The stupid is the mind-killer

By Razib Khan | July 11, 2012 11:19 pm

In the comments below I expressed anger when I realized one of the readers who I had hoped was not stupid was really rather stupid. I don’t have a high toleration for this sort of stuff, which has supposedly become somewhat well known in the blogosphere (judging from comments about me on other weblogs). When I was younger I suspect I had more toleration for this sort of thing, and engaging with the dull is something that needs to be done, just like you need to change a baby’s diaper because you know they’ll soil themselves, and they can’t be left that way. Perhaps there’s a fixed amount of sympathy for people who shit themselves because they don’t know any better, literally or metaphorically. I’ve got to deal with the former right now, so maybe I’m not having any of the latter anymore.

Sometimes I wonder what world I’m living in, where rank stupidity can get passed along by newspapers as “letters to the editor.” For example, you have to read this whole piece from Stephen Chauvin, State Board of Education is correct on evolution:

About once every six months or so, either Bill Barnes or Karyl Paige fire a shot across the bow of the Texas State Board of Education’s standard of teaching both strengths AND weaknesses of scientific theories, specifically, the “theory of evolution.” This time it is Ms. Paige in her July 7th letter where she implores us to be honest.

In her letter she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of gravity … ” What Ms. Paige may not realize is that the effects of gravity are not “theory,” but “law.” It differs from theory in that its effects can be observed, calculated and repeated over and over. Similarly, she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of the solar system … ” Again, our solar system is not “theory” because we are able to observe, calculate the positions of the planets and verify these calculations over and over again.

Then she tries to apply the same value to something that is indeed a theory, Darwinian evolution or change over time due to survival of the fittest. Unlike gravity or the solar systems, although we may SUPPOSE that it may have happened in the distant past, we are unable to see such evolution occur, as in, one species changing into another and particularly in additional genetic information being added to an existing structure. Rather, we see exactly the opposite. Rather than new species springing up left and right, we repeatedly observe species dying off or becoming extinct, thereby LOSING genetic information over time.

I would agree that we can observe “micro-evolution,” which is change within a species. However, those changes are primarily the switching of genetic pairs and not the creation of something entirely new, as demonstrated in Darwin’s own observations of his finches, which returned to their original characteristics depending on the availability of water and food. Even in the example that she provides, viruses, some of the simplest organisms, while they are changed by absorbing and integrating the DNA of their host, they remain merely a “virus.” Unfortunately, our human attempts to destroy them through antibiotics, etc. means that those that are not killed, which are not susceptible, survive, creating what may be “super” viruses and bacteria. This again is not a gain of genetic information, but a loss of information.

Ms. Paige and Mr. Barnes are disgruntled that Texas requires the examination of the weaknesses of the theory of evolution at all. They would much prefer that Darwinian evolution be exclusively taught in schools as if it were scientific law rather than a mere theory. Ms. Paige says that, ”If Texas does not educate its children according to the scientific knowledge of this century, we might well forget competing in a world economy.”

I believe that Texas schools are doing EXACTLY that, teaching our children how to PROPERLY examine theories by investigating BOTH strengths and weaknesses. We are teaching them HOW to think and reason, not WHAT to think. This puts our children far above states and countries that merely teach dogmatic assertions without evidence. In fact, I think we should teach MORE weaknesses than we currently do, and believe me, there are many, many more than what are showing up in our text books.

First, it would be funny if it wasn’t sad how often Creationists turn into street-corner philosophers of science and epistemologists. I’ve heard of the distinction between scientific laws and theories before, mostly with the former being something like thermodynamics, repeated observations, and the latter more a systematic body of knowledge which frames the data and generates inferences. But these terms are in my experience in science not like the difference between baryons and leptons; they’re not clear and distinct. Second, I emphasized sections where I basically didn’t know what he was talking about. That’s one of the maddening things about Creationists, they’ve created their whole internal language, which actually does a decent job seeming plausibly coherent to the non-scientifically trained. I think the emphasis on thinking for oneself is funny, because I’m 99% sure that this individual is rewarming talking points that he received in church. I suspect that the original points are often more scientifically coherent, if still false, but as they get passed around by people who don’t know what they’re saying they get more and more garbled. One of the main reasons I avoid talking to blank slate Leftists and Creationists is that often I notice I spend a lot of time refashioning the arguments they want to make for them, because they don’t even know what they are trying to say (if you want the Lefty equivalents, I almost always have to elaborate the exact nature of Lewontin’s Fallacy, because my interlocutors often garble it).

Anyway, I thought this letter was repeating because of the weird portion about antibiotics and viruses. They don’t really work on viruses, though most of the public seems to think they do. Why did this obvious show of ignorance go through? Did the people working at the paper not know? Or did they want to make Stephen Chauvin seem stupid?

MORE ABOUT: Creationism
  • Shashi

    “Sometimes I wonder what world I’m living in, where rank stupidity can get passed along by newspapers as “letters to the editor.”

    Welcome to the world of newspapers. Actually, welcome to this world, since newspapers reflect what people are thinking for the most part. I recently read a much worse piece in the Indian newspaper ‘The Hindu”, which has a repuation equivalent of The Gaurdian in the UK.

