book on the topic; Nature gives his bona fides this way:

Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, Massachusetts, and author of the forthcoming book How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations With Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason (MIT Press, 2021).

And perhaps the specific beliefs of his opponents—those loons who believe in a flat earth—are the key to his success.

McIntyre feels that the way to convince someone who thinks the earth is a disc that it’s really a sphere involves first gaining their trust by respecting them, and then asking them leading questions.  So he first listens carefully to the deniers and then goes to work. Here’s how he describes it:

So how does ‘technique rebuttal’ work in practice? Here’s my experience. When I attended the Flat Earth International Conference in 2018, I chose to say nothing on the first day, although it was hard to keep my mouth shut when I heard that Antarctica is a wall of ice that keeps the sea from flowing off Earth. By the second day, I was glad I’d waited. I knew if I’d offered evidence, they’d say that space was fake and scientists were liars.

Although I didn’t convince any flat-earthers on the spot, I did learn how to get them to listen. I let them speak, then followed up with questions once the dialogue was rolling. Instead of refuting arguments, I asked, “What evidence might change your mind?” If they said they needed ‘proof’, I asked why existing evidence was insufficient. If they shared a conspiracy theory, I asked why they trusted the evidence for it. By doing that — and not monologuing the facts — I was able to let them wonder why they couldn’t answer my questions.

It is an axiom of science communication that you cannot convince a science denier with facts alone [JAC: I don’t believe that because I’ve seen it happen repeatedly]; most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust. And trust has to be built, with patience, respect, empathy and interpersonal connections. Because I spent the first day listening, even committed deniers were interested in what I had to say.

At one Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, I had two ex-Hasidic Jews come up to me (in a single day!) and tell me that they realized evolution was true when they started reading about it as kids. That led to them abandoning not just creationism (a belief of many Hasids), but their faith—and ultimately they were rejected by their families. But it was the facts that did the job.

Unfortunately, McIntyre doesn’t actually tell us how many—if any—of the flat-earthers came around to his side.  If you know of a panoply of ways to convince science deniers that they’re wrong, the way to find out the best technique is to test the different techniques and compare the results after some months have passed. Nobody’s really done that.  Now virtually all methods will work on some people, but different methods may be required for different people, so I’m wary of McIntyre’s “one method cures all” approach.

He does report that it works (as all methods will) with respect to the vaccine hesitant:

Arnaud Gagneur, a researcher and physician at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, and his colleagues conducted more than 1,000 20-minute interviews in which they listened to new parents’ concerns about vaccinations and answered their questions. Those parents’ children were 9% more likely to receive all the vaccines on the schedule than were those of uninterviewed parents whose babies were delivered in the same maternity ward (T. Lemaitre et al. Hum. Vaccin. Immunother. 15, 732–739; 2019). One mother told him: “It’s the first time that I’ve had a discussion like this, and I feel respected, and I trust you.”

Well, sure, that would work (to the extent of 9% success), but what if you show them an ad like the one I’ll put up later today: an ad depicting the ravages of Covid? (I’ve suggested something similar before: showing ads with the relatives and loved ones of those who died of the disease giving their heartbreaking testimony?)

What if you showed parents videos of kids with whooping cough or tetanus? Might that not work better? The problem with Gagneur’s experiment is that the control is “no intervention,” not a “different intervention.” If you’re weighing strategies to combat the science-deniers, you have to test them all.

With respect to my own bête noire—creationists—I’m wary of McIntyre’s method, for I’ve used it. When you use it on creationists, and then ask them questions, they don’t start listening to you simply because they respect you more (well, a few of them will), for you’re attacking not just science, but the entire foundation of their faith: the veracity of the Bible. Doing what McIntyre recommends might change some creationists’ minds, but it’s time-consuming. I’d rather lecture on the evidence for evolution, contrasting that with what creationism predicts, and let the chips fall where they may. In fact, just attacking religion itself might be a better way to dispel creationism than discussing scientific beliefs and evidence, for when religion goes, so goes creationism. You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.

This is why I’m always wary of those who tell me the best way to convince people of the truth of evolution, or of the efficacy of vaccination. (Remember Chris Mooney’s similar advice?) With science denialists, let a thousand strategies blossom!

So yes, by all means, if you’re so constituted, follow McIntyre’s recommendations below. They surely can’t hurt. But sometimes I just like to point out the follies of faith.

Where should you do this? Wherever science deniers can be found. Speak up in line at the pharmacy. Volunteer to speak at your kids’ school. Or, if you’re ambitious, join me at the upcoming flat-earth convention. I already have a physicist friend coming along.

