Sunday, April 20, 2008

Science and Religion

I've been playing over at ScienceBlogs again. Matt Nisbet has an interesting post on what he calls the "atheists' delusion" about the link between science and atheism. Many who wish to draw this supposed link rely on studies that show greater levels of atheism/agnosticism in the scientific community than in the general population and argue from this that scientific knowledge has a negative effect on religious belief. (You can read my comments there, but I must warn you that I accidentally posted as "anonymous" on two of them. See if you can find me. haha)

The biggest problem with such arguments is the "correlation proves causation" fallacy. Just because two things happen "at the same time" doesn't mean they're related. One does not necessarily cause the other. In fact, these things may have no relationship between them at all or both may be caused by a third factor.

This is no more evident than when we note that NAS members are demographically distinct from non-NAS scientists and the general population in other ways that have been shown to have no relationship to scientific ability. For instance, women are slightly more than half of the population, 20 to 30% of people with doctoral degrees in science, about 15% of full professors at top research institutions, but only 6% of the NAS membership.

The correlation/causation folks like to argue that this demonstrates that women probably aren't as good at science. Remember the Lawrence Summers controversy at Harvard? The science says otherwise.

This NAS report on women in academic science and engineering examines the role that bias and institutional structures play in the dwindling percentages of women in the higher echelons of science and engineering compared to the lower levels. In fact, it concludes that women are underrepresented compared not only to their numbers but also to their qualifications. In other words, there are more women qualified to be in the highest levels than there are in the highest levels.

The same problems exist for racial/ethnic minorities and people from the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It is my hypothesis that the empirical data on barriers to women and minorities in scientific fields and the barriers that prevent lower class people from pursuing advanced education skew the numbers for religion as well. These groups are known to have greater levels of religion than the upperclass white males that make up the overwhelming majority of NAS members and the majority of scientists in general.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Expelled!, Darwin and the Holocaust

Evolving Thoughts has a funny but inaccurate post on the relationship between Darwin and the Holocaust, as described in Ben Stein's "Expelled!" You can read my major criticism there, but I have one more comment:

Too often, in discussing the evolution/intelligent design debacle and the supposed link between Darwinism and eugenics, euthanasia, abortion, the Holocaust and the death of Santa Claus, both sides ignore historical fact and basic reason.

The Good Guys

I'll count evolutionists as the "good" guys because I'm biased in their favor, because evolution is the better theory and because I can. It's my blog, after all.

Too many evolutionists, like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, stray from the science of evolution to historical and ideological arguments that are either irrelevant to the debate or tremendously weak in fact and in logic. They are far more interested in scoring ideological points for the "New" Atheism than in defending good science from bad ideas.

Others, as is the case with Evolving Thoughts, ignore the difference between linking Darwin to the Holocaust and other events and movements of the 19th and 20th centuries and blaming Darwin for anti-Semitism or genocide in general. Yes, anti-semitism and genocide preceded Darwin, but his ideas were influenced by and contributed to the development of scientific racism, which influenced the nature of these movements/events.

Darwin, like many prominent scientists, believed that the preservation of the weak (those with physical and mental defects) impeded human evolution and that human evolution would advance through "civilized races exterminating and replacing the savage races." His moral opinion was a different thing altogether. He opposed eugenics and genocide.

Those who were influenced by Darwin's theories and scientific racism in general drew upon the "factual claims" and ignored many scientists' moral compunctions against certain actions. Sir Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, drew on his work to create Eugenics but the applications of the theory and its prescriptions for human society were often in contradiction to Darwin's own moral views and occasionally a distortion of Darwin's factual claims. (More on all below.)

The Bad Guys

The I.D. popularizers are more concerned with rhetoric than with fact and science.

There is no direct line between Darwin and the "evils" of the 20th century. Abortion, for one, is ancient and, in the majority of cases, has more to do with the individual woman's circumstances than with any scientific argument based on "survival of the fittest". (Abortion of "defective" fetuses may have some links to Eugenics but mostly has to do with people deciding that they don't have the mental, physical or economic resources to cope with a disabled child.) A wide variety of events and ideas led to the Holocaust: from Germany's defeat in WWII and its subsequent political/economic collapse, to long-standing religious bigotry, to nationalism and the desire to build an unbeatable and authentically German Germany, to power politics, to xenophobia. Eugenics we've covered, but it drew just as much from statistics, socioeconomic and class biases, the work of philosophers like Plato, and ancient Greek/Roman practices of infanticide than from Darwin and evolution.