    “Is science another of those fanatical religions?”

    Science and technology in ancient India, China and Egypt have had their hoary past. Some of the leading western scientists paid their obeisance to the wisdom of those civilisations. Many of them have admitted that they built their views sitting on the shoulders of some of the thinker-philosophers of yore! In the true sense of the word, science is only a method to understand the working of this universe. In that sense, science is a great exercise, but to sell science as the be-all and end-all of human wisdom to the exclusion of all other fields of knowledge is the height of foolishness and short-sightedness. It is that institution of science that one has to shun.

    Please read the rest, if you are of the masochistic bent.

    (The writer is a former professor of cardiology, Middlesex Medical School, London, and former Vice-Chancellor of Manipal University.

    That was shocking, but not quite as much as his wiki page that he had won the third highest civilian honor in India of Padma Bhushan.

    The comments section was closed so I decided to email him instead. What followed was even more depressing, his replies were so idiotic and condescending, I lost all faith in rational debate.

    Offtopic: If anyone is interested I can post it here.

  • kirk

    There is a difference between a creationist and a blank-slate hippy — the creationist denies evolution as hypothesis/theory while a hippy endorses the science but wants to pass a law that regulates evolution with heavy fines for organisms that evolve.

  • Chad

    I’m a Christian, so I deal with creationists a lot. I typically don’t even bother to argue anymore. People will believe what they want to believe and my beating my head against a wall will only frustrate me and accomplish nothing.

    I am glad though that I am not the only one who will refashion their arguments for them. At some point you either become so frustrated or feel so sorry for them that you tell them how to make a bad argument better.

  • Gil

    The italicized sections that you were having trouble parsing are pretty standard creationist rhetoric. It boils down to the idea that entropy has been acting on the genome since creation and that all observable mutation is due to degradation. So they come up with vague ‘information theory’ and declare that evolution has not been observed creating their private definition of information, and that evolutionary processes cannot create information. I believe these ideas originated with the Discovery Institute and their Intelligent Design creationism movement, although I may be mistaken.

    You can see more analysis of creationist thought on Panda’s Thumb. The regular creationist commenters there are probably not the sort that you would tolerate here for very long, but the discussions can still be enlightening.

  • April Brown

    @5 Growing up Christian, I was exposed more to the “they’re all tricking us” school of thought – that is, Satan planted fossils to mislead humans from biblical truth, and God let himin order to test our faith. Fits in with the idea behind Job. It’s a lazy argument, but one that parses well with five year olds.

  • Miles B.

    Robert Heinlein may have been talking about Creationists when he said:
    “Don’t try teaching a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

  • Raymund Eich

    Schopenhauer put it best: “Never combat any man’s opinion, for though you live to the age of Methusaleh, you will not be done setting him right on all the false things he believes.”

  • Dwight E. Howell

    So? As person that has worked in Education I constantly read where some person is mad because standardized test scores aren’t going up as compared to previous test scores when the people making the tests are rigging them so that won’t happen no matter how much more advanced the curriculum of today may be compared to the one used in 1950.

    However in the view of the general public this means all the money being spent on public education is being wasted.

  • Ed

    Most “liberals” and also “conservatives” are incapable of forming their own ideas or analysis. They only recycle garbled versions of the political message they overhear, much like the creationists you wrote about.

  • AllenM

    I would comment that in working with an entire group of people sharing disparate beliefs, and being the only nonbeliever “scientist” type, that misinformation is rife in those whose answers come prepackaged from “authority”.

    The essential conflict between the scientific community and the religious is the ability to embrace new ideas. Science has provided so many answers that outstrip the simplistic answers the organized religions have provided to their followers- answers that have been debated in the heirarchy for hundreds of years in most cases to provide the “accepted religious canon” of knowledge. This destruction of “accepted answers” is at the heart of religion versus science conflict in the entire world.

    The specific example that so rankles is straight from the founding fathers: “All Men are created equal.” Applying this to every aspect of people is now shown to be false from a genetic standpoint. So many of the scientists are now convinced or accepting with resignation (your link on Lewontin’s Fallacy). But in our society, the politics must eventualy conform to uncomfortable scientific results, or we end up with conflict as shown in your letter by the unfortunate fellow trying to live between the scientific perspective and the religious perspective.

    Further, you have an immense contempt for the left’s attempts to create a new canon, because they build up demonstably false canon in an attempt to build a new (politically based) viewpoint to replace the religious canon. This expression of your frustration with what you perceive as your natural allies shows through in some of your recent comments. Rather than embrace the changes that science thrust upon society, the left takes a naive political stance based upon taking ideals and searching for scientific validation for those ideals.