Those who want to make a difference can learn how to do so. Resources are available through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook, New York, and the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Public Engagement with Science in Ohio. It isn’t as comfortable as cheering with fellow marchers, but it can be more effective.

More mishigas at Scientific American: A claim that opposition to evolution comes from white supremacy, not religion

July 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

As Scientific American continues its inexorable circling of the drain, it’s approaching the drainhole itself. For, from a week ago, we have an op-ed by Allison Hopper asserting that Americans’ rejection of evolution—73% of Americans are either straight-up Biblical creationists (40%) or think God helped guide evolution (33%)—is due not to religion as many suppose, but to white supremacy. It’s all about racism, Jake! (I was not the first to proposed the religion-is-the-main-cause of rejecting-evolution thesis, but laid out the case, with supporting data, in a paper in Evolution in 2012.)

Hopper rejects that thesis in her Sci Am article, saying that the idea that people reject evolution because of religion is a “lie”. To wit:

“I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies. “

Well, she’s dead wrong about her thesis, as I’ll argue below, but also in her claim that evolution denialism “perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.” It does nothing of the sort! You really have to distort your thinking to claim that people are prone to deny evolution because they’re white supremacists, much less embrace the idea that creationism (which is what I’ll call “evolution denial”, since they’re pretty much equivalent in America) creates “violence against Black bodies”. What kind of violence? Has any black person been harmed in the name of creationism? And what is it with this “black bodies” trope?  That seems to me distinctly unwoke, since the trend in “progressive” language is to emphasize the humanity of oppressed people, i.e., “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves”. Saying “black bodies” instead of “black people” clearly dehumanizes people, and I deplore it.

But I digress. Before we examine Hopper’s arguments, such as they are, here are her bona fides from the article:

Allison Hopper is a filmmaker and designer with a master’s degree in educational design from New York University. Early in her career, she worked on PBS documentaries. More recently, she’s been creating content for young people on the topic of evolution. She has presented on evolution at the Big History Conference in Amsterdam and Chautauqua, among other places.

And here’s her article, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

Hopper is trying here to jump on the current bandwagon that everything is about race, including rejection of evolution. And, she implies, once we acquaint people with the fact that creationism is a product not of religion but of white supremacy, they’ll give up their creationism and embrace evolution.

Her argument goes like this:

1.) Many people don’t realize that all humans descend from African ancestors (true).

2.) Those African ancestors had dark skin. (Also true.) However, in their case “black” or “brown” does not equate with “oppressed”, since there were no white people to oppress them. Different species of hominin may have oppressed each other, but that had nothing to do with pigmentation.

3.) Importantly, human culture sprang from dark-skinned ancestors who had religion, language, fire, and tool use. These were the foundations, argues Hopper, for the culture we have today. It’s true that these bases (except, perhaps, for religion and language, about whose origin we know virtually nothing) probably sprang from dark-skinned ancestors. But other features of modern culture evolved in Europe and the Middle East, where natural selection had already been lightening skin color. (This constant emphasis on the overweening importance of skin color repels me.) At any rate, agriculture and its attendant amenities of civilization probably arose about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East among people who were not black (but may have been brown) and further developed by people of all colors, including whites and Asians. But who cares? Only someone obsessed with racism and determined to make it the basis for everything bad.

4.) Hopper cares, for she says that evolution’s truth dispels the Biblical story that Adam and Eve (who were supposedly white) were instrumental in creating black people, who descended from a bad person—Cain—who killed his brother. This “mark of Cain” thesis that supposedly connects creationism with white supremacy, is advanced in several ways by Hopper:

Science education in the U.S. is constantly on the defensive against antievolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as fact. In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Ever since then, entrenched racism and the ban on teaching evolution in the schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece,What We Get Wrong About the Evolution Debate, Adam Shapiro argues that “the history of American controversies over evolution has long been entangled with the history of American educational racism.”

In fact, anybody who looks at the data on creationism sees immediately its connection with the Biblical creation story (not including Cain)—the view that God created everything almost instantaneously, with humans made in His/Her/Their image. Everybody promoting creationism and intelligent design is religious, and all creationist organizations are religious at bottom.

In my life I’ve met hundreds of creationists, and every one of them was religious. (David Berlinski, whom I haven’t met, may be the one exception, but that’s just one person and he may be dissimulating about religion anyway.) They make no bones about their views, either. Yet in none of these people have I heard anything about white supremacy. Sure, there may be racists among creationists—there has to be given the connection between Evangelical Christianity and the South—but you’d have to essentially make things up to argue that creationism comes from white supremacy and that its connection with religion is “a lie.” (At any rate, were Hopper’s story of Cain and Abel true, it still shows a connection between creationism and religion.)

