Friday, August 15, 2003

Rights And Reason: Evolution and Intellectual Egalitarianism

The Bad News is that according to The New York Times, 72% of Americans are pig-ignorant.

The Good News is, the New York Times overstates our ignorance by about 20%.

The Bad News is, by my calculations, about 20% of Americans think that ignorance and science should both be taught in public schools as electives.

When I read the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof this morning, I had a mild case of panic. I wasn't surprised by the numbers on Americans' belief in the Virgin Birth(83%), but I was shaken by the low number of Americans Kristof cites as believing in evolution: 28%.

After a bit, I decided to check Kristof's sources. In his "Kristof Responds" section, Kristof says his 28% of Americans believe in evolution comes from "a Gallup poll." Way to footnote, Kristof. You're at the New York Times, can't you get a sucker, er, intern, to work for free at making your weblog not stink? Anyway, googling "evolution gallup poll 28" yields, which describes a Gallup poll from 1999 on teaching evolution and creationism in public schools. According to the press release, "only 28% say evolution should be a required subject in public schools, and 49% say it should be an elective." My guess is that some of this could be just crabgrass libertarianism—"whatever they want, it's a free country, different strokes for different folks" kind of thing, like allowing Christian Scientists to withhold lifesaving medical treatment from their kids, or allowing crazy people to wander the streets if they don't feel like taking their medication.

Since the Center has higher standards than the New York Times, I did a little bit of research before I put something out for public consumption, as well as supplying links for the interested or dubious to follow. I went ahead and found a description of a Gallup poll on evolution itself: When asked what they believe, rather than about what should be taught in school, America breaks down about 45-50% biblical creationists, 40% theistic evolutionists, 10% naturalistic evolutionists. Since, logically, if there is a God and if there is evolution, He's going to have a thumb in the evolution pie, we're talking about a 50-50 split between recognizable forms of rational thought and proud, militant ignorance.

The more I've thought about this, the more I've wondered just what I meant by "crabgrass libertarianism." What it really is, under the surface, is intellectual egalitarianism—the idea that any belief is as good as any other belief. This idea combines with our culture's abhorrence of judgement. It's rude, you know, to mock creationists. It's insensitive to ridicule snake-handlers, astrologists, that fraud who talks to dead people on the Sci-Fi channel, charlatans like Deepak Chopra who claims to levitate, Reverend Sun Yung Moon mass-marrying cultists, the Natural Law Party, recovered-memory therapists and their poor dupes, alien abductees, people who study the Book of Revelations for portents, wiccans who "cast spells", Scientologists, etc.

Think of the times in our culture today when open scorn for a religion is expressed. Usually, the targets are either the Catholic Church or conservative Christians, and the grievance is that their religion is homophobic and/or misogynist. In other words, the religions are attacked, not for their logical merits or lack thereof, which can be debated, but because they make women and homosexuals feel unwelcome.

The result is a large slice of the population that, while not ignorant themselves, recognizes no important distinction between their own knowledge and someone else's creationist delusion. This is the climate allows half of Americans to believe and state in public that humans were divinely created in the last 10,000 years, without fear of censure.

What will happen when, soon, unassimilated Islamic nutburgers in America start making demands? When Moslems in America demand to live under "Islamic law"?

People who believe indefensible or silly or false things are free to do so. But they should be held to account, and should have to defend their silly or false beliefs. If they are embarrassed, then good—hopefully they will act to correct their ignorance, and we will all be better off.

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