Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Americans are ignorant fools about evolution–Part 2


We have fossils. Evolution wins.One of the more crazy anti-science groups are the evolution deniers, sometimes called “creationists.” The body of science that constitutes evidence for evolution is literally mountainous, making up over a million peer-reviewed studies and books that explain what we have observed in current living organisms and the fossil record. Based on this nearly irrefutable evidence, over 99.9% of scientists in the natural sciences (geology, biology, physics, chemistry and many others) accept that evolution is a scientific fact (pdf, see page 8). If science was a democracy, evolution would win in a landslide of epic proportions.

The scientific theory of evolution simply states that there is a change in inherited characteristics of a biological population, over time and generations, through the process of natural selection or genetic drift. Setting aside the misunderstanding, by intention or ignorance, by creationists about what constitutes a scientific theory, evolution is a scientific fact, about as solid as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun or that gravity causes objects to fall to the earth.

There is no genuine scientific debate about evolution, although there is continuing discussion about all of the possible mechanisms that drive evolution beyond natural selection and genetic drift. These discussions are based on the observations and evidence that evolution lead to the diversity of organisms we see today, arising from a common ancestor from about 3.8 billion years ago.

Despite the ongoing scientific discussion regarding other mechanisms for evolution (which are all scientifically based, and none that include magical actions of mythical supernatural beings), the matter of evolution is settled. There are no disputes, among scientists, about the fact that evolution commenced when the first living organisms appeared over 3.8 billion years. None. Other than literature published in self-serving creationist journals, it is impossible to find a peer-reviewed article that disputes the fact of evolution published in any real scientific journal over the past 25 years, if not past 50 years.

Despite the scientific facts, American politicians, almost exclusively conservative Republicans, continue to push legislation to force public school districts to teach creationism. Though this legislation is rarely successful, Louisiana and Tennessee have recently passed antievolution bills. The right wing politicians, mostly in southern US states, are convinced that evolution and creationism are equivalent, and they conflate a ridiculous political and social argument with a scientific debate. 

The reality of the situation is that creationism refers to the belief that the universe and everything in it were specially created by a god through magic, rather than a natural, scientifically explained, process. Creationism explicitly relies on the claim that there is a “purpose” to all creation known only to a creator. Without a doubt, creationism is a religious belief, and no matter what argument is made by so called “creation scientists,” creationism can never be tested scientifically because it relies upon a supernatural being, which means it can never be falsified, one of the basic principles of the scientific method. The supporters of creationism attempt to claim that creationism is a scientific theory on the level of evolution, ignoring the fact that a scientific theory is ”a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” Creationism is generally based on a fictional book

Even from a political standpoint, the push by Republicans to add creationism to schools is unambiguously deprecated by the US Constitution, ironically, a document that Republicans irrationally revere. In the US Constitution, the so-called Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically prohibits any government entity from establishing a religion (which courts have ruled to include teaching religion in schools). Decades worth of Supreme Court rulings have found that teaching creationism in schools is equivalent to teaching religion. As recently as 2005, in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, a Federal Court continued the tradition of considering creationism as religion, and ruled against a school district, costing the Dover Area School District nearly $1 million in legal fees. That money probably could have been used to teach their students better science.

In spite of all of these points, that there is no scientific debate, that all scientists and rational people accept evolution as a fact, and that creationism is nothing more than a religious doctrine, the conservative Republicans keep shoving creationism onto the legislative agenda. Disappointingly, a recent poll from YouGov.com shows that most Americans are ignorant about evolution, and accept a religious, rather than a scientific, explanation for the transformation over time of life on earth.

origin_over_time 

Yes, only 21% of Americans think that evolution is a scientific fact without influence from mythical sky beings. Of course, some of you might be that the number who accept the scientific basis of evolution grew from 13% to 21% over a decade. But to be honest, that number is ridiculous and pathetic. Over 60% of the population of Sweden, Germany, and China accept the scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth–evolution, and those countries are far ahead of the USA in several metrics of science and research.