But wait! There’s more:

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

There are those “Black bodies” again.  But what are the “lethal” effects? Were black bodies really killed because white bigots and lynchers were motivated by a refusal to accept our ancient ancestry? I doubt it, and I doubt whether they were motivated by religion, either. They were motivated, I believe, by tribalism and the heritage of slavery with its attendant beliefs that blacks were inferior beings.

In fact, when Hopper talks about the dearth of children’s books on evolution, she inadvertently admits that religion (not the story of Cain and Abel!) is tilting kids towards creationism:

If you go on Amazon and look up “children’s books on evolution” you will find about 10–15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects such as chemistry, astronomy and other less controversial subjects. I found only one book on evolution for preschoolers, called Grandmother Fish. The author had to self-fund the book through Kickstarter.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books available on Amazon that focus on biblical origin stories. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded antievolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own Bible-themed museum and amusement park. What they understand is that to reach young children you need music, colorful characters and celebration.

Kids get their religion long before they learn evolution, and by the time they’re presented with Darwin and his successors, they’ve had at least a decade of indoctrination in the Bible, with many being Biblical literalists. They are effectively immunized against evolution. Racism is a separate issue.

In the end, Hopper argues that if we can just tell the story of evolution properly, including that we all came from Africa and our earliest ancestors were dark-skinned, creationism would go away:

. . . even in the current literature about human origins that we do have, the end point of evolution is often depicted as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage but also erases women and children from the picture. Because evolution is foundational knowledge, we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.

As we move forward to undo systemic racism in every aspect of business, society, academia and life, let’s be sure to do so in science education as well. Embracing humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to changing our relationship to the past, and to creating racial equity in the present. These ancient people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and embracing them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the process of healing from our racist history.

I wasn’t aware that the teaching of evolution was systemically racist; do teachers really deny that our ancestors were African? And does Hopper really believe that accepting that will get rid of racism? Really? Even Darwin was a monogenist, saying that all groups of humans arose from a single ancestor who probably lived in Africa. Did that get rid of racism? I don’t think so, though some people think Darwin’s monogenism was part of a strategy to combat racism.

(I can’t get over my gag reflex when hearing that we need to embrace our ancestors with “love and respect”, since I don’t know that they were either lovable or respectable)

Okay, now what’s the evidence against Hopper’s thesis? It’s strong:

a.) Ask people why they think evolution didn’t happen. Many will say because they believe the Bible or the Qur’an. Nobody will say because it shows that white people are superior. (Of course, you can say they won’t admit their bigotry.)

b.) Every creationist organization from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute is based on religion, while we find no creationist organizations whose platform is white supremacy. As I said, the two are tangentially connected because of the religious and white-supremacist nature of the American South, but this is a matter of correlation, not causation.

c.) Most telling: several surveys, listed and summarized in this paper, show that blacks and Hispanics deny evolution more than do whites. This is the opposite of what Hopper predicts, but makes sense under the “religion-first” hypothesis, since blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites in general.

d.) There is a highly statistically significant negative correlation between the religiosity of 34 European countries and their acceptance of evolution, as I noted in my Evolution paper. Most of these countries are nearly all white, save France and Germany, which have high acceptance of evolution (and more black people than, say, Iceland or Demark). The US is near the bottom in accepting evolution (I’ll give the data in a minute), not because the U.S. has a higher percentage of whites than most European countries—it doesn’t—but because the U.S. is far more religious then Europe.

Here’s the correlation I found. The U.S., labeled, is next to last in accepting evolution, while below us lies only Turkey: a Muslim country that, by the way, happens to comprise many “people of color”. Note that the most religious countries, to the right, are the least accepting of evolution. I discuss issues with these data (nonindependence, etc.) in the Evolution paper.

And here are the data from Miller and Scott (2006) that I used to make the plot for my own paper:

The religiosity of these countries, which appears in the graph above, came from other sources given in my Evolution paper.

The thing to note is that virtually all these countries are white, and yet the correlation holds across them all. As I said, the countries with the highest proportion of evolution rejectors (those at the bottom)—are not only the most religious, but also probably contain the highest proportion of people of color. This is what the religious hypothesis proposes, but it goes counter to Hopper’s thesis, which predicts that the whitest countries should be the least accepting of evolution, for rejection of evolution is a sign of white supremacy. (Of course, you could argue that white supremacy will be manifested only in countries with a substantial proportion of black people, but that’s pushing it.) In fact, Hopper’s argument is a post facto confection to support anti-racism, and appears to make no predictions that seem to stand up to scrutiny.