Finally, they equate Darwinism with modern evolutionary biology, which began with Darwin but has now moved light years beyond him. Science has done what science does, corrected theory based on new discoveries. It will continue to do so as scientists attack each of the flaws in the modern theory.

UPDATE: Just for "insurance," I'd like to make the distinction between influenced and caused. Richard Dawkins says that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist", but Darwin by no means created atheism. His work, however, influences how atheists view the world and provides what some atheists "interpret" as "proof" that there is no G-d.

Darwin influenced the development of Western ideas about race and human nature, both good and bad, but he by no means caused the moral, social, cultural, historical and political factors that made appropriations/distortions of his work so appealing or so effective. In the same circumstances, the Nazis probably would have done the same thing. Their arguments and methods would have been very different, but their actions probably would have been generally the same.

The American Educational System

Absinthe has a disturbing look at the illiteracy rates of American eighth graders and drop out rates in American schools. You may have to scroll down to see the articles.

Always interested in the pathetic state of our educational system, I took a look at the 2006 OECD Program for International Student Assessment, which focused on science, to see where we stood. I'd recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some statistics and exerpts you may find disturbing.

Overall, the U.S. ranked 29th and fell significantly below the OECD average. In the U.S., 24.4% of 8th graders fall below level 2, the minimum scientific competency needed "to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology."

Students’ socio-economic differences accounted for a significant part of between-school differences in some countries. This factor contributed most to between-school performance variation in the United States, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Slovak Republic, Germany, Greece and New Zealand, and the partner countries Bulgaria, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

NOTE: Some countries. Not all. If something inherent in socioeconomic status determined educational outcome, we'd expect more countries to show significant differences universally.

Less than 10% of the variation in student performance was explained by student background in five of the seven countries with the highest mean science scores of above 530 points (Finland, Canada and Japan, and the partner countries/economies Hong Kong-
China and Estonia).

NOTE: So, if the school system is better, the socioeconomic differences shrink to near insignificance.

In countries with relatively strong and steep socio-economic gradients, socio-economically targeted policies are likely to achieve most.
– In Hungary, France, Belgium, the Slovak Republic, Germany, the United States and New Zealand, and the partner country Bulgaria, the gradient is both steeper and stronger than average for OECD countries (Table 4.4a).

What do we do?

Countries where a high level of variation is accounted for by between-school socioeconomic factors particularly need to consider whether socioeconomic segregation by school is harming equity and/or overall performance (Table 4.4b).

Students of low economic status are all too often placed in schools with high concentrations of poor students, inadequate facilities and supplies, high percentages of underqualified teachers, and high student-to-teacher ratios. Students of low economic status placed in schools where the socioeconomic status of students is mixed do better.

I spoke at a school in New Orleans once where ALL of the students were disadvantaged African-American students. There weren't enough textbooks for the students despite a recent textbook purchase, so they weren't allowed to take books home. Promised educational materials (from which teachers were supposed to develop lesson plans) arrived months after the start of the school year. Some windows were boarded up. There was no toilet paper in many bathrooms. Parts of the classroom were literally falling apart. It was deplorable.

The worst part? A woman I knew who taught at the school and had been declared (by the school system) a "highly qualified" math teacher brought me a copy of a standardized prep test where one question supposedly had no right answer. She told me that four math teachers had pored over the test and been unable to find one in the options offered. The problem: -5 squared. (Anyone know how to do superscript in blogger?) The first possible answer: A. -25. The correct answer: -25. This "highly qualified" eighth grade math teacher and her coworkers didn't know the difference between -5 squared and (-5) squared. I had to pull the math textbook to prove to her that -25 was the right answer. Highly qualified indeed.

What about gender?

Of the attitudes measured in PISA, the largest gender difference was observed in students’ self-concept regarding science. In 22 out of the 30 OECD countries in the survey, males thought significantly more highly of their own science abilities than did females (Table 3.21).


Males and females showed no difference in average science performance in the majority of countries, including 22 of the 30 OECD countries (Table 2.1c).

And we wonder why there are so many people completely ignorant of or in denial about the validity of evolution, modern medicine (as compared to homeopathy, chiropratics, crystals and the like), human involvement in climate change, the biological insignificance of race, the biological significance of sexual orienation, the realities of class, and the extraordinarily limited effect that innate gender differences may play in achievement.