Wednesday, January 11, 2006

 

Intelligent Design, Magic and Science

Recent commentaries in Slate and other venues move me again to write about the conflation of magic and science in our culture. For the average scientifically illiterate citizen, science functions exactly like magic in important ways. This conflation plays a role in the cultural success of intelligent design.

Science, like magic, gives humans abilities and powers far beyond the unaided limits of the physical body. Science, like magic, allows communication over great distances. Both enable transmission of voice, sound, images; material objects; and people through the air. Both have long histories in healing the many ailments the human body is prone to. Both can be used to create great destruction. Both entail long apprenticeships in arcane and esoteric arts. Both involve secret or dead languages, the application of complex formulae, and bad smells. Both make use of rare, esoteric and peculiar ingredients. Both use complex, fantastical equipment. Both follow their own, internal logic and posses internal consistency. Both have a history of state sponsorship. Both have distinct uniforms to be worn by practitioners. (For an expanded discussion of these points, see the next post.)

Neither is really well understood by the average high school graduate.

This last point seems beyond dispute, but must be placed into context. The vast majority of working adults spend very little of their days involved in science. True, we have a good number of science teachers at all levels, practicing scientists and engineers, but beyond that, how many people are interested? In a population of hundreds of millions, two million people, even five million, remain a tiny minority. The other three hundred million took their biology classes in high school or college, scraped by, and never learned much about the conceptual foundations of science.

And why should they?

After all, one need not be an expert auto mechanic to drive a car. Most people have no need to know how to construct a rigorous experiment or how to analyze a data table. We do not need to understand a double blind study to take our blood pressure medicine.

In the United States, high school and college students are not generally encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. (I will never forget the hostility of the dean at UMKC who had to approve my enrollment in undergraduate economics classes after I'd got my first degree. "What do you hope to accomplish?" he demanded. My answer, to learn something, was definitely wrong.) To this particular dean, as well as nearly everybody else, college is merely a superior kind of vocational training.

The nation of the common man often sneers at higher education; places little value on knowledge and experience; often rejects elitist notions of learning to read, speak, write and think well. We reward folksy politicians who stumble over simple declarative sentences with electoral success while punishing other politicians who speak at a higher level.

Ghetto culture, I read, viscously rejects education as "white." Redneck culture, on the other hand, embraces ignorance and produced men like George Wallace, famously both racist and anti-intellectual.

In such an intellectual environment, bizarre notions like: astrology, Bigfoot, tarot, phrenology, alien abduction, flying saucers, cold fusion, parapsychology, telepathy, Scientology, DaVinci codes, left behind; and yes, Intelligent Design, find ready support.

ID comes with all the trappings of science/magic; statistical probability; images of microscopic phenomena; discussions of bacterial flagella; guys dressed in white lab coats; talking heads and PhDs.

If science is no better understood than magic; if the two function almost interchangeably in pop culture, then how can we differentiate between legitimate science and ID? That is, if we as a culture do not know the difference between science and magic, then how can we tell them apart? If a presentation looks like science, talks like science, reads like science, then how can we say it is not science?

The simple truth: most voters cannot or do not recognize the difference between science and magic, much less legitimate science and intelligent design.

The problem reflects a dearth of critical thinking, not defects in science education. And I know of no solid evidence that the ability to think critically can be successfully taught. However, teaching basic logic and reasoning skills could only help. Encouraging open dialog and discussion would help. Taking the time to listen and understand other points of view would also help.

There are no easy answers; no simple way to tell a complex story. But we will continue to keep the conversation going.

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