It seems to me that Hopper is not only deeply misguided, but also motivated by ideology, tying creationism directly to white supremacy, and almost completely dismissing its connection to religion. As I always say, “You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.” Hopper seems to have deliberately ignored data inimical to her hypothesis, which of course is what one does when afflicted with the kind of confirmation bias that comes with wokeness.

And it’s just another sign that whoever’s in charge of Scientific American is letting through ill-informed and erroneous material.  What has happened to that once-respectable magazine? Is there no longer an audience for the lively yet informative articles they used to publish? Are they becoming the Evergreen State of popular science magazines?

h/t: Eli

Neil deGrasse Tyson on reviving public interest in science (and other stuff)

April 19, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The New York Times has a long interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about many things, but the main topic is how to revive what’s seen as waning public interest in science as well as distrust of science. Click on the screenshot to read it:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this is the NYT, a lot of the interview is about two claims of sexual misconduct made against Tyson a few years ago. As the article notes, these claims were investigated by three bodies: the American Museum of Natural History, where Tyson works, and National Geographic and Fox News (the latter two air his shows); and there was no finding of misconduct. Yet the NYT brings it up in the first paragraph, and then later on asks him several questions that have nothing to do with science, questions that Tyson deftly deflects. Before we get to the science, here are the questions (note that the link doesn’t seem to work)

  • A lot of what we’ve talked about really goes to questions of authority. Do you feel as if your own authority was affected by the claims of sexual misconduct made against you a couple of years ago? 
  • What about from a perspective of curiosity? Did you learn anything about gender dynamics or power imbalances as a result of those accusations? 
  • But I was trying to ask what younot the culture, had learned. Did that experience open any self-reflection or new understanding about either your own behaviors or thinking regarding gender dynamics? I’m trying to get some introspection. 

Tyson answers them (or rather circumvents them), but what do they have to do with the topic of the interview? Given that he was exculpated, it’s time to leave the guy alone about this stuff.

There are other questions about the search for extraterrestrial life, the connection between relativity and quantum mechanics, and the way to popularize science—the main point of the interview.

So is the public really mistrustful of science or scientists? A Pew Poll from last year says “no, not really”, for public confidence in the ability of scientists to act in the public interest rose in the four years between 2016 and 2019 and it’s high. In fact, the only group that inspires more confidence are K-12 school principals (politicians are especially low!):

Now this was before the pandemic hit, so the data may differ now. And we’re surely aware that the public is suspicious of vaccines, which I suppose reflects a lack of confidence not in medical scientists, but in public health officials. Further, most people are taking their shots, which shows a pretty remarkable confidence in science given that the vaccines were developed over a couple of weeks before they were tested.

I don’t perceive a public distrust of science so much as a public lack of interest in science. No matter how many Tysons, Sagans, and Dawkinses you throw at the public, some people will just never get turned on. And there’s no way to force them to be. People’s interests differ. Nevertheless, the three names I’ve just mentioned show that although we can’t get everyone on board with science, there is a latent interest out there that can be switched on.

How should we do that? There are a number of ways (my view is that each scientists should do outreach the best way they know how), but Tyson has a more definitive answer, which he imparts in this exchange (interviewers statement is in bold, Tyson’s response in regular type):

. . . Once you’ve come up knowing the science and how and why it works and understanding what the bleeding edge of science does, you’re in a position to pass judgment on science-related news. Now, on top of that, if there’s anything we would call a scientific authority, it is the National Academy of Sciences. Most people don’t even know that the frickin’ thing exists. Why is that? We need better marketing.

What would be the mechanism for that? I’ll go pie in the sky: a mission to Mars with humans. That would do it. Why do I know that? Because in the 1960s, while we’re going to the moon, you didn’t need special programs to get people interested in science and engineering. It was writ large in the daily headlines because every mission was more ambitious than the previous mission. This went higher, this orbited longer, now we’re docking, now we’re going to launch the craft that’s going to the moon, now we go to the moon. And you knew it was fluency in science and technology that was empowering that journey. So a mission to Mars with humans, I could script this: We’re going to do this in the year 2035. It’s 14 years from now, and we want the crew to be in their upper 20s in age, which means that right now that crew is in middle school. Let us do another Mercury 7 except we’re going to find the middle-schoolers who we are going to track, and Teen Beat is going to say, “How were your grades? Are you doing all the right things? Are you studying?” They become models for society without having to take out an ad. They go to Mars! By the way, for this you also need biologists, medical doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, chemists, geologists. You tickle all the STEM fields, and everybody is going to want to be a part of that, and science would reign supreme once again.

Yes, that is pie in the sky! First of all, a mission to Mars with humans, though it will undoubtedly pique public interest, will be not only expensive, but also dangerous.  And it will take seven months each way. The possibility of a disaster seems to me quite high. What we see here is what would get Tyson turned on, but not necessarily people like me.

