Field of Science

Lousiana elects a new governor: why does "conservative" mean "creationist"?

As a computational scientist and an evolutionary geneticist - and a professor - it pains me to see how many conservative politicians in the U.S. seem to believe in the anti-scientific Creationist view of life. This is currently promoted under the thin disguise of "intelligent design," but that isn't fooling anyone. Creationists (and intelligent design-ists) believe that the world and everything on it was created by a divine being some 6000 years ago. They simply ignore the enormous body of scientific evidence showing that species evolve through the process of natural selection, which has been going on for several billion years.

But today's topic is the election in Louisiana of a new governor, a conservative Republican named Bobby Jindal. Most of the news stories (for example, the NY Times) have focused on the fact that Mr. Jindal is the first-ever Indian American elected as governor of any state. The stories have also mentioned that the "social conservative" believes in teaching intelligent design instead of evolution in our public schools.

Stop right there. Does everyone in the conservative (Republican) movement in the U.S. believe the world was just created - poof! - by a magic puff of smoke just a few thousand years ago? Does becoming conservative mean that you cannot understand simple scientific evidence - even overwhelming evidence? Evolution is probably the most well-supported scientific theory in all of biology, with 150 years of accumulating evidence backing it up. It has changed over the years - a fact that some creationists use misleading to make it appear that evolution is on shaky ground - but the changes have deepened and strengthened the theory, not weakened it.

The genome sequencing work I've been involved in over the past dozen years has provided some of the strongest evidence yet about how species evolved and are continuing to evolve. The molecular evidence for evolution is just spectacular.

So I'm dismayed that Mr. Jindal promotes a view that will undermine science teaching in our schools. He isn't the only national figure that believes this (George W. Bush has also supported the teaching of creationism - it's hard to know if he is sincere or just pandering, though), but we need to start calling people out when they make ignorant statements.

So I'm asking for those of you who call yourselves "conservative" to start speaking out on behalf of evolution - and science in general. If you're a conservative (and I'm not, if that isn't obvious already), you should be embarrassed to be associated with the ignorant, anti-scientific drivel that "intelligent design" supporters spew out. Let me ask it another way: does "conservative" mean "anti-education" or even "anti-knowledge"? I hope not.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for listing your background. As for me, I am conservative. I am a Christian. I have a B.S. in Biochemistry and Biophysics and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and work as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry.

    The questions in this blog are silly, and your characterization of conservatives indicates a shallow understanding of those with whom you disagree. You might as well have asked: "Have you conservatives finally stopped beating your wives?" The fact is that there are differing views within the conservative political sphere and the religious sphere when it comes to the existence of the universe, and how it got to be the way it is. For example, the Bible does not indicate how old the universe is, yet you seem to want to claim all conservatives believe it is 6,000 years old.

    With all due respect, a little education would go a long way with you. Perhaps your approach should be a bit less confrontational/goofy, and a proper discussion could then be had.

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  2. It will be easier to take liberal criticism seriously when it is directed at all anti-science agendas. In the liberal mindset, Science is under attack only when climate change, evolution and other liberal causes are questioned. When topics such as intelligence, sexuality, GMOs are investigated, they are quick to fall back on the usual charges of racism, sexism etc. Witness the treatment of Larry Summers, Watson etc.

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  3. Two rather telling attacks on me here. I didn't say that all conservatives believe the world is 6000 years old: read what I wrote. I said that Creationists believe this (as they themselves say). I'm also well aware that there are "young Earth" and "old Earth" Creationists, with the latter believing that a deity created everything much longer than 6000 years ago. Apparently one of the commenters above (rob) is an "old Earth" creationist (as is Francis Collins, Director of NHGRI, according to his new book). But rob neglected to say if he believes this religious view of the world should be taught as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

    Rob then resorts to the good old ad hominem attack, attacking me as "goofy" rather than treating the substance of my comments. There isn't much point in responding to personal attacks. The next comment (by "anonymous") consists entirely of an ad hominem attack, not just against me but against "liberal criticism."

    So apparently neither of these conservatives is willing to say that they're opposed to teaching intelligent design (or Creationism) in public schools. Instead they attack me personally. But surely there are others out there willing to say "I'm conservative and I think our children should be taught evolution in science classes. Creationism and intelligent design are anti-scientific and should be kept out of the science curriculum."

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  4. I'm a conservative Christian with a PhD in molecular biology (studied Drosophila---so lots and lots of genetics. I can't tell you how many hours upon hours I've spent lining up sequences to compare between Drosophila species!). I agree that we should teach evolution in school--not as "absolute truth" but teach it for what it is--a theory with some scientific evidence to support it. However, what about the both/and possibility? I think it would be fair to present the material as I previously stated--it's a scientific theory and by the way, there's another viable theory--some people also believe in intelligent design. Intelligent design and the theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive! They can co-exist and be taught as such. I believe in both! It is completely wrong to characterize conservatives as anti-science--I am an example of someone who is pro-science and conservative.

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  5. I suggest reading the full text of The Language of God in which Francis Collins claims belief in Theistic Evolution (or BioLogos as he classifies it), not Creationism.

    I am a Christian Conservative who believes in seeking the absolute truth -- through science and spirit. Creationism and Intelligent Design seriously weakens the credibility of my political party, but how is anyone able to trust the claims of a group who also attack and insult them?

