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The Dark Ages Beckon

Today I read a commentary praising the US and proclaiming “American Exceptionalism” had returned. Maybe. I have commented on several occasions in this blog that the world leadership of the US seems to be slipping but this commentator obviously disagrees. So who is right?

Firstly let me say that I don’t want the US to lose its prime position in the world if China takes over that place. I know there are many things wrong with the way the US acts globally but I still think I would prefer it to China and most other world powers (with the possible exception of Europe).

The specific event which was quoted as indicating the return of American Exceptionalism was the landing of the Curiosity lander on Mars. I have to say that without doubt that was a fantastic achievement. The engineering involved was extraordinary and involved so many systems where small errors could have resulted in disaster. So I agree it was a brilliant achievement and I congratulate NASA and the US in general.

But we also must look at the other side of the story: at how some parts of the US seem intent on self-destruction because of their insistence on following superstition and ignorance. Two areas where this phenomenon is most apparent are in climate change denial and creationism. And yes, it is a problem which comes almost exclusively from the right and especially from the Republican Party.

A Republican politician from Kentucky wants to reduce or eliminate the teaching of evolution and to encourage the teaching of creationism instead. Does this matter? Maybe not in itself because Kentucky isn’t exactly known as the most progressive or advanced state in the country to begin with. If everyone there wanted to believe a primitive myth instead of the facts it really wouldn’t make much difference in the greater scheme of things.

But it sets a bad precedent and one which other states would almost certainly follow. How long would it be before teaching lies instead of truth started having a significant effect on the country, and then on the rest of the world? This “thin end of the wedge” argument is not always valid but that is the exact strategy that creationists are employing (refer to the famous “Wedge” document of a few years back if you need evidence of this strategy).

Once the possibility that science was wrong and religion right becomes established it could lead anywhere. Encouraging FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is a common way that one group whose beliefs have no real merit can damage the another group’s much stronger position.

The fact is that religion is never right and science wrong. It just doesn’t happen. Over thousands of years, since anything remotely like science existed, there has been a continuous stream of discoveries by science which have contradicted religion. There has never (as far as I know) been a religious revelation which has overturned an established scientific theory. Not one. OK, maybe it might happen in the future, but that seems very unlikely.

I’m going to quote the state representative attacking evolution (Ben Waide, R-Madisonville) now. Here’s what he said: “The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science – Darwin made it up. My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny.”

This person clearly does not deserve to be in any position of power. There are only two possibilities here: he’s either unbelievably ignorant and/or stupid, or he’s a liar. Either way he shouldn’t be able to make major decisions on education or any other subject important to his country.

Let’s look at his statement: “The theory of evolution is a theory”. Ah yes, it is the “theory” of evolution so of course it’s a theory. But the theory of evolution is a superb explanation of the observed fact that evolution is happening in a similar way as the theory of gravity explains the phenomenon of gravity.

Let me explain. We see evidence of evolution everywhere in living things. It’s the basis of modern biology and without it very little makes sense. But the simple statement that things evolve doesn’t explain the phenomenon. That’s why we have the theory of evolution. The theory explains the observed fact that evolution has resulted in the variety of life we see today. Even in the unlikely event that the theory isn’t true we still have the fact of evolution to explain and creationism doesn’t seem to do that. In fact it explains nothing because it is an ancient myth, and even as a myth it’s rather boring. I like Greek mythology far more!

Then: “the theory of evolution is not science – Darwin made it up”. Well it is science, there is no doubt about that. It has been tested using scientific methodology for years and it passes brilliantly. Also the idea that Darwin “made it up” is irrelevant. All theories have people who were primarily involved with their origin. Other people (mainly Alfred Russel Wallace) were working on the same theory at the time, that’s why Darwin published it when he did. Also the theory has developed hugely since Darwin’s time. He didn’t even know about DNA!

And: “they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method”. Well it does. If there is anywhere that evolution does not stand up to scientific scrutiny I’m sure most biologists would be surprised to hear what it is.

Here’s some examples of science confirming evolution. Darwin didn’t know about genetics but for his theory to be true there had to be a way that genetic information could be passed from one generation to the next. But Gregor Mendel was already working on his theory and the mechanism fitted well with evolution. Later when mutations were discovered this gave a source of variation. As more fossils were discovered they could easily have contradicted evolution, but the contrary was true. And molecular evidence more recently could have completely invalidated evolution but yet again, the evidence supported it strongly instead.

Finally: “Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny”. Right, as I said I would like to hear where exactly evolution has failed the immense amount of scrutiny it has been subjected to.

It may be that some people don’t want to know about evolution because it interferes in some way with their religious beliefs. If that’s the case then be honest and say so. Say something like “we don’t want to have evolution taught because we prefer to believe our religion instead”. That approach is stupid and ignorant but at least it’s honest. At the moment these people are stupid, ignorant, and dishonest as well!

I have said before that the US seems like it has two populations: the brilliant, progressive science and technology community, and the ignorant, backward fundamentalist believers. No matter how brilliant the good aspects of a country are they can be dragged down by the forces of darkness, especially when a political party deliberately pursues that group’s votes by pandering to its ignorance, dogmatism, paranoia, and prejudice.

I really hope the current liking the American right (the GOP wasn’t always like it is now) have for valuing superstition and ignorance passes. When you let religion take control nothing good can come from it. The Dark Ages attest to that. For America, the Dark Ages beckon.

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