Look at me, still talking when there’s Science to do!

In which Franklin chokes your friends list…scroll, my byatches! Scroll!


Every other year, the National Science Foundation does a survey of Americans’ understanding of basic principles of science and basic facts about the physical world. And every other year, the results are disappointing. In 2006, the last year of this exercise in the humiliation of the human species, we learned that about 70% of American adults do not understand what the scientific method is; 60% of American adults believe in psychics and ESP; half of Americans believe that antibiotics kill viruses; and nearly a quarter of all Americans(!) say that the sun moves around the earth, rather than the other way around.

It’s depressing, it is.

And the results from 2006 actually, if you can believe this, show some improvement over results from 2004 and 2002.

The numbers keep getting more miserable, too. A whopping 66% of American adults reject evolution, for example; more on that in a bit.

When these results are combined with other results from surveys on American ideas and beliefs, the gloom deepens. Various polls by CNN purport to show, among other things, that 80% of surveyed American adults believe the US government is hiding knowledge of space aliens, and 70% of American adults still believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

This level of anti-intellectualism in US society beggars belief. And it does a lot more than just make us look bad.

Some kooky, anti-intellectualist ideas, such as the notion that NASA faked the moon landings, are frustrating, but in the overall scheme of things not terribly important of and by themselves. Other ideas, such as the conspiracy theory that claims the government staged the World Trade Center attacks, reveal a deep-seated suspicion of government that’s so strong it overrides reason.

But some of these ideas are actively harmful. The ignorance of American adults about antibiotics and viruses means that many folks are inclined to take antibiotics when they can not do any good; overuse of antibiotics can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria which are a threat to the public health. Worse, the notion that vaccination is a “myth” used by evil scientists and doctors to “keep people sick” can cause people to refuse to vaccinate their kids, which leads to a susceptible population that offers childhood diseases a handy reservoir.

The “evil scientists” refrain is one that seems to be a common theme in the general voice of American anti-intellectualism. We’re not exactly sure what science is, but we’re sure that the people who do it are bad, motivated by dark, sinister goals of–I don’t know, keeping people sick or something. Whether it’s these anti-vaccination activists talking about the AMA or Greenpeace spouting uninformed bullshit about genetic engineering that they know isn’t true (says who? The founder of Greenpeace, no less), an active antipathy of science and scientists is the backdrop against which all of this anti-intellectualism is arrayed.

We even see this in American pop culture.

Video games like Half-Life and Resident Evil start with the same premise: a group of scientists, working together in a secret facility, brings about calamity and disaster; the solution to the problems they create is to go in and shoot stuff with a big gun.

Or a rocket launcher. Or a flamethrower. Or a railgun. Some of the things you use to shoot stuff with are pretty cool. But I digress.

PART II: The Problem

Americans are, by and large, woefully unequipped for rational, analytical thinking. The most basic tools of cognitive bullshit detection are simply not part of people’s toolkits; as a result, the most preposterous of ideas will sail through the minds of many folks unchecked, like a railgun through tissue paper.

Deepak Chopra, a minor star in the constellation of anti-intellectualism, once reacted to the idea that consciousness and personality are emergent phenomena from the physical processes of the brain by arguing that since brains are mostly made of water, saying that a brain is capable of consciousness without some outside spiritual force is like saying a bucket of water is capable of consciousness. This argument is, of course, utterly absurd; it’s a bit like saying since concrete is mostly sand, we can build skyscrapers out of sand. (The other stuff in there, and the physical structure, is important too, Deepak!) his argument was made only slightly more ridiculous when he then went on to say that yes, a bucket of water actually is conscious.

Water appears to be an obsession among certain parts of the New Age spiritualist crowd. One guy actually believes that water responds to human emotions and reads Japanese, and he’ll sell you a cure for cancer based on this “discovery.” If you have six hundred dollars in your wallet and a hole in your head, anyway.

I wish I was making this up, really I do. But, yes, there are folks who believe water has an emotional state. This idea came forth in the public consciousness through the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, a film that does for anti-intellectualism what Die Hard did for action-adventure flicks.

In this marvelous (for some value of “marvelous”) movie, we learn (among other things) that water “absorbs” human emotions. There’s this guy, you see, who turns out to be a friend of the producer, and he says that you can write emotionally-charged words on paper and wrap the paper around glasses of water, then you can freeze the water, you see, and the emotional “energy” will be absorbed by the water and change the crystals. Negative emotions, see, produce ‘ugly’ crystals; positive emotions produce ‘pretty’ crystals. This actually sounds plausible to enough folks that this guy sells a wide range of products, from books and CDs about emotional water to geometrically “clustered” water (at $35 a bottle) to gadgets that put your personal emotional energy into your food and water in order to make it better for you.