    Christianity and science are certainly not mutually exclusive but so many of us are too involved in the battle to notice.

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  6. Steven,

    Conservative most certainly doesn't mean creationist... at least it didn't use to mean that. The real problem with this term is that it has been hi-jacked by a small and extreme movement within the Republican party... the neo-cons. This group is, unfortunately, comprised predominately of warhawks and fundamentalist Christian zealots. True "conservatism", as a political philosophy at least, refers to a belief in limiting the size and intervention of government in the lives of citizens, and to maintaining a maximal degree of individual liberty. I am a computer scientist, and I am agnostic. I used to identify myself as "conservative", but exactly the type of narrow-minded rhetoric you've cited has caused me to switch terms to libertarian (and though I don't believe in God, I don't believe in the government sanctioned welfare state either).

    Steven, I completely agree that in science classes our children should be taught science, and in Biology, evolution is science. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, is pseudo-scientific drivel (or using the terminology of the great Richard P. Feynman, it's "cargo cult science"). Using scientific terminology, and picking and choosing selective parts of the scientific method does not a scientific theory make. Yet this is the type of hand waving many use when making the claim that intelligent design is scientific. It's not scientific, it's not valid, and it should not be presented as such to impressionable children.

    Finally, a previous anonymous poster said:

    "I think it would be fair to present the material as I previously stated--it's a scientific theory and by the way, there's another viable theory--some people also believe in intelligent design."

    I don't think this would be fair. Intelligent design is not a valid scientific theory, and simply because some people believe it doesn't mean it should be taught as science. Some people believe the story of creation as presented in Genesis literally. Should we also present this in science class simply because some people choose to believe it? For a humorous treatment of this type thinking I suggest you visit http://www.venganza.org/about/open-letter
    . Evolution, on the other hand, is the a well supported scientific theory. Sure there are some observations which our current understanding of evolution may not fully explain, but that doesn't leave room for a God in the gaps; it leaves room for further research in the field of Evolutionary Biology.

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  7. I am glad to see this blog courageously touching the very thorny issue of religion. It's indeed amazing to see the amount of support that Creationism (under various forms, I.D. being just one of the modern disguises) has in this country, in the 21st century. Such revealing symptoms of cultural retardation (compared to Western European countries) are bound to spring forth mostly among conservatives due to the "unholy" (sic) union between social conservatism and the Christian right in the U.S.
    The sad reality is that after Islamic and some third-world countries, U.S. seems to have one of the largest percentage of people feeding off of the 'God delusion'. I look at the posts above and, even though I can guess the answer, I can't stop wondering how highly educated people (yes, including scientists like Francis Collins) fall prey to the traditional power of irrational wishful thinking known as "religion". This makes me recall Michael Shermer's exploration of this paradox in his book "Why People Believe Weird Things?", especially the chapter pertaining to "Why smart people believe weird things").

    I support the idea that religious people -- especially the apparently "smart" and highly-educated ones -- should be more often openly and publicly confronted with the blatant irrationality of their "personal" religious beliefs, get their reality check more often. These beliefs may be "personal" but they become rather dangerous when they impact social policy (the education of our children) and when they hinder scientific progress (e.g. see the president's veto on stem cell research).
    For example, to the above posters who, although highly educated, seem to advocate teaching of Intelligent Design at least as an "alternative" to the theory of evolution, I would urge them to imagine what would be the curriculum, or content, of such an Intelligent Design class, or teaching?! It seems that this "theory" can offer nothing more than the glorious assertion "God Did It!", and there would be no room for the "How?" and the "Why?" questions which are at the core of any reasonable educational approach. So the I.D. "theory" is left exposed as nothing but religious proselytizing, driven by "conservative" (read: obsolete) beliefs in a traditionally popular creationist mythology.

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  8. In response to the anonymous post which stated the following.

    "we should teach evolution in school--not as "absolute truth" but for what it is--a theory with some scientific evidence to support it." BUT "there's another viable theory--some people also believe in intelligent design. Intelligent design and the theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive! They can co-exist and be taught as such."

    You downgrade the value of scientific evidence by stating that evolution is just a theory with SOME scientific evidence to support it while at the same time defending the teaching of intelligent design which has ZERO scientific evidence to support it. You refer to intelligent design a "viable theory". Please define the word "viable".

    The nub of the issue is that science is based on a skeptical analysis of evidence, accepting what is supported by it and rejecting what isn't. Religous faith on the other hand is based upon an unshakable belief in what can not be proved (and in some cases beleif in what flies in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary). Evolution derives from a scientific framework, intelligent design derives from a religous framework. You simply can't square the two. There is no legitimate basis for teaching intelligent design as science. If you want to teach it to children then do so in Sunday school not public school.

    The real issue here is that fundamentalist Christians find the underpinnings of their religous beliefs threatened by anything that contradicts their rigid, literal interpretation of the King James Bible. This makes evolution their boogey man and they will fight it with everything they can muster. The problem the scientific community runs into when trying to counter creationist dogma is that they base their arguments on logic. Silly them.

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  9. You know, I'm late to the discussion here, but I thought you might find this interesting.

    Rough times for Louisiana ahead.

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