Four in Ten Thousand Scientists Agree

(Warning, anti-creationist political rant ahead. This clearly serves no use here as you either (1) agree with me on these issues, or (2) don’t agree with me and the chances that what I say will change your mind are 0.04%)
From a Seattle Times article about the U.S. president’s view on intelligent design, I find the following interesting quote:

The Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank in Seattle that is the leading proponent of intelligent design, said it has compiled a list of more than 400 scientists, including 70 biologists, who are skeptical about evolution.

Let’s see there are at least one million scientists in the world. 400 divided by one million is 0.04%. 0.04% of scientists don’t believe in evolution! Holy cow, there really is a controversy.
As for the U.S. president coming out about teaching “different schools of thought,” well I certainly understand why he got a “D” in astronomy at Yale now. He must have been advocating that different school of thought which believes that stars are really angels and not big globes of hot plasma. From a comment on Cosmic Variance:

DarkSyde: Why, oh, why, does biology hate America?

OK, I’m done now. Just had to get that out of my system. Back to work!
Update: What’s this link? Well just a good natured attempt at google bombing.

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26 Responses to Four in Ten Thousand Scientists Agree

  1. The fact that so few scientists sign on to “intelligent design” isn’t really the point. The real question is, how much these 400 have accomplished by acting on their belief? At the end of the day, I don’t care what scientists personally believe or don’t believe, except insofar as their beliefs are useful for research. After all, skeptics of quantum computation might well outnumber believers, but the believers are making good use of their views.
    I suspect that if you properly weight belief by utility, 4/10000 is an inaccurate estimate for the scientific appeal of intelligent design. I suspect that a much more accurate estimate is 0.

  2. Hogg says:

    Bacon, Long time no talk-to. Evidently you have done well for yourself! Unfortunately, I don’t think the ID vs evolution thing is really about science at all. It’s something more complicated than that.
    BTW, one of my favorite “factoids” is that if you go back to the early days of creationism, you will find that you have more sympathy for the creationists than the scientists, because the scientists were espousing “social darwinism,” eugenics, and other rot that the creationists rightly opposed. Too bad it all got taken over by crazies.

  3. Hogg says:

    Agreed! It makes no sense to teach about ID in a science class; but it probably is worth talking about in other classes. Glad you remember the pole in the barn. What a problem!

  4. Suz says:

    There’s a really good spread of articles in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine (or I could be confused with a different layperson science mag) that goes over the debate and the points raised by creationists. (Yeah, they’re calling themselves “Intelligent Designer”s, but they’re the same thing.) To me this is as irritating as the “women just aren’t as good as men in science” debate. It’s pure nonsense and distracting, but on some level many of us feel like we have to devote some time to engage in the debate because the other side has gained undue credibility.

  5. Suresh says:

    Note the “including 70 biologists”. Much as I would like to pride myself on my all-consuming knowledge of all things scientific, my opinion can’t really count as much (if opinions “count” at all) as a real biologist. So the effective number is more like 70/(total biologists)

  6. Dave Bacon says:

    Suz: Yes annoying like a fly buzzing in front of my head. Go away you demon of ignorance.
    Greg: I agree. And science is not democracy. On the other hand, science is a part of a social institution, and as such, when a major newspaper misrepresents the views of the vast majority of scientists with the dribble from the Discovery institute, that undermines our society. I agree however, that the pragmatic measure you suggest is what really matters for science.
    Interestingly, if you include doctors among “scientists” (which I don’t do unless they are involved in research), the chances that you’ll run into someone who believes in intelligent design go up considerably.

  7. Dave Bacon says:

    Hey David! For those of you who care, Prof. Hogg was my TA for the first “real” physics course I took in my life. It was great fun. I still remember him yelling at us for acting like stoned drones while in class. Ah, the good old days of “the pole in the barn problem.”
    Yeah, I agree that ID versus evolution is about a lot more than science. But, importantly, I think it is mostly a question of public policy: do we, or don’t we teach ID alongside evolution in public school science courses? I think this captures mostly what the issue is about and I’m perfectly happy to use the first approximation that this idea is bad for society. Of course there are bigger, grander threads spreading out from this one to the far ends of human culture. But I’ll be a physicists with physicists prejudices and take the first order implication as the most important. For now 😉

