Why the Evolution Question Matters

Kevin Williamson at the National Review Online has a rather odd position about Rick Perry’s recent creationist talk. He basically says, “Okay, so Perry is an ignorant blowhard — but you shouldn’t be asking him such questions in the first place.” Here’s the first part:

I’ll get into the question of tossing around these kinds of cultural hand grenades in a second, but first, let me note something that in my view is more important: Neither of Perry’s statements is true. Texas does not, as a matter of statewide policy, teach creationism alongside evolution. The state board of education has rejected creationist materials and adopted a rather conventional curriculum on the subject. And Texas did not retain a legal right to secede from the Union in 1845, though there is a cherished myth to the contrary. Texas’s annexation was a slightly complicated affair: An annexation treaty was proposed, and the secession myth is usually traced back to it. The treaty did not in fact contain such a provision, and, in any case, it was rejected by the U.S. Senate, and Texas was brought into the Union by a joint resolution of Congress (which seems kind of flimsy to me, but it’s worked out alright). Before the governor goes wading into such troubled waters, he ought to be in full command of the facts.

True enough so far. But then there’s this:

The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview.

Absolute nonsense. No one asks Sarah Palin what she thinks about dark matter because it’s never been a political issue and probably never will be. But evolution and creationism is, in fact, a political issue. There has been a relentless campaign for nearly 100 years now in this country to undermine the teaching of good science education by introducing creationism into public school science classrooms. If there was anything remotely similar for dark matter or quantum physics, those would be relevant questions for a candidate too. He isn’t comparing apples to apples, he’s comparing apples to bowling balls.

Progressives like to cloak their policy preferences in the mantle of science, but they do not in fact give a fig about science, which for them is only a vehicle to be ridden to the precise extent that it is convenient. This is why they will ask what makes Rick Perry qualified to disagree with the scientific establishment, but never ask the equally relevant question of what makes Jon Huntsman qualified to agree with it.

Because those two things are not equivalent. It’s certainly true that Huntsman probably doesn’t have much of an understanding of the scientific literature on climate change. Neither do I, for that matter. But as cognitive shortcuts go, accepting the overwhelming consensus of scientists with relevant expertise is not at all the same as firmly believing that they are wrong.

Perry is making an error by approaching these questions as though they were scientific disputes and not political ones.

How amusing. He thinks Perry is approaching those questions as scientific disputes rather than political ones? Seriously? The opposite is obviously true. Perry is taking those positions not because he has the first clue about the facts of evolutionary biology or global warming, but because those are overwhelmingly popular positions in the Republican party. His answers are purely political — and religious.

Evolution is a public question not because politicians have anything intelligent to say about the science, but because the question provides a handy cudgel to those who wish to beat the Judeo-Christian moral tradition into submission in the service of managerial progressivism.

He has it precisely backwards. Evolution is a public question because politicians and the religious know-nothings they pander to use it as a handy cudgel to beat religion into the minds of impressionable students.

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • slc1

    Absolute nonsense. No one asks Sarah Palin what she thinks about dark matter because it’s never been a political issue and probably never will be.

    As I related on the same post over at Scienceblogs, there was a schmuck calling himself Jon S who used to comment over at Jason Rosenhouses’ blog who was a YEC. He steadfastly denied that dark matter and dark energy existed. Thus, I’m not so sure that these notions couldn’t become politicized.

  • vmanis1

    For politicians, I view evolution as a canary-in-a-coal-mine question: answering it gives us some indication on how a candidate deals with the role of science in public policy. A candidate who doesn’t `believe in evolution’ basically says `my own prejudices count for far more than the conclusions of those who have studied the evidence on this question’. We ask this question, not to ridicule those who believe that dinosaurs and humans were contemporary (well, maybe just a LITTLE bit of ridicule), but to help determine whether the candidate will look at the evidence on matters of public policy.

