Evolution, Truth, and Politics

A follow up to yesterday’s blast from the past:

Ever since Majikthise, Pandagon, and Alternet linked to my post about Yglesias, my sitemeter hit-counter thingee has blown a gasket (and, Majikthise, um, thanks for the very kind words, but low expectations are much easier to live with…). Anyway, it’s been interesting to read what other people think about the post.
One general angle I’ve noticed is that many commenters are focusing on the politics of evolution. Granted, this post was picked up largely by political websites, so this is to be expected. Regarding the politics, I’m not naive: I understand the role evolutionary biology plays in the culture wars, how it cuts as a political issue, and so on. Nonetheless, there was, in some comments (and a couple emails too), a slight sneering attitude towards biology, as if the actual issues involved–not the political ramifications–were unimportant (I should point out that many, if not most, commentators and emailers agreed that the points about research and education were valid).
After the anthrax attacks, I remember worrying when I heard a White House reporter ask about “the anthrax virus” (and El Supremo didn’t correct him, of course). To some, this might sound like an insignificant detail, but the biology really matters. How you approach treatment, prevention, and protection depends on whether you’re dealing with a virus or a bacterium (and how effective each of those steps will be also determined by the nature of the biological agent). At that moment, I realized the political class, as a whole (with some exceptions), had no idea what they were talking about.
All I ask is that, if I, as an informed citizen, commentator, etc., am supposed to follow the miniscule details of Rovegate, that, in return, those who comment on biology have a basic knowledge of the subject. No political commentator would ever accept the level of ignorance that biologists (and other scientists) are routinely forced to confront-and it is ignorance. A word of advice if you’re a pundit, commentator, or ‘just’ a citizen: educate yourself on these matters, you’re going to need it.
One commenter claimed that going after Yglesias was yet another example of the Democratic circular firing squad. I’m the last person to favor the circular firing squad. Yet, in the midst of all the political battles, we must remember what we are fighting for in the first place: the truth, or at least the fallible human attempt to discern it through reason. We must defend this human search for truth, not because it hurts the religous right, which it does, not because it is part of the culture wars, which it is, but because truth and reason themselves are worth defending. When we fail to defend the truth in service of political expediency, it encourages deceit elsewhere.
The emphasis on truth, or the lack of deceit, might appear hopelessly naive. After all, in the last several years, there has been so much lying about, well, everything. We’ve lied our way into a war, into an irresponsible and unjust economic policy, and lousy social policy. At the very least, let’s hold the line at physical reality. It’s worth the fight.

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12 Responses to Evolution, Truth, and Politics

  1. Derek James says:

    Yep, I tend to agree with you. Here’s the post on my blog in response to Yglesias’ comments, in which I think a couple more points are worth making.
    On the personal side: “Why we eat what we eat, look the way we look, have two sexes, have long childhoods, fear what we fear, learn the kinds of things we learn…in short, everything that has to do with being human makes sense in the context of how we got here, how we evolved.”
    And on the more practical side, if you’re a citizen, you have the right to serve on a jury and the right to vote. Isn’t it practical to try to educate citizens on problem solving, weighing evidence, and coming to reasonable conclusions? Especially if they’re electing officials that determine policy you have to live under, or if they’re sitting on a jury deciding your fate?

  2. Anecdotes like the one about the ‘anthrax virus’ chill me. All too often I hear conversations with college students that go something like; “OK, virus, bacteria, whatever…” Some people put an awful lot of effort into their intellectual apathy. Then (and this particularly frightens me) they major in business or elementary education at a state university.

  3. skunqesh says:

    DOF – “Some people put an awful lot of effort into their intellectual apathy” :-))
    dood – that gave me a chuckle, in the sense of sad irony. It seems terribly true these days. As a consummate book worm and garden variety geek, I love to teach as much to learn, yet constantly smack up against people’s walls of self inflicted apathy and willful ignorance. I think teaching takes a special set of skills and patience which I seriously lack – I’m too easily confounded by brick head and need to learn better how to approach these walls. Battering rams are no substitute for one good ‘lever’.
    blah blah blah – sorry, I had to get that off da mind.

  4. tristero says:

    Mike, you wanna hear ignorance? I can’t tell you how many times people have told me how much they like “that song by Beethoven, the Symphony #5.” This includes people with graduate degrees. Some have even heard an orchestra live. Once.
    But yes, ignorance of the basic science of evolution is appallingly widespread. That is how the id creationists have gotten so far. The real pity is that not only is the concept of nat/sel pretty straightforward, Darwin’s life is an exemplary one. That kids are denied insight into his ideas and his character because of this non-controversy is an outrage.

  5. genesgalore says:

    it never ceases to amaze me how truly blind people are. if one just takes a moment to step back and look at what is happening on earth, from afar, and understand that a niche has just got to be filled and at the same time realize that when one removes the occupier of that niche, it will be replace: but it just takes time. 10,000 years is the blink of an eye as it applies to the history of earth. can not imagine the curse that will be uttered in a thousand years by the surviving population of homo sapiens.

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