But will a Mars mission really inspire interest in science—even over the long 14 years that Tyson says it would take to launch the mission? I don’t think so. Moreover, will it inspire the kind of interest in science that I would like to see: interest in the wonders of life and of evolution? (We each have our own fiefdom.) I don’t see how, even if Tyson says “you need biologists, chemists, and so on” to be part of a mission to Mars.

The fact that interest in evolution has been dialed up so high by Richard Dawkins, for instance, shows that you don’t need missions to Mars to get people excited about science. You just need a communicator with the knowledge, the eloquence, and the charisma to show people what excites us scientists without being condescending towards the public. In the past, those people have been largely physicists: people like Tyson, Sagan, or Feynman. But they needn’t be. The only prescription I’ll issue for exciting public interest in science is for scientists to stop considering outreach as an inferior activity. After all, it’s the public who funds our research, and why shouldn’t those of us who can help pay them back by telling them where their bucks went, and why?

Your turn. What turned you on to science? Are there things we should be doing to awaken interest in the field, but are not doing? Weigh in below.

Why science needs philosophy: an op-ed in PNAS

September 11, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Although some scientists (I believe Lawrence Krauss is one) have said that philosophy is useless to scientists, I’m not one of these miscreants. Although I recognize that philosophy can’t find out truths about the real world as opposed to “truths” within logical systems, it can certainly be an aid to thinking about science. Two examples are Dan Dennett’s ideas about consciousness (I don’t think his lucubrations about free will, though, have been helpful to science as opposed to philosophy itself) and Phil Kitcher’s critique of sociobiology (now “evolutionary psychology”) in his book Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature. 

Further, philosophers have been instrumental in helping discredit Intelligent Design theory and creationism; I’m thinking in particular of Rob Pennock’s book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism and Kitcher’s anti-creationist book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.  Surely dispelling an “alternative” theory to evolution is a real contribution to science and to science education.

My Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, was a big fan of philosophy, and some of his scientific papers, like the one on the units of selection, sit at the border of science and philosophy. We often had philosophers spending sabbaticals in our lab (Eliott Sober, one of the authors of the paper below, was one of them), and their presence was stimulating.

Now several scientists and philosophers have teamed up to once again make the case for the value of philosophy in science in this paper in the new PNAS. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, or download the pdf here.

It’s a short piece—3.5 pages long—and gives several examples, new to me, about how philosophers have helped guide research, mainly by clarifying concepts. Not all of the “helpful” aids from from philosophy seem to have been all that helpful, though, including debates about the “modularity” of the brain, or emphasis on the importance of microbes in the biosphere, which seems to me to have come from science, not philosophy. This is what the piece says about brain modularity, for instance:

Philosophy had a part in the move from behaviorism to cognitivism and computationalism in the 1960s. Perhaps most visible has been the theory of the modularity of mind, proposed by philosopher Jerry Fodor (10). Its influence on theories of cognitive architecture can hardly be overstated. In a tribute after Fodor’s passing in 2017, leading cognitive psychologist James Russell spoke in the magazine of the British Psychological Society of “cognitive developmental psychology BF (before Fodor) and AF (after Fodor)” (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/jerry-fodor-1935-2017).

Modularity refers to the idea that mental phenomena arise from the operation of multiple distinct processes, not from a single undifferentiated one. Inspired by evidence in experimental psychology, by Chomskian linguistics, and by new computational theories in philosophy of mind, Fodor theorized that human cognition is structured in a set of lower-level, domain-specific, informationally encapsulated specialized modules and a higher-level, domain-general central system for abductive reasoning with information only flowing upward vertically, not downward or horizontally (i.e., between modules). He also formulated stringent criteria for modularity. To this day, Fodor’s proposal sets the terms for much empirical research and theory in many areas of cognitive science and neuroscience (1112), including cognitive development, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive anthropology. Although his theory has been revised and challenged, researchers continue to use, tweak, and debate his approach and basic conceptual toolkit.

Well, modularity could have been true in principle, and surely the idea of brain modularity has stimulated a lot of discussion. But in the end, it hasn’t led anywhere, largely because the actions of the brain don’t seem to be separated into distinct, quasi-independent moieties but seem to be diffuse—and plastic enough to be influenced by other parts of the brain. You can read about this diffuseness in Matthew Cobb’s new book, The Idea of the Brain. But even the precise definition of modules isn’t sufficiently specific that philosophers have been able to propose good experiments to test it.