  8. Dave Bacon says:

    Also I do note that evolution has been (and is still used) by many to argue for Eugenics. I think it was on your blog that I read a comment about how a lot of evolutionary psychology draws narrowly close to the arguements of social Darwinism.
    I guess in some ways it’s like nuclear weapons. The fact that the universe allows for nuclear bombs doesn’t mean we should go bomb ourselves into oblivion. Similarly, just because evolution has happened doesn’t mean that we should use it to justify the twisted practices of eugenics. OK, this is probably going to get me in trouble with someone…

  9. Suz says:

    Uh, something tells me that if people are using evolution as an argument for eugenics, they don’t really understand evolution. Or the concept of morality, for that matter.
    Anyway, your nuclear bomb analogy is right on.
    Another useful analogy I read somewhere (maybe also in New Scientist) is, do you teach astrology alongside physics and astronomy in high school? That’s essentially the creationism/ evolution debate.

  10. Dave Bacon says:

    Who can forget the pole in the barn problem!
    Years after your course, I got to TA honors physics to freshman at Berkeley, which was a very similar course. Unfortunately I never got the chance to teach relativity.
    A memorable “incident” from the class I TAed at Berkeley was when I was doing the problem where a person sits on top of an igloo an then slides down the igloo and you calculate what angle the person loses contact with the igloo. So I drew my little stick figure man, sliding down the igloo and I drew an arrow indicating the force of gravity on the stick figure and an arrow indicating the normal force on his rear end…OK visualize that for a second.
    Two students in the back just started busting up laughing. I said “What?” And they gestured to what I had drawn. “Oh” and I quickly changed the stick figure to a box.

  11. Jon says:

    Sorry if this is longwinded, and perhaps repetitive. I’ve come back to it a couple times, but now I’m tired and just want to post.
    In my opinion, if the material could be taught in an unbiased manner I wouldn’t mind if ID (or a theory in a similar vein) is taught _alongside_ evolution in a science class. I think it is worthwhile to learn about phlogiston and other alternative (though discredited) models, too. I mean almost everything I learned in high school science was technically wrong. At that stage of education students don’t have enough math, physics, chemistry, biology to really understand. Instead of teaching so much filler, science educators are missing the point. It’s the process that matters most at that stage of education.
    To me the process of science has two basic parts: model-building and hypothesis testing. You iterate between revising your model and generating new data. If you’re too firmly wedded to today’s model, you won’t make progress. Sure, you may say that evolution has stood the test of time and that other models are inadequate. I would tend to agree with you. But there is value in learning about alternatives. And more value in learning how to think for yourself and make an informed decision about what you believe.
    Most people stop taking science classes as soon as they can. They don’t do what we do. If I could teach them one thing, it would be the iterative process of model building and experimental testing. In that way it would be more clear that we’re not uncovering truths, just approximations to truth. But the approximations are ever more refined, advancing knowledge and perhaps improving quality of life.
    I was raised in the Lutheran Church (ELCA). They taught me that science tells how the creation took place; the Bible tells who did the creating. I am at peace with this interpretation. I don’t beleive that science provides answers as to why things are the way they are. Just as I don’t believe that the Bible tells me anything about neutrophil activation in acute lung injury.

  12. Bill Dougherty says:

    A useful addendum for your rant: the National “Centre” for Science and Education in response listed almost 600 scientists named Steve or Stephanie who oppose the Discovery Institute’s ideas. Check out the informative article in this week’s “The Economist” (p. 30).

  13. Dave Bacon says:

    Jon: the difference, I think, is that while what you learned in high school, while eventually “discredited”, were each individually a valid scientific hypothesis. The objection most scientists have to ID is that it present no testable hypothesis and so is “outside” of science. Of course the response to this is that learning what is and is not outside of science is important. And I couldn’t agree more (alhtough I certainly could make the argument at this point that just teaching the basics is more important than learning the details of how science works), but the problem now is why choose ID for this? Why not choose some other pseudoscience? Why ID? Since ID is so closely associated with a certain brand of religion, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to teach science/pseudoscience using a more neutral topic? This is especially true considering the fact that ID is basically a devious tactic by a certain brand of religion to get it’s faith taught in public schools. Further, I note that the advocates of ID are not advocating using ID as an example of pseudoscience. They insist that it is science. And it’s this insistence which is corrupting. Until the pushers stop this insistence, I say keep it out of public school science courses. If they give up and say “Yes, ID is pseudoscience (or more appropriately ascientific), lets use it to teach the what is science, fully acknowledging that ID is in NO WAY science” then we can have this discussion again.
    This is in no way meant to diminish your last paragraph. I personally have a hard time with the Christianity and religion for reasons which have nothing to do with science. But this is a different topic. A cultural/moral topic, from my point of view, but it may be spiritual topic from your point of view. Although I don’t believe it is exactly that easy. I certainly think that science has caused various religions to “reinterpret” their doctrines in quite severe ways over the past 500 years. But certainly if you want to stick something in the cracks, I can make no scientific argument against this. Even if those cracks grow smaller and smaller by the day.

