Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Theory of Damn Near Everything

Harper's Magazine publishes a monthly "Index" - not the dreaded, largely ignored Index librorum prohibitorum of the Holy See, but a compendium of bizarrely fascinating statistics drawn from the cultural and geopolitical morass of our times. Just as a teaser, the Index for June includes, among other typical bijoux: "Amount  bin Laden paid to replace each cricket ball hit into his compound, according to a local boy: $0.59." Or, "Minimum percentage of U.S. electricity that is consumed by marijuana growers: 1."

While these are informative and tell us something about the state of the nation or the Pakistani rural economy, they are not amongst the juiciest in this month's list. This item in particular caught my eye: "Chance that a Russian believes the sun revolves around the earth: 1 in 3." Fully a third of the ninth most populous country in the world (population 138,739,892) and a major "developed" country still believes what NikoĊ‚aj Kopernik, from neighboring Poland, disproved in 1543 with the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium. For 468 years now, it has been understood that the solar system, at least, looks like this:

I'll bet you're glad you're not as dumb as a Russian. 

 Landscape with Russians (Afghanistan)

On the other hand, a Gallup poll conducted among American respondents (1999) determined that seventy-nine percent thought the earth revolves around the sun, while 18 percent had it the other way around - almost one in five. "These results are comparable to those found in Germany . . . 74 percent of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16 percent thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10 percent said they didn't know." (Results in the UK were similar.)

So with that bit of context, the Russians don't come off so abysmally ignorant compared with people in other developed nations. And in defense of anyone who hasn't been paying attention over the past half-millenium, there is at least empirical evidence to support their case, the truth in this instance being entirely counterintuitive and the solid evidence being of a technical nature.

The very next item in this Harper's Index is: "Chance that a U.S. high school biology teacher is an advocate of evolution: 1 in 4." 

Science media resource

A CBS poll conducted last year found that 40 percent of the population at large believes in "strict creationism," the balance endorsing evolution as either a purely natural mechanism or a divinely directed one. So while a scant 25 percent of those responsible for secondary science education in the United States accept a scientific basis for their discipline, 60 percent of the population at large accepts at least some form of such explanation. The intellectual recalcitrance among teachers is staggering. To paraphrase one of our former presidents, one might well wonder, "Is our educators being educated?" Obviously they are, and not abroad. Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria and Greece all score higher than does the U.S. in percentile of population accepting the theory; Western Europe and Japan score consistently in the 70-80+ percentiles.

Of course, if one accepts the prevailing (and mistaken) view that the evolutionary process tends inevitably towards increased complexity and eventual "perfection" in any species, then once again there is ample empirical data to suggest that evolution may be an incorrect view of the matter.

Clearly this resistance to the single theory that makes biology a science is not based, as the flat-earther and geocentric points of view are, on any perceptible evidence. Notwithstanding that there may be intuitive reasons to wonder about evolution, as there are reasons to wonder whether the earth is round, I'd hazard that most of those biology teachers would be "open minded" enough to allow that we should by rights air all views in the classroom and let the students choose which flavor they like best - creationism masquerading as science, or evolution, which really is science. But they don't both deserve a place in the classroom.

What's the difference? A theory is a general proposition, based on a range of available and generally received evidence (in this case anatomical, physiological, genetic, geological, chemical) that a) explains why a broad range of observable phenomena are as they are and not otherwise - it appeals to broader laws to explain particular appearances; b) allows us to predict that future patterns of observation will correspond in large part with historic patterns; c) allows us to explain, in concepts observed in and drawn from nature, what causes these things to happen as they do; and d) assimilates disparate and apparently unconnected observations to explanations that either support or are consonant with the theory in question. 

In order to extend our knowledge (rather than merely cause us to cease wondering), a theory must allow revision and refinement as new data accrues; there must exist the possibility that some data will either require alteration of the theory or falsify the theory - otherwise it is merely an item of faith, since nothing whatsoever could disprove it. And it must not be piecemeal - it must be elegant, in the sense that a comparatively simple principle explains a wide range of data and allows us to predict what will happen in untested hypothetical situations.

It is, then, no answer to evolutionary theory that "it's just a theory." Evolution is a theory, as is gravity a theory - and both persist in the fabric of modern science because they do all the heavy lifting that theories are designed to do. The alternatives merely stop us in our tracks by assuring us that there aren't really any questions to be answered. To say merely that "God did it" has all the simple elegance of a real theory - that one simple sentence is a theory of damn near everything without explaining a thing.

"Don't ask."

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, I know the U.S. educational system has already gone to hell in a hand basket (for reasons almost entirely NOT, IMHO, due to chance; but that conspiracy theory & product of diseased Liberal thinking is another post entirely), however to claim that " [The] Chance that a U.S. high school biology teacher is an advocate of evolution: 1 in 4." is a little too much for even this Blame-America-Firster & gourmand, to swallow.
    I mean, Christ a'mighty, one in four NOT "advocating" established fact, would be deplorable to me and, I would certainly hope, most others.

    Personally I'm convinced that, due to sloppy editing (proofreader failed to spot a missing "not" etc.); through negligence or, in order to generate a "buzz", intent, the most poorly worded, badly designed and indifferently controlled survey ever taken; or, not entirely dissimilar to my hypothesis, the word "advocate" was defined by those "interpreting" the results, in an entirely disingenuous or "loaded" fashion*.

    *For example, a non-tenured biology teacher in Kansas who "lays low" rather than speaking out during a time his particular district is experiencing one of the periodic "Crusades" to which that State's educational system is subject, would she or he be counted among the 3 in 4 who do not "advocate"?