In the end, the authors offer some suggestions for how to make science and philosophy more of BFFs, and they’re reasonable but nothing that doesn’t come to mind—or haven’t come to mind—to others. For what they’re worth, here they are (my emphasis):

  • i) Make more room for philosophy in scientific conferences. This is a very simple mechanism for researchers to assess the potential usefulness of philosophers’ insights for their own research. Reciprocally, more researchers could participate in philosophy conferences, expanding on the efforts of organizations such as the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology; the Philosophy of Science Association; and the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice.

  • ii) Host philosophers in scientific labs and departments. This is a powerful way (already explored by some of the authors and others) for philosophers to learn science and provide more appropriate and well-grounded analyses, and for researchers to benefit from philosophical inputs and acclimatize to philosophy more generally. This might be the most efficient way to help philosophy have a rapid and concrete impact on science.

  • iii) Co-supervise PhD students. The co-supervision of PhD students by a researcher and a philosopher is an excellent opportunity to make possible the cross-feeding of the two fields. It facilitates the production of dissertations that are both experimentally rich and conceptually rigorous, and in the process, it trains the next generation of philosopher-scientists.

  • iv) Create curricula balanced in science and philosophy that foster a genuine dialogue between them. Some such curricula already exist in some countries, but expanding them should be a high priority. They can provide students in science with a perspective that better empowers them for the conceptual challenges of modern science and provide philosophers with a solid basis for the scientific knowledge that will maximize their impact on science. Science curricula might include a class in the history of science and in the philosophy of science. Philosophy curricula might include a science module.

  • vRead science and philosophy. Reading science is indispensable for the practice of philosophy of science, but reading philosophy can also constitute a great source of inspiration for researchers as illustrated by some of the examples above. For example, journal clubs where both science and philosophy contributions are discussed constitute an efficient way to integrate philosophy and science.

  • vi) Open new sections devoted to philosophical and conceptual issues in science journals. This strategy would be an appropriate and compelling way to suggest that the philosophical and conceptual work is continuous with the experimental work, in so far as it is inspired by it, and can inspire it in return. It would also make philosophical reflections about a particular scientific domain much more visible to the relevant scientific community than when they are published in philosophy journals, which are rarely read by scientists.

The first two are fine; as I said, Lewontin’s lab always had a philosopher about. Co-supervision of Ph.D. students would be practical only if one’s thesis had a big philosophical component. #4, a curriculum balanced in science and philosophy, sounds good but there is little time in graduate school for courses outside one’s area, so a roughly equal “balance” would be impractical. A single course in philosophy of science, however, would be useful for Ph.D. candidates, at least in evolutionary biology. Reading groups are great if they’re well supervised, and many science journals already adhere to #6, having some bits about philosophy.

In the end, philosophy is an extremely valuable adjunct to science, but useful largely for getting us to think hard and avoid blind alleys, not so much in providing answers or suggesting experiments. Giving answers to empirical questions is not, of course, the job of philosophy, which is why Francis Crick is supposed to have made this statement, which may be apocryphal:

“Listen to philosophers’ questions, but not to their answers.”

h/t: Bryan

Good news about the teaching of evolution in American public schools

August 9, 2020 • 11:45 am

A new report from the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach gives some pretty good news about the state of evolution teaching in American high schools. In particular, in two surveys of teaching methods published 12 years apart (2007 vs. 2019), the number of hours that teachers devote to the subject of evolution has become greater, the proportion of teachers presenting evolution as “settled science” as opposed to something more dubious has increased, and the presentation of creationism or Intelligent Design as valid alternatives to evolution has diminished, as has the proportion of teachers sending “mixed messages” about evolution. Click on the screenshot below to get free access to the article, and you can download the pdf here.

The authors wanted to survey how evolution was presented because several events over the 12-year period could have affected it. First, in 2005 there was the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, in which the judge ruled that Intelligent Design (ID) was not science. It likely took a few years for that ruling to seep into high schools throughout the U.S. (Happily, the legal battles over teaching creationism in public schools appear to be over.)

Further, after 2010 a new set of science standards (the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS) were adopted by 20 states and have influenced standards in 24 other states as well as the District of Columbia. These standards are strongly pro-evolution.

The new survey was of high school teachers, with 2503 in the initial set and a 40% response rate. (The authors discuss the possibility of bias in the sample who answered, but dismiss it for empirical reasons given in the paper.) The questions asked were largely identical to those in the 2007 survey.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the survey, and will report just a few key results.

The Table below shows both surveys’ data on how many hours were devoted to human evolution and “general evolutionary processes”. In both surveys, only 17% of teachers didn’t cover human evolution, while those not covering general evolutionary processes went up a bit, from 1% to 5%. More important, the mean number of hours devoted to evolution rose substantially: for human evolution from 4.1 to 7.7 hours, and for general evolution from 9.8 to 12.4 hours—a rise of 88% and 48% respectively. That’s a lot more hours about evolution than I got in my high-school biology class, where the topic was left to the end, probably in hopes that we wouldn’t get to it. (I went to high school in Virginia).