This shambling wreck of a movie communicates its message in an indirect way, by exploiting its audience’s fuzzy understanding of basic scientific processes and principles. It leads its viewers to factually incorrect conclusions by presenting factually accurate statements with careful framing intended to create inferences that aren’t true; for example, it talks about quantum mechanics and how the presence of an “observer” can influence a quantum state, then talks about the way our minds and emotional states can influence our immune system, and leads the reader to draw the conclusion that our minds can directly affect the physical world on a quantum level (which is not correct) without actually saying so directly.

To do this, it relies on ambiguities and fuzzy grasp of scientific terminology. Folks believe they know what the word “observer” means; when they hear it, they think of a person standing there looking at something. To a scientist, though, a person is not an observer; an observer is any particle which interacts with the observed system in a way that’s thermodynamically irreversible. The image that springs to mind when folks hear the word “observer” is wrong; the movie counts on this to lead the audience to a conclusion that is also wrong.

Profitable, though. The machines that program “emotional energy” into your water will set you back about $2500 US (plus tax and shipping).

One of the biggest problems facing anyone who cares about science and reason is the fact that folks sincerely believe they understand the concepts they’re grappling with, even when they do not. One thing I’ve seen is that everyone everywhere believes, truly believes, that he understands both quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology, while in reality, they don’t.

Nowhere is the gap between a person’s perceived understanding of a subject and the actual tenets of the subject as irritating as it is with evolution. I have met many people who passionately reject, even hate, the idea of evolution, but I have not yet met one who can explain what evolution is.

The list of misconceptions about evolutionary biology is endless. I could talk for days about the number of things folks think evolution says that it doesn’t, but then both you and I would be here for days, and I’m sure neither of us wants that. So in no particular order, some of my favorites:

– Evolution says there is no god. False; evolution says nothing abut god whatsoever, any more than astronmy, low-temperature physics, or agriculture say anything about god. Evolutionary biology (and geology and physics and astronomy and chemistry and astrophyscis and…) says that the world is more than six thousand years old, but it is silent on the subject of god.

– Evolution says that one species can change into another species, like a cow can change into a horse, but this has been proven false because there are no half-cow, half-horse creatures running around. Again, false; evolution says something completely different, which is that a a group of organisms that’s isolated and subject to adaptive pressure can and will change over time, to the point where it no longer belongs to the same species as the originals…but this process is extremely gradual, and does not at any time result in the birth of a creature halfway between one species and another. Eventually, given the right conditions, the right adaptive pressure, and the enough time, an initial population of cows might give rise to organisms that fill the same ecological niche that horses fill now, but a half-cow, half-horse will never exist.

-Evolution is about survival of the fittest; an organism that gets a mutation will spread it if the mutation helps it survive, and will not spread it if it doesn’t. Evolution relies on good mutations happening; the fact that there are bad mutations proves it doesn’t work. False; evolution is about the propagation of traits that allow the organism which holds them to reproduce. It doesn’t rely on mutation in the X-Men sense of the word; what it needs are a population whose members are different from one another, it needs for those variations to be inheritable, and it needs for those variations to determine, to some extent, reproductive success. That’s it.

If an organism has tentacles, and some have longer tentacles than others, and the ones with longer tentacles are more likely to reproduce, then over time the average tentacle length in the species will increase. It’s important to understand that a particular trait does not need to kill its inheritor to be selected against, and does not need to increase the odds of survival to be selected in favor of. It only needs to have an effect on reproduction. Even a tiny one. A trait that makes its possessors die younger but increases the odds that they will bear offspring by 0.001% will still be selected in favor of. Sometimes, the things that cause an organism to be more likely to reproduce don’t necessarily have anything to do with survival at all!

– For a structure to evolve, it must arise from simpler structures. If the eye evolved, it couldn’t evolve all at once. We should see creatures with half an eye. True; and we do. Very simple creatures like parasitic roundworms don’t have eyes; they have eyespots–simple clumps of cells slightly sensitive to light. That’s it. More advanced invertebrates have cup-shaped eyespots–a tiny improvement since they can get a general sense of the direction light is coming from, but still not an eye. Squid have round eyes lined with light-sensing cells, but they act like pinhole cameras–there is just a hole in front. No iris, no lens, no cornea, no eyelid. More complex fish have a lens but still lack a cornea or eyelid. Reptiles like snakes have an eye with a lens and cornea, but no lid–the eye is behind a special transparent scale. And so on.

– Science says we are more highly evolved than other organisms. False; evolution is not goal-directed, and every species, including ours, continues to be subject to adaptive pressure all the time. The virus that causes HIV, which evolves very quickly, could reasonably be said to be “more evolved” than we are!

– Evolution says all life is random, but if you mix chemicals at random, you don’t get life. False, and very annoying; it’s hard to understand where the notion of “evolution = random” even comes from, it’s so far off the mark. Evolution is about preserving structures and about natural selection, which is a most decidedly unrandom process. When you mix a bowl of chemicals, or parts of a watch, there is no mechanism that preserves increases in order; yet this is exactly what inheritance does.