A more recent poll from Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project has some positive and negative news, not unlike the YouGov poll above.

 

© Pew Research, 2013. Views about human evolution, by religion

© Pew Research, 2013. Views about human evolution, by religion

 At first blush, this result seems to indicate that the vast majority of Americans, about 60%, accept the fact of evolution, that humans have evolved over time from common ancestors. There is, of course, variance between religious groups. For example, white evangelicals, the most right wing and conservative of American religious groups, and one that has infested the policies of the Republican Party, seems to reject evolution (though it’s great that over one-quarter do not). More mainstream and progressive religious groups (and the “unaffiliated” groups which includes atheists among others) are more accepting of the fact of evolution.

But. There’s always a but.

© Pew Research, 2013. Processes of human evolution, by religion.

© Pew Research, 2013. Processes of human evolution, by religion.

Over one-third of individuals who accept evolution believe that some imaginary supreme being guided the evolution of humans. OK, yes, these people are halfway there, accepting evolution, but they still have some wizard up in the sky directing it. And that’s not science, that’s just another form of creationism that attempts to combine the observed science while hanging onto that belief in a god. Only among the individuals identified as “unaffiliated with any religion” is there a clear preference for evolution being entirely due to natural processes. So when you add the 24% of Americans who accept evolution, but only if their god was involved with the 33% who simply reject evolution, over 57% of Americans reject the scientific version of the history of all organisms on this planet–that every organism in existence today evolved from a common ancestor over billions of years due to natural and random processes. 

These results continue to be discouraging.

© Pew Research, 2013. Growing partisan differences in beliefs about evolution.

© Pew Research, 2013. Growing partisan differences in beliefs about evolution.

Unsurprisingly, most Republicans reject evolution (and an unknown number who accept the fact of evolution still believe a god had a hand in the matter). What is more surprising is that in 2009, 54% of Republicans accepted evolution, decreasing to 43% in 2013. Where did those Republicans go? Because I refuse to believe that they all got converted to the mainstream Republican belief. The fact is that the vast majority of Democrats and Independents, nearly two-thirds, accept the fact of evolution (even if some of those number accept only a supreme being guided evolution). Maybe they’re all located in the South, where Republican hatred of science coexists with the white evangelical hatred of science.

This isn’t merely a social or philosophical issue. The teaching of evolution is fundamental to understanding all aspects of biology, including modern biomedicine. Vaccines, antibiotics, fetal development, genetics, infectious disease control, immunology, etc. etc. are all totally dependent on a elemental and basic knowledge of evolution. The USA is one of the leading countries for biomedical research and development, but other countries will supersede the USA with better trained and educated individuals entering colleges and graduate schools. What do these crazy Republicans want? The USA to be a 3rd rate R&D nation? Or to import foreign college grads and Ph.D.’s to develop our biomedical products?

How can we train physicians who deny evolution? We can’t. We shouldn’t rely upon doctors who think that magical sky beings can heal someone, instead of science based medicine. In fact, alternative medicines, like homeopathy, rely upon magic and complete denial of rational science, and most of us wouldn’t want doctors who bought into that nonsense.

As long as Americans are ignorant about science, they will allow the nuts in the Republican party to push the creationist agenda. Of course, states like California or New York, which educate their children, mostly without the influence of creationist junk science, will be more attractive for intense research and development in the biomedical industry, and attract those companies that pay taxes and employ high-paid individuals. And states like Alabama and Tennessee, which think that teaching creationism is OK, will attract…nothing.

I guess some of you think that the glass is half-full, that at least more Americans accept evolution as a scientific fact. It’s not that I’m a ideological purist or anything, but people who think that Thor or Hercules or some other mythical god controlled the process of evolution, is still anti-scientific. All I can say is that I’m embarrassed to be an American. Mostly, Americans believe in nonsense.

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