    What I find interesting is that religious authorities, in attempting to defend nonscientific representations of creation, try to discredit science that did not exist at the time of the origination of the religions, instead of simply admit that science advances knowledge. Admission of science in application to the world should not threaten religion, but tying of obsolete viewpoints of science (and the world) to religion becomes fatal in an era where there is no inquisition. The realm of post death and supernatural is still left to religion, just the explanation of nature and reality is left to experiment and real experience. Your past thread’s commenter about Averroes defeat shows the result of what can happen when science is suppressed in the name of religion,

    At this point, any religion that wishes to survive should recognize that while their knowledge base of accepted knowledge is vast and ancient, preserving the stare decesis of past decisions of knowledge of the world is nearly impossible when science contradicts that past interpretation of knowledge.

    So much of this conflict becomes laden with too many positions that people will not change voluntarily, but instead will take to their graves held tight.

    Modernity is a terrifying place for people who wish to cling to old interpretations. Having met people who don’t believe we landed on the moon, one begins to see where the vastness of knowledge we have built up is terrifying. This is because their worldview is challenged by the very existence of science and change science represents to their entire System of the World.

    We live in interesting times.

  • Les Lane

    Advancing beyond “stupid” in science requires the ability to distinguish science from apologetics.

  • Rhwawn

    “When I was younger I suspect I had more toleration for this sort of thing, and engaging with the dull is something that needs to be done, just like you need to change a baby’s diaper because you know they’ll soil themselves, and they can’t be left that way. Perhaps there’s a fixed amount of sympathy for people who shit themselves because they don’t know any better, literally or metaphorically. I’ve got to deal with the former right now, so maybe I’m not having any of the latter anymore.”

    Do you keep records of your moderation? Maybe you could look at something like average ‘moderator actions / comments’.

  • Chris_T_T

    Unfortunately, scientists have contributed significantly to the law/theory confusion themselves. They’ve largely moved away from using the term ‘law’ while still stating that it’s a valid scientific concept. This is particularly true of science from the last century; a lot of concepts fit the technical definition of ‘law’, but are rarely referred to as such (ie: E=mc^2).

    10 – In undermining religious myths, Science can wreak havoc on concepts central to a particular religion. Accepting it is not something a lot of religions can readily do. (One of the major problems Christian creationists have with evolution and an old Earth is it undermines the concept of original sin. Frankly, I agree that it does, but then I’m an atheist! :))

  • pconroy

    The thing is that most people do not think independently, and I’m convinced that a lot of those CANNOT think independently!

    Most comments on any blog are status affirming and signaling of in/out group stuff.

    I’m an Atheist and pay no heed to the Religious of any faith, as they are beyond the Pale of reason – so they are non-entities in my world.

    But in terms of thinking independently, how many commenters here – who are a fairly bright group on average – can honestly say that they have thought independently about a non-religious issue, say Global Warming, and done research and come up with a viewpoint that was not handed down to them by some authority figure.

    I’d say the answer is very few…

  • April Brown

    Original Sin is kind of a nasty, dehumanizing concept – you’d think they’d be glad to be rid of that one.

  • Luciano

    Surely, any scientific theory must be taught in its proper context. We can’t teach theories as “truths”.

    Actually, speaking of leptons and baryons, these belong to sound modern physics theory. But the media often crosses the line between ‘solid’ and ‘speculative’, speaking of rather vague theories as if they were recent ‘discoveries’ of modern physics.

    Roger Penrose, one of the developers of black holes theory, often stresses this point in his writings. Often, speculative cosmological theories are presented to the public as if they were already well established theories. I think every scientist should be concerned about this phenomenon, since it can in the long run undermine scientific credibility.

    I’ve found Lawrence Krauss’ “A Universe from Nothing”, for instance, very amusing. But there he makes such sins as omitting details, playing with semantics, treating theoretical speculations as facts, etc, just to make his point. The effect is that half of people tend to repeat his arguments as scientific truths, without fully understanding what exactly he is saying. And the other half tend to think science has just gone mad.

  • Ed

    I’ve been running into a lot of ‘blank slate’ rightists lately (Paultards mostly). Claiming that everyone would be equal and American multiculturalism would work if there was NO government. lol…

  • Peter

    Unfortunately after we have trained a generation of scientific illiterates, it will be our children as well as theirs who will be assembling pieces in a Chinese toy factory located where the Texas Statehouse used to be.

    Of course, if they really want only theories supported by data, then turn the tables and look for data supporting the Genesis myth. If Creationism is science, then this should be fair game. If Creationists object to it, then it’s religion and then tar and feather it and ride it back into humanities classes on a rail. This will not be peacefully done.

    If evolution is only a theory, then the Bible is only a paperback book.

  • April Brown

    @ 18 aaand we’re back to the Babel Fish paradox.

    “Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

    The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

    “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED”

    “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

    — Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book one of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series), p 50

    The thing is, science holds itself to standards of evidence, but religion’s bottom line is faith and mysticism. That doesn’t stop religionists from trying to proove their belief, but in the end failing to do so isn’t a deal breaker for faith. They criticize holes in scientific data because gaps in data are a problem for science.

    I think a huge gap in understanding though is that when science runs into a problem of missing data, it’s not deadly like a lack of faith is to religion. For scientists, it’s just The Next Thing To Work On.

    Here’s a rather /headdesk worthy example – poor Joe the Plumber recounting how he had a conversion experience because he was led to believe that the Bible had fewer revisions than a science book. …


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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