Here’s part of Table 2 showing how teachers actually teach evolution—whether they teach it as a broad consensus that it’s a fact.  Again, there is a rise over the survey period in those who do. If you lump “strongly agree” with “agree”, the total goes from 74% of teachers to 79% of teachers, while the “strongly agree” category rose by over 50%, from 30% to 47%.  So there’s been a shift even within the “generally agree” category. Those who disagree and who strongly disagree dropped, with the total of these two positions dropping from 22% to 14%. Again, that’s good news.

Below you can see that the number of hours devoted to creationism or ID dropped, which will really tick off the Discovery Institute. 82% of teachers in the latest survey (as opposed to 75% in 2007) don’t cover any form of creationism, while 13% devote some time to it. However, other questions show that much of the discussion of these creationist views is devoted to showing why they are not a valid scientific alternative to modern evolutionary theory. Because the proportion of teachers giving this negative view of creationism has also increased over time, the figures below are actually an underestimate of the degree to which evolution is taught according to the modern scientific consensus.

Finally, based on teachers’ responses to the questions, the authors divided them into four groups as to how they present evolution to the students. From the paper:

. . . a clearer picture emerges if we summarize the results. To do so, we assigned teachers to four categories based on themes they agreed that they emphasized to their students.Footnote4 The first group are those who reported that they emphasized to their students that evolution is established science: all teachers who said that they “emphasize the broad consensus that evolution is a fact, even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred” and did not report sending any pro-creationism messages. Exclusively pro-creationist teachers are all who agreed that they emphasized creationism as a “valid scientific alternative” to their students. All other teachers we classified as either “avoiders” (those who agreed with none of the relevant statements) or sending “mixed messages” (those who told us they emphasize both positions).

As you can see from this plot, the green boxes—the proportion of rational teachers who present evolution as settled science—have risen from 51% to 67% in 12 years, while the avoiders, those who send mixed messages, and the creationists have all dropped, though not always significantly so.

There’s a long discussion of why this is happening, though it’s not very conclusive because of the difficulty of parsing out causes in such a sample. The authors attribute it to the adoption of the NGSS, the increasing tendency of older teachers to teach evolution as settled science, and to the  influx of younger teachers who are more prepared to teach evolution as a fact (maybe they read my book!).

Re the latter: it’s palpably clear that not only is America becoming more secular, but also that less religious people are more accepting of evolution. This goes along with the one decades-long trend that we’ve seen in American acceptance of evolution from the frequent Gallup polls surveying American acceptance of evolution: the rise of those who accept evolution as a purely naturalistic proposition, not driven by God and not the result of a creation event.  To wit, follow the dark green line (click on screenshot to see the poll):

Take that, Discovery Institute! (No worries, they’ll find a way to dismiss these data.)

h/t: Laura Helmuth, who tweeted about the results, calling them to my attention.

Science educator invites questions about evolution from public by walking around with a sandwich board

February 20, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I have to admit that Maggie Ryan Sandford is much braver than I. In the article below from Nature, and in the short video embedded in it (I put it below), she dons a sandwich board that says, “Ask me anything about evolution,” and parades around the Minnesota State Fair.  (Sanford is identified as “a science communicator and author of the 2019 book Consider the Platypus: Evolution through Biology’s Most Baffling Beasts.”)

  You can read her short piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

Clearly her object was to engage people in a discussion about evolution, and the implicit aim was to convince them that evolution is true. In the process, she says she learned some lessons about how to change people’s minds (sadly, that aim isn’t spelled out clearly.)

It didn’t hurt that Sanford answered “yes” when people asked her, “Do you believe in God?”, as a “no” would certainly turn away people bent on having a good time at the fair. But here are the lessons she said she learned from this perambulation:

. . . as a science communicator and former education researcher, I knew that, in matters of deep personal belief, facts matter less than feelings. The need to identify whom you’re dealing with is a natural human instinct. Answering was the only way to unlock the rest of the conversation. So I simply let people know I was a big fan of the globe and everything on it, and that I’d written a book about animals that I hoped people would find inviting.

And so to her three lessons:

Lesson 1: Don’t argue with beliefs. People tend to incorporate facts that align with their belief systems.

No problem. I just had to find topics that made sense to all of us — pro-and anti-evolution alike. Dogs or livestock breeding, for example. Half the folks within a 30-metre radius were there to showcase their carefully bred cows, horses and chickens. Open-faced and genuine, I invited them to school me on the areas of their expertise. Which, it turns out, is evolution.