  14. Dave Bacon says:

    Oh, and just a minor quible. I don’t think science “tells how the creation took place;” There is no widely accepted theory of the origin of life. Evolution is not the theory of the origin of life. Not that I don’t know some people who are working on exactly this problem and who might develop such a theory, in say, oh, the next decade or so.

  15. Suz says:

    … actually it would be great to teach ID in class expressly as an example of what ISN’T science and segway into what constitutes science (such as testable hypotheses). In biology we learn about hypotheses (like the Lamarckian idea of evolution) that are disproven through time, but the point is they were testable, and there are rational and systematic ways to test things.
    But then I tend to think of ID as belonging more in a politics class, as an example of how public policy and education is influenced by interest groups.

  16. Jon says:

    Hey Dave,
    You make some excellent points. You have hit the nail on the head – ID is outside science. But that is only clear to practitioners of science. The lay public can’t tell. Why? Because they didn’t learn the iterative process of model building and hypothesis testing. Without understanding that the model must be testable for it to be scientific, it is impossible to appreciate the distinction between ID and evolution.
    You are right again that the reason to get ID into classrooms is to inject some interpretation of Christianity into public education. I think this is vile. That is why I prefaced what I said before with “unbiased”.
    I was a bit flippant in my “science tells how the creation took place” statement. The spirit of what we were taught was that science fills in the technical gaps. I don’t believe that you can get to the details of the natural world from studying religion. You have to study the natural world.
    For the record, I am not a big fan of organized religion. I don’t really agree with all the doctrine I was taught, but I believe in God in a way that (to the best of my knowledge) is most consistent with Christian tradition. More generally, though, I think any cultural organizing principle that is exclusive is very harmful to peace on earth. For the record, I detested the house system at Caltech – how else could you bring together 800 people with so much in common and make them accentuate their differences to a degree that inspired so much animosity and cruelty.

  17. Dave Bacon says:

    Heh. The good old house system at Caltech. I had less problems with it that most, I think. Maybe because I didn’t think the system was the problem but instead was the social problems of the inhabitants (myself included of course!)
    I think we agree on the need to infuse how science works into our education system. I object, simply, on other grounds, to using ID to do this. Other examples, which are moral politically and spiritually neutral seem to me the way to go.

  18. S. McHugh says:

    Jon, I like how you handled Dave’s clarifications. You seem like a sensible guy. In fact, why don’t you take the next step in a reasonable person’s life and try atheism on for size?
    OK, I’m teasing a little bit, but I’m serious with the propostion. Do you think a belief in the supernatural is consistent with being a scientist? Afterall, a scientist sees that the universe is orderly, builds a model to describe the universe, then sets out to compare the model with reality. Built into this practice/philosophy is the assumption that all that “is” is the universe. There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain the natural. There’s nothing in principle that can’t be probed with experiment.
    I hope I didn’t offend you, I just want to see more scientist-atheist role models out there. 🙂

  19. Suz says:

    “There’s no need to appeal to the supernatural to explain the natural.”
    Yes, but that’s not necessarily the reason (or the only reason) people who believe in God do.

  20. S. McHugh says:

    Really, Suz? Care to elaborate?

  21. Suz says:

    Well, several members of my family are or at least were quite religious. (One aunt is a nun.) My parents had huge fights when we grew up because they disagreed on religion, with my mother being very Catholic and my dad not. My mom claims that the reason she insisted we kids grew up Catholic was that she wanted something for us to look toward in times of crisis, when all other things failed.
    Catholicism didn’t really take for me; I’m too cynical. But for her (who is an engineer), it seems she wants to believe in a God because it’s comforting (rather than as a means of explaining the natural).