– Science says that things go from an ordered state toward greater and greater states of disorder. Evolution violates thermodynamics. Which is what happens when folks take one thing they don’t understand, thermodynamics, and apply it to something else they don’t understand, biology. Entropy and disorder increase in a closed system, but this planet is not a closed system. If you add energy to a system from the outside, order in that system can go up. The earth has energy coming in from the outside…from the sun.

Ignorance about a topic leads to misunderstanding and misinformation about that topic. Sadly, though, it also leads to an inability to assess how much one knows about a topic, so those who most profoundly misunderstand something, like evolutionary biology or the Van Allen radiation belts (those bugaboos that the moon landing hoax nutters like to trot out as “proof” that visiting the moon is impossible), the less likely one is to know that they don’t understand it.

Which leads into…


“But I’ve done the research!” folks will wail, when one attempts to say that, no, vaccination isn’t a myth, or yes, the World Trade Center was brought down by commercial aircraft, or no, NASA didn’t fake the moon landings.

“I’ve done the research!” In fact, someone once told me this while trying to argue that vaccination is a hoax perpetrated by evil doctors. “I’ve done the research, and I know it’s true!”

This person does not know what the “immune system” is or how it works. She does not know the role that various parts of the immune system play in fighting disease. She does not know the difference between a virus and a bacteria, nor does she know the basic theory by which vaccines operate. So I think it’s reasonable to say that she has not, in any way, “done the research” to gain the cognitive tools necessary to evaluate claims about immunology.

This is something one sees often–people who, sincerely and without intentional deceit, believe they have “done the research” to support some proposition about which, even after the “research” has been done, they actually know absolutely nothing. The majority of folks–including, I bet, some people reading this right now–believe that looking for arguments which support one’s idea is “research.”

There’s a book I like to talk about. It’s called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallability of Reason in Everyday Life. It’s a very, very dry book; the author’s writing has the charm and wit of a robot wearing a pair of knit booties…but it’s an extraordinarily informative book. A chapter of the book is dedicated to the tendency of folks, when trying to support or refute an argument, to look only as far as the first idea that supports their position but no further. People believe this is “research”–you look for someone who says something that appears on the surface to support your position, then look no further than that.

I think this idea of “research” is one that our educational system does nothing to dispel. I’m sure most of you reading this have at one point or another been told to do a “research paper,” and most likely you were told that “research” means finding a list of folks who agree with your position, then citing those folks in the appropriate way. Guess what? That’s not research. When you do this, you will tend to look no deeper than the initial arguments that support your idea, and you certainly won’t investigate the validity of those arguments.

A wonderful example of this approach to “research” just recently popped up in a conversation I was involved in about the notion that pornography “causes” violence and rape. There are two factoids that the folks who see a casual relationship between porn and rape like to trot out, and you’ll see the littered all over anti-porn Web sites. Both factoids are statistical. The first is that Alaska has the highest per-capita rate of readership of men’s magazines in the nation, and also the highest per-capita incidence of violence, including rape, in the US. The second concerns Oklahoma City; in 1985, the city closed 150 porn shops and violent crime, including rape, decreased dramatically, while rising elsewhere in the state.

On the surface, these arguments might seem convincing. Deeper investigation, though, causes them to fall apart.

You see, Alaska has the highest per-capita readership of men’s magazines in the country. It also has the highest incidence of alcoholism, and the second highest rate of unemployment. Both alcoholism and unemployment are strongly and positively correlated with violence; higher incidence of both are tied to higher incidence of violent crime. When one controls for other factors such as unemployment and other statistical correlaries to violence, one actually finds a negative correlation between porn and violent crime; that is, higher rates of porn correlate, unintuitively, to lower rates of rape and violence.

The Oklahoma City claim is also flawed–or at least, incomplete. The two facts as stated are true: in 1985, Oklahoma City shut down their porn stores, and subsequently, incidence of violence and rape decreased. But further investigation reveals a lot was going on in Oklahoma City at the time: namely, in response to a homicide rate that was one of the worst in the nation, Oklahoma City introduced a number of sweeping anti-crime measures. They hired more police (itself statistically correlated to decrease in violent crime); started their first narcotic detection unit; and initiated a purge of corruption and fraud in the police departments. A reasonable person might conclude that these factors played a role in the subsequent reduction in crime.

There is a lesson here. Skepticism applies first and most importantly to arguments which support one’s ideas. The scientific method is fundamentally a technique of doubt; a scientist tries to disprove his idea, not prove it; the more it resists debunking, the more faith can be placed in it. Research does not consist of finding arguments in support of one’s idea. To “do the research,” look for facts that do not support your idea. Place value only in ideas which resist your most vigorous efforts to debunk them. If you believe that vaccination is a plot, and you read a book that says vaccination is a plot, you have not done the research.

This is a learned cognitive tool. That’s bad news and good news. It’s bad news because it does not come naturally; in fact, it’s precisely the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do. It’s good news because, really, it’s a simple tool; anyone can learn it. And that one tool opens the door to obtaining a whole new cognitive toolkit of bullshit detectors.

Maybe there’s hope for us after all.