I agree. If you’re there to change people’s minds, don’t mix anti-theism with pro-evolutionism. And if you can change the mind of a cow breeder by telling her that she’s actually practicing evolution by artificial selection, so much the better; but Sanford doesn’t say that she changed anybody’s mind!

Lesson 2: Listen. The most challenging group of the day consisted of two men and a woman in their late twenties. The men were just looking for a fight. Telling me why I was wrong was, I supposed, a way of asking me about evolution. I asked them to elaborate, to tell me why it was that they found evolution hard to swallow. This led to their female companion insisting: “She listened to you. Now you listen to her.” In the end, one man explained my points to the other. “She’s saying evolution is mutations in our DNA,” he said, forcing his companion to let him finish. “I’m just saying, I get her side.”

Agreed again. You can’t get in people’s face and hector them about evolution: you’d be acting like a Darwinian Elizabeth Warren. And if people are open-minded, then of course you should hear them out and answer them patiently, especially if you’re wearing a sandwich board that invites a give-and-take. But again, was anybody’s mind changed?

Lesson 3: Learn what people really think. Almost everyone — secular and religious — had misconceptions about evolution. Advocates of evolution often hadn’t learnt that evolution can now be tracked in genomes, not just fossils, and that humans are related to all living things, and that we didn’t come from apes because we are apes (keep in mind, ‘ape’ is a word that humans made up).

It’s extremely useful to learn what the most common misconceptions are about evolution (e.g., “in evolution, everything happens by accident”). This way you can prepare yourself for what you’re about to encounter, and have some ready answers.

Finally, Sandford avers that the ability to relate to another person as a fellow human is key in helping them accept evolution:

Lay people are more likely to trust and engage with science when they learn that researchers are human beings, fallible and conflicted. Yet somehow it seems hard for many in the scientific community to show those qualities to others. A common concern is that, in the anti-evolution, anti-science debate, any whiff of disagreement or uncertainty spells doom for scientific arguments.

When I began this ‘experiment’, my hypothesis was that a willingness to show vulnerability — to show that we science folks are willing to listen and receive criticism — boosts credibility, not the opposite. I think my experience supports that. When feelings speak louder than facts, appealing to feelings can actually work in favour of science.

I’m not sure what it means to “receive criticism” when you have the truth on your side, as Sandford does, but perhaps she means only that you should listen to people’s beefs about evolution.

But, as I’ve said several times, Sandford doesn’t mention whether she actually changed any minds—not one. What she did seem to learn is that religion is the biggest block towards accepting evolution:

But the misconceptions of religiously inclined folks often had greater personal significance. Listening to them, it became clear that they considered evolution an attack on all they held dear. Several asked me about a narrative they’d heard somewhere about how “life began when water was dripping on a rock”. Clearly, they were worried that such a narrative undercut the idea that humans were created in the image of God.

And indeed, you don’t even have to be especially religious to consider evolution an attack on your worldview—although it helps. Evolution undermines human exceptionalism and our self-image in many ways. In the book below, which I recommend, Steve Stewart-Williams goes through all of these ways (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site):

And here are two of the slides I use when explaining why Americans are scared of evolution; many of the points are from Stewart-Williams’s book (and I credit him when I show these slides). The red bits are implications that I consider especially important in turning people off evoution:

In general, while teaching facts about evolution does work, as I know from the email responses I got to the book Why Evolution is True, American remains obdurately anti-evolution, with only 22% of us accepting naturalistic evolution for humans compared to 40% being young-earth creationists and 33% theistic evolutionists (those who think God intervenes in the process, especially in the origins of humans). In other words, 73% of us have a supernaturalistic view of evolution—more than three times the frequency of those who accept “Darwinian” naturalistic evolution as it’s taught in biology class.

In the end, the vast majority of opposition to evolution comes from religion. The more religious the country, the less acceptance of evolution. Religion immunizes people, at a every young age, against evolution, for they get their faith before they learn about biology. As I always say, if I could do just one thing to increase the acceptance of evolution in America, it would be “make religion vanish.”

That is a hard job, and will take decades or even centuries. And it’s why I wear two hats, one as an evolution teacher and promoter, and the other as an anti-theist. I’m not sure that Maggie Sandford’s strategy works, as she seems to go light on the facts and completely avoids criticism of faith. It’s no surprise that she doesn’t boast about her victories at the Minnesota State Fair!

But I’d be churlish to tell her to lay off, because she may well be planting seeds of doubt in people—seeds that may sprout only much later. So Ceiling Cat bless her for having the courage to parade her views in public and invite criticism. I do wish her success.

Here’s the video:

h/t: Dom