Thursday, September 26, 2013


This excerpt is from the chapter entitled "Why are politicians so scientifically illiterate?"

As indicated in the previous chapter, testable assertions are the hallmark of science, and I’ll expand on this scientific property within the context of political action later in this chapter. But for the moment, we should remember that in the political arena, assertions are testable only within an historical framework. In other words, politics is an historical discipline with its own rules of evidence that may not match those of proximal or normal science, i.e., the kind of science that does experiments with material amenable to experimentation. Within the realm of history, you can’t really do “experiments,” as we properly define the term; you can only assess the validity of some assertion by looking back on what actually happened when you acted as if that assertion was true. There is no better example of this kind of historical assertion testing than the Iraq war that began with the invasion of that nation by a group of other nations, led mostly by the United States, in 2003. The assertion was that Saddam was developing, or had, and intended to use “weapons of mass destruction,” the assertion that Iraqis would quickly adopt an American-style democracy once their dictator was overthrown, the assertion that Iraq would be a business-friendly working environment shortly after hostilities ceased, all were tested and shown to be false. But unlike a real experiment, say involving bacterial metabolism, you can’t go back and start over with Iraq.
The vast majority of all politicians rely on public approval to sustain their employment. In addition, once in office, the trappings of power can become quite seductive. These two facets of political life are among the main reasons that politicians are so scientifically illiterate, or at least act as if they are. Nevertheless, most if not all positions occupied by politicians also involve major responsibilities, compliance with various laws, ceremonial activities, and nowadays, public scrutiny of religious beliefs and behaviors demonstrating “faith.”  Nobody who professes to be an atheist should be so stupid as to spend money running for public office in the United States of America, no matter how lowly that office might be or how qualified the individual. Elected membership on the Lancaster County, Nebraska, Weed Control Authority comes immediately to mind; no self-proclaimed secular humanists need apply. Thus politicians are scientifically illiterate, or act as if they are, because the demands of public office, the need for public approval, and the constant scrutiny of their faith-based behavior, all job-related phenomena that work to make such literacy a liability instead of an asset.
Besides the factors of responsibility, approval, and scrutiny, it is also important to remember that mobs want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. In general, science tends to produce more questions and problems than answers and solutions. This tendency derives from the fundamental nature of science as an activity. Elsewhere in this book I use the metaphor of an island of understanding in a sea of ignorance to explain why science produces more problems than solutions. Remember that as an island grows in size (increase in understanding), its shoreline (the boundary between understanding and ignorance) also grows. All the questions and problems lie along this boundary. In addition, to continue with the metaphor, the larger an island gets, the more geographically diverse it tends to become. If that geographic diversity involves mountains, then we have a high perch from which to observe the sea of ignorance. Routinely such observation shows that sea to be much larger than we imagined when we were only down on our hands and knees in the sand studying nature at the [metaphorical] shore.
The familiar case of New Orleans vs. Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates all these points about breadth of knowledge, comparative thinking, observations, history, and the basic properties of science. Breadth of knowledge is perhaps the most important factor that should have been considered in the political decisions involving the Mississippi Delta ecology. Thus a broadly educated politician would never simply ask how much money an ecological project—for example, a system of levees and an artificial river (the New Orleans shipping channel)—costs, or how much money the public is willing to spend on such a project. Instead, as a minimum, a broadly educated politician considers history, socio-economic conditions, the probability of disaster, the quality of expertise consulted, whether or not that expertise is in agreement with other expertise from diverse sources, the nature of observations, the process of analysis, and whether the process itself has obvious flaws or internal contradictions. In other words, to really assess the adequacy of New Orleans levees, one would have to study the Mississippi Delta using approaches that would be quite familiar to any evolutionary biologist.
Research over the past half century, i.e., activity increasing both the size of our island of understanding and the length of its shoreline boundary with the sea of ignorance, clearly revealed (produced) more questions and problems about the Mississippi Delta region than answers and solutions. Such research involved new technologies such as satellite imagery, geographic information system software, and socio-economic analysis, as well as experience derived from study of the Achafalaya River and its basin using more conventional methods—measurement of stream flow, sedimentation and erosion rates, pressures on diversion dams and gates, etc. Over the years, the scientific community came to realize that the initial problem and its solution, namely, keeping water out of New Orleans by building levees, was actually only a small part of a much larger problem, specifically, long term management of the interrelationship between a nation’s economy and one of the world’s largest rivers. This kind of collective activity, in which a truly massive ecosystem is the primary player at the center of a highly integrated, far-reaching, transportation and financial network, does not lend itself to governance by mobs that want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. Instead, this kind of system requires almost Jeffersonian dignity, patience, foresight, and breadth, traits that don’t survive well in our Third Millennium media-driven electioneering environment.
Such a broad education, and its use in a public arena, is therefore a lot, indeed probably too much, to ask of any modern politician. But then, of course, it is the job of any newspaper reporter half-way qualified for his or her job to ask the right questions of elected officials in order to reveal their breadth of knowledge, in situations involving natural phenomena, or, in the best of all worlds, to inspire those politicians to acquire knowledge, wisdom, and some decent honest advisers who are not just sycophants. Sadly, perhaps for reasons that are deeply embedded in the human DNA, as a general rule we are not patient with careful analysis, complex interactions between elements of nature, varying degrees of probability, and leaders who are honest about the chances that disaster will befall us. Instead, we seem to admire leaders who are strong advocates of actions based on our beliefs and desires, who inspire us to be courageous, and who tend to simplify a complex universe down to issues and explanations we can understand. And leaders who can convince us we are in danger, and seem to be fighting that danger in an obvious way, are the ones we seem to admire the most. None of this typical interaction between a population and its chosen leaders promotes scientific literacy or honesty about the relationship between nature and people.

INTELLIGENT DESIGNER is available on kindle, nook, and, and as a nice paperback from

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