Friday, 6 March 2009

Fact vs Fantasy

This week I'm looking at a couple of items on the irrational beliefs front, concerning first creationism (again) and then the Mayan 2012 confection.

The good news is that the Texas State Board of Education has voted to get rid of wording which invites teachers and students to debate the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. This wording had allowed evolution to be attacked in Texan science lessons for the last twenty years. The bad news is that a recent British poll (reported HERE appears to show that half of the British population doesn't believe in evolution. Only around 25% believe that evolution is "definitely true" and another 25% believe it's "probably true", with 22% preferring creationism or "intelligent design" and rest confused. I say "appears" because the exact wording of the question asked isn't given, and that is of course critical in affecting the responses. By comparison, it's only three or four years since a poll putting the question "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false?" resulted in 75% of Britons saying, "true", with 18% "false" and 7% "not sure". It will be interesting to see the results of any polls taken later this year, after the deluge of publicity and TV programmes about the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

While on this subject, there was an amusing item by Amanda Gefter in New Scientist magazine (28/2/09) concerning how to spot attempts to disguise religiously-inspired (or other unscientific) work as science. Samples of some key phrases to look for:
"Darwinism": scientists rarely use the term – they use "evolution" instead
"irreducibly complex": implying that it couldn't have evolved from something simpler
"academic freedom": when appealed to, usually means the freedom to teach creationism
"common sense": when appealed to; science works on theories based on evidence and may reach conclusions entirely opposed to common sense.
"scientific materialism": implying that the immaterial exists
"quantum physics" in an article which is clearly not about physics ("quantum" being the latest mystical buzz-word to give apparent respectability to bonkers notions)
There's more, but this gives the general idea!
I have only recently stumbled across the Mayan 2012 cataclysm belief, which I gather is very popular in some quarters. For those as yet unexposed to this wonder, it concerns the fact that the Mayan "long count" calendar (they were fond of grouping years into various different cycles) comes to an end on 21 December 2012, when some terrible event is predicted to happen. It is also claimed by one Terence McKenna, who invented something called "Timewave Zero" which "purports to calculate the ebb and flow of novelty in the universe as an inherent quality of time", that "the novelty [is] progressing towards the infinity on 21st December 2012". (see THIS item). Wow! With modern mathematical theory backing up ancient Mayan beliefs, there must really be something in this, right?

Just a couple of problems with this: the Mayans did not predict catastrophe at the end of the long count – in fact, they had celebrations at the end of their year cycles to welcome in the next cycle, just as we did at the end of the Millennium. The predictions of doom were the recent invention of a New Age theorist, José Argüelles, whose ideas have been dismissed by all professional Mayan scholars. As for McKenna, it turns out that no serious mathematician has accepted his ideas: they are just numerology (which is in the same category of scientific validity as astrology). Even more damning, McKenna (an advocate of "magic mushrooms" as the key to understanding), deliberately changed his initial calculations to match up his critical date with the end of the Mayan long count, so it is hardly surprising that they are the same.

I must once more recommend, to anyone who might be tempted to believe such nonsense, Gilovich's book 'How We Know What Isn't So', which I reviewed earlier on this blog (see the review list on the left). It really should be essential reading. You might also pay a visit to the UK-Skeptics forum where all manner of irrational beliefs are viewed with a critical eye. As one contributor pointed out in a discussion on 2012, we needn't worry about it even if you believe such catastrophe theories because we're not going to last that long. The end of the world is supposed to happen in 2010 according to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or 31st December 2011 (if we fail to rid ourselves of all evil) according to Solara Antara Amaa-ra, leader of the "11:11 Doorway Movement". The fact that countless "end of the world" predictions have come and gone doesn't seem to discourage such fantasists. I suppose it could be regarded as the triumph of pessimism over experience!


Fred said...

This stuff clearly belongs on the fantasy side of the aisle, as there's no or very minimal science involved.

Thanks again for mentioning Gilovich's book. I just got my copy and it's very high on my reading last.

I have a vague recollection that a similar poll regarding evolution and creationism was taken in the US recently. I think the results showed a slightly higher percentage accepted creationism over evolution. However, I don't think the article posted the question, so it's hard to know the significance of the poll, except that I was very disappointed in the results.

Anthony G Williams said...

The last survey on creationism I heard about in the US was an international one, for which I gave the results above. My note on this is:

"It was reported in the New Scientist, 19 August 2006, that a poll had been carried out by Michigan State University as one of a series over the past 20 years, in the USA and in other countries. The question always posed is simple: "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false?"

The answers given in the USA in 2005 were: true 40%; false 39%; not sure 21%.

In 1985, the answers were: true 45%; false 48%; not sure 7%.

Of the other countries (mostly European) polled in 2005, only one was more sceptical of evolution than the USA, and that was the Muslim country of Turkey (true 26%; false 51%; not sure 23% - these and the following figures are approximate, read off a graph). The next most sceptical was Greece (true 52%; false 37%; not sure 11%) with the least sceptical being Iceland (true 85%; false 7%; not sure 8%). The UK scored: true 75%; false 18%; not sure 7%. Japan was the only country included from elsewhere in the world, and scored: true 77%; false 8%; not sure 15%."

Fred said...

Interesting changes over the 20 year period--the biggest being the increase in the "not sure" grouping from 7% to 21%. I'm not sure what this means--increased confusion perhaps?

I wonder what other Muslim countries would have polled.

WCG said...

This "controversy" has scared textbook publishers in America, especially since Texas is a really big state for textbook sales. It doesn't even matter who wins or loses any particular battle, because the uproar itself will tend to water down evolution in biology textbooks. Publishers are just terrified of the whole thing.

That happened after the Scopes Monkey Trial, too. Although Scopes lost, I grew up thinking that it was actually a victory for science. ("Inherit the Wind" did a lot to convince me of that.) But the real result was that textbook publishers all across America tried to keep from alienating creationists, thus minimizing any mention of evolution and keeping schoolkids ignorant about biology. In this situation, as in so many others, ignorance is a win for the other side.

PS. Nice post, Tony!