    Naturally, someone who `believes in evolution’ might in fact have other crackbrain notions (e.g., that if you ask wealthy people to pay taxes they will go Galt), but it is a good starter question.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I think it would be great to ask Sarah Palin about dark matter. And I think anyone presenting themselves as an informed and intelligent person should have be able to give an answer like “Dark matter was first proposed after astronomers noticed galaxies seemed to be rotating faster than be accounted for by their apparent mass. They inferred that there must be large amounts of hard to detect matter. I figure it’s most likely brown dwarfs.”

    And I would bet that Huntsman could probably give an account of why carbon dioxide levels might even matter to global climate. Any presidential candidate, even (or perhaps especially) one who doesn’t think that global warming is human caused should at least know that the earth radiates infrared energy back into space and that carbon dioxide is pretty good at absorbing this radiation.

    These are super simple-dimple facts that any educated person who has a basic curiosity about the world ought to know. Anyone who can’t give an answer that shows they understand the basic concept should not hold any elected office of any kind.

    And they should understand evolution too, though evolution, as stated in the second comment here, is much more a social and political litmus test. Nevertheless, anyone seeking office should understand that evolution happens to populations and not individuals. That at least makes them informed enough to not fall for Ray Comfort’s “first male” and “first female” having to “evolve” at the same time and place argument.

    Anyone running for any office should know at least as much about these three issues as I have presented here. Those who don’t are too incurious or too willfully ignorant to rule. No exceptions.

  • Robert B.

    I’ve often seen the word “scientific” used as though it denoted a faction. That might be valid if you’re talking about people, but the whole point of science is that there’s no such thing as “scientific facts.” There are just facts. Things are true or they’re not, and science is just a method humans use to figure out which is which. Using science on a fact doesn’t make the fact scientific, it makes us scientific. The fact is still a plain ol’ ordinary nonaligned fact.

    Williamson freely uses the words “true” and “fact” at the beginning, but then he stops. If you go back and replace the words “science” and “scientific” with “fact” and “factual” his case becomes ridiculous. Why would anyone ask a politician their views on a factual question? Because he needs to know the right answer to do his job. Duh.

  • ManOutOfTime

    Also, he’s not an economist, so don’t ask him whether his claims about the “Texas Miracle” are true or whether his policies had more impact on the state economy than, say, the price of gasoline doubling while he has been governor. Also, he’s not a Dr.Ed, even though he has the undergrad chops for it snark, so don’t ask him anything about Texas public schools being shitholes.

    Just bask in his Don’t Think About Dubya Don’t Think About Dubya awesomeness …

  • Phillip IV

    there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting

    Actually, there are precisely zero people whose views on “disputed” questions regarding evolution are worth consulting – that’s another reason why the comparison to dark matter falls flat. Asking candidates for their views on evolution or AGW is relevant precisely because there is no legitimate scientific dispute on the principles – so it’s really just a roundabout way of asking “are you a rational human being or not”.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Unlike vmanis1, I would be content with a politician who, being asked about evolution, answered: “I don’t know much about it. I certainly couldn’t explain it. I’m a politician, not a biologist. If you want to know about evolution, ask a biologist.”

    Had Perry said that, he at least would have been telling the truth. The problem isn’t that Perry is ignorant of biology. The problem is that he holds a kind of religious ideology that pretends to knowledge that trumps biology. And there is quite good reason to not want that in a politician.

  • Midnight Rambler

    rturpin – But that person would essentially be saying that they follow the scientific consensus, even though they don’t understand the science behind it themselves. Perry, Palin, et al. are literally saying “somebody’s got to stand up to the experts” (in the words of the Perry-appointed Texas education board chairman).

  • lordshipmayhem

    I went over to the National Review site and read the comments. There were those who knew science – but the other comments were painful to read. The stupid – it burns! Like a flame-thrower of stupidity!

    The scientifically illiterate were actually proud of their inability to comprehend the scientific method. Imbeciles. Unbelievable.

  • Nemo

    I know I’ve asked this before, but I don’t remember seeing an answer: What the fuck is “managerial progressivism”?

    Re: dark matter and dark energy, it kind of goes without saying that a YEC wouldn’t believe in them, since they don’t believe in the underlying cosmology. Heck, some of them don’t even believe the Earth is round. But in terms of rhetoric, they focus primarily on biological evolution.