  22. S. McHugh says:

    Yes, I see. Thank you for your personal response.
    It seems to me that having belief in times of crisis is indeed a form of seeking supernatural explanations for natural occurences. Certainly a traumatized person is not engaged in a rational sort of examination, but rather an emotional one. I could also see this scenario as an appeal to the supernatural for intervention in the real world.

  23. Jon says:

    Are you any relation to the humanist Mike McHugh in San Diego?
    I am not an atheist because I don’t find it appealing. It’s really that simple. I am an irrational actor in life. I laugh at things that probably aren’t funny. I have been cruel for no reason. I don’t need God in my professional life. But at the end of the day, all science gives me is a model of reality. Yes, the model gets better and better as we test hypotheses and add data. But it is still and will ever only be a model.
    If I were a perfectly rational being, I still doubt I would be an atheist. My religious identity has evolved significantly over time, though. I spent 1992 as an evangelical Christian. Between 1993 and 2004 I think I stepped foot inside churches less than ten times (including weddings and funerals). The move away from organized religion has been good for me. I have been more open to other influences and through friends and colleagues have been introduced to some Buddhist and Hindu teachings that resonate with my own beliefs. I assume that my personal beliefs are evolving away from a Christian sensibility, but I don’t know yet where this informal study will take me.
    I will take this last bit of space to disagree your assertion that: “There’s nothing in principle that can’t be probed with experiment.” I don’t know much about math so I could be mistaken, but I thought that Godel’s incompleteness theorems imply that there are things that are untestable (well I suppose you could test them, but you wouldn’t get a sensible result – like asking for the time and getting “eggplant tooth knuckle” as the response). That within any self-consistent system, there exist axioms which cannot be proven. I won’t go so far as to call these axioms the articles of faith, but I believe that God exists outside the model. Moreover, I believe that God is what differentiates reality from the model when we can’t make the model any better.
    Without God, I believe that the reality underlying the model wouldn’t exist.
    This discussion has caused me to realize that the God I am talking about may not be God in the Christian tradition. I think I have associated my personal moral system (which is fairly consistent with the way I was raised which was in the Protestant Christian tradition) with my belief in God. But now I think that those two things may be separable. This idea is profound to me and I’m going to need to work on it for a while.

  24. Dave Bacon says:

    “There’s nothing in principle that can’t be probed with experiment.”
    I agree with Jon here (but for different reasons.) Theare are certainly things which, in principle I have no idea how to design a probe for. These are things like “Is space-time an uncountable set” I can test this, with more and more accuracy, but this is a principle (uncountable set) that, from my limited understand, cannot be tested. We can put it, like God in some ways, into smaller and smaller corners, but the penultimate truth of the statement will, from my way of thinking, always be unkown.
    Of course, there are two different reaction to things “in principle that can’t be probed with experiment.” One is to remain agnostic about them, and, if you so desire to add a theology on top too them. The other is to say that all such statements are basically nonsense and desire no more of our thought than, say, thinking about the lent in your belly button (OK, that’s going a bit far 😉 ) Both responses seem resonable to me. I have a hard time with theology placed on top, as I tend to think that these are more a property of our history (culturally) than anything else.

  25. S. McHugh says:

    No relation to (that) Mike McHugh.
    Dave says, ““Is space-time an uncountable set” I can test this, with more and more accuracy, but this is a principle (uncountable set) that, from my limited understand, cannot be tested.”
    I would say that testing it to more and more accuracy IS a test. True, by definition proving it to be true seems impossible, but falsification is definitely possible. And that is what a scientific statement must allow for. I think your analogy with what science has done with god is a good one, i.e., putting it in smaller and smaller corners, is my ultimate justification for saying “there’s nothing in the corner!”
    Jon, I’m not sure how Godel’s thm applies to science. But my guess is that it says more about our language and mathematics. And since nature doesn’t always seem to care about our beautiful math, I don’t think we should let it get in the way of our science.
    p.s. Dave, did you mean “ultimate” rather than “penultimate”? 😉

  26. Dave Bacon says:

    Well I was speaking specifically about the statement “spacetime is continuous.” Not about any approximate statement. The argument here is that every point in the limit may be valid science, but the limit point itself may be something which is ascientific. Thus I have a hard time with blanket statements like “There’s nothing in principle that can’t be probed with experiment.” The statement I’m more confortable with is “There is nothing of practical significance which which can’t be probed by experiment.” Yet this too, is something I hold with only a certain prior.

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